Afternoons were for Match Play

As a first time golf pilgrim in Scotland, the entire country felt like a playground. The Scots proved warm and welcoming, themselves either immersed in, or wholly supportive of, the golf culture that is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of life in places like East Lothian and Fife. The very idea of Scotland evoked a desire in our troupe to play as much golf as possible while there.

There’s something special about going around a place like Elie for a second time on the first day you play it.

We kept tee times for each morning, casually tracking of our Nassau wagers while having our breath taken away at the brilliance of the courses we were privileged to play. The afternoons were devoid of scheduled activities, however, as late October days in Scotland were short on sunlight and full of unpredictable weather. If we were moved to play a second round on a given day, we’d left ourselves that option.

On two such occasions, the course and the weather aligned so that Matt and I were able to sneak out for an additional circuit. Knowing that we wouldn’t get 18 holes completed before darkness settled upon us, we played match play, battling across as many holes as we could.

Those two afternoons, two very different experiences, were my favorite, most marvelous experiences of the entire Scottish golf trip. Afternoons were for match play, for us to chart our own courses, literally and metaphorically, relishing the man versus man golf combat and brotherly camaraderie, ending in a hearty handshake, well-earned smiles, and toasts back at the pub.

It was from those matches that the most indelible memories of golf and Scotland were forged, that I felt most connected to my interpretation of the spirit of the game, and those memories that I desperately hope to recreate some day.

The Elie Match

It’s theoretically possible that there are calm, windless days on the Links of Elie and Earlsferry, but after an incredible 18 holes of leaning into the wind with brilliant, clear sunshine on our faces, Fred needed a break. Whether it was the delicious soup and sandwich landing heavy in the guest lunchroom of the Golf House Club, or the day’s tough walk on that wonderfully wrinkly ground, he had played all the golf he wanted that day already.

Walking towards the 2nd fairway, I still didn’t comprehend how a special of an afternoon I was embarking upon at Elie.

I hadn’t had enough golf on a sunny day, wind chill temperatures and abrasive wind be damned. And neither had Matt. We had come all the way to Scotland, after all. So, with Fred’s blessing, his eye drawn to the bar in the back of the dining room, we headed out to see how a place like Elie played the second time around. We knew that there were only two or three hours of sunlight left, at best, so we agreed on a match, straight up, which gave us the best opportunity to move quickly around the course.

Matt had suffered a brutal loss of his game during our morning round. It was, I’m sure, frustrating to no end to all of a sudden lose your swing, and therefore a great portion of the fun of golf, for several holes at a time anywhere, much less at a place like Elie.

By lost his swing, I mean he was hitting houses at Elie, which isn’t easy to do. He found a few fairways on the front nine, but they weren’t the fairways of the holes we happened to be playing. The chief golf sin in blustery conditions is not hitting the ball solidly, and that was the story of his morning. Frankly, I was proud of him that he wanted to get right back up on that horse, so to speak, and get back out on the course.

Filled up on soup and sandwich, we headed out, stiffened and sore, but cheerful. Matt’s mood improved considerably on the first hole as he hit a real golf shot on his approach shot, and he watched me lose a weak push to the wind so far right that not only did it go over the wall guarding the first hole, it hit the maintenance barn on one hop!

Playing from the back tees during our match was more exciting and more difficult, but produced oddly similar results to earlier in the day.

With that CLANG! of my ball against the roof of the superintendent’s shed, we both laughed. And exhaled. He’d eventually get close enough to the hole for me to concede that he’d bested my triple bogey. The jitters were out, the frustration gone; we could now get on with a match.

We changed up our starting points on our second time around Elie. We were practically alone on the course, so we felt emboldened to make it our own. We teed off from whatever tee box was convenient or made the hole more interesting, both of us mindful of trying to be efficient as the sun slid toward the horizon.

This tactic had the added bonus of allowing us to experience the golf course very differently on our second loop around.  We played the Championship tees on a few holes, notably on the second hole, because it shortened our walk, and on the third hole because it turned a beautiful mid-length par three into a grand, majestic hole worthy of our battle.

Conversely, we also played the front tee from a few holes, notably on the 5th and 10th holes, both of which happened to be playing directly across the wind. It was match play, what was the difference of where we teed off from? The freedom to choose our own course expanded library of the vivid memories such a beautiful course like the links at Elie creates.

Elie is not a terribly long or difficult course, but there is a tremendous rub of the green quirk to it, making it perfect for match play.

Despite my auspicious start, our Elie match was a back and forth fight that mirrored our to-and-fro, criss-crossed path across the course. We only saw one other group on the course, as we forged a highly efficient path of playing the first six holes, playing through Elie’s most special corner at holes 10 through 12, then playing in from the 16th hole back to the clubhouse.

Our Loop truly might be the best 12 hole golf course in the world, and certainly the most picturesque.

Walking those magical grounds was spiritual, like we were part of our own private quest. Matt found his game out there that afternoon, and it never left him for the rest of the trip (good thing too, not a lot of public driving ranges in the East Neuk of Fife). It felt right. Laughing, cajoling, pressing the bets, pressing forward against dusk, I felt like I was exactly where I belonged, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, exactly where it was supposed to be done. All with a quickness in our step and a burgeoning feeling that we weren’t simply playing “another round of golf.”

Our match was a tight and even affair, with neither of us ever more than two holes up on the other one. Matching my shot over the maintenance shed on the 1st hole, Matt again smother-hooked a ball towards the adjoining neighborhood on the 3rd hole, giving me my opportunity to get back in the match. I congratulated Matt on his great shots, laughed at his misfortune on the poor ones, and received the same treatment from him.

We laughed at what the wind did to our shots, placing us where it hadn’t even occurred to us to worry about only a few seconds earlier. The result, seeing the course from different angles, having to craft different shots to different targets on short notice was brilliant fun.

The adrenaline of having an intense match be decided on the final hole is exhilarating and sustaining at the end of a long day.

Having no regard for my raw score, only worrying about if I was ahead or behind in the match is completely liberating. Each moment every bit as intense as a medal round, maybe more so, because it’s actually a competition against the man, rather than a three-way battle against competitor and course for a score.

The dynamic decision-making environment at Elie was addicting, because every shot’s objective changed based on what the opponent had just done. For me, it accentuated whatever my natural instinct would be in the moment: if I might favor a more aggressive shot naturally, then I would have bold conviction to be that aggressive or more because of the one-off nature of the hole.

In a tough spot? No reason to take my medicine if Matt was sitting pretty, I might as well try to pull off the hero-recovery. The treeless layout and compact routing of the links at Elie, where one can often see the breadth of the horizon before them, encouraged such bold play because I was almost never blocked from hitting a shot at the green.

We had made our way out to the sea and back, and the match came down to the last hole, with me one up. Instead of replaying from the same spot as our earlier round, we stopped to play from the Championship tee for the 18th hole, because it was a shorter walk from the 17th green, frankly. It just so happens that the hole is much more interesting from that tee due to the more difficult angle to the fairway.

Needing a birdie to tie the match, playing from the back tee brought Matt’s old friends, the adjoining row of houses, into play again on our drives.  Fortunately for him, he was able to keep his ball away from the course’s kindly neighbors, leaving a good look at the green for his second shot, knowing he’d likely need birdie to have any chance of holding me off.  I’d found the wispy rough just off the fairway, but had no more than a pitching wedge left to the green, mindful of the parking lot directly behind the 18th green.

Easy to see from this picture that there were only winners on that magical afternoon at Elie.

Punch. Counterpunch. We both found the green with our 2nd shots and had birdie putts of makeable distance. Matt went first, leaving his putt a few precious revolutions short of the hole. His putt almost didn’t matter, as I burned the edge for what would have been my second birdie on that hole for the day, leaving a tap in par putt.

Exhausted as we shook hands, we took a second to revel in a brilliant afternoon well spent, one of those pure experiences so rare because I recognized, in the moment, just how special the moment was. Winning the match one-up against a man I rarely ever do better than playing to a draw was simply a bonus.

Fred reconvened with us on the 18th green, tending the flag while regaling us with the tales he’d learned in an afternoon spent with the staff and barman of the Elie Golf House Club. He’d found a bit of his own Nirvana in the clubhouse while we’d been out on our playground, and thank goodness he did, because Matt and I could end the afternoon free of any guilt of turning our threesome into a two-man match for an hour or two.

At no point during the afternoon was there any mention of how cold it was, how brutal the wind chill felt, that we were tired or that our feet hurt. Such bellyaching would have spoiled what was otherwise a flawless golf experience. It would have been too selfish to interject something so trivial or inconsequential into our game, and I’m grateful that we judged the course, the sunlight, and each other so well.

The Jubilee Match

If the Elie match was a magical experience in an amazing place, then the match Matt and I played two days later was ethereal. A rawer, more wandering journey across beautiful links land that proved as unique of a golf experience as I can remember.

It’s a beautiful vista from the first tee box of the Jubilee Course. Probably even better if you know where the fairway is located.

And the whole thing was almost waylaid by a starter that wanted to leave work a little early on this particular Sunday. But for some quick talking, a lot of begging, and a bit of mercy, wouldn’t have even made it to the first tee. The starter was closing up his hut when we arrived, and as it became clear that we were on a quest, he took pity on us, pointing to the first tee as he sighed and headed home. At that moment, it started snowing and sleeting.

While Matt got his rain gear on, I went ahead to the first tee to get us started. Except I had no idea where we were going.  Not wanting to tempt fate, we left our encounter with the starter with no scorecards, no yardage book, nothing. I didn’t even know exactly which course’s first tee the starter had pointed us towards.

We were flying blind. We literally had the yardage listed on the tee box, the hole number, and the direction that the tee markers were pointing to figure out where we were going. That’s it. It was something I’m not sure I’d ever done before, going out to play a match or round of golf with only the information I could glean with my 5 senses in the moment, and the occasional peak through the laser rangefinder. The can on the first tee indicated that we were playing the Jubilee Course, that we were starting on the first hole, that it was a par four of 337 yards in length.

I popped my attempt at a safe shot straight up in the air. Between the backspin, the straight down angle, hitting the top of the club, and the wind, my ball traveled 95 yards forward. I’m fairly certain I hit it higher than it traveled forward, and it probably spun back four or five yards with an assist from the then howling wind.

By the time we walked off of the 2nd green on the Jubilee Course, I already knew an even more special match was occurring.

An auspicious start, considering the hurry and hassle to get started. It was as humble a beginning as I had experienced at Elie. The laughs ensued when I explained to Matt what had happened, and I’d once again inadvertently set a proper tone for the ensuing match.

However, on the Jubilee Course, I was the one who lost his game. After winning the second hole with a generously conceded par, I didn’t win any of the next 7 holes. Matt putt on an impressive ball striking display, making the Jubilee Course the scene of his own practice round for our Old Course tee time the following day. Fairways and greens for him, rough and bunkers for me.

It was no contest, as I was getting worked over by a far superior player. I was losing by three or four holes after as we left the 7th green. That’s when I opened Google Maps to assess where we were and where we needed to go next, because the sky was getting darker and the wind began laying down.

The dunes and ridges of the Jubilee Course are softer and more subtle than on bolder topography like North Berwick, but that camouflages the surroundings much more effectively. We’d just played the seventh hole, and if we cut across some long rough to an elevated tee box down that we could see, we would likely find ourselves on the par five 12th tee. Luckily, I’d scouted the 12th hole diligently looking for my wayward shots from both the 6th and 7th holes.

It’s easy to understand the romance I ascribe to these golf course experiences if you just look at where we were.

At that point, I now knew our match would be 14 holes. Matt promptly won the long par five 12th hole, winning the initial match decisively. Wanting to maintain my interest for the remaining holes, I pressed the bet, double or nothing, for the rest of the way in. I needed to win the ensuing six-hole match within the match to save face, dignity, and my the five pounds sterling I’d just lost to Matt’s magnificent display of golf.

Considering I hadn’t hit a putt within 6 inches of any hole or any full shot within 2 inches of the center of any club face, it felt like the exact time I should double down. Brilliant! Immediately, Matt almost aced the par three 13th to celebrate my enthusiasm. It was one of the few times I’ve seem him hold the finish on a golf shot, and one of the even rarer occasions that merited such a quiet celebration. I was as happy for him for his tremendous shot as I was disgusted at finding my ball underneath yet another gorse shrub.

I’m one hole down, right off of the bat. Fantastic!

However, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, I had reason to hope for a comeback. An ace in the hole, the one thing in my favor as we made our way to the 14th tee box: we had finally turned with the wind, and it we were going to be downwind the rest of the way in. For the entire Scottish golf trip, playing with the wind, I really shined. I’m not sure I lost a as many as two holes in a row playing with the wind behind me.

The desperate gamble paid off immediately, almost like the wind had carried Popeye a double dose of that magic spinach. As bad as I had been the first 9 holes of our match, all of a sudden I was brilliant. And lucky. My tee shots went the direction I intended them to go, and my approach shots were easier than what Matt had left on almost every hole. The game was, at long last, afoot.

The dunes, the bunkers, the wrinkles, the Jubilee Course was held in higher regard with each subsequent step.

Not that it mattered for anything more than my own ego. We were playing on an ancient golf ground with no guide, only seeing and imagining where we might be headed, what that next bunker or green or tee box might look like. We were both continuously awe struck. The Jubilee Course that we discovered that afternoon was mysterious and beautiful and amazing.

Were we really out there with each other? Surely I was dreaming. It was as if we had discovered our own secret golf course. We were following our instincts, guessing yardages, not quite sure where all the trouble was, and never truly upset if we found it. Each hole revealed only as we played it.

There was a spirituality, a mysticism unfolding upon our Jubilee Course. Even with the remnants of a hard breeze pouring over us, it was quiet. We were the last and only people playing golf in St. Andrews that afternoon, as I nursed a one up lead though the final three holes. To have such a lovely spot of earth all to ourselves felt almost unfair to the rest of mankind.

To wit, the tee shot on Jubilee’s 16th might be my new favorite tee shot of any par 4 in the world. The tee box is nestled between the bases of two massive dunes, creating a blind tee shot around the corner towards a lumpy, wrinkled fairway, with a massive, tilted green waiting at the end. It perfectly captured the spirit of our match, discovering every hole with each subsequent shot, neither convinced nor afraid that we had chosen the correct path.

Each time I view this photo, I’m taken back to the moment it was taken: the intensity, the awe, the fun.

From the 16th tee, we actually aimed at green far in the darkened distance that was turned out not to be our green, but one on the New Course. It didn’t matter, as we both ended up in the fairway.

I had a one up lead heading into those last three holes, and it was as intense a three hole match as I’ve ever experienced. Every shot was a potential knockout blow. And we were trading brilliant shots like haymaker punches all of a sudden, our games aligned. I dare say it was the most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course.

We both hit the 16th fairway, and then the 16th green, leaving stressful birdie putts, but stress-free two-putt pars for both. Standing on the 17th tee, we trusted the posted yardage and struck true in the direction of where we supposed the green might lay. We both found the putting surface in the dwindling light. I held my breath as Matt hit his long, true birdie putt, and once it fell short, I knew that I’d have a one-hole lead heading into the final hole.

With this simple pitch out with a sand wedge, I’d all but guaranteed to draw even on our matches for the day.

That feeling of nothing else in the world existing at that moment had taken firm hold of us. Our only limitation we had for this last match was the rapidly setting Sun, fighting like brothers over an empty golf course, with the R&A building lit dimly in the distance. It was otherworldly, playing in St. Andrews in the dark, the only light we enjoyed being the dim glow of the St. Andrews Links clubhouse and the lights of the garden of the Jigger Inn.

Matt wanted to win as badly as I did, because sweeping both matches that afternoon would be unprecedented between us. After he watched me put my 5-wood into a fairway bunker with my tee shot on the last hole, he should have simply hit the middle of the fairway, which he’d done most of the afternoon, try to knock the approach close, and try to make birdie to square the match up. I was likely not going to be able to reach the green with my second shot, and he knew it.

Instead of taking that sensible approach, he flinched. He pulled driver and knocked one into the car park left of the 18th fairway, coming to rest out of bounds by a mere two or three feet. But out-of-bounds it was, and once I pitched out of the bunker cleanly onto the fairway, our final match was effectively over.

At the end of a match like ours, I can think of no better 19th hole than a stroll home through the Old Course.

It was an ending not befitting of such a glorious afternoon, but his hyper-aggressive play had allowed me to level our matches on the day. As beautifully spent as we both felt walking off the 18th green, splitting our two matches that evening felt just and right.

As we sat in the darkness, changing our shoes, realizing that we would now get to walk around the Himalayas putting course, straight up the first and eighteenth fairways back to the Dunvegan, we could barely talk intelligibly for the giant smiles on our faces. Afternoons were for match play. And that’s where I found my golf.

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3 thoughts on “Afternoons were for Match Play

  1. Pingback: Blind Shots Podcast Episode 4 – Afternoons were for Match Play with Matt Chaney | One Bearded Golfer

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