The Secrets of Islay (if you’re looking for a copy, try AbeBooks) is not a golf book. It features golf, but it is one man’s effort to tell a story of life. A man, from all appearances, davincian in nature, with an uncommon combination of drive and diversity. According to the bookseller,
The story begins with seven people enjoying a single malt tasting in a distillery on Islay, a small Gaelic-speaking community in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Their challenge is to solve the puzzle, “quid est veritas.” One of the group, Caballo Blanco, a re-invented version of the original, has an idea that might unearth answers: to stage a golf tournament and marathon on the island. The golf and marathon are successful but do the seven find the answers?
Robert Kroeger pursues each of the ambitions outlined in The Secrets of Islay. He is a former officer in the US Navy, a retired dentist, a long-distance runner, an accomplished golfer and (one supposes!) an aficionado of single-malt whisky, the water of life of the island of Islay.
What to make of this brief tome (some 155 pages) on running, golf and whiskey? Well, they all take a back seat to the coastal Scottish island called Islay and pronounced EYE-lah. The Secrets of Islay is about the pronounced history of a land and its people. It is about simple human interaction and it is about the epiphanies of a man not yet long in the tooth, but getting there. There is an urgency to the tale, told through the eyes and voice of Caballo Blanco, a pseudonym whose identity might (and might not) reveal itself between the front and back covers.
Rather than choose the dry and intellectual, third-person voice of scholars, Kroeger elects a first-person narrative, usually posing the tale as a conversation between two principal characters (there are many.) It won’t take long to determine that these conversations would never take place as cinema verite exchanges, but that would be to miss the point. The ultimate desire of the characters and the author is to determine truth, in the manner that all of us who age crave its identity. We wish to know truth and to pass it on to our descendants. Truth, though, is unique to each of us, so how much weight one’s own truth carries for another is hard to determine.
Caballo Blanco succeeds in establishing a real-world golf tournament and marathon, a singular biathlon, for Islay. It is his contribution to the truth of a people he admires, for whom he has great affection. Symbols of the biathlon and the island’s heritage are seen below.
And what does the reader learn? The reader learns of the Machrie, an 18-hole golf course with an abundance of blind shots over its many yards. Not usually the cup of tea of Americans, the blind shot is an essential metaphor for those who take risks and challenge the unknown. Gathered, too, is an understanding of the storied tale of single-malt whisky and the distilleries that dot the island. Finally, the challenges and fortitude of the long-distance runner are laid bare for the tyro to understand.
If there is a flaw to the book, it is found in the reaction of the narrator to the successes of others. Three characters undergo tremendous epiphanies and life-altering decisions, yet their revelations are met in a matter-of-fact manner. They deserve better. Other sufferings are related in a similar fashion. Perhaps this is how a scientist and military officer is trained to deal with such circumstances, and can be understood if not forgiven.
I recommend that you purchase a copy of The Secrets of Islay through this link. Proceeds support the secondary school on the island. The book might (and should) inspire you to visit (if you are able) the Scottish highlands and this fabled island in the Inner Hebrides. As you read, you’ll doubtless come across the words of poet A. Gilmour (seen below) on the subject of golf revisited after a winter’s interruption. They are as close to a golfer’s Carrick Fergus as any I’ve read:
Gae bring to me my clubs ance mair,
Gae, caddie, bring them fast,
For winter snaws are past and gane
And spring has come at last
For weel I lo’e the game, my lads,
That’s played down by the sea,
On breezy links and benty knows,
Oh! That’s the game for me.
We’ll drink success to Scotia’s game
Wi’ a’ the honours three.