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Driving Lessons

Could a few days on the greens of Scotland’s venerable course strengthen the bond between father and son? Gary Fisketjon reports in from Gleneagles.

Parents hoping to impart a particular passion are almost guaranteed to bore their offspring rigid. When my 17-year-old son and I decided to visit Scotland on his spring break, I could already imagine Matthew rolling his eyes (a trick I’d taught him as an infant) while I explained how golf was repeatedly banned there in the 15th century so that young men could concentrate on archery and the defense of the realm.

No, Matthew was interested in checking out the universities at Edinburgh and St. Andrews, and though we’ve played a lot of golf together, his enthusiasm is sane by comparison to mine. So the typical tour, starting at the Old Course and squeezing in as many Open venues as possible, was doomed to fail. What our trip called for was simple enough: to scout out Matthew’s future possibilities in a country new to us both, then indulge ourselves by playing golf where it all began.

The name Gleneagles came immediately to mind because it’s one most golfers recognize and many clubs around the world have adopted. Gleneagles is, in fact, Scottish golf to a tee. It has two courses dating from 1919 by James Braid, a native son who in the first decade of the century won five Open championships—only one short of Harry Vardon’s record six victories—before turning to architecture. In 1993 Nicklaus unveiled a third course, his first in the country, where the Ryder Cup is scheduled to take place in 2014. (Matthew, mishearing the year as 2040, dutifully rolled his eyes.)

Gleneagles was built in 1924 by the Caledonian Railway Company, which financed the operation so that well-heeled players might ride its trains and stay in its rooms in order to play its courses. Ownership has changed several times, but still immediately palpable is a preautomotive period when life was larger, less hurried and crowded, and more stylish and comfortable. I thought my son, born in 1989, ought to experience that feeling—and I didn’t mind getting a taste myself. The palatial scale of the haute-Edwardian exterior is reinforced by what seemed like a mile-long walk from the reception lobby to our rooms, down broad hallways that reminded me of those that young Danny Torrance triked through in The Shining.

Matthew hadn’t touched a club in eight months; moreover, he had never really had a chance to log the endless hours, day in and day out, month after month, that are required to become even vaguely consistent. In a stretch of Long Island summers, back when he was little and I was fitfully resuming play after a two-decade hiatus, we would chip around in the yard. Matthew would stand over the ball with real—if miniature—grace, and in the years to come he developed a solid swing. Then, after he moved to England with his mother, they joined a club whose Scottish pro inspired him far more than a father fighting his own game ever could. I was lucky enough to be taught, in my early teens, by Charlie Perkins, who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Athletics in the thirties and thereafter caroused and played golf with Babe Ruth and Walter Hagen, possibly the finest golfer of his time. Under Charlie’s tutelage I learned not only the game but also the knack of dealing with unknown elders, and he served as my de facto parent during junior tournaments. Even though we eventually fell out over my long hair and "radical" politics, having a close relationship with someone who could both play and teach was invaluable—a link to the game that should prove durable for my son as well.

Schoolwork, however, left Matthew little time to maintain his skills—much less improve them—something I’d discovered myself in college and then in the workplace. And occasional golf, needless to say, practically gushes with frustration. Now that Matthew’s taller and stronger than I am, he can match my length and produce astonishing shots, but foul balls ruin his mood and destroy his concentration in a heartbeat. These meltdowns can prove at once comic and a nostalgic reminder of club-hurling episodes of my own youthful commission and also a stern test of parental forbearance, especially if kindly strangers are exposed to tantrums embarrassing to everyone concerned. That’s a very compelling reason for fathers not to play with their sons.

Meanwhile I had my own cross to bear. A couple of weeks earlier, I’d fallen off a ladder and my back and ribs were sufficiently damaged that I couldn’t make any kind of swing until, as luck would have it, the first day we had a tee time. We were in Scotland and it would take more than a back brace and painkillers to keep me from trying. Given that carts are allowed only on the course that Jack built and that a broken toe had for once defeated my insistence on always walking, we started there.

The PGA Centenary Course—originally called the Monarch’s—is one of the strongest Nicklaus designs I’ve played, and at 7,288 yards from the back tees, it’s one of the longest inland 18s in Scotland. Capable only of bunting drives and hitting two-thirds irons, I moved us up a set and gained 500 yards just like that. Matthew made three pars on the front nine and, more surprisingly, remarked on the beauty of the moorland and its spectacular views of the Ochil Hills and the Grampian Mountains. The architect himself has called it "the finest parcel of land in the world I have ever been given to work with," but I wasn’t used to hearing my son make such pronouncements. As on the other Gleneagles courses, each hole bears a Scot’s name, from the descriptive (Wester Greenwells, the name of the ruined croft overlooking the green) to the poetic (Carn Mairg, hill of sorrow or difficulty). A handful of holes are being reworked, and with sufficient length for modern technology this will remain the championship venue here. Matthew finished in the 90s and I was delighted to limp in with a 79—perhaps a preview of how I might play as an old man.

While I soaked my back in a very large tub in my very large bathroom, Matthew settled in as if he were one of the messier Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom we had just seen play in London. I soon decided his casual housekeeping was no more bizarre than my acting as if I were moving in for several weeks. At any rate, after the day’s endeavors, we took the same long walk back to the hotel’s public rooms for refreshment and sustenance.

Matthew’s culinary sophistication has always seemed impressive, since at his age—not having grown up eating out in New York and London—I would’ve been baffled senseless. Never was this more apparent than at our dinner at Andrew Fairlie’s restaurant, a fixture that after five years attracts patrons who care nothing for golf or anything beyond its two Michelin stars, which are unique in this country. Matthew started with lobster, which looked and smelled and (once he took pity on me) tasted better than any lobster I’d ever eaten or heard about. My lamb, raised by Fairlie’s brother, wasn’t far behind, and with the sommelier’s exacting choices this grew into a meal I’ll never forget. After a delicate and complex chocolate dessert, even Matthew seemed stunned, and certainly he was full of complimentary observations when we had a drink the next evening with the self-effacing and singularly gifted chef.

James Braid served as architect on some 200 courses around the United Kingdom, but his phobia about travel kept him from working abroad and becoming as celebrated—at least by Americans—as his contemporaries Alister MacKenzie and Harry Colt. Setting off on his Queen’s, we soon realized how challenging his designs could be, even on a course playing to a par of 68 at just under 6,000 yards. The bunkering is fierce, and for once my aching back was an advantage. No way could I risk the deep, steep-faced fortifications. So I gave them wide berth and dealt with the other ingenious features—sharp doglegs and elevation changes, a bit of water here, a lot of trees there, and jaw-dropping slopes on the greens. Queen’s, probably because it so sharply focuses one’s strategic thinking, is enormous fun. At the turn, my body giving out, we let two experienced locals go through who gave a delightful endorsement of this, their favorite 18 at Gleneagles. Matthew must have been bolstered by that because in an especially scenic part of the back nine, he hit a three-iron to six inches on an uphill par three, playing a good 210 yards, then followed the shot of the trip with a par and another birdie that powered us down the lovely home hole and into the evening with high spirits.

I often worry about pressuring my son to play or practice as much as I like to, or to feign a deeper affinity than he actually feels. Instead, my goal is that Matthew should be able to play—which he is—and thus be capable of honing his game whenever it suits him. I learned countless lessons from my own father, who by all evidence fished heartily and shot pool sharkily in his youth but had, once I was a kid, little time for sport. I missed having a connection with him over football or golf—future occupations, in my hugely naïve view. So I was surprised, not long before I left home, when his lifelong love of horses returned with a vengeance in the form of an American Standardbred and the numerous carriages that he restored and Red pulled in their mysterious partnership. This wasn’t a passion I particularly shared, but I didn’t appreciate it any the less. Much as I craved a complete Baltimore Colts uniform at the of age 12 and, later, a scratch-handicap parent, such things count as nothing in comparison to knowing how to develop your own passion. And my dad’s work ethic, which can be applied to anything, set a bar I’ll always try to clear.

Braid rated King’s as one of his top courses, which is why we played it last, when our games might be up to the task. The starter—a wonderful fellow nobly named Tom Watson—provided a few tips and sent us down the wide-open first hole, whose impassive green reared high above the fairway, fronted by a no-exit bunker. Watson had warned us about the short par-four third and that the green is invisible, hidden in a swale behind yet another steep hill. Though more muscular than Queen’s, playing 6,790 yards at par 71, King’s has the same natural and architectural splendor, only on a grander scale. A par three titled Het Girdle (Hot Pan) for its raised, skillet-shaped green that will repel any loose shots is followed by a par five, which I reached in two—finally making full swings—only to three-putt it, a constant risk on these boldly contoured surfaces. The par-four Heich o’ Fash (Height of Trouble) is self-explanatory yet lovely, and around here, near the highest point on the course, the views over the entire estate are commanding, to say the least. Braid considered the 13th, a 464-yard par four with a classic downward meander, the strongest hole, and by now his mastery was unquestionable. Matthew proved himself too strong on the next, driving some 300 yards through the green—the second-best shot of the trip—while my lame hook should’ve been lost in the bushes. At last I got one back on the par-five home hole, reaching it in two for a take-that birdie even as the light began to fail and I could feel our respite slipping away.

Sons will eventually beat their fathers at one game or another, a prospect that père should both applaud and register as a bracing shot of mortality. All the more reason, then, to hole up with fils one last night in Perthshire—wrapped in luxury and fresh memories, ordering room service, and watching a movie like some band on the run—while awaiting this reckoning and the modern bustle and clamor that from here feels so very far away. I still regret the conversations I never got around to having with my father, dead now, as well as those I’ve yet to have with my son, a perverse dynamic that’s perhaps just part of the game. The most important things never seem, except in bad movies and novels, to get said. Even so, to give yourself as many opportunities as possible to say them is in itself a good start. Universities and SAT examinations, my own failings and apprehensions, and even the train back to London could get sorted out later because for now the two of us were very happily enrolled in Gleneagles.

From $655 to $3,315; greens fee, $175; dinner at Andrew Fairlie restaurant, $110. At Auchterarder, Perthshire; 866-881-9525.

Gary Fisketjon wrote about New Zealand golf for the May/June issue.

Going Off Course at Gleneagles

Like many older resorts, Gleneagles used to close down each winter, but since 1982 it has been open year-round. An array of activities has been developed, most of an earlier, better-rounded vintage and all perfectly suited to families who want more to do than just play golf.

Shooting arrived at Gleneagles in 1985 under the auspices of Jackie Stewart, a near-Olympian crack shot who was, for a while, also a famous Grand Prix driver. While I have enjoyed infrequent practice throughout my life, Matthew had only shot pellet guns at tin cans. Nonetheless, under Stewart’s expert tutelage he wielded his shotgun far more successfully than his father did—a natural, you might say, given a moving target.

Though in no hurry to obtain his driver’s license, he next enjoyed off-road driving, piloting the all-terrain, semiamphibious Argo that Scots use to navigate rough backcountry or, as in his case, get stuck in the mud.

But my pleasure in watching my son’s horizons widen was most intense when we scooted over to the falconry school, certainly something neither of us had ever seriously considered. After introducing us to a variety of raptors, our guide led us out across fields and through woods, each with a Harris hawk on our gloved left hand. I can’t say who was more thrilled to see these two birds work for rabbit and duck and pheasant, and to observe them swooping back to land on our extended wrists, but we both came away exhilarated. Nary a trace of teenage ennui. Could falconry be the answer?

Shooting, $110 for a one-hour lesson; off-road driving, $360 for an hour-and-15-minute drive; falconry school, $110 for a 45-minute lesson; 866-881-9525.

King’s No. 14: Gleneagles to a Tee

Denty Den

The short par four has come back into vogue, and it was certainly part of the design repertoire in James Braid’s day. From the tee this one looks imminently drivable, and after I hooked my tee shot short and left into some Scotch broom, Matthew flushed his on a very good line. I was sure it was on the green, but there was no sign of it when we approached. I hacked out to a steep slope above the front-right pin, then we looked all over for his ball—and finally found it a good ten yards over, inside that picturesque stand of trees. I was lucky to make bogey, and he made a difficult par when birdie had seemed likely, or maybe an eagle two. At least the view from up here is superb.

Member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas.

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