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Silence in a special place

The restorative powers of playing golf at home – in silence – has been a source of salvation for radio presenter and journalist Gordon Smart during one of the worst years of his life, as well as serving up moments of magical nostalgia
Silence in a special place

The choppy waters of 2020 have been nothing if not a reminder that life’s delicate equilibrium is only ever three putts away from tipping into ferocious freefall. In early Spring, before COVID-19 took hold, I lost my voice. Not such a problem, you might think, except for the last four years I had been hosting six live radio shows a week on the indie music station Radio X, broadcasting from London’s Leicester Square. On March 5th, things got so bad that I was taken off air. My voice sounded like Les Dawson the morning after a bottle of Famous Grouse and 60 Embassy King Size. It was painful to speak, and equally painful to listen to.

As a broadcaster and communicator, this was the physical manifestation of a recurring nightmare I’ve had for years. In it, Ivor Robson announces me on the tee at The Old Course on the final day of The Open Championship. The joy flows through my body as a ripple of applause wafts from the galleries in front of the R&A clubhouse. Millions more at home tune in to watch a local hero on a last day charge up the leader board. I emerge into the sunlight of the first tee to gasps from the Pringle-clad crowd, only to realise I have no clubs. Worse, I am completely naked.

Losing my voice was a terrifying moment. As the world came to a standstill so did I, reduced to total silence for the worst part of three weeks. Without recourse to doctors, all hopes of my Scottish brogue returning were invested in rest, manuka honey, steaming, nebulising, vitamins C and D, and, when they all failed, a fruitless search for divine intervention.

Salvation was eventually found in the surgeries of my GP, Dr Alistair McCracken, and Mr Richard Adamson MB.BS, FRCSEd (ORL-HNS), MSc, DMI, who, as you might gather from those letters, knows a thing or two about voice problems. A couple of laryngoscopies later I was diagnosed with a “haemorrhaged polyp” on my vocal cord. But worrying phrases had slipped out from behind the PPE: “a lump”, and “not so sure about the colour”, alongside the piece de resistance of medical terminology you really don’t want to hear: “We can’t say for certain until we see the pathology report”.

Like basketball legend Charles Barkley’s backswing, the timing was far from ideal. Getting an operation on my respiratory tract — taking up a hospital bed when others needed it far more than I did — was a challenge to say the least. So, I waited patiently for five months, all the while convincing myself I was dying.

I finally went under the knife in July and, to my enormous relief, my voice has returned to normal. I’m in the process of rebuilding my radio career and trying to put the whole miserable experience behind me, apart from, that is, the one unexpected, life-affirming, spiritual thing that came out of it: my rediscovery of the joys of golf. And nowhere have I healed more than on the courses I call home in Scotland: The Montgomery and The Bruce at Kinross Golf Club in Perthshire.

I should have known that Kinross GC would come to my aid. When I was 19, I broke my leg badly playing football. I remember my dad, who is a GP, telling me about a technique designed to distract from the pain. I’ve since discovered the Special Forces use it in their training for possible capture by the enemy. It requires persuading the mind not to focus on the worst by taking yourself to your own happy place — a beach, a walk, your favourite football ground — and walking yourself through the experience in the finest detail possible.

In 1999, while languishing in a hospital bed at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, I took myself to Kinross Golf Club in my mind and envisaged the perfect round on The Bruce. It was always a glorious summer’s day and on the second tee, I always did the sensible thing by pulling the 4-iron rather than the driver to avoid that cavernous bunker and leave myself a full 8-iron to the green.

Kinross is where I grew up. As teenagers, me and my pals could squeeze in 54 holes on a long, Scottish summer’s day. The thought of the first tee on The Bruce used to send chills down my spine, especially those times when the clubhouse was busy, and the throng of members and guests would look out across the first hole. The putting green to the left always felt dangerously close, especially with the snap hook being a prominent feature in my canon of golfing misery.

I couldn’t wait to escape Perthshire. Like so many of the Scottish diaspora, I was eager to see the bright lights and travel, fleeing home in search of adventure. Then, inevitably, when the fun ran out, I began to realise how lucky I had been. Seven years ago, I returned to Kinross with my wife and two children. We’d decided this is where we wanted to live, and where we wanted our kids to grow up.

When I was 13, in 1993, the Kinross Golf Club expanded from 18 to 36 holes, creating The Red and The Blue courses, which were renamed the Bruce and The Montgomery in 2007. We used to call them “the new holes”, but they’re 28 years old now. I remember staked trees being planted in the dirt; now they tower over me, like fully established younger siblings who have grown up in front of my eyes. Those trees mark the passage of time and provide a benchmark for my own mortality.

From the tee of the 12th on the Montgomery, you can see Castle Island in Loch Leven. In May 1568, Mary Queen of Scots made a daring bid for freedom after being held prisoner there for eleven months by Queen Elizabeth I. Some 452 years later (that’s the journalist in me), I emerged from captivity, and like Mary, my escape was aided and abetted by good-hearted local people: Andy Crawford, the head greenkeeper, who kept the two courses in perfect condition while the rest of his team were furloughed; Greig, the pro, and Ally, his assistant, and the other staff who run the courses and clubhouse. Knowing them, I can’t imagine it ever crossed their minds what an important role they played in providing me and others such a welcome oasis amid the grim reality of a pandemic.

The parkland courses are situated in the basin between the Ochil Hills and East and West Lomond, on the banks of Loch Leven, which is world famous for its brown trout. The tree-lined fairways are home to red squirrels, roe deer, buzzards, sparrow hawks, and even the odd pine marten. The scenery in every direction is the stuff of picture postcards. As I write this, the palette of leafy greens is turning auburn as the beech trees strip for the brutal winter ahead. Playing in silence, albeit enforced, only helped me to appreciate them more.

In my 40 years on the planet, I had never afforded myself time to take a philosophical view of the game, but there has been acreage in the calendar of late to ponder things — among them, the freedom, happiness and optimism that golf brings. Despite the volatile nature of my game, the smell of freshly cut grass and the mellifluous swoosh of the wind through Scots pine has been my medicine over these last eight months. Two courses that I know like the back of my hand have provided a holistic remedy for my troubles.

In my opinion, there is no better distraction for the ills of the mind than being in the great outdoors. The next time you’re cursing a shanked lob wedge into the depths of uncharted territory, I’d recommend tuning out from the sting of humiliation and instead sucking up a deep breath of that fresh air. Listen for the call of the wood pigeon that would normally disturb your putt for double-bogey and enjoy it. Embrace each second of the wider experience. Golf is the cure, friends, not the disease. And getting your handicap down isn’t a bad side-effect either.

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