All of a sudden, golf has begun to impinge on my life. It's nothing to worry about, really - I haven't started to play it or anything exaggerated like that. It's merely that I find myself, for the first time, surrounded by the game: an island, as it were, in a veritable sea of golf courses. Even one's immediate neighbors are golfers. . . .
I suppose this is to be expected if one comes to live in Scotland. After all, here is the seat and mecca of golfing, the land of its fathers. It is no longer easy to overlook it. Scarcely can we travel ten miles in any compass direction from home without encountering at least one tract of undulant countryside scrupulously tended and coddled and kempt and dotted with people deeply concerned with stance and swing, with putting and sinking. Solemnity reigns. Even their club-laden trollies wait respectfully nearby, like butlers who watch but at the same time appear not to watch.
My previous unconsciousness of golf has hardly been deliberate; and it certainly didn't arise from opposition. How can one be against something that provides such obvious leisure and pleasure to countless fellow human beings? It's just that golf has always been something others do. Apparently it is inherent. ''Are you a golfer?'' they ask. ''No,'' you reply, never thinking for a moment that choice or preference might have something to do with it. To an outsider the game is a remote, and probably inherited, mystery.
I have cycled once or twice past our nearest 18-holer, and gazed fascinated at them as they rove, the persuaded ones, like beings of another order, enchanted by the felicities of a great green illusion. The rest of the world is forgotten. Time ambles. Underfoot is the freshly mown turf, lush and softly sprinkled and weedless. Overhead the azure expanses. In front the fairway and the seventh green. Sigh. Decisionmaking is confined to little more than the selection of a No. 3 or a No. 4 iron. Greatness is to sink a 15-foot putt. Tragedy is to play consistently over par.
Or at least I think that's what tragedy is. The thing that perhaps troubles the outsider more than anything else is that while the basic principles of the sport are not too hard to grasp (''Golf's purpose'' says the encyclopedia, ''is to hit a ball from tee to cup in the fewest possible strokes''), the lingo is about as clear to the uninitiated as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. I mean - here, at random, are a couple of sentences from the golfing column of the ''Scotsman'':
''The Duddingston professional, Jim Farmer, strolled to a three-shot win with a score of 134. . . . He went to the turn in level par and though he dropped two shots in his back nine, his 71 gave him a cushion for victory.''
It sounds glorious enough, but its meaning to me is as slippery as rain off a roof.
My wife is a Scot, and in search of some enlightenment I asked her if she happened to know, for instance, what a ''birdie'' is. ''A birdie,'' she proffered with a chuckle, ''in the hand is worth two in the bush.'' I felt this was without doubt profoundly true, but wasn't sure it would help my game.
Actually, in spite of her nationality, she is no more of a golfophile than I. The nearest we come to the game is a sudden annual bout of outrageous farce on the miniature putting green (though ''brown'' would be more accurate) at Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow's West End. The going here, under the trees, is of the roughest, and the 10th hole is, I believe, unattainable. This is because it is situated on a steep slope of solid and smoothly worn earth over which a ball rolls with a passable imitation of perpetual motion. Nothing stops it until it comes to final and distant rest down among the cheerful bunch of Glasgow lads elaborately negotiating the 11th hole.
The occasional blade of grass in the vicinity would help, perhaps, to check its flow, or even a dandelion might provide a foothold. But this is the Annapurna of the golf world, and ball-crampons are not provided. Personally, I believe that Nicklaus, Palmer, even entire Ryder Cup teams, would abandon attempts at Hole 10, Kelvingrove Park, and retire from the game weeping. (We, of course, don't mind so much, and are simply brought low by exasperated laughter.)
So there it is: One is aware, as never before, of golf; but it remains as enigmatic and incomprehensible as ever. How on earth does anyone find time to play it, for a start? And there are other enigmas: How, for example, can you tell if you are indulging in match play or stroke play? How do you ever learn to distinguish between an eagle and a gobble, a dormie and a dog-leg, a cleek and a baffie, or a baffie and a niblick? How can you be sure you are faced with a hazard (which can be removed) or a natural impediment (which can't) (or is it the other way round?)? What is the correct procedure when confronted with casual water? Can anyone tell me the difference between a tee and a caddie? Above all, have I, or have I not, got a cushion for victory?