Interview with Jim Hartsell:

Author of The Secret Home of Golf. Contributor to The Links Diary & Golfers Journal.

We interview Jim Hartsell, author of The Secret Home of Golf (the creation of Sweetens Cove) and contributor to The Links Diary and Golfers Journal. A native of Alabama, US, Jim has been seeking golf adventures in Scotland for almost 30 years and his passion for golf, Scotland and writing provides some great stories and insights. We talk about his beginning in golf, what makes Scotland special as he recounts his various trips to the lesser known courses in Scotland and his love of Scottish golf.

FG: So I understand that you are from a family of golfers, what age did you start to play?

 

JH: Yeah, my father, Uncles and my grandfather, they all played and we just you know, from the time I can remember I just played golf with my Dad. He started that and you know, it’s just something we all did. We’d play golf on holidays; it’s always been a central part of what we did and that continues…my Dad is 78 but he still plays and we get out once a month.

 

FG: Which was your first regular course that you played?

 

JH: Well that's a good question, I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, which had several public courses, and there's a public Course called Roebuck, which is right downtown, and that's where I remember playing the most, I remember my grandfather every Sunday afternoon would take me out to play. I mean, that went on for years. I can remember doing that when I was five and six, seven years old. And that's where we played.

 

We were a little bit lucky, I mean, we had we had three or four places we could play and, you know, there’s not much of that now in the bigger cities, fully public, pay your money and get in line…no tee times. And you know, you learn a lot playing on courses like that, more so than private courses and I have nothing against private courses. I've played certainly my share of them over the years and enjoy it, but I do have a soft spot for public courses.

  

FG: And this leads us nicely to a question we have, what is the difference between golf in Scotland and golf in the US, what was the thing that struck you most on your first trip to Scotland? What really stood out?

 

JH: Oh man, I can write a book about that…actually I am writing a book about that! I was fascinated by links golf, Scottish golf in particular from the time I was a kid and the first time we came over, which was about 27, 28 years ago my Dad and I came. And he we had always talked about doing it, and I've just gotten out of college, and he said “You know, let's go”. I said to him I only want to play the Old Course. You can go wherever else you want, I don't care. So, we got to St. Andrews, got in the queue early and managed to get a tee time.

"we got up at 4am, were the first in line and got paired with a couple of guys and managed to tee off at 8.30am and had the time of our lives."

FG: So, I think I read somewhere as well that I think you queued up from 4:00 a.m?

 

JH: We did, we couldn’t get a time for the Old Course, you had to apply in advance, something like the September the year before to get a tee time, but we missed that deadline. So, we got up at 4am, we were the first in line and got paired with a couple of guys and managed to tee off at 8.30am and had the time of our lives. It's worth it, and I'll tell everybody that goes to Scotland, you know, to play there at least once. There's really nothing else like it. I’ve never played another course that you can compare to the old course.

 

FG: And would you say it's more the history of it or is it the actual course and how it plays?

 

I think it's the course and how it plays out. It's both, but the course is very unusual. I've struggled to find one that flies the way that it does. And it's so good. But the history, too. You know, when you're standing out there on the 11th and the caddie starts talking about Bobby Jones doing this or, you know, Walter Hagan doing something or, James Braid and you get chills a little bit.

 

FG: Where else did you get to play on that 1st trip?

 

JH: We played Carnoustie, and we played a lot of courses that most American’s hadn’t heard of. I wanted to experience the more unknown Scottish places too. To answer your question about the difference to golf in the US, I guess golf is just more democratic in Scotland. The game, it’s more of a way of life, more of a framework for life in many places…the clubs are the core, central part of the community.

 

I can remember on one trip we stayed at Machrihanish for a week, we’d eat every night in the clubhouse, I'd always wound up talking to people about the course and about where they lived and what the course meant to them, you know, it's just interesting. You'd get through playing and walk in to get a pint or something, and inevitably somebody would want to know how you played or what you thought about the course or what you thought about the weather. For somebody like me who loves golf and loves talking about it and writing about it, to have that level of interest from just a regular game of golf, I mean it’s just amazing…I can keep going.

 

"But I just remember, you know, they're just like saying “putt and get out of here. What are you doing?"

The pace of play is just so great. I can remember that first trip, being paired up with a couple of guys and they were just flying around the course, and we were keeping up with them, but I remember we had to wait for just like a minute or two on the tee and they just started whistling at the people on the green, in America, that would not happen. I mean, somebody would have to really freeze up and lock things up for somebody to say something. But I just remember, you know, they're just like saying, “putt and get out of here. What are you doing?”

 

And the clubhouses, they’re so good, for the most part understated and just perfect for what you want. And the courses so different, I mean I can keep going and going on but to sum it up, they way golf is in Scotland, it’s just the fabric of life.

 

FG: So it’s clear that you really see that the people and the culture define golf in Scotland, I guess you’ve had a warm welcome during your visits?

 

JH: The people, they are extremely friendly, and I have met so many people over the years that I am still friends with. I've got some good friends in Scotland now. I mean, I just wrote a story that just came out in The Links Diary about this caddy at Prestwick, Chris McBride, who has carried there for 42 years. And you know, I met him by chance when I was there 25 years ago and he just happened to be the caddie that day and we just hit it off, but I mean everywhere I go I just meet so many friendly people, particularly on the smaller courses I like to go too.

 

I can remember being at this place, Isle of Seil Golf Club, and I was the only one out there and it was early in the morning I got around about the fourth hole when this member was just out there hitting chip shots. And he was just out there practicing before he went to work and we wound up talking for 20 minutes about the course and finding out that he and his two of his friends actually take care of the course as they didn’t have a greenskeeper, I love that kind of stuff. There is just an interest in the course from the members and locals, everybody, they want to know what I thought, or did I enjoy it or what was my favourite hole or what did I think about this hole and I just love that, how proud people are of their particular course and how much it means to them.

 

But going back to the well-known courses, I’ve played Muirfield, Turnberry, the big ones and being able to play on courses that have hosted Open Championships, Ryder Cups. For Muirfield, the first time I played, this was before the internet was just starting and you had to write a letter to the club to ask to play, which I loved, I’ve still got the letters that they sent back to me, it was a bit of a process, but we got to play. I think they allowed guests on a Tuesday and Thursday. I mean a club of that stature and magnitude, that you can get to play it. That's another difference between the U.S and Scotland, I mean, you 're just never going to get that. If you wrote Augusta a letter, they wouldn't even open it for one thing.

 

FG: You mentioned Machrihanish Golf Club and it seems you’ve spent quite a lot of time on the west part of Scotland. Are there any courses that you haven't played that you’ve really love to play?

 

JH: I’ve made seven trips to Scotland, and I'm trying to think of a place that I have not played. Well, there is a few. OK, there's a few! This last trip, I really love the West Coast, the Western islands it’s just heaven as far as I'm concerned. I managed to play a lot of different places during the last trip, but I didn't get to play Isle of Harris or Askernish, it was due to covid and the ferries got screwed up. There is also the Boat of Garden I really want to play. I drove past it and stopped briefly and thought, man, this looks like my kind of place.

"we walked up and they had an honesty box and he said, well it’s £10 to play or you can join for £60 at the hotel. Well, I said, I’m going to join for sixty!"

But I did manage to play another course which managed to make up for missing those ones, Colonsay, which I hadn’t planned. It was just magnificent, 18 holes that seems unchanged liked playing golf from the 1750’s, it was just so much fun. There was only 1 hotel on the island, a great hotel. I’ll never forget that. I had my friend Robbie with me and we walked up and they had an honesty box and he said, well it’s £10 to play or you can join for £60 at the hotel. Well, I said, I’m going to join for sixty! After I’d seen the first hole from the view
where we walked up, the ruggedness of the course and seeing the coast, there is just something really good about it.

 

And there’s another one, Arran is another of my favourite spots, 7 courses, Corrie, Machrie Bay…I’m actually writing a story about Machrie Bay right now. It just seems that side of the country I fell in love with since my first trip, although I do like the other areas of Scotland, the west part is where I spend most of my time.

 

FG: To pick up on the thread of writing about Machrie Bay, how did you get into golf writing and all the projects you’ve worked on?

 

JH: Well, I'd always wanted to do it, and I started several times writing stuff. I mean, I can remember. Writing three or four pages of something, and wondering, Is this any good? I don't know about six years ago or so, I thought. I'm just going to start doing this and I started out just doing my own blog about stuff and just writing about some about places I've been in Scotland and Sweetens Cove a little bit which I've written this book about recently, just other stuff. I mean, I actually think I wrote a story about what you were talking about, the differences between UK and American golf. I started sending stories to people, to publications, and, you know, I didn't make much progress at first, didn’t get many responses and it was discouraging but I thought, you know, I'm going to keep doing this because I had sent some stuff to friends that gave me positive feedback, like this is really good, you know, you need to keep doing this.

 

I really give a lot of credit to The Links Diary. I’d sent some material to Golfers Journal, I wasn’t really getting anywhere but as soon as I sent some stories to The Links Diary, they just loved it and they said, we would love for you to write for us and now I’m writing my 4th story.

 

I’ve always felt I had a talent for it and have been collecting golf books since I was a kid, I mean I’ve still got books I bought when I was 10 or 11 years old and it’s just something that always fascinated me. And now I’ve been lucky to write my own book about Sweetens Cove which has been pretty well received, but even with this book, I thought it was good and I sent it to a couple of places and didn’t much of a response, but I just met this guy, somewhat ironically on the course at Sweetens Cove who was just starting his own publishing company and my book became his first publication. It’s difficult for new writers to get deals with the big publishing companies.

 

But I do think we are in a golden age of golf writing, with Golfers Journal, The Links Diary and McKeller Magazine. If you like good golf writing, this is a good time for it. Writing is something special and the reactions you get from what you create…I mean I just got this message from Chris McBride (the caddy at Prestwick) and it almost moved me to tears. So, it makes it all worth it. 

 

FG: That’s great and you are right, there is a golden age of writing and social media platforms have helped democratise and allow a wider distribution of creative content and writing.

 

JH: You know, that’s so right. I left a part out, I actually started writing for No Laying Up before that, for their website, and I’m still rooting for them, they have such a great reach in golf so that really helped in the social media world. I’m still writing for them continuing the Scotland series…I’ve got to work on the next instalment. They’ve been great and they love Scottish golf too. These platforms help writers get stuff out there, that would never have happened 20 years ago to your point. But you know, I just love reading and writing and I still like getting real books and I'm sitting here staring at them. I don't even know how many hundreds of books I have.

 

FG: Staying on the subject of books, which golf books would you recommend? Books that have inspired you.

 

JH: Well, my number one book would be ‘To The Linksland’ by Michael Bamberger. It’s just a classic and this written around 30 years ago. It’s how I learned about Machrihanish. I got that book not long after getting out of college. People hadn’t really written about that course before, on anything I had seen and that’s really how I planned my first trip to Scotland, based on this book. And it's really about him. He's a young writer, and I think he wrote for the Philadelphia newspaper, and he decided to take a year off work and go caddy on the European tour. He goes and carries for this guy called Peter Teravainen, a player from the US and a real character. So, the first half of the book is really about that, but then he decides after the season of touring to go to Scotland to play the famous courses but also goes and play Machrihanish, Cruden Bay and that’s how I got know these courses. 

 

I would recommend this book to everyone. The new book that I'm writing now, I would have to say, is loosely patterned after this book.

 

FG: Changing the subject to sustainability in golf, traction is gaining in Scotland and the UK and with COP26 and organisations such as Sustainable Golf driving change in course management, it would be interesting to hear about what is happening in the US, particularly as you are also an architect so will have an educated point of view on this area.

 

JH: I think it is gaining traction slowly. I don't think it's as well accepted or thought out as it is in the UK and Scotland in particular. I mean, I found Scotland to be a very environmentally conscious country, you know, you see all the wind power and just I think people are conscious of it and understanding what’s happening. The courses here (the US)
are more environmentally friendly than they used to be, I think people are starting to accept that, you know, you don't have to use as much water, you don't have to use as much land. You know that so much of the 80’s and 90’s and the 2000’s with The Tiger boom created these massive retail real estate development courses that are just really built for housing. It's half a mile from one hole to the next. I just cannot stand that stuff. Some of the architects are understanding people want to walk and you don’t want to be half a mile from the green to the next tee.

 

I keep going back to Scotland, but I mean, how many places are there where you take three steps from the green and you're on the next tee. In some cases maybe hitting over the green that you that you just played. I know a couple of golf course architects and they do consider these things when they're designing as opposed to 20, 30 years ago where people didn't even think about it. So I think it's in everybody's mind and they are thinking about how is this place going to be? You know, it's one thing for it to be here, but somebody's going to take care of it. And how are they going to be able to take care of it? And what is the environmental footprint
of it?

"I mean, think about this. This is one of my favourite things about golf. You walk 18 holes of golf with somebody, now it may not always work out this way, but you're going to find out a lot about them"

FG: It's a great story that you met the person on at the golf course that published your book, and I think that's also a bit of a symbol for how you meet people and what golf does to connect people.

 

JH: I mean, think about this. This is one of my favourite things about golf. You walk 18 holes of golf with somebody, now it may not always work out this way, but you're going to find out a lot about them and, you know, you might wind up connecting in some way, I mean, you know, one of my best friends now, Robbie Wilson, lives in Scotland. We wound up playing Dunaverty together and kept in touch and been great friends since. On this last visit we played 10 rounds together. Golf is just great for meeting people.

 

FG: Changing the subject to sustainability in golf, traction is gaining in Scotland and the UK and with COP26 and organisations such as Sustainable Golf driving change in course management, it would be interesting to hear about what is happening in the US, particularly as you are also an architect so will have an educated point of view on this area.

 

JH: I think it is gaining traction slowly. I don't think it's as well accepted or thought out as it is in the UK and Scotland in particular. I mean, I found Scotland to be a very environmentally conscious country, you know, you see all the wind power and just I think people are conscious of it and understanding what’s happening. The courses here (the US)
are more environmentally friendly than they used to be, I think people are starting to accept that, you know, you don't have to use as much water, you don't have to use as much land.

 

You know that so much of the 80’s and 90’s and the 2000’s with The Tiger boom. You know, you have these massive retail real estate development courses that are just really built for housing. It's half a mile from one hole to the next . I just cannot stand that stuff . Some of the architects our understanding people want to walk and you don’t want to be half a mile from the green to the next tee. I keep going back to Scotland, but I mean, how many places are there where you take three steps from the green and you're on the next tee. In some cases maybe hitting over the green that you that you just played.

 

I know a couple of golf course architects and they do consider these things when they're designing as opposed to 20, 3 years ago where people didn't even think about it. So I think it's in everybody's mind and they are thinking about what, how is this place going to be? You know, it's one thing for it to be here, but somebody's going to take care of it. And how are they going to be able to take care of it? And what is the environmental footprint
of it?

"And I have to admit I love a pint of Tennents"

FG: So to our final question: Obviously you have an affinity with Scotland in general, What else about Scotland, apart from the golf and people, have you grown fond of?

 

JH: Well, this is something that I try to tell people, I don't know how this happened over the years, you know, Scotland used to have this reputation that the food was bad. I don't know that I've ever had a bad meal in Scotland. That the food is incredible. I mean, you know, everybody, every place you go in to eat, not every place, but I mean, you know, if I had to book a table almost everywhere, you're almost always going to get just really great service and good food. And it's all kind of local. I just I love the food over there.

 

I love the hotels in Scotland which has some of the most incredible little country hotels, and It's hard for me to narrow it down, but the Corrie hotel on Arran was just perfect. To spend an evening there is great, I went down and sat in the bar and talked to the bartender for about two hours, and they had my table ready every night from then on in...always so friendly. It was just the perfect hotel on the water. The old school hotels where the person checking you in also serves you at the bar. I found so many good ones on this last trip.

 

And I have to admit I love a pint of Tennents. You know it’s something I really miss over here as you can’t really get it in the US.

The Secret Home of Golf is the recounting of how a new, bold nine-hole course in rural Tennessee was created by King-Collins Golf, a then unknown and untested golf course design-build firm, and went on to become listed as one of the top 60 Modern Courses by Golfweek magazine. Twists and turns, a warming story on the trials and tribulations of creating a new golf course against the odds. Available at Back Nine Press.