When Curtis Gillespie first played a round in Gullane, he was a graduate student on the golf team at the University of St. Andrews. He wrote to his father back in Canada about the unmatched peacefulness and loveliness of the place and promised that the two of them would golf there together someday. After his father passed away before they could play the Scottish course, Gillespie vowed to return himself. Thirteen years after his first visit, Gillespie uproots his wife and two young daughters and moves to Gullane, hoping to learn something about himself, and his life, in the process.
Early on Gillespie teams up with two aging local golfers named Archie and Jack (members at Gullane Golf Club for more than a century between them), and the ensuing friendship that blossoms between the elderly Scotsmen and the young Canadian infuses Playing Through with a sense of enchanting familiarity and easygoing charm. Gillespie samples courses like Muirfield and St. Andrews under the delightfully gruff guidance of Archie and Jack, soaks up the natural beauty of the countryside, and sets out to capture the full flavor of village life, haggis and all. The gregarious and eccentric locals, the stunning setting, the town’s history, and even his family’s response to their new life all converge in a warm, wonderful story rich with comedy and insight.
Skillfully interwoven through the narrative are anecdotes about Gillespie’s much-missed father, an ordinary man who inspired extraordinary love from his son. And though his father is not there to share in Gullane’s charms, the experience of moving to the village and coming to know its inhabitants helps Gillespie through an unexpected passage of discovery about his father, himself, and his own journey through fatherhood.
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In my mind, the story always begins in my bedroom, in 1987, in a flat at 2 Alfred Place, St Andrews, when I awoke to find my narrow, messy bed had not its usual one occupant, but two. Moving slowly and quietly, I propped myself up on one elbow to have a peek. She wasn't much to look at, really; over-tall, gaunt, cold to the touch, and with a stiff page of mustard-coloured hair. Not that I found her unattractive. Quite the opposite, and to prove my devotion I nuzzled up close, whispered sweetly into her ear, wondering huskily how we'd managed to come together under such unlikely circumstances. I placed my hand on her javelinesque waist, stroked along the racoon-like black and white stripes of her skin. Haughty and distant -- the way she'd been from the start, in truth -- she chose to say nothing. Go ahead, be fickle, I thought, running a hand through my messy, longish hair. You're the same as the other seventeen. I rolled over and away from her, scanned my bedside table for my clock, found it, and discovered I was late for lunch, let alone breakfast. I also found, beside the clock, a small sheaf of paper -- perhaps thirty sheets -- and a handful of envelopes. The notepaper was light blue in colour, highly elegant, of a sophisticated grain. There looked to be an emblem confidently embossed at the top of each sheet of stationery. Picking up a single page, I saw the words Royal and Ancient Golf Club curled above the scalp of a heraldic logo, and St Andrews beneath the chin. It seemed golf had been involved in acquiring this paper (as well as my bedmate). A match, possibly, the day before between the University of St Andrews Varsity Golf Team, on which I played, and theRoyal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, known to the world as the R&A.
I looked down at the paper again. I had no idea how I'd ended up with the stationery, and it seemed a good bet the answer wasn't going to enhance my reputation in the better circles about town. Swinging my feet out of bed, the damp chill of March on the east coast of Scotland -- which being indoors did not parry in the least -- speared at my legs and torso. I reached for a T-shirt, put it on, and glanced back into my bed. My naked, steely companion ignored me. She was as stiff and uncommunicative as a long steel pole; this did not come as a surprise, since she was, in fact, a long steel pole. Flinging back the bedsheets, I removed the pole and leaned it against the wall, at which point its coarse page of plastic yellow hair uncurled to reveal a home address. A large black 1 beside a large black 8. This flagpole had been torn -- presumably by me -- from its home, the green on the final hole of the hallowed Old Course. It's a big field, really, the 18th hole, but a field rumpled with humps and mounds and swales, and the massive weight of its own history, and which concludes at the green fronted by the Valley of Sin. This is perhaps the most recognisable, most consecrated, spot in all golf. I considered the flagstick leaning in such a slatternly way against the wall, and felt my blood thinning, felt the need to sit down. I might as well have snuck into the Galleria dell'Academia in Florence and snapped the privates off Michelangelo's David.
Something moved in the dregs of my memory, and I tried to tease out a coherent string of events. Too much alcohol had been involved, it was clear. I thought hard, concentrated even, but in the same way you get tyres and shopping trolleys when you dredge a lake looking for a body, so the night before emerged from the deep in muddy clumps of apparently unrelated imagery, each of which drew a cringe: walking down South Street and seeing my short, curly-haired friend Simon grabbing some poor dog by the testicles, and saying, 'Oy, oy, 'ow's that then?' My taller, spotty, red-headed friend George, who also played on the golf team, attempting, and failing, to clear a car park full of cars in the heaving of some sort of spear (my bedmate, perhaps). The team's best golfer, Mike, banging on the door of the local curry house deep into the night because he was so desperate for a vindaloo. Me, belching softly, loosening the knot of a tie while slumped geriatrically in a deep leather chair. This must have been a dinner at the Royal and Ancient after the match. Few other occasions could incite the wearing of a tie.
I got dressed, brushed the malt-flavoured algae off my teeth and tongue, and went downstairs to use the phone. Jane, then one of my flatmates and still a dear friend, regarded me with immediate amusement. I sat down beside her. A fellow golfer, and a member of the Ladies' Team, Jane was not averse to a drink every now and then, and so I reasoned that if anyone was inclined to be sympathetic, it ought to be her. I was mistaken. She brushed a strand of black hair away from her eyes. 'Got what you deserved, looks like to me.'
'I woke up with the flagstick from the eighteenth green of the Old Course in bed with me.'
Jane actually kicked her heels in the air as she snorted with laughter. 'Oh, that's brilliant!' she exclaimed. 'That's too rich. You are a marked man, my friend.'
'I don't think anyone saw.' I rested in my palms the pulsating bowling ball that was my head. 'What time did I get in? Do you know?'
In the years following her graduation, Jane went on to work very reputably in the world of high finance, and even at school she was nothing if not a confident and accurate dispenser of information. 'I got in at about two. Your door was still open, the room empty. Nick and Sue were already asleep. I read for thirty minutes, fell asleep fifteen minutes after that. No sign of you to that point, I'm afraid.'
'I have to phone George or Gareth, maybe Mike.' I looked at my watch. 'Two. They'll be up.'
'No, they won't,' laughed Jane. 'They're bigger piss-ups than you! Anyway, I'm off. Tee time at half-two . . . on the Old Course. You'd better get that flag back in the green by the time I come through eighteen. I want to know where I'm aiming.' She waited for me to raise my miserable head before peeling off another ripple of laughter. She had very good teeth, I noticed with some bitterness.
Gareth's phone was busy -- his roommates, I reasoned -- so I sought out Mike next. As the Number One player on the team, and the only one with any real talent, Mike was looked upon with some awe by the rest of us. A long-hitting left-hander, Mike is now a high-ranking executive with IMG, the company that represents Tiger Woods. His phone was busy. He was still asleep, of that I was sure. He'd been one of the most serious drinkers the night before, and for a man as skinny as he was then, he could drink all night.
George was my next best bet. As a long-time consumer of considerable amounts of ale, George had the ability to attain a certain level of inebriation very quickly and then maintain that level throughout the night, no matter how much he drank. In this way, he often claimed, he could be a sociable and relatively articulate evening's companion, all while getting utterly and comprehensively 'pished'. I knew this to be the truth. I'd come to the University of St Andrews in 1986 to do a doctorate in history, and hadn't known a soul upon arriving. My second week there, I tried out for, and made, the Varsity Golf Team, which was where I'd met George and Gareth. They were two of the most amiable people I'd ever met, and two of the biggest drinkers. The phone continued to ring, which was no surprise, since I was not really expecting George to answer. As I was about to replace the phone on its cradle, a startled 'Hello?!' sprang from the other end.
'Yeah . . . well, it's two in the afternoon.'
'You don't sound hungover.'
'. . . yeah . . . who's this anyway?'
There was a short stretch of emptiness coming from the other end of the line, and for a moment I thought we'd been disconnected, but a low chuckle soon began gurgling from my earpiece. 'Fuck me sideways,' he muttered. 'You were fabulous, mate.'
'I hardly remember a thing.'