The most striking part of golf here in the Scottish Highlands is its integration with everyday life in the towns that surround these courses.
I saw with my own eyes what a central role some of these clubs play in their communities. The best clubs we visited in the past 10 days do a superb job of fulfilling both a public and a private mandate.
My first golf trip to Scotland, the so-called home of golf, sparked questions in me about how we live life on our side of the Atlantic, and from a sporting and community perspective, it makes me wonder if we’ve got it all wrong.
I admire a lot about European society, as I feel their longer history gives them some wisdom we haven’t yet earned. My trip here crystallized that for me, and how golf clubs and the courses they sit on can have a bigger societal impact than just serving their members.
We spent six days in the town of Dornoch, home to the famed Dornoch Championship Links.
Golf and regular, everyday life are intertwined in Dornoch. And I can’t think of a better illustration of that than two signs attached to the exterior of the centuries old Dornoch stone clubhouse. These signs spoke volumes about how the locals view things.
One sign read: “History has given the inhabitants of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch a precious asset in some 200 hectares of Common Good land. Dornoch has the fairest and largest links of any part of Scotland, fit for archery, golfing, riding and all other exercise.”
And no more than 10 paces from this sign, just around the corner to the left of the main doors are these familiar words, again prominently posted on the centuries old stone façade of the clubhouse: “The Rotary Club of Dornoch meets here on the first and third Wednesday of every month.”
But there’s more. There’s a public road that meanders in front of the first tee on this famous course. It is the only way locals can walk or ride to the beach that occupies the space between the links and the sea. There’s a walking trail that completely surrounds the Championship course, and anyone can set foot on it.
You’re playing one of the most respected courses in the world and townsfolk, tourists and their pets are present with you, forming part of the mystique of your round. It’s not you, your goofball and your scorecard, but rather you, your mates and the community all enjoying this marvellous piece of land, together. It’s recreation in its highest form.
Most golf clubs in North America are cut off from the rest of their community. They are hidden behind hedges, stately trees and long laneways. Whether they say it with signs, words or fences, the message is clearly stay out, don’t trespass, members only.
What if we thought of these spectacular properties not as golf courses but common good land that is best shared with all, not the chosen few.
Golf is indeed played on this land, but so are a lot of other things. Perhaps what’s missing in our quest to “grow the game” is an invitation to our neighbours and the community at large to come share the beauty and vistas of the property we fell in love with while whacking a little white ball around.
My Dornoch experience made me a believer that golfers and non-golfers can coexist respectfully and happily, and all can be the better for doing it.
Paul Hickey is a golf enthusiast who can be followed on Twitter at @outpostprez.