The regular in the Oban pub was unequivocal. “If you want to find about the MacIntyres and their love of team sport then you need to find Bob’s Uncle Gordon,” he said. “Whatever Bob achieves in this Ryder Cup, he will have to go some to rival the legend of Gordon.”
A trip to the Argyll and Bute town is like stumbling upon the centrefold of a travel magazine. In the September sun, the near perfect horse-shoe bay diverts the rays onto the multi-coloured architecture nestled in the shadow of McCaig’s Tower, the community’s most prominent man-made landmark, which ironically was built by a banker to resemble the Colosseum in Rome.
They call Oban “the Gateway to the Isles’, and the mood on the promenade is of a sleepy, dreamy fishing village, where ferries slip back and forth to the Hebrides. In Gaelic, Oban means “Little Bay”, but what this jewel on the Firth of Lorn lacks in scale – population 8,060 – it emphatically makes up for in beauty.
Yet step behind the postcard and the tough side is revealed. Economic pressures of a seasonal resort mean there is steel inside the soul, just as there is humour mixed in with the hardship. The predominant chippy has a tongue in salt-and-vinegar cheek message in the window – “The greatest fish and chips I’ve ever tasted,” Rick Stein. While a sign in one of the pub windows warns “no cards, no wifi, no music, no fun”. Walk in further still and there lies the shinty park – “The Field of Screams”.
The MacIntyres are big names in both Oban Camanachd and Oban Celtic. If you have paid any interest at all to the progress of Bob, you will have heard of his devotion to shinty, the, let us say, enthusiastic team sport played with sticks and a ball. When his schedule, his agent and his accountants allow, Bob still turns out for Celtic and believes that only the Ryder Cup could ever live up to the buzz.
“Don’t get me wrong, winning say, the Italian Open is bloody good,” Bob says. “But nothing compares to the feeling of being in the changing room with your team-mates and pals after winning a shinty game. Maybe the Ryder Cup will surpass that, but I’m not sure how.”
It is in the MacIntyre genes, those fearless MacIntyres of Oban who everyone in the Highlands knows, regardless of Bigshot Bob’s burgeoning celebrity. His father, Dougie is the greenkeeper of Glencruitten, the hilly Oban layout where Bob honed his craft. Dougie, himself, got down to a plus-three handicap and played for the county, but it was his skill with the stick that set him apart.
He was not quite Ronald Ross, nicknamed “Ronaldo of the Glens” after scoring 1,000 goals for Kingussie, but Dougie was considered more than a worthy heir to his father Dougie Snr, one of the greatest shinty players of all time.
Dougie Jnr played in the 1996 Camanachd Cup final and was distraught when Ross hauled Kingussie to a two-goal first-half lead. But this is where Uncle Gordon comes in with a story that should send a shudder up the spine of the Team USA captain Zach Johnson. MacIntyres do not give up. Regardless.
“It was in the September before and we were playing Kingussie in a Premier League game,” Gordon says, when tracked down to his house in Mount Vernon, Glasgow. “I was running alongside an opposition player and thought he was just going to pat it down the line. So what you do is put your hand on your privates, duck your head and wait for the click of him hitting it. You’re just hoping that you hear the thud of the ball hitting you, so you can quickly get it back.
“But there was no click, no thud and as I looked up he had suddenly changed angle to play a cross-field pass. It was like slow-motion, me just standing there staring. It was like an explosion in the back of my eye. I fumbled around and my entire eyebrow was stuck on my cheek. My whole socket had been ripped open. Aye. That was it.”
Except it wasn’t. Not nearly. MacIntyre actually walked off that pitch. He was taken to a hospital in Inverness but the eye could not be saved. “I was told it was over, but I didn’t understand what was over, exactly,” Gordon added. “I was driving in six days. I was playing shinty again in six weeks. I was a good golfer, scratch, but shot 139 in my first round back. I was destroyed but thought, ‘I have to figure this out’.
“So I went to the range and said to myself ‘I’ve not lost my swing, I’ve lost an eye’. And what I worked out was that everything just seemed further away. Depth perception and periphery vision and all that. You might not think it, but it’s an incredible change. Three days later I shot a 67. I retrained myself and had to do the same with catching a ball and hitting a shinty ball.”
Nine months on and the fairytale lurched towards the impossible. In the second half of that final, Dougie had hauled Oban back into it with two goals. And then with three minutes to play, the ball flew to his brother on his blindside.
“It was going like a rocket, but somehow I managed to pull it down and went ‘to hell with it” and let it rip,” Gordon recalls. “It hit the top corner of the net and just like that moment with my eye, time froze. I honestly did not think I’d ever get to play junior shinty again, but here I was hitting the goal that put Oban’s name on the Cup for the first time in 100 years. It didn’t make sense. But it did.”
The local newspaper’s shinty writer did not disappoint calling him “The One-Eyed Roy of the Rovers” while the headline writer had his own fun – “Enough to bring tears to a glass eye”. Gordon changed the game forever; helmets became compulsory. The effect his wonder goal had on his townsfolk proved just as lasting. “Even when I go back now I’m always asked about it,” says Gordon, a semiconductor engineer. “It seems to stick in people’s minds.”
The tale will span generations, perhaps until a Hollywood producer stumbles upon the ready-made script. Bob was a month-old in a pram during that final and soon swapped the dummy for the stick, himself.
“I remember in primary school he was the best around and it was ‘watch out for Bob’,” says Iain “shuggie” MacFarlane, one of Bob’s good friends and current team-mates.
“And even when we got to the age groups and the golf became a thing and he’d come in and out, he’d still be one of best on the park.
“When he got to the Tour he had to be careful, because shinty is a tough sport and a lot of the injuries are broken fingers. But his dad became coach of Oban Celtic and Bob missed shinty so much, he came back. He was the type who could be away from the game for years and return and look like he had hadn’t missed a training session. A top, top player, who is just one of the boys.”
MacFarlane is unashamedly proud. “So is the town - Bob is representing us,” he says. “Apart from the pubs and clubs, Oban will shut down when he’s playing in the Ryder Cup. I can’t go to Rome because of work and we have a big Shinty game on the Saturday. Last match of the season, and relegation is still possible. Knowing Bob, he will be texting from the teamroom to find out how we got on. That’s the sort of guy he is.”
Together with his wife and his son, Gordon will be at Marco Simone Country Club. He knows what to expect from his nephew.
“He’s a great match player, great at getting into someone’s head, great at finding a way to beat the opponent. He’s a lovely lad, a real gem, but he’s an aggressive player and because of the Shinty, he’s got that bite, that edge, and team sports clearly mean so much to him. That camaraderie, that coming together as one. It’s in his blood.
“And he’ll not let his head drop, never mind what’s happening. But here’s the thing. It wouldn’t just be a case of him simply ploughing on courageously with no plan. No, he won’t quit, but anyone can be brave. How do you optimise what position you’re in?
“If you have one eye, you say ‘how good can I get with one eye?’. If you’re playing crap in golf, you say ‘how can I turn this around?’. It’s not just head down and battling on, it’s head down and getting the best out of yourself. That’s the philosophy. That’s what being fearless really means.”