MUIRFIELD, Scotland — “Maybe you can help me with directions,” I said, unfolding a map as I stepped to the counter. “I’m trying to get to the golf, the British Open, and I can’t seem to . . . “
I looked up.
I was talking to a 12-year-old.
“You . . . don’t drive, I take it?”
“Afreeed noot,” he said.
I have this problem whenever I go to Scotland. Actually, I have three problems whenever I go to Scotland. I keep getting in the wrong side of the car. I keep driving on the wrong side of the road. And I can’t understand a thing they say.
And here I was again, en route to the Open in Muirfield, lost, confused, hitting curbs. I had rented a car at the Edinburgh airport. I had asked for directions, and the lady had said “goo to the fuurst rooondaboot” and look for the signs.
So I went to the first “rooondaboot.” I went rooond and aboot. And I was back in the airport.
I did this three times. Each time I wound up back in the airport. It was on my fourth attempt that I noticed the only slab of business in this otherwise deserted little loop:
A driving range.
Yes. The Port Royal Golf Range. I am not making this up. Right there. Maybe 1,000 yards from the airport. I knew golf was big here. But I figured they could wait until they got home.
Anyhow, I pulled in for directions. Which is how I wound up with this Scottish Little Archie; red hair, freckles, thin and that accent. He said his name was Grant.
“You run this place, Grant?” I asked.
“Me father doos,” he said, laughing. “Do you golf?”
“You have your own clubs?”
“When did you get them?”
“Two years agoo,” he said.
“Two years ago? How old were you? Ten?”
“Aye.” Here, the game is child’s play
Now, forgive me. Where I come from, you don’t have your own golf clubs when you are 10. You don’t even touch a golf club when you are 10, because the only golf clubs around are your father’s, and if you touch those you hang in the closet by your ankles for a year. Golf, where I come from, is not a child’s game. Unless it’s the kind where you hit the ball through the little windmill.
“What’s your handicap?” I asked, joking.
“Sixteen,” he said, serious.
“And you play, like, all 18 holes?” I just couldn’t see this little kid teeing off, choosing a driver, studying a putt.
Just then the door opened. In walked two more kids. One of them was chubby with apple cheeks, the other thin, wearing a Los Angeles Raiders sweatshirt. Ah, I thought. Normalcy.
“Where’s dee Putulssomby golf?” the chubby kid asked. Or something like that. It was then that I noticed the second kid was lugging a bag of clubs, with little red fuzzy things on the club heads.
“Go dune de rood,” Grant instructed, “go rayt den leeft den rayt . . .” Out they went, presumably with a tee time.
“More golfers?” I asked, once they’d gone.
“Aye,” he said. Recess is tee time
I felt like I’d walked into Saturday morning television. I could see these kids walking to school, books under one arm, 5- iron under the other.
“You wooont to hit a few?” Grant said.
What the heck? I wasn’t getting any closer to Muirfield. We walked outside. The sky was gray, the grass thick and wet. Plane engines roared overhead. I stood at the tee and stared at the yard markers, 100, 150, 200. Above them, you saw “EDINBURGH AIRPORT” on the side of a hangar.
“Goo aheeed,” said Grant.
Just then I remembered how I play golf. You know how there are bad golfers, horrible golfers and the absolutely laughable golfers?
Yeah. Well. The last group? I carry their clubs.
But now I had a 12-year-old watching me. He scratched his chin. I drew back the driver like a sword and brought it down.
The ball dribbled off and died.
“Well, I gotta get going . . . ” I said.
And so I did. I got in that car — on my second try — and banged against curbs on the wrong side of the road until I found my way here. And when I arrived, everyone was talking about the Open, which begins today, about its tradition, its history, and Scotland’s love for golf.
What more need be said? You want to learn about the heartbeat of a sport? Start with the children. Check the schoolyard. Check the sandlots. Check the airport.
As I drove off from the Port Royal Golf Range, I noticed Grant had taken over my tee. I watched him in my rear view mirror. His swing was true. The club head whammed across. The ball rose like a tiny jet, high and strong into the friendly skies.