Tee Time: Playing the Great Courses of Scotland
by Frank Gardner
As the plane approaches Glasgow Airport, anticipation builds to a near-feverish level for the golfer. He--or she, in increasing numbers nowadays--is about to land in the country regarded as the birthplace of the great game. Ancient towns, bunkers created by wallowing sheep, the canny Scots caddie with the nearly impenetrable brogue ... any reasonably devoted golfer heading for Scotland is bound to bring home memories like these.
The Wonder of Gorse
But unless the golfer is exceptionally talented and accurate, able to follow the caddie's instruction to hit the blind shot to the fairway precisely at the second steeple on the right, he or she is also likely to return home with another legacy: a lifelong contempt and loathing for a simple, mustard-flowered plant, which, for reasons known only to the Creator, tends to grow in clumps and thickets primarily along narrow links and fairways...
Although--as Webster's tells us--gorse is a member of the legume family, it is not generally a food source. By all evidence, its sole function is to entrap golf balls, and ensure that the golfer enjoys plenty of frustration and additional strokes before retiring to the local pub and its spirituous comforts.
If gorse is not a sufficient additional hazard, there is also heather, with its pinkish-purple blossoms, and the native fescue grasses, which can grow to amazing heights and densities if the village sheep have been lax in their course maintenance duties.
Now, regardless of whether they've been to Scotland, most golfers are aware of gorse, heather, and fescue--as well as driving wind and rain--from watching the British Open (locally called the Open Championship) on television. Trust me when I say that seeing someone play a ball from the gorse on television is no more preparation for the reality than a film of 100,000 cattle in a Texas feedlot compares to the olfactory impact of being there.
Gorse or no, golf in Scotland is not all challenge and hardship. There are some glorious, sunny days, wonderful hotels, unexpectedly good food, and more friendly people than our cherished images of the dour Scot would allow.
Our itinerary from Golf Destinations started off at two of the better-known courses in the world. The first afternoon, we played at Royal Troon, where such notables as Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, and Mark Calcavecchia each won Open championships. Although it measures as much as 6,664 yards from the back tees, Royal Troon is most famous for its eighth hole, a tiny par-3 called "The Postage Stamp," which is sufficiently diabolical to have been copied at many courses around the world. Founded in 1878, Royal Troon is a private club, so we were fortunate to get a tee time.
When Golfers Die, They Go to Prestwick
For our next morning's round, we headed to Prestwick, which abounds with ghosts. Founded in 1851, the club lured the famous Old Tom Morris from St. Andrews on the other coast to be the professional and help in the design. In 1860, Prestwick hosted the first "General Golf Tournament for Scotland" ? the competition which became the British Open. Prestwick's last hosting of the tournament was in 1925, allegedly because its layout made crowd control nearly impossible. Rest assured, it was not because of a shortage of gorse.
Next came the big surprise the Golf Destinations people had in store for us ? a round at Machrihainish. Like most people, I'd never heard of the place, but Tom Morris had it about right when, while preparing to lay out the course there in 1876, he said something to the effect that the Almighty had intended the links as a "paradise for the game."
Machrihainish is located on the Kintyre Peninsula, a long finger of land, hemmed by West Loch Tarbert on one side and East Loch Tarbert on the other. These "lochs" are really narrow, deep arms of the sea, like Norwegian fjords without the glaciers. Evidently, "loch" and "lake" are not as interchangeable as I always thought.
Time to Brag
What Machrihainish offers is wonderful golf, as well as memorable views of the Isles of Islay and Jura, and Northern Ireland to the west. Best of all, the player who travels here has a conversation capper certain to dumbfound golfing buddies Stateside: "Yeah, the Road Hole at the Old Course at St. Andrews is tough, all right, but you should see the first hole at Machrihainish..."
The journey to Machrihainish was paired with a boat/ferry excursion to the Isle of Arran, and more golf at a couple of obscure but memorable nine-hole and executive courses on that home of justly famous ? and needed ? sweaters (remember, almost the whole of Scotland is north of Ireland).
The Monster Ate My Ball
By flying back to Glasgow and driving more than three hours, we also got to Inverness at the far northeastern end of Loch Ness. The countryside is quite hilly (or mountainous, depending on one's standards); this is, after all, the Highlands. The comforts of the Culloden House, a converted 18th-century manor, kept us from feeling too isolated.
Setting for many important events in Scottish history, Inverness is also the purported lair of Nessie, the mysterious creature said to dwell in the loch's depths. We golfers had other dragons to slay, however?the course at Royal Dornoch, one of the real gems and site of some essential golf history.
Located about an hour from Inverness, Dornoch rests at the northern entrance to the Dornoch Firth, which is a long, narrow arm of the sea, much like the Tarbert lochs. Only the Scots know why one is a loch and one is a firth, but I vow to investigate this topic in depth on a future trip. The layout is notable for its raised greens which make stopping a fairway shot near the pin very difficult. Nearly every hole on this challenging course affords spectacular views of the North Sea.
Anticipation continued to grow, because the next day we would begin to wend our way back south, toward St. Andrews itself. Enroute, we stopped at Gleneagles, where there are three excellent courses. For an American, playing the 7,000-yard Jack Nicklaus design there was a return to target golf and manicured fairways; it functioned like a sorbet between courses, whetting the palate for more links-style play.
The Queen of Courses
Finally, in the afternoon, we arrived at the Old Girl herself, St. Andrews, the home of the Old Course and the Royal and Ancient Society, which (along with the United States Golf Association) makes the rules for all of golf worldwide. For the non-golfer, the buildings and the long beach which, more or less, line either side of the Old Course may well look familiar as the setting for the training sequences in the film Chariots of Fire.
Although golf dominates the foreign visitor's knowledge of St. Andrews itself, the city is home to an ancient (by American standards) university, and has been the center of Presbyterianism for centuries. As with most of our stops, the town has plenty to do for non-golfers, with shops, quaint streets, ruins, and ancient buildings to tour.
According to legend, Sam Snead didn't recognize the golf course for what it was--probably because the Old Course was, and is, the town common. Townspeople have long held the right not only to walk the area, but to graze their sheep upon it. The hellish bunkers and other features of the golf course were largely formed by the sheep cropping the grass and wallowing in the dust. No one knows when the course began, except that it was literally centuries ago.
Without someone to book your times well in advance, playing at the Old Course at St. Andrews is problematic. Without a reservation, a player must put his or her name into a daily lottery, where up to 100 golfers might vie for just 20 spots.
It is also a good idea, especially for more accomplished players, to get a Class A caddie. Although it will cost the equivalent of $35 or $40 (not counting the customary substantial tip) for one of the Class A variety, a player will be getting a knowledgeable professional who might have toted a bag for one or more of the world's true greats.
One of our group, a six-handicap, scored 76 on the Old Course that day, with help from a caddie of the proper class. Those of us who opted for no help, or a non-professional, Class C drun ... uh, carrier, will not discuss our scores herein.
Our group was fortunate to have accommodations at Cusack's, which has several rooms overlooking the Old Course (which, by the way, is joined by the New Course and the Jubilee Course). Located a short walk from town, the hotel has a fine restaurant serving international cuisine, plus rare single-malt (non-blended) Scotch whiskies.
Over one of these, our six-handicapper commented that the course at Cruden Bay, near Aberdeen, is one of the best he's ever seen. Besides having spectacular 80-foot-high sand dunes and ocean views, it adjoins the castle where Bram Stoker wrote Dracula--quite a sight, he said.
Our Golf Destinations representative says that trip can be arranged, so we have one goal for next time. That, and a series of lessons, and a vow to employ only the best caddies, so that we can stay clear of the ubiquitous and terrifying gorse.
Golf Destinations, based in San Diego, California, books golf outings, vacations, and tours for individuals, families, and groups on courses throughout the U.S. and worldwide. Phone: 800-335-3534; Fax: 858-677-3990; Website:http://www.golfdestinationsonline.com.
Situated in the heart of St. Andrews adjacent to the infamous 17th Road Hole of the Old Course, The Old Course Hotel offers five-star accommodations and world-class spa services. For more information, contact: The Old Course Golf Resort and Spa; Tel: 011-44-1334-474-371; Fax:011-44-1334-477-668; E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org; Website:http://www.oldcoursehotel.co.uk.
For information about other programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under "Golf--Scotland."