This story was inspired by site visits my Editor Alastair and I undertook to Inverleith Pitch and Putt and Powderhall Putting Green when putting the finishing touches to “Some Wee Courses”. Alastair knows a lot about trees from the knowledge he gained and help he gave to Bruntsfield Golf Club over a number of years recently when curating the 5,000 trees growing there.
Being a typical townie and perpetually busy with family and work I paid little heed to these niceties until during lockdown I had more time to smell the flowers when out walking my dogs, and seeing blossom and leaves develop over the spring on trees, bushes, weeds, wildflowers and garden plants.
However a Saturday walk with Alastair when he gave me a tutorial on some of the 500 trees at Inverleith Park (which is just across the road from Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Garden) got my mind working overtime. Some of the trees are a bit rough and ready; show signs of neglect, decay and disease but there are some gems like the huge Aspen Poplar which is well over 100 feet tall as it struggles amid a canopy of leaves from its neighbours for some light for itself. It was the star of our walk and curiously was the only example in the park. After the tutorial I resolved to learn more especially since I thought there might be a story in it from Silverfield Golf Course.
The Tree Man Speaks
Of all the characters Jock Kirkcaldy came across at Silverfield he reckoned, after the Duke (a.k.a. The Thirties Man), Alasdair Lamlash, alias The Tree Man was right up there among the eccentrics which, in Jock’s case, made them all the more interesting and worth getting to know.
Jock first became aware of the Tree Man in his 30’s when he had settled down to what seemed like a life of bachelorhood. He was no longer the young man about town, the young blade or the all-night party king but fortunately golf had redirected these vestiges of testosterone into a quiet appreciation of the noble game.
As with all characters in such circumstances, Jock had heard about the Tree Man and spied him from afar before he was bold enough to make his acquaintance. The Tree Man was a relatively new member at Silverfield and had been working up North for about 20 years with the Forestry Commission, then for a firm of arboreal consultants before taking a job in Edinburgh. He was in his mid to late 40s in the employ of a firm specialising in advising developers and small landowners in topics including what trees to plant, what to take down, when to thin out and legal and Health & Safety obligations. Being Edinburgh based, his employers ran a lucrative line in providing professional advice and reports for well-heeled anxious members of the bourgeoisie who had become concerned about the small tree they had purchased at the local Garden Centre 20 years ago, and which had now got out of hand and dwarfing their home. Depending upon its variety and positioning a tree could interfere with drain pipes in their insatiable quest for water, tower over one’s own house, or that of their even more anxious neighbours depending upon which way the wind blew. Other neighbours were tree huggers and liked to view this beast from a safe distance while the hosts were enveloped in shade, had huge roots running across their lawn and worst of all worried that one night during a valium induced sleep the whole job lot would come crashing down on their roof and bedroom.
Alasdair was able to jump the waiting list at Silverfield a fair bit when he filled in the application form and indicated he was a member of Moray Golf club up at Lossiemouth and played off 4. A quick couple of calls by the Secretary confirmed this information and his enhanced prospects of early entry when it became apparent Alasdair was a good club man and regularly turned out for the team in inter club matches.
Sometimes the Secretary despaired when he calculated that the average age of the Membership was 62 (and increasing) and with the advent of electric caddy cars and drive-along buggies he pored down the list of would be applicants, mostly mature middle class white men who no doubt would live into their 80s, had taken early retirement and wanted to play lots of golf and perhaps improve their handicaps from 27 to 24. Here was a man in his prime who would become one of the lowest handicap members of the club, could represent Silverfield in matches and generally be an asset to the Club.
Alasdair had moved down to Edinburgh with his wife and family one October and had applied to various local clubs, including Silverfield, and while it was not his first choice he was thrilled when, shortly after dispatching his application form complete with referees and deposit, he received a call at work from the Secretary, inviting him over for a chat and a bite of lunch. He knew that the Secretary, Brigadier Hodge, a former Artillery officer and latterly Commandant at Edinburgh Castle would run a careful rule over him. He would be checking, amongst other things, if he held his cutlery in the fashion of a gentleman, or like the Irish navvy he had once encountered who guarded his plate with his knife held high and scooped the food up with his fork. Alasdair had driven past the course a couple of times and walked up in Corstorphine Hill to peek down at some of the holes. He had obtained a scorecard for Silverfield and saw it was a bit on the short side but he was smitten by its trees.
Fortunately at the interview Alasdair passed on all counts, was happy to accept the offer of early membership and was able to start playing by the Spring Medal the following March. Sure enough, he played to his handicap and generally came up to scratch on all accounts as per the application form and referees. The trouble was, he talked a lot about his work with trees and was often critical of some of the plantings both in terms of their positioning and their species in relation to the job they were meant to do.
Silverfield had benefited from planting a job lot of trees in the 1970’s which had transformed the course from a windswept gorse-strewn links to an equally challenging but none the less more enjoyable track with tree-lined fairways, a bit of shelter and less punitive rough. Mind you, if you hit a loose shot into trees, while you could usually find your ball amid the sparse grass you might lose a shot as you tried to thread your recovery towards the green. Alasdair committed the cardinal sin, just like the young Parliamentarian launching into a controversial maiden speech, of writing to the Greens Committee early on listing the 10 major faults of tree planting at Silverfield and how it might be improved. The Committee considered this to be a piece of cheek, and worse, a pitch for work for Alasdair’s employers rather than the offer from a Club Member of free help, advice and expertise. I didn’t know why Alasdair stuck with the Club after that knock back but he buckled down, played well and appreciated the trees from a distance.
Our First Medal
One Saturday afternoon I turned up for a late tee time in the Monthly Medal and found one of our three was the famous Tree Man. Although he was a bit garrulous about nature in general and trees in particular, I liked his style. He still carried his own clubs, his irons were blades and he played quickly with the minimum of fuss. His shots came with an enviable penetrating flight and we had a bit of time to chat as old Jack who made the up the group was a high handicapper who generally shot 119 gross and never hit the ball far enough for it to be in trouble. Alasdair was a much better golfer than me but didn’t seem to mind or be put off with my inevitable mishits and energetically helped look for the elusive sphere when it tailed high into the right hand rough.
“I hear you know about matters arboreal” I said, opening the conversation flippantly at the third as we waited for old Jack to catch us up. “Aye, I hear they call me the Tree Man in these parts”, he replied smiling grimly, emitting the word I had studiously avoided but hoped he would spill beans on the eponymous topic. “Well I didn’t know your name was Alasdair until we met”, I replied with a twinkle and that set him off in a frank discourse which he added to in installments as we trudged around Silverfield. Old Jack insisted I kept his score as he was hopeful his handicap would go up to 36 from an “unfair” 27 which he got cut to a few years previously after romping around the course in a net 60 when he was off 30.
“I obviously got off on the wrong foot with the Powers That Be when I wrote that letter to the Greens Committee,” Alasdair started. “Actually I think the trees here generally have a fine effect and I love the views. I am sure if I had waited a bit I could have got into somewhere fancy and more challenging but while there are some good courses in Edinburgh, none compares to Moray Old or even Moray New! I just pointed out a few things that needed attending to, principally to cut down a few specimens that were dead or dying and some heavy boughs that might fall on a Member as they took their tee shot at the 18th (a trick which Elms have in their armoury).
I think they thought I was just touting for business (which I wasn’t) but many members seem to be commercial and seem to be using it to climb the greasy pole. I’m just a country boy trying to add information to the debate.” Later on in the round Alasdair pointed out some of the great trees which had been planted, the older deciduous trees which framed the course from Edinburgh Zoo, the Eisenhower trees planted deliberately or otherwise which make some holes more difficult to play, and the cherry trees on the right of the 11th where players allegedly intentionally slice to provide the opportunity for a snack during the fruiting season.
At one point he quoted a famous old golfer (reputedly Byron Nelson) who said “There are no hazards in the air” which in context means keep the ball up in the air and hit it over bunkers, streams and ponds. “In golfing terms that is strictly correct and alright if you live in Texas or the Dustbowl of America but round here there are trees which must be respected.”
He was a bit of a thinker as well as an effortless player of the game. Later on in the round when we had some time to kill Alasdair waxed again – “You know I love the month of June, the trees are at their peak the leaves are bursting out and largely unaffected by blight and mites. Look at this Wych Elm leaf,” he said as he pulled down a low hanging branch. “See how the upper surface feels like fine sand paper.” “Wow! I never knew that” I exclaimed. It was amazing and unusual a fact to be filed away.
At the short 13th it was my honour after a lucky chip in birdie at the previous hole. I hit what I thought was a decent shot with my usual slight fade only for it to wobble in the air take a bad bounce and roll off the green. Old Jack took a 4 wood and managed to trundle his ball into the front bunker where it remained for a few shots after that. I stood quietly at the back of the tee and watched the Tree Man at work. He had done all his thinking and strode forward with a 7 iron in hand. He hit a low punch shot which bounced deftly between the bunkers guarding the green and rolled up towards the flag leaving him with a short uphill putt to the hole. “Great shot!” I cried. It was a skilful blow, so simple but oozed with class and experience and signalled some of the difference between Alasdair playing off 4, me off 14 and Old Jack en route to a 36 handicap.
As we walked together up to the green Alasdair said “You were a bit unlucky, but even on a relatively calm day like this once your ball reaches the end of that clump of bushes the wind can swirl and take you off line one way or another. Better to take that factor out of play”. Needless to say a few minutes later Alasdair had a 2. I scrambled on to the green and missed the putt settling for a 4 which was better than Jack’s eight, four of which were getting out of the bunker, the last of those skied over the green, a duffed chip back, another not much better followed by a glorious long putt which swung one way and the other as it traversed the green, dancing tantalisingly round the cup and falling in. “What a beauty!” I shouted. Jack smiled “Aye it’s nice to ken yer still no’ a total duffer” he replied and raised his hat like a Masters’ winner revealing a shiny bald pate under the bunnet.
All in all in was a very pleasant game. We three enjoyed a drink or two afterwards and remembered the good shots. Alasdair shot a 70, narrowly missing a putt on the last for a 69 and returned a net 66. I was thrilled to shoot a 79 for a net 65 and Jack had a 119 less 27 for a net 92. “Nice to ken ye can still break a hunner” Jack said to himself savouring the Bunnahabhain 12 year old malt Alasdair had bought him for being an indefatigable old sport.
I was impressed with Alasdair’s golf and asked him why he hadn’t won any of the big trophies at the Club. “Maybe I smell the trees too much” he replied enigmatically.
“You can get your handicap down Jock. I know you’re saddled with having a famous Dad who was a past Champion several times over, but the basics of your game are there; give it time and practise what you are bad at but don’t try the impossible, leave that to old Jack!” He swept away after that and got into an elderly but immaculate BMW 2002 giving me a cheery wave as he exited the car park.
The New Guard
We did have a few games after that but I was in my phase as the Duke’s best pal and foursomes’ partner. I continued to hold Alasdair in high regard but he seemed to be busy and successful at work, played less golf but still retained decent handicap. He wasn’t a clubbable sort of guy, and when the younger guns came along he was happy to play less for the team but would always turn out if they were stuck. Around the club house I noticed some of the crowd referred to him as the Tree Bore and others including the Secretary bemoaned the lack of impact the low handicapper from Lossiemouth had made at Silverfield.
A new professional made a big difference at Silverfield and his enthusiasm, coupled with the demographic concerns of the Committee led to a recruitment drive among the Members and local schools to get children and young people interested in golf, and join a coaching squad. Five years on and green shoots stated to appear aided by the Tiger Woods factor.
The big breakthrough came when Ramsay Stuart’s son Oliver won the Club Championship when he was 17 and a career in golf beckoned – a scholarship at a US College or perhaps a Degree in Sport Management at Stirling University and a job at top golf firm International Management Group. Oliver decided to take a Gap Year and funded by his Dad play full-time on the “Amateur” Tour for a year to see how it went and how far he could go in the game.
Simultaneously, as Alasdair was reaching 50, the firm he worked with was restructuring and he was offered a package to go. It was quite a shock; he thought he did good work but they wanted younger more dynamic people to sell trees as a means for rich people to reduce their tax burdens, and feel good about it as they saved the planet and reduced their substantial carbon footprints. Alasdair didn’t see his future turning Highland hillsides into tiers of Sitka Spruce. It was a fine Alaskan evergreen good for pulping but Alasdair loved smaller woods and gardens with a variety of trees, especially those with a sprinkling of ancient Scottish native species, especially Birch, Hazel, Scots Pine and Oak. Alasdair reasoned that with his kids at University, family commitments would reduce and he could start a consultancy doing the stuff he liked at his own pace and without the hated time management sheets which the firm had recently introduced. The generous farewell package came with a restricted covenant precluding him for working for a similar firm in the UK for the next 2 years, or in a smaller local concern for 12 months.
He and his wife went a holiday where Julia could sunbathe and shop and Alasdair could indulge in some Spanish tree-spotting.
He had also played a bit of golf in and around Cartagena in Southern Spain with the warm air a great contrast from the dog days of winter in Scotland where it would either be wet and cold or the ground frozen and the temperature even lower. He loved seeing the cork oak trees which often separated fairways in that part of the golfing world. Golf courses are frequently constructed on former farming or nursery ground, and in Spain that often meant former cork orchards. Spain was the World’s main source of this natural material, the popularity of which was waning as first synthetic corks (which allegedly reduced contamination) then screw caps became prevalent as wine bottle closures.
He had never been much of a fan of winter golf at Silverfield and preferred getting invites to Elie, Dunbar and Gullane where the sea air was more pleasant and reminded him of his time playing courses along the Moray Firth – Spey Bay, Hopeman and Cullen as well as his beloved Moray Golf Club at Lossie.
This is the Season, this is the Season this is the Season- for Change
I hadn’t seen Alasdair for a while but I bumped into him at the club one day in early April and he looked tanned and fit and brought me up to date on his life, and was looking forward to new opportunities after a period of gardening leave. We agreed to play golf the following afternoon and immediately I noticed Alasdair had new golf gear.
New Titleist bladed irons of the type sported by Tiger Woods, a Mizuno driver which like many of that vintage would be declared illegal due to having too springy a face. The ball went a long way but control was difficult unless you were a good ball striker. He also had a Taylor Made Tour Spoon with a small head and barely 13 degrees of loft to get the ball up in the air, and he still had his beloved Titleist Bullseye John Reuter Jnr bronze headed centre shaft putter. Even back then it looked pure and simple compared to the new game improvement jobs which were beginning to rear their ugly heads.
Our round was very pleasant as always and I had lots of time to tease Alasdair’s story out of him in between his devastating shots. I won a couple of holes and drew a few, but lost the rest and the game was gone on the 14th green losing six and four. I didn’t mind; it was a Masterclass and I took mental note of simple things like his stance, ball position between the feet, the smooth unhurried swing and how he relentlessly played for position as he tacked up the fairways ultimately leaving himself with the least difficult approach shot and an uphill putt most of the time. We played the remaining holes home to the Clubhouse and I complemented my friend on his game. “Yes, well I do feel good and wintering in the sun has helped. I had time to get measured up for new irons and I have time to give it all this year on the course – mind you there are a lot of new kids on the block and they all hit the ball for miles.”
Around that time, I was musing on my competitive efforts that year. Apart from a couple of monthly medal competitions my competitive season was over. As usual I was dumped out of the men’s singles in an early round although the Duke coached me to the semi-final of the Mens’ Foursomes where we met our end on the final green in a tight match. Although it was only August the weather had taken a turn for the worse and one day I was mooching about the Clubhouse as the course was shut due to flooding. I looked aimlessly at the charts on the wall depicting the progress of the various knock out competitions. I had played in the “B” Championship for men with a handicap of between 10 and 15. That competition’s format was two rounds, with the top 32 going into a draw to slog it out knock-out style to the final. The “A” Championship was for those with handicaps of less than 10 and had an identical format. I knew Alasdair had easily qualified for the shoot-out, and then saw he had progressed steadily through the ensuing 4 rounds and had reached the final. The only problem was that he was up against Oliver “Hotshot” Stuart who now had a handicap of +4 to Alasdair’s 4, only in the Championship final they would be at level weights with no strokes given.
The final was due for the following weekend. I immediately phoned Alasdair to congratulate him on reaching the final and offering my services as his caddie. “I’ve never had anyone carry my bag” he responded to my offer. “Neither have I” I said. “I bet that Oliver has all his mates and girlfriends there squealing him on. It would be my privilege to chum you round in whatever capacity.” “Well I suppose it would be nice to have someone there Jock and you have always listened politely to my blethers.”
When it’s breezy hit it easy- Davis Love Jnr.
I must say I was far more excited than I knew Alasdair would be in the run up to the final. I found an excuse to phone him most nights and in truth my mind was not on my work when I was in the office that week. It was a hopeless dream to give away 8 shots to Oliver to meet him on a level playing field and young Oliver was a long odds-on cert even in my book. Still Alasdair had a great chance, much better than all the other guys who had entered and been eliminated.
The forecast for the weekend was foul and August barely at half way through was already on the way to being the wettest one since records began. It was as though the equinoxial gales had come a month early and it was cold too. I was there sharp on Saturday morning but after incessant rain of biblical proportions over the previous two days the course was flooded, and with rain still pouring down, the course manager had no option but to postpone the tie.
We had been given a prime slot at 10 am guaranteed with no one out before us and no tee times available for an hour afterwards, but it was no go. We resignedly accepted the inevitability of the situation but young Oliver was not a happy bunny. He was due to fly off the next day to the USA to enrol for a golf scholarship at Jacksonville University in Florida, and had brought along a posse of young men and women to cheer him on, who could also be deployed to sweep the greens free of water as the match approached each hole. “Thanks but no thanks” was the referee’s reply. “If we can get going, the green-keeping staff will be sufficient and we can’t unleash spectators on the greens.”
It was agreed we would come back at 2 and see what the weather was like: still no dice. Finally we reconvened at 4 pm but a storm was brewing and safety came first. Oliver’s plane was bound for London where he was going to stay overnight before taking on the World and it was due to take off at 4 pm. It was agreed the tie would be postponed until the next day at 8 am. Understandably Oliver couldn’t delay matters much beyond then and neither man wanted the matter settled on the toss of a coin. The panes fairly rattled in Jock’s flat that night as the inappropriately named Storm Felicity did her worst. Nevertheless Jock was up at 6 am and as agreed rendezvoused with Alasdair at 7 am. The green staff had been out since dawn sweeping water, leaves and branches off the course and tackling a sycamore tree which had fallen across the fairway at the 17th. Plans were already afoot to slice the trunk up and use a tractor to drag this new hazard out of the way should the tie reach this far.
Oliver and his following, particularly the ‘Ollettes’ were ready to go. He was playing Taylor Made clubs and had matching apparel with all the logos like he was already signed up. He had bulked up over the last year and at 6 foot 4 towered over my middle-aged friend.
Alasdair remained calm, almost in the zone but his gaze as ever was towards the top of the trees and to see how this Westerly wind was going to play out. I recollected Peter Alliss providing this advice to viewers during one year of the Piccadilly World Match Play at Wentworth. His advice couldn’t of course be heard by the unfortunate player whose errant shot he was describing. At least the rain had stopped but it was the sort of day only the keenest or maddest went out as it was about a 4 club wind and most golfers stay indoors in such circumstances to protect their vulnerable swings from being dismantled by the elements.
At 8 10, after a short delay, we were off. Alasdair lost the toss and Oliver wasted no time in launching a huge drive at the first up over the hill and into the distance. It was although Alasdair had worked out that Oliver was a Heart of Midlothian football fan as he set his drive over the wall to the left into the out of bounds area aiming it directly at the house owned by Wallace Mercer.
He was the individual who at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s reign had conjured up a plan to build a single football stadium for hated rivals Hearts and Hibs at Millerhill just out of town, close to the Edinburgh bypass enabling easy access. This fated scheme would have seen the stadium used week about by the two sides, with Mercer able to sell their grounds in landlocked areas of Edinburgh at Gorgie and Easter Road for housing development, presumably at a decent profit! Although this sharing process has worked well in Italy for many years, with the Rome, Milan and Turin clubs sharing facilities, the obdurate burghers of Edinburgh were having no such nonsense.
Alasdair’s ball appeared to be going straight for the balcony of Mercer’s house but suddenly faded into the middle of the fairway about 30 yards behind Oliver’s ball. It was a great shot but Oliver made his length tell and closed out with a short birdie putt after an excellent pitch to the green. He birdied the next and in no time my man was 2 down. He handed me his golf bag to carry and I knew we were in trouble. It was then that I noticed he had packed a Cobra driving iron alongside his new irons, numbers 3 to 9, and had taken out his rescue club. He also had his driver and brassie, pitch and sand wedges, plus his trusty putter and an old jigger, a cleek-type blade with a little loft for approach shots. He had certainly tailored his selection of clubs to meet the inclement weather, but I had serious reservations.
At the third, despite being handicapped by a drive which was much shorter than his opponent, Alasdair hit a lazy low 6 iron up the hill and it bounced and rolled on towards the green and stopped about 10 feet short. Oliver had less than 100 yards to go and hit a huge wedge into the headwind. The ball landed on the green close to the hole. However it seemed to have tremendous backspin and shot off the green at an angle and rolled to the edge of a greenside bunker leaving an awkward third shot. When we reached the green Alasdair bent down and picked up a damaged leaf where Oliver’s ball had landed. “Just what I thought, a direct hit on a wych elm leaf”. That abrasive leaf provided all the grip needed to spill his ball off the green.” Oliver hadn’t noticed this subtlety, indeed muttered something under his breath at this disclosure, and still troubled by his last shot, hit a poor recovery. Alasdair duly holed his putt and we were back to one down.
The woods are full of long hitters – Harvey Penick.
Alasdair took the honour at the downhill fourth, and with a fierce wind at his back he feathered a three wood to catch the breeze. It sailed over a mound in the middle of the fairway, caught the downslope, bounced a few times and rolled on to the front of the green. Oliver hit a 5 wood high too but he didn’t estimate the speed of the wind once the ball cleared the trees behind the 4th tee and caught to full force of the gale. His ball soared over the green and he had a 30 yard chip back to the putting surface. Oliver seemed rattled and took a 4 to Alasdair’s 3 and the match moved on to the 5th all square. The next 3 holes were halved but Oliver retained his composure to win the 8th and with the 9th halved the match moved on to the inward 9. “You’re playing well and only one down, Alasdair – you can win it!” I said encouragingly. “I suppose I have a chance,” he replied; “he’s thrown away 3 shots of his handicap advantage in the first 9 but still has 4 to go in the next half. I may have to invoke the trees” he continued, enigmatically.
However, Oliver won the next three holes birdie-birdie-birdie which Alasdair played in silence, and for once I bit on my tongue and said nothing. We re-grouped at the 13th tee and eventually I blurted out “Can you not play a wee punch shot here like you did when we were in that medal with Old Jack?” “Just what I was thinking,” replied Alasdair grimly. Oliver hit an enormously high wedge and although we were sheltered on the tee once his ball reached its apex it wobbled in a swirl of wind off the trees and bushes and landed awkwardly. It rolled off the green to Oliver’s amazement. Before the enormity of this mistake had time to settle in Alasdair strode forward and played a delicate shot with his 7 iron which I could swear was identical to the one I’d seen him play before. It landed in the same spot between the guarding bunkers and rolled softly on the green leaving that inviting uphill putt. Oliver didn’t even get up and down; a poor chip and a putt which he was determined to hole ran some way past. Alasdair’s putt was conceded and we moved on to the 14th now only 2 down with Alasdair’s honour.
In contrast to his last tee shot, Alasdair hit a high drawing shot which soared past the tall Eisenhower tree guarding the dogleg corner, close to the out of bounds. Oliver played his usual high power fade shot which he had aimed at the tree safe in the knowledge that he would clear it and send his ball bounding down the fairway; except the fade never came and Oliver’s ball was bent by the wind into the out of bounds area. Oliver and his entourage vainly searched for the ball in the hope it had bounced back into play but then it was spotted beside some grazing cattle in the next field and the hole had to be conceded.
The 15th was halved and the general feeling was that Oliver had stopped the rot and with a tough finish to come he could make his length count. Mind you I could sense Alasdair had a confidence about him. “You know Jock, there’s two things I really like, trees and a bit of a breeze”. I was left to ponder on this enigmatic remark, but was hopeful. The 16th was another dogleg, this time a violent 90 degree turn to the left with a small wood of tall oaks to prevent any short cuts. Alasdair was first to go and hooked a 4 iron shot round the corner of the wood about 130 yards out, and he could see his ball bend suitably and scuttle down the fairway still leaving a downwind 200 yard shot to the green. Oliver fished out his 3 wood and hit a monster high draw over the trees. I had only seen this shot attempted once before in a bounce game with some work colleagues. My big friend Billy lost the first ball but put the second on the upslope of the fairway about 120 yards in front of where Alasdair’s ball now lay and it had been well in range of the green. This was obviously Oliver’s signature shot and he hit it confidently and seemingly resoundingly. He and his posse set off purposely and his hangers-on waited impatiently as Alasdair tried to find the green from a long way out but fell short. Oliver’s group swept by down the hill and to the far side of the fairway in the dip where Oliver reckoned his tee shot hand landed. It wasn’t immediately obvious to view but was probably nestling harmlessly in the semi-rough. Alasdair and I were a bit behind the throng and to tell you the truth carrying his substantial bag was beginning to take its toll on my suspect fitness levels. By the time we caught up consternation had crept in among the young invincible possé. Alasdair continued past the anxious group and went into the small clump of trees on the right hand rough near the creek. Grouped among a wych elm and some acers was a tall tree which towered over the others and indeed was bigger than the oaks in the wood across the fairway which Oliver assumed he had cleared.
“Here’s your ball Oliver,” said Alasdair and pointed halfway up the trunk of this vast creature where his Titleist Pro VI was lodged in the fissures of its imposing bark. “It’s a type of poplar,” waxed Alasdair, but not like these wispy Continental ones you see lining French and Italian B roads. It’s an Aspen and must be about 130 feet high!” “Well right now it’s a fucking nuisance!” snapped Oliver. “What a way for my best drive ever at this hole to end up!” Alasdair and I stood back and let Oliver survey the scene and desperately work out his options. I heard one of his lackeys mutter loudly “Typical fuckin’ Minty!” We moved further away lest they thought we were gloating over our opponent’s misfortune. “What was that all about, Jock?”
“You don’t want to know,” I replied in calming caddy mode. “Come on Jock, no secrets, I feel good right now.” “Well it may have escaped your notice that when you joined the Club you were given the moniker Tree Man since you talked a lot about these inanimate objects. I listened and learned and your knowledge on the topic never ceases to intrigue me but the Philistines at the Club, of which there are legions called you the Tree Bore. In time this nickname became corrupted to Trebor, and so you wouldn’t know they were talking about you behind your back, and borrowing from Cockney Rhyming slang in a further development you became Trebor Mint or Minty and the transformation was complete.” “You’ve never called me that Jock” Alasdair replied. “No” I said; “Not to your face but Minty is OK and I would never call you Tree Bore.”
Teaching a Lesson
“Thanks for that linguistic tutorial, Jock. I feel the match is turning and I just need to teach Oliver and his young chums a lesson”.
“You’ve only got to win” I replied more modestly. Needless to say by the time Oliver prised his ball out of the tree trunk and found a spot for a penalty drop some way back, his approach to the green was still blinded by the trees and he had to hoist a high iron shot over the clump downwind and he went over the back of the green where his 4th shot would have to be played. Alasdair was short of the green in 2 and used his jigger to loft the ball over a little tuft of grass and roll up the green close to the hole. Oliver was left with a 45 foot chip for a half. I stood there tensely but I needn’t have bothered and his ball went two feet wide and ten feet too long leaving the match all square with 2 to play.
The seventeenth is a shortish par 4 to a raised green which Oliver had been known to drive. Alasdair played a low 1 iron which ignored the right to left crosswind and landed in pole position between the bunkers at the foot of the hill to the green about 60 yards from the pin. Oliver’s drive was the usual rocket which led to gasps from his entourage but it just bent a bit in the crosswind and landed in the left hand greenside bunker. Alasdair played a delicate pitch and run which bounced short of the putting surface and rolled up close. Oliver’s bunker shot was classy and he was left with a testy 5 foot downhill putt, but he slammed it in and loomed large as Alasdair holed his tiddler which in these circumstances was a huge putt for a half – in birdies – at a hole which Oliver should have won.
The 18th at Silverfield is a monster 601 yards uphill into the prevailing wind which was very much prevalent that day. It had always teased my fade into a wild slice, and matters are compounded by the left to right slope of the fairway. Alasdair calmly walked up to the tee with his 1 iron and swept the ball like an arrow into the stiff breeze to a flat spot in the fairway about 240 yards away. Oliver’s ball soared past but faded in the wind and landed in the left rough near to some young trees. Alasdair hit another 1 iron this time off the fairway towards the left edge of the fairway and this allowed the ball to roll down to the edge of the right rough where he was in good position to attack the long narrow green about 160 yards away. Oliver crunched a 3 wood which hit a bank short of the green and landed awkwardly but leaving only 30 yards to the flag.
For the first time in the round Alasdair took a bit of time studying the line of his shot but, as ever, concluding this survey by looking up as if to communicate with the Gods. He was however simply looking for signs of turbulence off the Clubhouse in what was otherwise a straight shot into the wind. Perhaps that was the difference between us. I could see the shot too but Alasdair had already visualised it in the air and was thinking about how it might land and best challenge the hole. We had got into a routine where when he turned towards me, I offered the bag of clubs and he selected one without a sound passing between us. Much of the way round he surprised me with his club selection, and if I had said “5 iron” here I would have been wrong again. He selected a 4, had a couple of careful practice swings then took careful aim and hit a low running shot which threaded through the trouble at the front of the green and ran on strongly stopping about ten to twelve feet short. Oliver chipped deftly from the bank and landed his ball between Alasdair’s and the cup just like a classic stymie. The rain had eased a bit and suddenly a crowd appeared from the Club House to surround the green and mingle with the group of about twenty who had followed the whole proceedings. Word must have spread on the jungle drums that young Oliver, the best prospect in years and the future of golf at Silverfield was being taken to the wire by a crashing old bore!
Alasdair was amazingly calm and seemed to ignore the crowd. Later I told him who had been present and I could see from his expression had hadn’t clocked them. Later still, many other Members claimed to have been present for this denouement far exceeding my estimate of fifty to sixty. I stayed well back after handing Alasdair his putter- at least that was one club selection I guessed right. He paced the green for a bit, like a pro, and I began to worry that he had forsaken his normal brisk pre-shot routine for something indecisive and fatal. It seemed an age, but was probably only 30 seconds before he stood over his putt and stroked it with authority. He had hit the ball firmly, clearly not wanting to be short. His ball hit the back of the cup shot up in the air and fell in to a loud cheer from the Members.
Alasdair calmly walked up, picked his ball out of the hole and walked back to my side without displaying any emotion. “Well done!” I whispered. “I don’t hear the Fat Lady” he shot back cupping his hand to hide his lips from the spectators. Oliver really surveyed his putt from all angles; I’m sure he never thought he would have this one on the last green to stay in the match, probably envisaging walking in after winning on the 14th green for a nice warm shower. His putt, at five to six feet, was half the length of his opponent but he hadn’t learned much from it. He couldn’t slam it in the hole like Alasdair but had to drift in up and get it to fall in. He had to take a bit more left to right break, but how much? Eventually he settled over the ball and with his usual three brisk practice strokes struck his shot. It was a terrible putt – one of these brain fade indecisive jobs you do when you factor everything in, but the inner dilemma remains and you don’t hit it enough to give the ball a chance. There was an audible gasp from the crowd when the ball only travelled halfway, startling Oliver before he recovered sufficiently to nonchalantly tap his futile fifth shot into the hole.
He took off his Jacksonville baseball cap and shook Alasdair’s hand warmly. “I think I’ve still a bit to learn, Alasdair. All that daft shite about trees paid off for you today” he said magnanimously. “Don’t worry Olly, just remember Jacksonville won’t tell you everything about golf, you’ve got a wonderful swing and you can go far.” “Thanks Minty, err Alasdair”. As Oliver turned to walk back forlornly to his fan club with the rest of the spectators murmuring about the extraordinary end to the match, I shouted out “Three Cheers for Minty!” Suddenly the silent majority let out some roars which Alasdair told me later really touched him more than anything else he had experienced on the golf course.
Alasdair never defended his crown.
He said lightning never strikes twice and winning was beyond his wildest dreams, and the golfing Gods (and the tree spirits?) had been with him that day. He still played in a way that seemed to suggest he was playing well within his capabilities. His tree consultancy took off and most satisfying of all he acquired a small woodland of native Scottish trees which he curated, maintained and allowed the public to walk in and enjoy. He once said to me “it makes me really happy when others appreciate and enjoy these wonderful trees.”
Oliver duly went to Jacksonville and played quite well on the US College circuit but also fell in love with Pamela Sue, the daughter of a retired oil magnate. Somehow stepping up to the Professional Tour lost its sparkle and Oliver became teaching pro at Alligator Glades, a Jack Nicklaus designed track in Florida owned by his father-in-law and a few of his old business acquaintances. Sometimes the wind blew up, the trees swayed and most members stayed indoors in the air conditioning, but Oliver would gather his keenest and most promising pupils to take them a tour of the course pointing out the abundance of trees and bushes and the affect they can have on your game.
© Frank R Crowe July 2020