John ‘The Duke’ Sutherland
My return flight to the US this week seemed longer than usual having failed to recapture the annual Duke’s Shield. But the result was always secondary to being able to enjoy a couple of stunning days in the Scottish Highlands playing two of the country’s finest links courses in glorious sunshine.
This regular trip with 16 golfing friends is a highlight in the calendar, and when the weather is kind, as it was at Castle Stuart and Nairn for our two-day competition, there is no better place to be.
The Dukes Shield started as a friendly Ryder Cup-style golf match featuring Scotland versus USA. The inspiration was always wanting to come to the home of golf, and meeting Grant Sword and all the team at Castle Stuart Golf Links.
Having relatives from Sutherland, the team nicknamed me ‘The Duke’ and the moniker stuck. After visiting a few times with my wife and other friends, Grant and I wanted to create an experience that shared Highland golf. Out of this desire came the Duke’s Shield.
The idea was to bring 16 guys on a golf trip to Scotland, and what better way to do so with an opportunity to participate in a live competition, much like the coveted Ryder Cup. The trip has evolved into something of a pilgrimage. We start in a different region of Scotland, play bucket list courses, and then make our way to the Highlands to play the competition.
The Duke’s Shield is now in its fifth year and pits our American team against a 16-strong conglomerate of Scottish players, made up of the team from Castle Stuart, including Grant, a partner in the business; general manger Stuart McColm; director of golf Jeremy Matte; and course manager Chris Haspell; as well as members of Nairn Golf Club, including CEO Fraser Cromarty.
Ahead of this year’s contest, the standings were 1-1-2, meaning each team has a victory and the last two years ended in ties. As the last winners, Scotland retained the trophy, a medieval shield, which is proudly displayed in the clubhouse at Castle Stuart.
Generally, Team Scotland has an advantage over us here, especially if the wind is blowing. However, over two days we battled it out in warm, sunny weather, first at Nairn when the wind was only a small factor – maybe a club or two.
As it turned out, the local knowledge of the Scotland team, consisting of 13 Nairn members, was too much for team USA to overcome as the Scots raced into a 6 ½- 1 ½ lead. The highlight of the day came from the opening match that pitted team captains Grant Sword and partner, former Nairn club captain Ian Cooper, against myself and good friend Marty Bean.
Coming down the stretch, we were 3 up with 3 to play, and the Scotland duo on the back foot. Then Grant had a stunning birdie, birdie, birdie finish – including a chip-in from off the 16th green, a gimmie putt on the 17th green, and then a 15ft putt on the last to win the hole and half the match.
Then at Castle Stuart the USA mounted a big-time charge, winning the first two matches to narrow the gap. And a fighting performance saw us win the second day day’s play by 5 ½ - 2 ½.
However, the competition ended with a 9-7 win for Scotland, who retained the trophy after the first outright victory since 2014.
While the event and format has created a spirited enthusiasm to win, it has also helped forge amazing relationships and lasting friendships. Approximately half the American team has returned annually, with the others keen to enjoy the experience of playing links golf in a spectacular part of the world.
Over the years, our team has enjoyed golf at many of the great courses of Scotland, such as St Andrews and Carnoustie, but the feedback is always that Castle Stuart is their favourite course and the one that made the trip special.
The accommodation, service and staff consideration makes them feel like they are members of one of the most prestigious private clubs in Scotland.
We feel extremely fortunate for the opportunity, and annually cannot wait to return.