It was playwright George Bernard Shaw who described the United States and Great Britain as two nations separated by a common language. But I was not so sure how common that language was when I played my first round on “common ground,” at the Southerndown Golf Club in Wales.
To me as an American, common ground was something of mutual interest or agreement. But I discovered on that lovely heathlands course routed on the top of a massive limestone outcropping that the phrase also referred to property that was shared by people in the community. Farmers included.
That meant local herdsmen grazed their sheep on the Southerndown course through the year.
I was first off the day I teed it there. It was raining rather hard that morning, and I did not see any evidence of ovines as I played the first few holes. But as I prepared to hit my approach shot on the par-4 fourth, I suddenly felt a presence, as if I was being watched. I looked to my left, and there on the fairway, some 10 yards away, was a foursome of Blackface sheep, regarding me with deadpan expressions as rainwater dripped off their wool coats. I turned back to hit my shot and then started walking to the green. Looking over my shoulder, I noticed that the animals had not moved an inch and were still staring at me.
I encountered other groups of sheep during my game and came to appreciate their presence and how it made me feel that I had been transported back to another time, when sharing fairways and greens with livestock truly was, um, common. I did not even mind that I had to wash off the sheep droppings that had sullied the bottoms of my rain pants at the end of my round with a hose that club leaders had wisely and understandably placed outside the men’s locker room.
A few years later, I played another course routed across common ground. This one was a seaside links called Brora, in the upper reaches of Scotland just up the coast from Dornoch. There were no sheep on this track, but plenty of cows. Some of those occasionally found their ways onto the fairways, presenting a sort of hazard on some of my tee shots that was just as intimidating as the pot bunkers scattered around the track. I had to be careful where I aimed.
Fortunately, those same creatures never make it onto the greens because those were surrounded by electrified wire fencing that was designed to keep the Herefords out – and the putting surfaces free of hoof prints and cow pies.
There’s nothing common about that.