last night a golf club saved my life
A View from Inside the Ropes at Nairn Golf Club by Michael McAllan PGA Professional.
Paraphrasing the 1983 dance tune by one-hit wonders ‘Indeep’ might seem a little dramatic to some, but it came really close to the truth - especially in a professional sense.
After nine very successful but hectic years as Head Professional at a nearby members club I was fairly ‘done’ – the last couple of years had been particularly rough.
Running any business is stressful. Employing people is stressful.
We were open 363 days a year and I didn’t/couldn’t switch off for literally the whole nine years I was at the club. Even holidays were a write off. I was at a good club, and I had an amazing time building the business completely from scratch but it took its toll. My mental and physical health were suffering. I couldn’t be the father or husband that I wanted to be. I had stopped enjoying a job that I had been aspiring to ever since turning professional 21 years prior. I felt lost. I was completely worn out and really needed a break.
I wound up the business and finished up at the end of October 2021. I took six months out to regroup and enjoyed some amazing (and much needed) family time. I slowly but surely sketched out some rough plans for the future whilst making new contacts.
"I was at a good club, and I had an amazing time building the business completely from scratch but it took its toll."
The harsh reality was dawning that I would probably never work in golf again. It turned out I was wrong.
Towards the end of my “time out” I caught COVID-19, forcing me to lock myself away from my family for 10 days. I kept myself busy during isolation with podcasts and films. It was also in this period that I started to get a little of my golfing mojo back. I took the time to connect with some interesting and inspiring golf industry people. One such conversation ultimately led to me being offered a new role in the Scottish Highlands which I gladly accepted, and I started at Nairn Golf Club in Spring 2022. This is where my story of regeneration begins.
Nairn is a phenomenal championship links. With its stunning vista over the Moray Firth to the lights of the Black Isle, it always provides a spectacular golfing experience - but it also an amazing workplace. As part of the small Golf Operations Team based in the Pro Shop, I think I may have struck gold. I get the best of both worlds. A major part of my role is to provide a warm welcome to the many golfers who arrive to play this historic course. Conversations with our visitors often revolve around their pure excitement at being in Nairn, where it sits in their tour schedule and how much they are looking forward to their round. I’ll explain how old the club is (founded in 1887) and talk about the talented hands who have created and moulded the course they’ll play: Andrew Simpson, Morris, Braid, Sayers, Mackenzie and Ebert. I am pretty gregarious, and I love engaging with people so to be able to do this daily in a golf environment is a joy. It just so happens that I get to do it for a living!
"moving to Nairn has truly resurrected my love of all things ‘Linksy’"
The legendary Old Tom Morris and James Braid may well be the highest profile names on that list, but Andrew Simpson of Aberdeen and the diminutive Ben Sayers of North Berwick were also vital contributors in the creation of the course. However, upgrading work that Mackenzie and Ebert carried out in the last 5-6 years has been pivotal in taking this historical links to the level we see today. Tree removal, repositioning and remodelling the first and seventh greens and surrounds, a complete overhaul of all of the fairway bunkering to improve visibility and definition are just some of the successful improvements that are now fully complete and have matured nicely.
The most interesting change for me is perhaps the subtle softening of the slopes on the split-level ‘Biarritz’ green on our spectacular par 3 14th hole. The character of the original slopes and breaks was retained but the whole green surface was lifted, and the severe slopes tempered to offer a multitude of new pin positions which simply weren’t previously possible. An outstanding piece of work to create one of the best greens in Scotland. I have always had a keen interest in golf architecture and a deep appreciation of Links golf stemming from regular visits to venues like Gullane and Moray Golf Clubs during my University days. Representing Napier University Golf Team in inter-uni matches on Gullane 2 and 3 and at the Scottish University Championships up in Lossiemouth with my superbly eclectic bunch of team-mates was brilliant fun and very different to my parkland golf roots in Linlithgow.
Getting the opportunity to work at one of the top traditional Scottish golf links courses, one of the world’s best original links, is a dream come true. The years spent mastering the tight turf and creating the lower ball flights required to counter the winds (and the RAF Jets at Moray) made me a much better golfer overall but moving to Nairn has truly resurrected my love of all things ‘Linksy’. I have a voracious appetite to learn more every day and small interactions such as bending the ear of Course Manager Richie Ewen about our walkway grass types gives me a buzz that had been dormant during my busy Head Pro years.
A view back to the clubhouse
In the Pro Shop the well-known, and perhaps even the less well-known, names on the Walker Cup and Curtis Cup boards behind our till commemorating the club hosting the events in 1999 and 2012 are regular talking points. GB and Ireland won both matches. Our tongue-in-cheek apologies to our visitors from the USA are always well received. The discussion will sometimes lead to the incredible comeback victory by Englishman Laird Shepherd in the final of the Amateur Championship we held in 2021. Both winner AND runner up are now honorary members and the R&A YouTube video of the final is still getting hits. Legends of the game in Scotland: Willie Auchterlonie, John Panton, Eric Brown, Jessie Valentine, Belle Robertson, Ronnie Shade and Colin Montgomerie all adorn our champions boards in the clubhouse. We take great pleasure in describing the intrigue and history lying behind the large number of important championships and events hosted on the property.
I love the fact that I hail from the same area in Scotland as multiple Ryder-Cupper and prolific tournament winner Eric Brown. As a young golfer I even won the very same Linlithgowshire Under-16’s County Championship that he won. Intriguingly enough the trophy is called the Walker Cup. I guess that makes both of us Walker Cup winners! I never, ever shy away from rolling this particular story out to pretty much anyone in earshot. Sage advice and words of wisdom on how golfers should approach the round ahead are always welcomed (left is good), and we will sometimes guide them to our fabulous short Cameron Course (One of the best views of the course can be found on the elevated 7th tee of the Cameron.), or more often to our excellent driving range, when they have time.
The Archive Room and a young Montgomorie lifting the Scottish Amateur Championship trophy in '87
Visiting golfers regularly and understandably express an interest in seeing more of Nairn’s golfing heritage, and we will happily arrange a post-round tour of our impressive Archive Room. The room is situated in the newest part of our clubhouse, passing directly through our beautiful Bulmer Room which serves as a fine board room / meeting room. As a refreshing demonstration of how proud the membership is of the history of the club, senior club officials will regularly and happily pause meetings in the Bulmer to allow tours to continue seamlessly into the Archive! It is my favourite part of the job. I personally learn something new with every single visit. I love to pick the brains of our members and ask about their favourite pieces on display.
Amongst my own favourite artefacts are a putter that Ben Hogan generously gifted to our old Assistant Pro Jimmy Adams after playing against him in the Ryder Cup. I have learned that Mr Hogan was impressed by Jimmy’s shot-making during the event but recognised he needed some help on the greens, hence the gifting of the more
contemporary putter. I also love the original handwritten books of minutes from club council meetings dating back to 1887, the examples of members ‘suggestions’ to club council accompanied by the often curt but hugely entertaining council responses and the impressive collection of beautifully restored golf equipment donated by members and friends of the club. It is also an absolute pleasure to see the joy and wonder on people’s faces when they realise what a Sabbath Stick looks like. All golfers who visit should ask for a tour – they will never be disappointed in this remarkable feature.
The bothy and ice house, a halfway house like no other.
Post-round conversations with golfers inevitably turn to the favourite holes played, the great companionship and advice meted out by both our wonderful starters and excellent local caddies and visits paid to our fascinating and perfectly-placed Fisherman’s Bothy halfway house. New friendships are forged, and lasting connections are made. The warmth and the positive feedback we receive is special and it makes the whole team’s efforts so very worthwhile. Nairn’s visitor experience is further enhanced when they meet and spend time with our membership. Since starting work here, what has struck me most about our members is just how much they enjoy being associated with the place.
An often used phrase is that Nairn is a really great course and it is an even better club. In 20-plus years of working in the golf industry it is like nothing I have witnessed before. Nairn members simply love being members of their club. They are also very open and always happy to share this and often a post-round pint or glass of Kummel with visiting golfers. Members will happily step in at busy times and host Archive Room tours themselves, giving their own personal slant on the abundant history of this club and picking out their own, perhaps less obvious favourite artefacts.
"The spirit of the place is contagious and it has given me my own golf buzz back in spades"
2003 US Masters Runner-up Len Mattiace and his brother Ken with starter Gordon and myself
It is not uncommon to hear examples of all these experiences from successive groups of visiting golfers, who will casually remark on the obvious enjoyment we all share in working and playing at Nairn Golf Club. It is often said that if you find a job you really enjoy, you will never work a day in your life but I’m on the next level. I can honestly say that I love my job and I am wholeheartedly reaping the benefits. The spirit of the place is contagious and it has given me my own golf buzz back in spades. The old stresses have gone. My family are enjoying having me ‘back’. I am rejuvenated and I cannot wait to see what lies around the corner for me at Nairn.
It’s a wonderful thing. Life-saving, almost.
Words & Pictures by Michael McAllan.