How a return to Scottish golf helped a grieving father

In this excerpt from 'When Revelation Comes: A Journey Across the Sacred Links of Scotland,' author Jim Hartsell writes of his youngest son, his loss and seeking peace in Scotland

Editor's note: On May 17, 2021, Jordan Hartsell, 21, a promising golfer died of an accidental drug overdose. His father, Jim Hartsell, was lost, burdened by both grief and guilt. To make sense of his loss and life, Hartsell took a return trip to Scotland in search of peace and healing. "When Revelation Comes: A Journey Across the Sacred Links of Scotland," published by Back Nine Press, is Hartsell's second book.


“Peter Alliss was on his feet in the BBC booth, electricity surging through his old bones. He struck that shot beautifully and whilst it was in the air, I thought to myself, ‘Dammit, he has done it!’” —Jim Huber, Four Days in July

It was Sunday of the 2009 Open Championship, on an unmercifully hot and humid day in Alabama. I was in my office at home, pretending to work while watching every shot being struck on the legendary links of Turnberry. The temperate climate of the Ayrshire coast would have been a welcome relief to the burning summer of the southeastern United States. It had been a few years since I had been able to visit my favorite country, but I had gotten up every morning at 2 am to watch all four rounds of the Open, not allowing myself to believe what was unfolding in the championship. I was missing Scotland more than ever.

In those precious and fleeting days, all three of my boys — ages 10, 16, and 18 — still lived at home with us. Jonathan, the oldest, who was leaving for college soon, was in his room next to my office. Jake and Jordan were in the backyard hitting chip shots to a sand green we made with a yellow flag stuck in the middle. We had always been a golfing family. Both my grandfathers and my dad played, and I had taught the game to my boys in turn.

The tournament was winding down to the last few holes. Tom Watson, at age 59, had somehow held his game together for all four days, and stood poised to tie the legendary Harry Vardon with a sixth victory in the Open. As Watson approached the 17th tee, I made all three boys come into my office to watch the last two holes.

“You are about to see the greatest moment in the history of sports,” I told them, ceremoniously.

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The 14th hole at Cruden Bay Golf Club in Aberdeen, Scotland.

The scene took my mind back 32 years to another Open Championship Sunday spent in my parents' den in Tarrant City, Alabama. That was the day Watson faced down Jack Nicklaus in the now mythical "Duel in the Sun" over the same links of Turnberry. My dad sat in his recliner by the fireplace, pulling for a miracle from his hero, Arnold Palmer. I was on the floor right in front of the television, living and dying with every four-foot putt from the final group. During commercials, I would go into our backyard and hit plastic golf balls to a dirt green I had made. Sometimes my dad would watch me hit.

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Watching the Open Championship with my dad every year — but especially the 1977 Open — was the start of my lifelong love affair with Scottish links golf. To a 10-year-old in rural Alabama, Jack and Tom had seemed like gods as they stalked around the ethereal, yellowish-brown Ayrshire links. Watson made seemingly impossible 50-foot putts and chip-ins look routine, but Nicklaus would not go away. The pair pulled away from the rest of the field, with Tom shooting a remarkable 65-65 over the weekend to defeat Jack by a single stroke. The greatest player of all time could only manage to shoot 65-66. Even after all these years, I can still hear the cheers of the Scottish crowd when Jack made an impossible birdie from the gorse bushes on the 72nd hole. As they walked off the green, Jack put his arm around Tom. The Scottish crowd stood and cheered in joyful admiration for what they had just witnessed.

Hubert Green, the reigning U.S. Open champion and a Birmingham native whom both my father and I had actually met, finished in third place, a full 11 strokes back. The day after the tournament Green was quoted as saying, “I won the golf tournament. I don’t know what game those two guys were playing.” The legendary Palmer even managed his final top 10 finish in a major championship at age 47, much to the delight of my father. That weekend in front of the television with my dad, listening to the great ABC golf crew, was a seminal moment in my life.

Jordan Hartsell at age 8.

It seemed fitting, three decades later, to be enjoying a similar moment with my boys, among them my own golf-obsessed 10-year-old, Jordan. He was wearing a Titleist cap and still holding his wedge in a gloved hand. Over the previous two years, he had totally immersed himself in the game with the passion that only a small child can.

With the four of us crammed into my small, book-filled office, Watson birdied the 71st hole to take the lead. I started to let myself believe a rare miracle was going to happen in a world often filled with disappointments. The boys were now fully into it too, having been raised on stories of my many travels to Scotland with my dad. They knew how much I loved places like the Old Course, Turnberry, Dunaverty, Machrihanish, Prestwick, and Cruden Bay. We talked about them the way I imagine other families discuss famous football stadiums. Open Championship weekend was like a holiday in our house. I always cooked a traditional full Scottish breakfast at least once during the tournament. I would also buy a few bottles of Irn Bru, the orange soft drink so beloved by Scots. It was a family tradition.

Most golfers reading this will know the sad outcome that day for the great Tom Watson. He hit a brilliant drive on the last, splitting the middle of the fairway. We were all standing in front of the television now. A perfectly struck approach shot caught the wrong side of a small downslope on the front of that famous green, where Nicklaus had been so gracious in defeat in 1977. The ball bounded crazily over the back and into a difficult spot. Almost in unison, we all screamed, “NO!”

When Watson badly missed a seven-foot putt to win his sixth Open title, Jonathan and Jake seemed to sense that it was over. They went back to what they had been doing. Jordan stayed in my office to watch the playoff with me. Even at that young age, he knew that Stewart Cink came from a town in Alabama less than an hour away from us. Jordan and I had played together at the course in nearby Florence, where Cink had learned the game. There had been a small shrine to the successful PGA professional in the corner of the clubhouse dining room.

As Watson and Cink were preparing to start the four-hole playoff, my happy young son said confidently, “I’m going to play in the Open one day, Dad.”

This was my boy: of course he was going to play in the world’s greatest championship one day. Before that Open, I would take him to Dunaverty and Machrihanish to help him prepare for links golf. We would spend a day at Shiskine on the Isle of Arran. At Prestwick, I would show him where Young Tom Morris took possession of the Open Champions belt with his third consecutive win. At St Andrews, we would eat lunch in the Dunvegan and walk down to the 18th green at the Old Course. The dream of every golf dad flashed before my eyes in that split second.

Children are innocent. They normally do not understand or hold onto disappointment in the way that adults tend to do. Jordan was eerily perceptive for his age. When Watson, now finally looking every bit of his 59 years, duck-hooked his tee shot on the third playoff hole, we both knew it was truly over.

“Dad, this isn’t fair. Tom deserved to win. That shot on the last hole was perfect.”

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A sign next to the first hole at Machrihanish Golf Club in 1994.

“That’s just links golf. Even Watson would say the same. You’ll see how it is one day,” I replied to my son.

Twelve years later, in August 2021, I was back in Scotland, sitting on my favorite bench at Mount Zion, the 11th hole of Dunaverty Golf Club near the Mull of Kintyre. This time I was traveling alone, with the incomprehensible realization that my sweet Jordan would never play in the Open, as he had so proudly and confidently promised, or journey with me to this spectacular place. The magnitude of my situation was impossible to deal with in Alabama. The only place it made sense to be was in Scotland, the country that had been my spiritual home for the past three decades.

Over the years, I had traveled to every remote corner of this wondrous kingdom and had come to love the Scottish people. I had played nearly 100 golf courses, and yet still had places I wanted to visit. When I was here, the stress of work and everyday life could be put on hold for a few weeks, or even a month. Scotland had always been the place where I was happiest.

The Scottish way of life — being much more present and connected to other people — is something I had always longed for. In this country, the wonders of nature, often displayed through golf, are celebrated and revered. The quiet dignity and empathy that Scots show in dealing with the inevitable tragedies of life was something I needed badly at that moment.

My visits to Scotland had produced some of the most blissful moments of my life. Together my father and I had lived out our dreams of playing the great links of this country. I had once spent a wonderful three weeks here with my son Jake, visiting places like Anstruther, Cullen, Carradale, and Shiskine. The sheer joy on his face, as we made new discoveries together, is something I will never forget.

I needed to see if that type of joy was still possible. I had come home to search for answers. I had come home to find a way to continue.