They are looking at me. A whole herd of them. Big black, hairy-faced Galloway cows, shifting from hoof to hoof and looking worried. It is stroke number 136. My arms and back are sore. I am 15 strokes off the lead and still have half a mile to go. The rules strictly state that shots should, under no circumstances, be directed towards any livestock. I will have to go round them. I turn 90 degrees and slice an awful drive over a stone dyke and into a chest-high patch of ferns. Welcome to the rigours of Cross Country Golf, the most bafflingly challenging, invigorating and cost effective game of golf in the world.
Having spent my formative years in the very rural but bleakly beautiful Scottish Borders, my friends and I had grown up accustomed to life outdoors. Sport and leisure pursuits inevitably involved a tussle with the elements and the wonders of the countryside. Golf was no different. Living a good 15 miles from our nearest golf course, it is safe to say we were never going to follow the traditional route of playing golf. Instead we would take an old club and ball out and hit some shots in a field or a windswept hillside. Little did we know that these early attempts at playing the game would sow the seeds for an epic game between us some twenty years later on a Perthshire hilltop.
There were four of us, all friends from childhood, Tom, Dan, Kelly and I. A plan for a game of Cross Country Golf was hatched in a pub beer garden. Rough rules were argued over and potential courses were examined on Ordinance Survey maps. Eventually a decision was reached on Birnham Hill, above the small town of Dunkeld, about 10 miles North of Perth. We had noticed a patch of clear ground, roughly two miles square on crest of the hill. Upon examining the contours on the map carefully and on getting the rulers out we were able to plot a switchback course approximately two miles long across this course. There also appeared to be good vehicle access and the weather for the weekend was looking dry-ish. Game on.
A plan for a game of Cross Country Golf was hatched in a pub beer garden. Rough rules were argued over and potential courses were examined on Ordinance Survey maps.
First up a quick pit-stop to pick up some second-hand clubs and balls from one of the local charity shops. Then the balls were modified with some small screws and bright orange ribbons giving each one a long, bright and hopefully, a very visible tail. Upon arrival in Dunkeld and the location of our forestry track discovered, the car wound its way up the hill to the highest point of the road. Hauling our gear a further 100 yards up a track we eventually arrived at the first and only tee. A spread sheet was opened on Dans smartphone entitled ‘Scorecard’ and it was me up first on the alphabetical playing order.
Placing my old Dunlop ball on a tuft of grass I examined the first shot. Uphill about 75 yards was a plateau that represented a reasonably secure spot. The slope was quite steep on the right and tailed off into a marsh on the extreme left. I was going to have to really hit this hard to clear the gradient. Unsheathing the wedge from our old bag, I stood over the ball, its ribbon trailing mockingly off to right. Looking up, I plotted my tee shot to the left of a big tree at the rise of the slope figuring it was as good a line as any. Watching on in anticipation, the other three offered little by way of support. The silence was edible. Here goes, I thought as I swung through hard and straight. Roots and mud flew into the air as I neatly cut the turf of grass in half. The ball however did not move an inch and the silence was shattered with howls of mocking laughter.
So began our game of Cross Country Golf. Roughly three or four shots saw us up on the plateau and heading across a relatively flat patch of ground which led to the remains of an old stone sheep pen. Tom was consistently hooking his shots off to the left and before long found himself in amongst the extreme rough of thistles and barbed wire fences further down the hill. His decision to wear shorts counting horribly against him. Kelly though, had the range but was over-shooting and spending a fair bit of time looking for his ball but held an 8 shot lead after the first half mile. Dan then skied a shot into a small stream but as a random bonus managed to come away with the antler from an old stag he had found down amongst the reed beds. With that stashed in his bag it was on towards a stone dyke that surrounded the field fairway. After a few attempts the stone obstacle was traversed. By this time, Tom had closed Kelly's 67 shot lead to a mere 2 strokes with me and Dan tied on 78 behind him.
The stone dyke pretty much marked the tipping point on our plotted course between ‘quite easily playable’ to ‘very difficult’. An extremely steep and rocky slope greeted us as playing away from the wall. It was also covered in big bunches of thistles, gnarled hawthorn tress and thorny bushes. The next 40 minutes were spent swearing and chipping our way up with no real advantage or distance being gained by any player. I was miraculously first up and upon cresting the hillock the magnificence of the view became starkly apparent. To the South, the rolling purple hills of the Tay Valley and the historic city of Perth, streaked with sunlight only broken by the occasional dotted shadows of passing clouds. The North boasted the gloriously green woodland hills of the Lower Grampians beaming back at us in a violent bright green. Some 600 foot down to the South West the town of Dunkeld sat nestled by the banks of the River Tay, surrounded on all sides by sumptuous dark green pine forest. It was, to say the least, a glorious view.
Directly below us, sat amongst the acres of fern sat a perfect strip of grass roughly 50 yards wide and maybe 300 yards long. This natural fairway led to the final stage of the course, namely the big oak tree by the gate back to the car. Scores had escalated over the short, steep hill farce. Kelly still led but was now on 93, I sat at a respectable 107, Tom on 111 but Dan had toiled to a miserable 121. One by one we paused, marvelled and absorbed the sheer beauty and enjoyment of driving our balls off that hilltop and onto the grass below. Huge shots which sailed in the azure sky, ribbons fluttering, before dropping in a beautiful arc onto the grass below. What a view, what a shot.
One by one we paused, marvelled and absorbed the sheer beauty and enjoyment of driving our balls off that hilltop and onto the grass below. Huge shots which sailed in the azure sky, ribbons fluttering, before dropping in a beautiful arc onto the grass below. What a view, what a shot.
The following fairway really tested our patience and stamina though. By this time sunburn and the fatigue of golfers who do not play very often was kicking in. Scapula muscles groaned, form dipped and shots were flying off into the ferns left, right but unfortunately not centre. Finally, after making our way past a herd of cows, over another stone dyke and down a small valley the one and only green came into view. The game was only deemed over when you hit your ball off the thick trunk of the appointed oak tree. Remarkably Tom and Kelly were only separated by 7 shots with me and Dan well out of the reckoning. Kelly and Tom upped their game for a dramatic last fling. By the time Tom hit the tree first with a low drive Kelly was left with a par four to win and his ball sitting 12 yards down a small steep slope. His first shot sliced wide of the tree by about 12 foot, the next fell agonisingly short. With the pressure now firmly on he dinked his ball up from about six yards and it sounded off the bark with satisfying thump. After all that, he had astonishingly only won by a single stroke. The sun dripped low in the sky as we trailed off towards the car in search of a pitched tent, roaring campfire and some well-earned beers. Mark Twain was wrong you know? With Cross Country Golf ‘the good walk’ was well and truly unspoiled. Cross Country Golf; a good walk, a great game and brilliant fun and all virtually free. What more could you ask for?
The Rules of Cross Country Golf
1. A to B in as few hits as possible
2. Always hit away from livestock
3. Honesty in totalling ones strokes is paramount
Definition of Cross Country Golf
A game in which clubs with wooden or metal heads procured cheaply from a charity shop are used to hit a small, white ball over a course casually plotted between two points on an ordinance survey map. The object being to get the ball from point to point in as few strokes as possible, public house intermissions are also allowed and indeed encouraged.
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