Letter from St. Andrews: Out of Left Field

Very seldom do I stray from my beloved St. Andrews nest to other parts of Scotland, but when I do, I invariably discover something interesting—or odd.

Case in point, a recent lost weekend in the Highlands wherein I took a counterclockwise route that included stops at the Trump property near Aberdeen (a truly spectacular site, and my bet is the Donald will make it happen); Castle Stuart, emerging on the Moray Firth via Kingsbarns co-designer Mark Parsinen (and it may just top Kingsbarns); and Spey Valley, a challenging new charmer from Dave Thomas, just north of Aviemore.

It was after my game at Spey Valley, while wending southward through the quaint villages of Speyside, that I experienced my moment of revelation, in the town of Kingussie (pronounced king-yoo-say). Nestled at the foot of the majestic Cairngorms, Kingussie is a village of roughly 1,500 inhabitants yet, like so many tiny Scottish towns, it has its own golf course, designed in 1908 by none other than Harry Vardon. I had heard good things about it, so when I saw the modest “Golf Course” sign at a corner in the center of town, I took the right turn.

The course was just a couple of blocks away, but those blocks were steeply uphill, some three or four hundred feet. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight I beheld as I approached the club. There was no gate, no circular driveway, no porte cochere, no entrance of any kind. What greeted me instead was a trailer park—nearly one hundred campers, caravans, and mobile homes of every size and budget assembled smack on the clubhouse steps.

“The relic of a rather difficult period in our history,” said club secretary Ian Chadburn, a touch of wistfulness in his brogue. “Following World War II, the club was financially strapped and in order to make ends meet, the board voted to make the land available to the holidaymakers.”

But Winnebago-world, arresting as it was, was not the most striking aspect about Kingussie Golf Club; it was the members. While nursing a pint of Belhaven Best on the club’s very pleasant veranda, I watched the busy 1st tee as several groups teed off—27 players in all.

Of those 27 players, no fewer than 13 struck the ball left-handed!

Now, my understanding always has been that less than 10 percent of the world’s golfers were southpaws—and here I had seen a parade with a near 50–50 ratio. Moreover, two more blokes were on the putting green, slapping happily from the wrong side of the ball. What was going on here?

“Ah, you’re in the left-handed golf capital of the world,” said Chadburn.

“And why is that?” I asked.

“One word,” he said. “Shinty.”

Suddenly a distant bell rang. Yes indeed, I had heard somewhere about this phenomenon, this perverse pocket of port-sidedness.

It seems that just over 100 years ago, the Kingussie locals brought organized form to a game that had been played in an unregulated way for several centuries, a game that has often been touted—along with the likes of kolf, kolven, pall mall, chole, paganica, chuigan and assorted others from nations near and far, as the true and only precursor to golf.

“Yes,” said Chadburn, “this is the birthplace of shinty—it’s only played here in the Highlands and in a few towns to the west and south. But Kingussie is by far the best team.”That was an understatement. The Kingussie club is not only the most dominant team in shinty, it is—according to the Guinness Book of World Records—the most dominant team in the history of sports, having won 20 consecutive league titles while at one point going unbeaten for four straight years. Their stalwart is a fellow named Ronald Ross. The Tiger Woods of shinty, Ross scored 94 goals during the 2003 season, more than the combined team totals of Kingussie’s two closest rivals.

“I think there’s a game this afternoon,” said one of the putting lefties. “You should stop by and see Ronaldo in action.”

Sure enough, the Kingussie lads were scheduled to take on a team from Fort William in one of the major events on the shinty calendar, the Scottish Hydro Electric Camanachd Cup quarterfinal. (Camanachd is Gaelic for shinty.) An hour later I was in the crowd, brimming with cluelessness.

What I beheld was a sort of sports platypus. Shinty is played by two teams of large men who run up and down a football field using hockey sticks to hit a baseball into a soccer net. A match lasts 90 minutes, involves 24 players and looks like lacrosse on steroids.

I saw the golf connection immediately. Most players gripped their sticks, known as camans, cross-handed, swatting both forehands and backhands. The curved-face camans seemed to be extremely versatile weapons, capable of hitting the ball off the ground (there were some very impressive tee shots) as well as in mid-flight (a couple of guys had the timing of A-Rod). On several occasions, players also were able to “catch” the ball, stopping it dead on the face of the stick.

Kicking the ball is permitted, as is high-sticking, and most of these manly men do not wear helmets or pads, except at the knees. (It’s no wonder shinty was a big hit back in 1300 with the Braveheart crowd.) That said, the official rules of shinty run a hefty 48 pages, including a seven-point anti-doping policy. In fact, the game I saw involved few penalties and disputes. A tacit code of ethics seems to prevail among the shintymen. It’s as if they know their game is an endangered species that needs to be preserved and protected if it is to survive to the next generation.

The whole brutal ballet was fascinating to watch, and legendary Ronald Ross lived up to his clippings, scoring five goals to lead Kingussie to a 6–0 victory. My only regret was that in opting for shinty, I had missed the chance to play the Kingussie course. But no worries, I’ll be back.

The next time I head for the Highlands I’ll make Kingussie my first stop while taking the clockwise route—north, then east, then south. Or I guess I should call it the left-handed route.