Sleeping giant on our doorstep is fully awake
Ryder Cup spotlight will be huge boost for Scottish golf tourism, says Dermot Gilleece
The nine-iron approach of close on 140 yards from rough to the right of the long 16th, came to rest about eight feet from the pin. Later, a soft wedge to the last was a few feet closer. More famous for accuracy with the boot, Gavin Hastings was relishing the Centenary Course as it was set up for the Ryder Cup.
"Shame the putts didn't go in," was the verdict typical of a highly competitive sportsman, who swings a golf club with the sort of fluency one would anticipate from a four-handicapper. As an official Ryder Cup ambassador, he partnered Colin Montgomerie in a celebrity four-ball on Thursday morning, by way of bonus entertainment for the practice-day crowds.
This is a very special weekend for the former Scotland and Lions rugby captain, not simply because of native pride. Hastings was involved at the start of a Ryder Cup bid dating back more than 14 years to when Scotland hoped to secure the staging which controversially went to Celtic Manor in 2010.
It was in this capacity that I met him during the 2000 Open at St Andrews, where he spearheaded a marketing effort which would culminate in the bid document being submitted to the Ryder Cup committee the following year. What I found particularly interesting about him on that occasion was the olive green polo shirt he was wearing, carrying the logo of The Old Head of Kinsale.
Given that he was supposed to be promoting Scottish golf, the apparel betrayed a certain naivete, which I happened to express in print at the time, while acknowledging that in an appearance on television later in the week, he was wearing a royal blue sweatshirt advertising Famous Grouse whisky.
When we met again the following year at Royal Lytham, he viewed me with suspicion before deciding: "We've met before, haven't we?" Instantly, I knew he must have read the piece I did from St Andrews. "I hope the shirt [this time with the appropriate logo] meets with your approval," he said with admirable good humour.
That was also when Brian Meek, chief sports writer of the Glasgow Herald and chairman of the conservative group on the Edinburgh City Council, saw little hope for the Scottish bid. "To be perfectly frank, I think we're only playing at the whole thing, certainly in comparison to how it was handled in Ireland," he observed.
This weekend's staging represents the eventual realisation of that somewhat haphazard effort, and nobody is more pleased than Hastings. The shirt incident was very much in the past when we met again in the splendid grounds of this famous facility.
"Of course I'm delighted that the Ryder Cup has come to Scotland," he said at the culmination of the lengthiest bid process in the tournament's history. "Scotland has had an incredible year for all kinds of reasons. There was the Commonwealth Games, closely followed by the independence debate and now the Ryder Cup. It's amazing to think back to the very outset of this process and then you press the fast-forward button and here we are."
He went on: "I'm delighted Stephen Gallacher is in the team and I'm delighted I had the opportunity of playing the course with one of my great golfing heroes, Monty. It's fantastic. For me, Thursday was a great prelude to what I'm sure will be a memorable Ryder Cup."
There were other bonuses to his ambassadorial position. "I had the privilege of a quick peek into the European team-room," he went on. "There were some nice little touches, like certain words on the walls. And an incredible photograph of Seve. You know, there's so much history and tradition surrounding the Ryder Cup and I'm sure Paul McGinley will have used all of that to his advantage, when getting his boys right for each series of matches."
Though the opening ceremony may have lacked spectacle, it was faultless in projecting all the right images of the host country. Mind you, the shrill notes of numerous bagpipes inevitably brought to mind the definition of a Scottish gentleman as someone who can play the bagpipes - but doesn't.
Most significantly, in my view, the ceremony emphasised the remarkable depth of Scotland's golfing tradition. It will be recalled how the choice of the K Club as the Irish venue for the 2006 Ryder Cup in preference to our much-envied links terrain led to harsh words in certain quarters. Where even greater criticism might reasonably have been levelled against Scotland, however, they had the perfect answer in the words of their First Minister, Alex Salmond.
He pointed out that as a forerunner to the official Ryder Cup launch in 1927, Gleneagles was the venue for the first match between professionals from either side of the Atlantic, when teams from the US and Britain met there in the so-called International Challenge on June 6, 1921. With the now famous hotel yet to be completed, the players were housed in railway carriages and the home team happily braved any discomfort to win by 10 and a half to four and a half.
"Isn't Gleneagles a very pretty place when the sun comes out," remarked Hastings of Friday's bright start to the competitive weekend. And as something of an expert on captaincy, he had no doubts about the leadership qualities of McGinley.
"For me, Paul is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve," he said. "I was at The Belfry in 2002 when, as a player, he sank the decisive putt. He's always gone around with a smile on his face and he looks to be enjoying himself here, despite all the pressures. And that's great."
He continued: "Being vice-captain the last couple of times will have helped. And I believe he'll put it to good use having had Alex Ferguson in the team-room the other day. Paul's a popular captain and that's what you want. A guy who has the players' respect and trust. And I'm sure he made certain to have most of his work done before the first ball was struck. As I discovered with the Lions, there's a special challenge to pulling guys from disparate backgrounds together, but there are characters abounding in this European team, from Westwood, to Bjorn and Sergio. For me, that's terrific.
"It's a curious sort of situation. As a competitive spectacle, you want the matches to be almost as close as recent matches, even though this would entail some serious nail-biting. Either way, come Sunday, there's going to be an awful lot of people cheering for a European win. That's really all you can hope for."
An earnest opponent of Scottish independence, Hastings talked a year ago of wanting to throttle the "clown" who wrote the tourism slogan describing Scotland as the "Best Small Country In The World." So, there was tremendous pride for him in seeing the Saltire raised as the first flag of the opening ceremony while enthusiastic locals joined in Flower of Scotland.
"Like Ireland, Scotland is a very proud country," he said. "We're very proud of our heritage. We're proud of our flag. We're proud of our history and traditions. When Scotland does things, we do them very, very well, and it makes me proud to live here and be part of this great country."
In the context of golf tourism, former Government minister Jim McDaid once referred to Scotland as "a sleeping giant on our doorstep." The giant is very much awake this weekend and one of its favourite sporting sons can't resist voicing his approval.
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