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Utah’s beauty, culture exposed to golfers from Scotland in Friendship Cup final at Sand Hollow

Golfers from St. Andrews and Carnoustie lose to Utahns in America vs. Scotland Friendship Cup competition

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Kenny Niven, the greenskeeper at St. Andrews and a member of the Scottish contingent competing in southern Utah this week.

Kenny Niven, the greenskeeper at St. Andrews and a member of the Scottish contingent competing in southern Utah this week, chips onto a green at Sand Hollow in Hurricane, Washington County.

Randy Dodson, Fairways Media

HURRICANE, Washington County — While the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II was lying-in-state in Edinburgh, Scotland, before being taken to London, a dozen amateur golfers from Scotland, many of whom live near Edinburgh’s Palace of Holy Roodhouse, were at Sand Hollow Resort in Utah to compete in the Friendship Cup, a Ryder Cup-type competition with players from Utah.

The Scots spoke in hallowed tones of the legendary monarch, but they also had golf to play in Utah and had planned on this trip for months, some for years. These players were actually in the air flying to America when word came that she died and her casket was viewed at St. Giles Cathedral in The Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

Team Sand Hollow defeated Team St. Andrews 25.5 to 15.5 after singles finished on Tuesday. Most of the participants were involved in a Charity Cup match on Wednesday. The first part of this match was played in Scotland in June.

This is the second time the Scots have made the trip to Utah as Utahns reciprocated earlier by playing in Scotland in June. The biggest part of the event, dreamed up and created by Utah natives Mark Leavitt and Dave Wilkey, is organic natural diplomacy and brotherhood created between the group of Americans and Scots.  

To witness it firsthand is amazing. It’s like strangers becoming brothers over a love of golf. It has become binding, remarkably natural, and a very deep connection.

“This trip has been fantastic, just like our trip here before,” said Rod Sturrock, captain of the Scottish contingent, currently the official starter at St. Andrews Golf Club, the birthplace of golf.

Kenny Niven, the greenskeeper at St. Andrews, said he was blown away by the friendliness and welcoming of the people of Utah — everywhere they went — from Ogden Country Club to Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon national parks and Sand Hollow.

“Now, I’m not the greens superintendent at St. Andrews. I’m just the greenskeeper,” warned Niven when I asked to interview him. He works 16 hours a day with a landscaping business on the side.

The first thing Niven said he will remember about this trip is the friends he’s made, the people he’s met.

“I couldn’t believe how we’ve been treated in Utah. You see someone with a bunch of tattoos and you think you are meeting a hard or rough character stereotype and they turn out to be the warmest, kind people you’ve ever met. The friendliness of the people and the relationships I’ve made here is what I’ll remember most — that and the beautiful land here.”

Niven said he was stunned that Utahns he’s played with in Ogden showed up at Sand Hollow to play the match. “That’s a lot of driving in a car. We’d never do that in Scotland, drive 400 miles to golf. That’s like driving from Edinburgh to Birmingham, England. Unheard of, really.”

In Scotland, golfers are used to walking to the course, walking the whole course and then walking home. Few ever ride in carts, which they call buggies or trolleys.

“I played 27 holes today,” said Niven, “And I rode in a buggy. I was completely knackered when I finished today. Must have been the desert.”

Team Sand Hollow captain Rob Despain, a former Weber State golfer who has played in two British Amateurs, said he was impressed with the great respect the Scots have for the game their forefathers brought the world and the deep love they have for that game. 

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Team Sand Hollow captain Rob Despain, a former Weber State golfer who has played in two British Amateurs, hits a tee shot at Sand Hollow in Hurricane, Utah.

Randy Dodson, Fairways Media

Leaning over the clubhouse balcony rail at Ogden Country Club last Friday as bagpipe music from nearby students at Ben Lomond High welcomed the Scots, Despain welcomed the visitors by saying Ogden Country Club was founded over 100 years ago in 1914, “But it is nothing compared to what you have at St. Andrews, which is 400 years old. But welcome.” 

Despain said he loves the tradition the Scotsmen bring to golf.

“It’s all about preserving the game; sometimes we lose that perspective in America. With the Scots, we remember their heritage. They go out of their way to protect the game and it really hits a chord with me. They are not casual about the rules. They putt everything out, they obey the rules, they do things to preserve it for those coming behind them and make sure we understand the history. It’s been a treat, a history lesson. I feel I’ve enrolled in a St. Andrews history class playing golf with them.”

The Friendship Cup and its charities have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and led to the creation of the Ben Hogan Room at the Carnoustie clubhouse, in honor of Ben Hogan’s 1953 Open Championship victory. “Everyone should see it,” Despain said.

While both the Utahns and Scots want to win, the Friendship Cup stages a real sporting alliance and attachment that you can see in the flesh. There are high-fives, pounding knuckles, cheers and adoration of shots on both sides during play.

Niven said he’d never seen a landscape like Southern Utah and a course like Sand Hollow, carved out of the desert sand and rock with giant rock outcroppings around the fairways and greens, and the featured deep ravines etched in the landscape at both Sky Mountain and Sand Hollow.

It’s like they walked onto another planet.

“This has been spectacular,” said Lindsay Hamilton, a retired security software company CEO from Edinburgh and a member at Carnoustie, site of many Open Championships.

Hamilton said Niven is a guy who could never in his life be able to come to America and Utah but was a captain’s pick to join the group. He works 16 hours a day and is putting a daughter through college.

Niven said his trip to the U.S. has been amazing. “The people have been fantastic and the facilities and lifestyle here just phenomenal. Everyone is so relaxed and friendly. No one in our group has had one bad word or experience with anyone on this trip, which is almost impossible to say when you travel to another country or part of the world.”

“God bless Mark Leavitt for having the vision to make this happen,” said Despain. “It has deep roots now and it has really become something, seeing these connections and friendships.”

Leavitt, the brother of former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, created the event, a match play tournament where half is played on Scottish soil and the other half at Sand Hollow.

The Americans, who can afford it, foot the bill for transportation, lodging and food for the Scots to come to the states. “In return, what we get,” said Leavitt, “is access to their heritage, the history of golf and an enriching experience in Scotland. When we go over there, we don’t expect anything in return or want them to feel obligated, but they are so accommodating to us and are pleased to engage our players from Utah.”

That, without saying, includes helping their new friends find tee times, tour historic places at St. Andrews and other historic golf venues.

“They come and have big smiles on their faces,” said Hamilton. “For many of us, none could make this trip to the United States and experience what we have and we are grateful.”

Hamilton said what the Scots can offer their American friends is intimate firsthand experiences in Scotland, peeks into the inter sanctum of their land, heritage and history. Plus, tee times at some of the most storied golf venues in history.

Leavitt said what he loves about the golf clubs in Scotland compared to clubs in the states is that members in Scotland are comprised of many regular working folks, teachers, farmers, craftsmen, tradesmen, bankers and CEOs playing alongside one another for the love of golf. Country clubs in America generally have members who have resources and are the upper-crust of society. He loves how the Scots approach club golf — a game for all for the love of the game.

Despain first met Sturrock in 2014 and the gatekeeper at St. Andrews has treated him well, enabling him to play the Old Course several times. At the last Open Championship there, Sturrock walked the course with Despain and explained the dangers and best approaches.  “He flinched when someone would hit a shot where he knew how deep the trouble could be,” said Despain.

The friendship has endured and only received another layer this past week. When he beat Sturrock in a friendship round in Scotland, Sturrock presented him with a silver spoon, which deeply impacted Despain and he gets choked up about it.  

Sturrock was born in Dundee, Scotland, and explained a tie to Utah from his hometown. “The covered wagons used by the pioneers who came across the plains were built in Dundee.” 

Last Friday, the first time he’d seen Sturrock since Scotland, Despain presented Sturrock with a custom-made 1-of-1 Titleist sand wedge — it was a replica of the club Despain had hit on the shot that won the match.

Sturrock said he may soon retire as the starter at St. Andrews, where he works 50-hour weeks as the gatekeeper to the most famous golf course in the world, a layout on every serious golfer’s bucket list.

According to Google, golfers who want a tee time at St. Andrews can play their luck and have their names drawn in a ballot that takes place 48 hours in advance. Golfers need to provide their name, home club and handicap either online, by phone or at one of the clubhouses before 2 p.m. two days before their desired tee time.

Sturrock is in charge of seeing everything is done in proper order.

“I’m at the age I’ve got grandchildren and I want to spend time with them, golf more and travel. I can’t golf enough while I’m working those kind of hours,” said Sturrock.

In the realm of golf, if St. Andrews is the epitome of the experience, Sturrock just may have served as one of the most important people on the golf planet. 

And he’s been in Utah all week long with his American buddies.

“In Scotland, with golf, it’s all about who you know. It’s one of the most incestuous situations you can get in — who do you know,” laughed Hamilton, who is a member at St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Panmure Golf Club, where in 1953 Hogan practiced for the Open Championship, playing holes No. 6 and 7 over and over again. It was Hogan’s only trip to the United Kingdom.

A dozen Utah golfers, members from clubs around the state, just spent a week with the Scots, club captains of some of the most famous courses on the isle. If and when they go to Scotland, they’ll always be received as royalty of sorts.

How lucky are those guys?

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Friendship Cup 2022 captains Rod Sturrock and Rob Despain.

Randy Dodson, Fairways Media