A year ago this month I returned to Scotland, press pass around my neck and clubs on my shoulders, to cover the British Open for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which became my writing home in 1995, three years after a book I wrote about Scottish golf was first published. At the merchandise tent by Royal Troon's 16th hole there was a booth where a man was selling nothing but golf books. A well-worn copy of To the Linksland was on his shelf. When I identified myself as its author, he greeted me like a long-lost cousin. Readers seem to identify with my quest for improvement in the book, which is nice. Some of that is how the book is ordered, but most of it is bound up in the hopeful nature of the game--and our better selves. To the Linksland is really only a wee golfing pamphlet, but it has been very good to me. From it I got a job, my son's name (Ian), membership at Machrihanish and friendships that have sweetened my life immeasurably. Can a writer pay back what he owes his own book? Maybe some can. I cannot.
The book came out the week Fred Couples won the 1992 Masters, and since then I have received a steady stream of real letters--pen to paper, lick the stamp--from would-be pilgrims trying to find their way to Machrihanish or the shepherd's course, Auchnafree, or the grave site of Young Tom Morris. My correspondents are forever passionate, not only for the game but also about the prospect of discovering something to call their own. The letter writers are looking for someone to send them down a course. I had pathfinders who performed that favor for me, most notably the honorable James W. Finegan of Philadelphia and other golfing capitals. I take a quiet joy in playing that role for others.
The book has been published in the three great languages of golf: English, Japanese and Scottish. In the U.K. edition, "eagle" was changed to "albatross" and "rental car" to "hire car." The Japanese translator didn't know what to do with the Hebrew word chai, a divine golf word. (It means "life," as readers of chapter 14 may recall, and is represented by the number 18.) Some readers have sought out my teacher, John Stark, wondering if they could learn Scottish golf from him and if he could draw them a map to Auchnafree. Stark has not minded the calls, but he has been cagey, as you would expect, about what he said to whom. His first order of business, always, was to measure sincerity. In 1994, shortly before the Open was played at Turnberry, Brad Faxon sought out Stark, seeking counsel on the ways of links golf. Brad's devotion to the British Open was well-known, even though he had never played well in the championship. Stark was impressed by Faxon's itinerary: He was preparing for the Open at bucolic Machrihanish, a course close to Stark's heart, and Stark talked to him at length. Faxon came in seventh at Turnberry, his best finish in an Open to date. What Stark told him I cannot tell you: It's a secret.
When I wrote To the Linksland I took a cue in indirection from my Scottish mentor and did not reveal the name of the person who put me on to Stark. I feel now that I should say. (If only life offered more second chances.) My matchmaker was Peter Alliss, the former British Ryder Cupper best known today as a witty and erudite television commentator. He knew all about Stark. Some years after the book came out, I saw Alliss at the Masters. I reintroduced myself, reminded him of how he had alerted me to Stark and thanked him for his excellent tip. "I'll do what I should have done a long time ago," I said. "I'll send you a book." "Don't send the book," Alliss said cheerfully. "Send a check!"
Part of the book chronicles my time caddying for Peter Teravainen, a journeyman tour pro, and he and I have been in sporadic contact over the years. In 1995 Teravainen won his first event on the European tour, the Czech Open, worth $200,000. In victory he said, "Now I'm up to broke." The next year he won the Japan Open and with it a 10-year exemption on the Japanese tour. When he played in the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional, I wrote about him for SI. The piece ran with a photograph of Teravainen standing on golf balls, one of his remedies for his often tender back.
The years have brought some changes to Teravainen. Once determinedly anticommercial, he signed an endorsement deal with Dunlop and didn't complain that the money was impure. He wore stylish clothes when they were given to him. With 50 on the horizon in 2006, he went to see a psychologist, Bob Rotella, at considerable cost. "I should've done it years ago," Teravainen says. The idea of Teravainen learning something about himself from a newcomer in his life seemed odd to me, but the patient reports that his doctor is helping him clear his mind so that he may concentrate only on the shot before him. He expects to apply his new lessons in an effort to play on one of the senior tours, either in Europe or the U.S. My application to get back on his bag is pending.
The star of the 2004 Open at Troon was Todd Hamilton, an American who played for years in Japan, making him a player in the Teravainen mold. He and Teravainen were regular practice-round partners and would visit a Tokyo bar called Motown on Sunday nights when their work week was done. Teravainen has always spoken of Hamilton with high admiration, and I was struck by that, because I know few people stingier with praise than Teravainen, a thrifty New Englander in every sense. On the Sunday morning of the '04 Open, readying myself for the remote possibility that Hamilton would win, I called Teravainen in Singapore, notebook open, looking for help. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen were all keeping Hamilton company on the leader board, but Teravainen felt that Hamilton would pull off the upset. "He won't be scared of anything," Teravainen said. "He won three times on seaside courses in Japan in 2003. In his mind, he'll simply put himself back there."
It was weird, hearing these insights. Teravainen had always been one to make predictions based on empirical data, on form. That's why he likes to bet on the stock market and at the dog track. But now he was analyzing a player's head. Maybe it takes a journeyman to understand a journeyman. When Teravainen needed two closing pars to win the Czech Open, he pretended he needed two pars to make the cut on a Friday. When he explained that to a curious Colin Montgomerie, Monty looked nothing but perplexed.
The day after Hamilton's victory I drove up to Crieff to visit with Stark. We'd exchanged letters and cards, but I hadn't spoken to him since I saw him in September 1991, in Dornoch, at the end of my golfing adventure. The village of Crieff seemed unchanged. I could not say the same of myself. Then, Christine and I were newlyweds; now we had been married 13 years, had two children, a dog, mortgage payments, club dues, ringing phones, a calender marked up by various pens. I was 31 then. Now I was 44. My middle-aged life does not allow me to get lost in the game much anymore, as I did in 1991, the year I devoted myself to golf. I play early on Sunday mornings, at the Scottish pace, holing all the little putts, as Ian Woosnam's late father, Harold, taught me. My game's ragged, but my life's O.K. One day a friend and I played 53 holes on a Long Island links that smells of the ocean, and for that day I was transported, but those moments are rare. It's not that Stark's lessons didn't stick; it's that the mind drifts.
At day's end during the Open at Troon, I played golf in the gloaming with friends or by myself at Prestwick and Turnberry. You can't beat linksland golf. At first I kept trying to curve my ball into the sea breeze, thinking the wind would negate my hook, but at some point I began an experiment: I tried to fade shots with the wind, and found that I could. With one good swing, it felt like the summer of '91 again. I was ready to see Stark.