The Independent Golfer

Excerpt from CHAPTER 3

When in Scotland, Play As the Scots Play

...American and Scottish golf aren’t the same. I’m not taking about the rules that are, in fact, quite similar. The Royal and Ancient, which governs golf in most of the world, and the U.S. Golf Association which rules our neck of the woods, have done a nice job of weeding out differences so that the rules, as the basis of the game, are similarly understood wherever one plays.

But the customs, traditions and habits of play vary between America and Scotland in interesting ways. For a visitor to Scotland, especially for one who is looking for a rich Scottish golfing experience, it pays to understand the subtleties of Scottish play, the meanings of words and phrases that Scots typically use, and the customs that govern their interactions on the course.

I know of a group from Iowa who had written the Secretary at Muirfield Golf Course to schedule a tee time. Muirfield, the home of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and one of the courses in the British Open rota, is a wonderful seaside links course but has developed a notoriously inhospitable reputation. Visitors are only allowed on the course at limited times, green fees are quite steep, and stories are told of how Secretaries are less than inviting to non-member play. The Cornhuskers were delighted to receive a return letter that offered them the opportunity to play a foursome at 8:30 in the morning on a given date. When they arrived at the appointed time, however, they were told that, being a foursome, they would be limited to playing one ball per team of two, alternate shot. Each person could not hit his own ball!

To be fair, this is the common understanding in Scotland of the meaning of the term “foursome.” Having a group of four players, each hitting his/her own ball, is called a “four-ball” there, not a “foursome.” The honorable golfers of Muirfield apparently feel that limiting visitors to playing this alternate shot format reduces the non-member impact on their course. I must say that such a limit on format is not common on most Scottish courses. Some, such as Royal Dornoch, might only schedule two-ball matches at certain times of the day to speed up play, but most courses are more than happy to let you play any format you wish.

When the folks from Iowa complained, they were politely but firmly told that, if they wanted to play a four-ball match, which is what they thought they had come to do, they “…might find that the little course down the road – Gullane – might be able to accommodate them.”

In actuality, the experience of playing Gullane #1 certainly rivals that of playing Muirfield. Although it lacks the surrounding tourist infrastructure and persuasive lobbying by well placed members that keeps Muirfield at the top of the list of courses that hold international competitions, Gullane offers an outstanding links golf experience. These Iowa folks would not have been harmed by taking their clubs and going “down the road.” But the point is that this small distinction between their understanding of the term “foursome” and that of the officials at Muirfield led to an unfortunate misunderstanding and, for a short time at least, to some hard feelings.

In the pages that follow I would like to share some thoughts about differences between play in Scotland and play with which most Americans are accustomed. In most cases, there is nothing “right or wrong” about these differences. They are just different. I do find that most visiting Americans are eager to follow the old adage, “When in Scotland, play as the Scots play.” They just want to know how Scots play....


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