Dominic Holland on why he chose to write about a guy playing The Open in a kilt

Ricky Randall is a journeyman professional golfer playing the final round of the Open Championship at Muirfield. It’s the most important round of his life, writes Dominic Holland.

But everything is against him: his kit, the course, and officialdom. Even his caddie is a no-show. Ricky is set to become the story of the Championship. No one watching can believe their eyes, with the exception of a young spectator, Ben. A boy who connects with our hero, something neither of them understand and have no chance to question.

An unfurling disaster becomes a sensation. A worldwide story that envelopes those on and off the course: frenzied journalists, a New York financier watching from afar, famous billionaires, and flummoxed golf pundits and commentators.

We spoke to Holland, to find out why he decided to write a book about golf (read an extract here), why he loves the game so much, and who might win in a scratch match between him and his Hollywood star son, Tom…

Read Dominic Holland's new novel about The Open Championship

Why golf, why The Open, and why now?

Blimey, where to start?

Golf is arguably the hardest sport of all, and this provides ample opportunities for tension, humour, and euphoria – perfect for a feel-good novel like Open Links.

And irrefutably, golf is the most beautiful sport.

“…few can argue against the beauty of the golf course. A manicured green carpet, sweeping and undulating away as far as the eye can see – and particularly stunning is the links course, covered in wet dew each morning with the ocean beyond and a single flag poking above the early morning mist.”

 And this also lends itself to fiction.

The Open is the oldest and most venerable golf tournament. A pal at my local club is attempting to qualify for The Open this year. He’ll be one of thousands of plus 1 amateurs, but who knows, if the Gods smile down and he plays to his capabilities, then he will get to tee it up with Rory, Jordan, and Tiger – players so famous they only need one name. This possibility is intoxicating and almost unique in sport. Akin to a great FA Cup run by a minnow, albeit without getting to Wembley.

Open Links was formerly published in 2014 for Anthony Nolan with little fanfare. But recently it was included in the Top 10 Golf Novels by another golf journal. High praise indeed and enough for me to rekindle the novel, complete with snazzy new cover, some updates to the manuscript, and some very kind endorsements from some of golf’s great and the good.

It’s a magical story but what inspired it?

Like all golfers, I am beholden to the shots that have us all returning to the course. Those infrequent shots which come out of the middle and would make even a pro smile. And I have long been seduced by the idea of what if a golfer’s allocation of these glory shots were all to congregate into one extraordinary round. What a comic story this might present. But rather than award this round to an amateur, what if it happened to a journeyman pro who has qualified for the greatest tournament of all – The Open Championship.

But from this kernel, I wanted the story to become much more than just a great round of golf. I wanted it to become bigger. Somehow, I wanted to contrive a round of golf and a set of circumstances that affected everyone around my hero as well as the man himself and with a euphoric conclusion that surprises and confounds all expectations.

What did people say when you told them you were writing a book about golf?

I didn’t tell many people and certainly not my wife.

“Hang on, let me get this straight, you play this game which takes blinking ages and now you want to write about it. What the f*** is wrong with you?”

Although golf fiction is a popular genre, there is an association that it is niche and nerdy. I disagree. Golf has its quirks and traditions which are easy to lampoon and is a fabulous backdrop for a comic novel.

Read Dominic Holland's new novel about The Open Championship

Where did you get the inspiration for the characters from?

My hero, Ricky Randall was easy to conjure up because we see such guys weekly on the tour. The CJ Cup this year (PGA Tour) was won by Taylor Penrith ($1.7m) pipping Ben Kohles, two guys probably none of us had ever heard of. This doesn’t happen in other sports. My favourite thing on tour is watching a debutant winner. Dale Whitnel, Tom McKibbin, Dan Bradbury…  All tour players are elite golfers. They can all shoot the lights out to win events and yet most will fall short, which is one of the unique and tantalising qualities of golf that Open Links draws on.

Another advantage of Open Links is being able to use real-life characters. The late great Peter Allis provides commentary to drive my story on. I was lucky to have met Peter on several occasions. Catching his pithy voice and peerless delivery was a pleasure. The same goes for players included who we all know and admire, from Rose and McIlroy, to even the great Tiger who deigns to give his opinion on this Ricky Randall journeyman who is leading all the sports bulletins.

Marshall is a character I needed to dream up. He has a pivotal role to play and is useful also as a comedic device and so I channelled Uncle Albert of Only Fools… the nation’s favourite sitcom.

Ricky Randal is golf’s ultimate anti-hero so he’s easy to root for; did his character develop as you wrote him?

Yes, you’re right on this. Who doesn’t like seeing an underdog having their moment in the sunlight? I so wanted Gary Evans to win at Muirfield in 2002. That lost ball he suffered broke my heart. But he played Walker Cup and finished 5th at The Open. That’s a remarkable career, right there, although no doubt Gary rues his near misses and still dreams of glories ahead.

A kilt?! Please explain your thinking…

I mentioned that I needed Open Links to become magical and comic. Poking fun at the rules of golf is fertile ground, albeit the dress code has become more relaxed of late. Outside a pro playing the Open in jeans, I thought a kilt was significantly transgressive and inherently comic. And, it’s an affectionate nod to Scotland, the home of golf. I have great affection for the place, having done the Edinburgh Festival so many times and got all my career breaks there.

Ricky had the final round of his life, but did you ever see him shooting 59 and winning, or was that too fanciful?

No. Even though Open Links is a fairy tale, I was adamant that it needed to remain realistic. A 59 on a Sunday at Muirfield would have been plain silly. Also, crowning Ricky the Champion Golfer of the Year would have been a stretch, although Ben Curtis and Tod Hamilton might argue against this. That he doesn’t win the Open is not a spoiler by the way, because the outcome of Open Links is much bigger and more important than a single player winning a golf tournament, even one as prestigious as The Open.

Have you ever met the R&A’s “Michael Landale” (or his ilk) in real life?

Not the actual people per se – but I’ve met their like. As a comedian, I have spoken at many golf dinners and often at clubs I am ineligible to join – both for my lack of means but also my ordinary lineage. These are easy characters to have fun with. Red trousers, reddened faces, black Labs, and a network of chums from their school days which keeps on giving.

We won’t spoil it, but there’s a major twist – was that always part of the plan?

No, it occurred to me as I wrote the novel and it felt like a breakthrough to complete the book. It’s a twist that no one sees coming and why Open Links is such a happy read. In the Golf Quarterly review, it stated that ‘Open Links will stay with you’. This was heartening to read, and I think is largely down to this twist and the story’s euphoric conclusion.

You’re donating profits to the Anthony Nolan Trust, and it’s a big theme in the book; what’s your link there?

I have long supported Anthony Nolan and have always been taken by the fact that they literally save lives. Recently, I attended a reception at 10 Downing Street to celebrate their 50th year where a mother spoke about her 8-year-old daughter who would have died had it not been for Anthony Nolan, the largest tissue cell registers in the world. For Open Links, I needed an illness that could be concealed from my readers and as I wrote the novel, it became obvious that Anthony Nolan benefiting from Open Links is the best outcome of all.

What do you think might have happened to Ricky after Muirfield?

To ensure that his final round at Muirfield remains special, it was important that his form reverted to normal, and his journeyman days returned. That said, and to my Gary Evans reference earlier, his place in the golfing pantheon is assured and deservedly so.

What’s been the reaction to the book, from golf people and the wider world?

For its second iteration I was hopeful to acquire support from golf types as the best way to qualify my novel. Ewen Murray knows his golf as well as anyone. He was the first person to read Open Links and give his approval. And that he had only a few golfing notes for me (all included in this edition btw) was a real accolade. Since Ewen, that I have had plaudits from my golfing heroes like Tony Jacklin (Open and US Open) to Woosie (The Masters) and Dame Laura (Everything) has been very encouraging. I should also mention Keith Waters of the DP World Tour. Keith was an early reader and welcomed me to Wentworth a few times to discuss the novel and how he could help to promote it.

But even more heartening are the notices from readers who know nothing about golf and yet have loved Open Links and been kind enough to take the time to write online reviews.

Do you think there’ll be a follow-up to Open Links?

It would be almost impossible to top what happened to Ricky, so it is unlikely, but never say never. I do like the idea of Ricky turning out for a Senior’s event one day, maybe in the US – Pebble Beach would be fun – and possibly holding off a resurgent Brandt Snedeker to grab a win this time. I will let this idea ruminate but no promises.

We understand you’re a very keen golfer – what’s the attraction?

My dad was a keen but agricultural golfer. I caddied for him as a young boy and completely hated the game. There is an awful lot of my own family and me in Open Links. I took the game up too late to become a good player and why I was determined that my four boys would enjoy better golfing lives than me. So, while my wife fully embraced their academic pursuits, I was all above their grip and swing. They have me to thank now because they call on their golf skills much more often than anything they learned in algebra or physics.

Keen golfer quickfire questions… how long have you been playing?

Properly from my mid 20s which coincided with fatherhood and why I remain an unfulfilled golf talent.

What’s your handicap…

9.4 under this is crazy new system – and so I rarely hit the magical 34 plus points.

Favourite course…

Coombe Wood – my home course where my boys all learnt to play the game before moving on to join clubs I can’t afford. But in terms of the signature courses, Swinley Forest takes some beating and I have always enjoyed playing out from the trees of Woburn.

Driving or putting…

Driving. I hold a putter like it’s a lit firework and why I should never be conceded a putt.

Tiger or Jack…

Tiger because with a different set of life choices he would have become indisputably the greatest golfer of all-time – with 20 plus majors. But Jack because of his more boring life choices (his 18 majors) and for his exemplary manner. His concession to Jacklin to tie the Ryder Cup speaks volumes about the special man he is.

Masters or Open…

The Open and The Champion Golfer of the Year. I do enjoy The Masters – the first major of every year but I am becoming fatigued by its self-importance with their ‘patrons’ and not spectators and the ‘property’ rather than the course.

Dream fourball?

Jack, Tiger, and Rory

Who’d win a scratch match – you or your son Tom?

On out last outing – him off 3 – me off 9 – he destroyed me – which could be construed as a Dad win only it didn’t. It was bloody painful and he enjoyed it too much (just saying).

Ricky Randal is the central character in Open Links, which is available now here. All authorial proceeds are passed on to The Anthony Nolan Trust, the charity that saves the lives of people with blood cancer.

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