Archive for September 7th, 2013

How Scots invented golf … and some pretty fine single malts, too

Saturday, September 7th, 2013
Share

carnochan“Even those who know little of Scotland know that the Scots invented golf,” writes Bliss Carnochan in his new book, Scotland the Bravean eminently readable book that slipped into publication so quietly this summer that I didn’t notice.

But golf?  Actually, I didn’t know.  Chalk it up to my pure and untainted ignorance of sports.  (Why get all sweaty when you could be reading?) Fortunately, Bliss gets me off the hook with the next sentence:

Of course it may not be true: a Chinese scholar has claimed that the game originated in China and was brought to Scotland by Mongolian travelers. The Netherlands also have a claim. But golf’s association with Scotland is documented since the fifteenth century. Mary, Queen of Scots, is thought to have played. Golf is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its oddity. In other ball games that depend on guiding a ball into a particular target—like soccer or hockey or lacrosse or basketball—a goalkeeper or defender usually tries to prevent the other team from scoring. Billiards, a game older than golf and also played by Mary, Queen of Scots, is one instance of another game requiring the player to guide a ball into a small cavity without interference. Perhaps golf began as an outdoor imitation of billiards. But players in only a few competitive sports are so entirely on their own and so little affected by what other competitors do (except in rare cases of a stymie, under rules now revised out of existence). The psychic loneliness of the golfer and the long-distance runner are a match. Even so, and paradoxically, golf is sociable. In what other sport do players chat with competitors over a walking distance of several miles? The dialectic of private suffering and public good humor is seldom so pronounced. Nicola Barker, author of the golf novel, The Yips (2012), calls golf “a hawk gently wrapping its wing around the shoulders of a rabbit.”

Mary-queen-of-scots

Was she a “player”?

As every duffer knows, golf is also intolerably difficult. Hitting a very small stationary ball with a very long club may not be intrinsically harder than, as in baseball, hitting a medium-sized fast-moving ball with a medium-sized bat, but the stakes, per swing, are higher, statistically and psychologically. Swing and miss in baseball and you still have two chances; swing and miss in golf—or swing and hit the ball into an undesirable spot—and you not only lose a stroke but court humiliation. For the anxiety-prone, nothing in sport is more intimidating than standing on the first tee while others watch, prepared to stifle a laugh should you miss, or to stifle a groan should you hit a slice deep into the woods. And yet, when a ball goes far astray, sociability is called for: you and your partner go hunting in the rough, or in the brush, or amidst the leaves, whacking away in an attempt to locate the missing ball and wondering how soon those playing behind will grow impatient and want to play through. What is one to think of a people who invented so masochistic and yet so sociable a sport? Though fancying myself a Scot, I decided early on that enough masochism was enough. I’ve not picked up a club in years. For the Scots, however, golf is a national treasure.

The passage gives some idea of Bliss’s amiable ruminations.  In the short book, he ambles among his own Scottish roots, the extravagant claims made for Scotland, its curious history, and a few exalted achievements.

laphroaigHere’s where Bliss a man after my own heart: he lingers over the impressive taxonomies of whisky, including how Jim Murray’s description of “Ballantine’s 17 Years Old,” winner of his Whisky Bible award for 2011, “runs categorically amok: ‘deft grain and honey plus teasing salty peat’; ‘bourbon and pear drops offering the thrust’; ‘gooseberry juice offering a touch of sharpness muted by watered golden syrup’; ‘maltier tones clambering over the graceful cocoa-enriched grain’; ‘hints of smoke here and there’; ‘lashings of vanilla and cocoa on the fade’; ‘a faint spicey, vaguely smoky buzz’; ‘the most subtle oiliness imaginable.'”  I’ll settle for my own favorite, in simpler language: “The famous Laphroaig single malt from Islay is rated eight for smokiness, as high a number as that for any flavor of any whisky; anyone who has tasted it knows that it is like drinking liquid peat.”  Perhaps I’ll go fill a glass right now, and raise a toast to Queen Mary.

 

Postscript: I wasn’t aware of Robin Williams‘s take on the Scots and golf,  until David Palumbo-Liu alerted me to it.  Many thanks, David!