July 10, 2007

Letter from Scotland

From the outside, golf in Scotland often takes on a warm and fuzzy glow. The people who gave the game to the world are typically portrayed as an egalitarian bunch, the local golf club a gathering point for every social class. Old and young, male and female, mixing easily, drawn to the local links by the pleasure of a few holes played together in the almost endless summer gloaming.

Sadly, such a picture does not bear too close a scrutiny, especially in the so-called "top" clubs where discrimination on the grounds of age and sex is not only routine but too often is reveled in. At places like Muirfield, Prestwick and Troon, world-class courses invariably sit all but empty on even the most gorgeous of evenings-all because the near-decrepit and all-male memberships like it that way. Open the place once a week to local youngsters keen to get into golf? Dream on.

It is a long-term state of affairs that has predictably produced fewer and fewer top-class players. Since the Great Britain & Ireland Ryder Cup side morphed into Europe back in 1979, only nine Scots-five of whom speak with English accents-have appeared in the biennial contest against the Americans. Colin Montgomerie, who learned his golf in England, is the only Scot among the top-100 players in the world. Last year only four Scots teed up at Hoylake in the Open, which began as an all-Scottish affair; none made the cut. Perhaps only Richie Ramsay's startling U.S. Amateur victory and Marc Warren's emergence as the European tour's rookie of the year in 2006 buck the trend. Indeed, hopes are high for Ramsay, who hails from Aberdeen (as does Paul Lawrie, who won the Open the last time it was at Carnoustie, in 1999; no European has won a major since). Ramsay just might have the combination of talent, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness required to be the first Scot of real note to emerge from a "system" that has largely failed to identify and/or nurture any significant talent over the last two decades.

Still, much is at least being attempted. This year, as many as 32,000 school children are scheduled to be introduced to golf through the Scottish Executive-backed Clubgolf program, created as part of Scotland's successful bid for the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. How many of those youngsters follow through into full-fledged club membership remains to be seen. Despite the noble efforts of the Scottish Golf Union, its hands are often tied by the autonomous nature of golf clubs and the clubs' typically gray-haired demographics. Small-mindedness often prevails. "We can't make the clubs do anything," laments national coach Ian Rae.

The experience of European tour players Stephen Gallacher and Raymond Russell is of note. Both recently applied to join clubs in Scotland. Both, in a perpetuation of values last seen in the 19th century, were knocked back for the same reason: They are professional golfers.

"The average golf club doesn't exactly adopt an open-door policy when it comes to anyone not old, amateur and male," says Russell. "Golf clubs are arrogant, and juniors are second-class citizens. And look at the practice facilities at most clubs. Rotten. I made it onto the tour despite the system I came through, not because of it."

Within many clubs, self-interest prevails to an alarming degree. With the average age of the average member in many clubs nearing 60, St. Andrews isn't the only thing in Scotland that is "auld" and "grey."