My newest golf buddy has never played before, and never will
FIFE, Scotland — I thought I was all alone, wasting away the minutes before a tee time, rapping putts on the practice green at Anstruther Golf Club. It was 4:45 p.m. last Saturday and the clouds above told the truth: it was about to rain. Surely no one would be joining me this evening.
I was naturally a bit startled when, as my personal putting competition turned me back toward town, I found that I now shared the putting green with local resident Tom Kenmack (Ken-mahhk with a Scottish accent). He had driven his scooter a couple hundred yards down the hill from his retirement home. His scooter was not the kind that gets mistaken for a moped, but rather the assisted-living variety. Four wheels, hard plastic exterior, wire basket on the front. Hanging off the back was a wooden cane and an old, mallet putter.
Kenmack is 91 years old and has never actually played golf in the way you and I love to. If he could stand up straight, he’d reach about 5-foot-8, but he can’t stand straight anymore. His best is a bit hunched over, with his chin hanging out over his toes. He’s never made a par or felt nervous on a tee box. Instead, all he does is practice putting at Anstruther.
His system is delightfully simple. He gingerly plucked a lime green plastic bag, unveiling four mismatched golf balls, which he dropped onto the turf in a row.
“Do you come here often?” I asked.
“Agh, no. I just started a fortnight ago.”
(That’s two weeks, for those like me who never knew what a fortnight meant.)
Kenmack had tried full-swing golf many, many years ago. Back when he was worked on a farm down in Edinburgh. He worked hard as students from the nearby university would visit the farm and plot out imaginary golf holes on the field. They’d compete in their own made-up golf games and occasionally leave a ball behind. Over the years, Kenmack had collected 10 of those second-hand golf balls, and one day decided to see what the fuss was all about. He grabbed one of his father’s old hickory clubs hanging up in the barn and imitated the moves those student golfers made. Within an hour, he said with a belly laugh, all 10 balls were lost.
“That was the beginning and end of my golf career.”
Once he was finally ready to begin his putting session, Kenmack sized up a 15-footer. He played six inches of right-to-left break, curling his first putt of the day crashing into the flagstick, down into the hole. Of course.
I burst out in laughter, and even he had to chuckle. “Aye, aye,” he said, smiling as he lined up the next. He took off some speed with the second attempt and came up woefully short, barely making it halfway.
“Ack — it was a fluke!” he said, quickly moving onto his third try, which also curled into the cup.
“Ah, no t’wasn’t!”
Three putts was all it took for Tom Kenmack to win 100% of my attention.
Back in his fitness prime, lawn bowling (a cousin of bocce ball) was Kenmack’s game. Scotland is the home of golf, but it’s also the unofficial home of lawn bowling, and there are common threads between the two. There are golf clubs and bowling clubs. The competition can be balanced between genders. Yes, they can be played indoors, but their purest forms exist outdoors on tight, dry, firm turf. It makes sense why Kenmack enjoys his putting.
We spent the next 15 minutes swiveling around the green, aiming at whichever cup felt right to him. One putt for me, four putts for Tom. He rocks a baseball grip, a wristy stroke and a Ram Zebra putter from the 90s. It was gifted to him by his nephew, a much better golfer, who visited him during Open week.
Soon enough, it began to drizzle — what locals call a “light piss” — and Kenmack finally stood up as straight as he can, scorning the sky and telling Mother Nature, “I’m not going to stay out here if it’s going to rain.”
Like me, he was displeased with the conditions. Like me, he thought Rory McIlroy would win The Open. Like me, he enjoys the riddle that is putting. Like me, he has spent this summer in a new home. Kenmack lived in Edinburgh for more than 60 years before moving to that Anstruther retirement home six months ago. Now that the Scottish summer has arrived, he’s making the most of consistent temps in the 60s.
“I do it for amusement,” he said. “It gets me some fresh air. I do it for an hour, and that’s enough for me.”
That’s not enough for me, if I’m being honest, or most golfers. But I sure hope I can drive the equivalent of a scooter down from my retirement home in 2083, when I’m 91 years old. As I readied myself for the real golf course at Anstruther, Kenmack retied that lime green bag of balls. I asked if he’s learned anything about putting in his two weeks of practice.
“Aye, that it takes four tries to find the road.”
Got an idea for a Summer in Scotland story? — I’ll hear them all! Just send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.