Into the Rough: A Poet’s Perspective on the Game That Simply Won’t Let Us Go

Editor’s Note: In this instalment in his ongoing blog series, Goswick member Dan Miller offers his review of a golf book that could serve as an alternative to playing the game amid the COVID-19 lockdown.

By Dan Miller

One of the joys of life is the unexpected find, discovered when making your way from where you are to where you think you need to be. Such was the case one lovely fall day in 2014, during a nine-week stay in the Scottish Borders when my wife and I were weighing a move to the UK from Los Angeles. As I drove from the market town of Kelso to the humble village of Ancrum — where we’d taken up temporary residence in a holiday cottage — I passed through St. Boswells in between. Within that sliver of a community I found the Main Street Trading Company, a combination deli, coffee bar and bookstore. It’s the latter that compelled me to put my plans on hold, at least momentarily, and pull into the car park.

While browsing the store’s small but tasteful collection of books, I stumbled upon a simple and unassuming paperback entitled Preferred Lies: A Journey to the Heart of Golf. I wasn’t familiar with Andrew Greig, its author. But the title, at least the second half of it, was more then enough to set the hook. And it only took a few paragraphs to reel me in. A minute later I found myself facing a cash register, handing over my debit card.

What makes this book so special is the unabashed humanity of it. Greig, a Scot, grew up in a golf-playing family, following in the footsteps of his father and older brother. He achieved a measure of proficiency at the game in his youth, making a name for himself in preparatory school competitions. But at 16, Greig picked up a guitar and promptly set down his clubs. Or, as he recalls the moment in his book, “I thought: maybe I’ve sold out. I’m no longer a player. And then I thought: no, I’m just having a fit of integrity! I’m selling up because there’s things I want to do more.”

Greig’s passion for the game, as well as his clubs in his home’s attic, lay dormant for some 40 years. Then a life-threatening brain condition intervened. Part of his post-surgery rehab included taking walks along the shoreline of his hometown of Stromness on the Orkney mainland, past a golf course laid out above the Sound of Hoy. Invariably, Greig would pause there to rest and watch the players as they progressed. That’s when this rather cheeky thought bubbled up into his consciousness, “My God, surely I can do better than that.”

And so began Greig’s return to the game and, as it turned out, this book that chronicles his journey. The path flows in two general directions: back to the past, where Greig revisits the golf-infused people and places he’d left in a lurch; and headlong into his suddenly mortal future, where Greig embraces the lessons the game had been waiting to teach him ever since he put it on hold. A map at the front of the book gives you a sense of just how much ground he covered: from St. Andrews and North Berwick to the east, Machrihanish to the south, Iona to the west and North Ronaldsay to the extreme north—with points well known and lesser so in between. But it’s the metaphysical, rather than the physical, landscape that truly gives this book its shape.

It’s also a deeply personal and sublimely poetic read. An endorsement from the Scotsman on the back of the book claims that Greig is “one of Scotland’s leading poets and novelists.”  As such, Greig isn’t simply a golfer who can write. He’s an artist who sees deep truths in the seemingly mundane, such as a chapter in which he riffs on a 6-iron approach to a green.

Consider this passage:

“I trundle my trolley up to the little white ball, look at it sitting there on the turf, dimpled white on coarse green background. It’s in a slight hollow, a depression a few inches across, which will make this shot more difficult. Though I’ve played this hole — the 5th on Stromness — dozens of times, I’ve never seen this exact spot on the fairway before. Had I just been walking over the course, I’d never attended to it. Now I see it clearly because it’s relevant.”

Then a page or two later:

“When I take a walk by the course — as I regularly do on the way to the graveyard — there’s pleasure, interest, relaxation, an opportunity to think, or to leave thinking behind. But there is not this little drama of intention, hope, execution and outcome. There is not this heightening of the body. Above all, simply looking at the world, there is not the same clarity and knowledge that comes from engagement. I’d have missed that little depression in the fairway, the pale sandy divot scuff beside it, the darker flat green of a daisy’s leaves.”

And finally, turning the oft-cited “golf is a good walk spoiled” quote attributed to Mark Twain on its head, he ends with this:

“A walk is a missed opportunity for golf.”

Wow! I’ve been playing golf for more than 40 years and writing about it for at least 20. Yet Greig’s unique perspective has helped me see the game in new and fresh ways, reinvigorating both my playing and writing.

All that being said, I do have one complaint: the choice of title. In my humble opinion, players who take advantage of preferred lies (aka winter rules) and bump the ball out of those depressions (see above) unwittingly cut themselves off from the power of the game’s core tenet: “Play the ball as it lies.” Greig’s writing, about golf but more importantly about life’s vagaries, certainly does. Given the precision with which he wields words, I can’t help but wonder if the title was his idea or his publisher’s.

But nae bother. I heartily recommend it, especially when none of us can play the game. It’s available to order here, though likely via other online venues as well.