How shall I put this? right in front of me, right in front of my disbelieving eyes, on a dark staircase, in an ancient castle, maybe half a dozen fire snorts from the Loch Ness Monster itself, in the remote reaches of Scotland, there was—and I can just tell you're not going to go for this—an apparition...a ghost...a person of the undead persuasion...a ceased-to-be individual AWOL from the grave...a poltergeist on the wrong side of the television set...a soul with a serious case of unrest. I swear on my first communion medal that this is true.
And, right away, do you know what went through my head? What went through my head was, Well, they told me Royal Dornoch is a haunting place, but this is ridiculous.
I suppose this needs some explaining. I mean that the people who told me to come to Dornoch had called it haunting, as in unforgettably beautiful, which it was—and is. But I didn't know they also meant haunting, as in a certain real estate listing in Amityville haunting. Haunting, as in Kathy, the maid on the fourth floor at the Dornoch Castle Hotel, where I was staying and where I was now, once feeling somebody tugging on the back of her sweater and then turning around to find nobody there. Haunting, as in a certain Andrew MacCormack unexpectedly checking in at the hotel one night, which was a mite strange, considering that Andy had been hanged for stealing sheep 150 years before. Not only that, but while playing one day at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club—which was the reason I had gone there in the first place—I five-putted the 4th green, and I'm quite sure mine weren't the only hands on the putter, if you get my drift.
Then again—and this tells you a lot about Dornoch—I thought, for the privilege of playing legendary Dornoch, perhaps some things have to be endured, and sharing my lodgings with a few frequent fliers from the 19th century was one of them.
DAY 1: Our hero breaks 90 on the planet's 12th-best course and discovers the restorative powers of Sandy's favorite spirit
Golf magazine ranks Dornoch as the 12th-best course in the world, though anyone who has played it knows that that's low. But what are the people at Golf supposed to do, seeing as hardly anyone has ever heard of it? It's like W naming Mrs. Eva Dalrymple of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as the best-dressed woman in the world. She may be the best dressed, but nobody has ever heard of her. So 12th is as good as she's going to get.
To see the legend for myself, I took part in Dornoch's highly unfamous Golf Week: six days of competition and lessons for the world's golfing impaired—or anyone who signs up and pays the $440 fee. There were 48 men and women on hand last year for the week, and each day we got lessons in the morning, and then in the afternoon we played golf on the third-oldest course in the world (St. Andrews and Leith being even older). By day, the pro, the long-suffering Willie Skinner, described my swing as mostly a horror, but it was at night that things got really scary. That is why I decided to take the problem straight to Sandy.
Sandy Matheson is a caddie at Dornoch, although that's like saying Fawn Hall was in the NSC secretarial pool. Sandy is not just a caddie at Dornoch, he's also the historian, philosopher, part-time bartender, mayor, official greeter, greenskeeper, constable and minister to the sick. He's about 5'6", with a windburned face redder than a red herring. You'll usually find him wearing two or three sweaters, with a "lung starter" (as he calls a cigarette) in the right corner of his mouth, something perpetually funny to say coming out of the other corner and eyes three times too small for his head. In sum, my favorite Scot of all time.
Sandy is 55 years old and has been caddying at Dornoch since he was a kid. Caddying is the most wonderful job in the world if you do it at Dornoch, even if you have to do it for me, which he did (though I did shoot 89 the first day, which, for a 15-handicapper with the wind blowing and who, on the flight over, had to listen to the guy next to him describe his slides from his last trip to Badlands National Monument in South Dakota, was pretty darn good). Sandy spent a lot of time combing through the thorny whins in search of my ball.
"Whatta ya' playin', sir?" he would ask.