Sunday, August 17, 2014


The Western Isles of Scotland are like a visit to the Shire. The names are those of the Middle Kingdom  the Isle of Mull, the Lords of Lorn, Fingal's Cave, Loch Beg, Moy Castle  and are all part of the JR Tolkien storybook landscape where Mull eagles soar above Minke whales, basking sharks, and psychedelic puffins, and shaggy Highland "coos" share the watery-wooded Glens and meadow mountains with red deer stags guarding their harems from rocky ledges like snorting statues.  It's all just a wee bit magical.

But we first had to escape the clutches of Glasgow before we could make our way northwest through Luss and Loch Lomond to the bustling seaport town of Oban, where Caledonian MacBrayne run their efficient black, white and red car ferries to all of the Hebrides Islands, the only link between the mainland and the Gaelic kingdoms of yore where sheep outnumber humans, waterfalls cascade from the hillsides, road signs are still printed in green-lettered Gaelic, and the weather keeps everyone in their proper place.
 The ferries leave for Mull every two hours, starting at noon and running until ten.  They often sell out and you need to arrive thirty minutes before your departure time for the 45-minute cruise across the Firth of Lorne.  A round trip ticket for two, with a car, will cost you about $125.  And it is well worth the price.
 As soon as you board the ferry and proceed up to the observation decks, you find yourself surrounded by crofter poets, wild freckled children, and women with unruly red hair that dances in the ocean breeze.  Everyone is wearing well-worn rubber Wellies and Macintoshes.  And there is a certain melancholy mood that you will see when people are returning home from holiday.  It's a hard life on the islands off Scotland's west coast, and the families around us were basking in the welcome warmth of the rare afternoon sun before their wet, breezy lives enveloped them again in the perpetual Gaelic mist.
I hadn't really planned on playing golf while in Scotland, but when I dropped the idea on Inna, she said, "Let's go for it."

There is a monster little 9-hole golf course above the brightly-painted fishing village of Tobermory where we were staying for two days, with stunning vistas of majestic mountains covered with bright green velour grass and purple heather, rising out of a dark, grey-blue sea.
I rented some clubs and six brand new Calloway balls at Brown's Merchants Ironmongers Wines and Spirits, established in 1830, along the Main Street harbor, for a meager £25, which also allowed me to play all day. 

As I left proudly with my mismatched clubs, I had to laugh. On previous visits to Scotland I had always brought along my clubs, schlepping them through airports and up narrow, steep steps in bed and breakfasts like a Sherpa. That might make sense if it was a golfing holiday, but to play only one round it is a helluva lot of work.  For £5, I had a perfectly good set of second-hand clubs and avoided a lot of needless aggravation.

Tobermory Golf Club runs on the honor system with a fee box and yellow bag tags in a nice, airy clubhouse that was completely unattended when we arrived around ten on a gloriously sunny morning.  There was no pro, and the only employee appeared to be a friendly old coot who was cutting the fairways on a battered tractor.  

The Tobermory Golf Course sits atop a lush, rolling ridge of heather overlooking the white-capped Sound of Mull, and like all fine Scottish courses, each hole followed the natural terrain without any sculpting or landscaping  it was a course designed by that world famous architect Mother Nature.  Each hole consisted of a tiny tee box with painted wooden tee markers, a small sign describing the hole, some vaguely-mowed fairways, and soft, spongy greens.  That's pretty much it.

The first hole was a blind tee shot over a stair-stepped rock wall of blooming heather and fluffy, waist-high ferns with a black and white pole on the top of the hill to show me my line.

It had been well over a year since I last played  before my hip replacement in the spring of 2012  and so it took me a few swings to get to the top of the hill, at which point I was quickly down to four balls.  I stood there at the top of the world, looking at a green world beyond comprehension, including where the first green might be.  There were several options to left and right.  

The greens keeper happened to ride by at that moment and he merrily jumped out of his tractor and pointed toward a steep rocky gorge to my left, and, sure enough, there on the far side was indeed a tiny green. The wind was gusting and the interplay of sun and clouds upon the land looked like God was out walking across the wooded hills.  And I knew at that moment that I was no longer playing golf.  This was some sort of quest.
 But for what?

Inna had taken off her shoes and was marveling at the tickley grass beneath her toes as she snapped photos of all the stunningly gorgeous flowers in bloom all around the hilly links. The course was essentially empty, so we could stop to smell the roses, heather, and the invigoratingly fresh sea air.  It was like our own private playground in Eden.  Paradise was finally ours.

By the third hole, a devilish 230-yard par 3, with a cliff to the right, I was down to three balls.  So I pulled an old trick out of my bag and started just playing with my irons, shortening up my swing and punching low shots against the wind, and keeping the ball in play.


Suddenly, Inna appeared with a new friend, a small red Norfolk setter who Inna introduced as "Doggie Bulldoggie".  He had lovely tufts of bronze shaggy hair on his legs and atop his head like a little hippie dog, and he followed us for the rest of our round, even retrieving my ball on the seventh hole when I knocked it into a thick patch of heather.  And while clearly pleased with himself, he was somewhat reluctant to give up his little prize.   I had to pry the ball from his mouth before I could proceed.

The eighth hole was another ball-buster of blind shots and several deep gorges with a howling wind in my face.  Doggie Bulldoggie had vanished into a nearby pasture to try his luck at herding the sheep.  And without his help, I lost two more balls.   I was down to my last Calloway with one hole to go.

 The ninth hole was a 130-yard par three up to a hidden green guarded by bumpy hillocks.   It was a short but challenging golf hole and I had absolutely no idea when it came to club selection. But I no longer was worrying about how I was playing.  I just wanted to swing free and didn't care where the ball went.   I stood there on the final tee, with Inna and our happy doggie pal as my gallery.   I closed my eyes and breathed deep of the sweet summer air and hit a really crisp shot straight at the pin.   It looked like it was probably on the green, but I couldn't see where it landed.  And I didn't care at all because it just felt right.

As we strolled toward the green, Inna and Doggie Bulldoggie cavorted with some curious lambs and it suddenly hit me just how incredibly happy and at peace I was.  I had completely forgotten that I was playing golf. 


 I crested the grassy hill and noticed with a sort of detached amusement that my ball had stopped a short distance from the pin.  I pulled the battered silver blade putter from the bag and lined up the ten foot putt as our doggie pal sniffed the inside of the cup to make sure that all was well.  I hit the putt while watching the dog and wondering if he would remove his snout before the ball reached the hole.  He did, and the putt, of course, went in.  I left my last ball in the cup as a spirit offering.

And I knew that my quest was over.   And not because I had birdied the last hole.  But, rather, because I realized just how good my life is.  I am incredibly blessed to have my lovely wife Inna, and a good job that I genuinely like in my old hometown, and Inna and I have our health and get to travel pretty regularly to neat places like the Isle of Mull.  Who could ask for anything more?


And right on cue, Inna, who was sitting happily on the green scratching Doggie Bulldoggie's furry belly, said, "It's good to be us."

I chuckled as I looked skyward to the heavens and winked with pure joy.

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