[Originally posted July 22, 2014]
I’ve now made four trips to Scotland over the past 13 or so years, and invariably, when I’ve returned home, some well-meaning soul will ask me if I played golf, which I suppose in one sense is a very legitimate question. After all, there are some folks who go to Vegas and don’t gamble, or visit Vail or Aspen but don’t ski. And Scotland has much to offer – rich history, stunning coastline, miles of biking and hiking trails, and the best whisky in the world.
But in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a golf nerd, and while I almost always make time to explore, I don’t visit Scotland to work on my tan. Asking me to travel there without my clubs would be like Johnny Manziel leaving home without his iPhone. There’s golf to be played on some of the most famous seaside links in the world.
“Links golf” is one of the most misunderstood terms in the game. A lot of people (including, unfortunately, some prominent course designers/architects) are of the impression that if a course is built by an ocean or other large body of water, it automatically qualifies as a links course. That’s not the case at all.
A true links course is generally built on sandy, well-draining soil that “links” the mainland to the sea. Its fairways will be hard and fast, its terrain rolling and bumpy, its bunkers deep and penal, its greens perhaps a tad slower. There will be nary a tree (which for some reason seems to be a bone of contention for many American golfers), but plenty of gorse and heather, and there will be a challenging wind more often than not. Oftentimes, the game is better played along the ground than in the air.
So, while Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines are fabulous courses, they really aren’t “links” in the classic sense. The closest we come to links golf in the States are places like Bandon Dunes in Oregon, and the collection of courses in the Hamptons in Long Island, New York – Shinnecock Hills, The National GolfLinks, Maidstone, and the recently completed Sebonack.
So why links golf, and why Scotland?
It’s leaving the States on a hot, humid day and arriving in a cool, invigorating climate (or a cold, wet one).
It’s hitting a six-iron either 200 yards or 200 feet, depending on which way the wind is blowing.
It’s hyperventilating on the first tee of the Old Course.
It’s standing on the 8th tee at Royal Troon in a brisk cross breeze, wondering how you’re going to hit the tiny green (nicknamed “The Postage Stamp”), and how in the world 71-year old Gene Sarazen made a hole in one there in the 1973 Open Championship.
It’s putting over hill and dale from 20 or 30 yards off the green, because it’s the only play that makes any sense.
It’s standing on the 9th tee at Turnberry and wondering why you’ve suddenly developed a case of vertigo.
It’s walking past the castle ruins while walking from the 8th to the 9th at Turnberry, and then, later in the round, walking past a runway that was used by the RAF during WWII.
It’s aiming at the bulls eye set atop of the giant “Alps” dune at the 15th at Prestwick which indicates the hole location to the blind green – and then, upon arriving at the green, realizing that you’ve just cleared the gigantic “Sahara” bunker that fronts it.
It’s experiencing all four seasons in a single day.
It’s playing the first 6 holes at Nairn hoping you suddenly don’t develop a big slice, lest your ball wind up in the Firth of Moray.
It’s having your caddie hand you your putter after a well-struck approach to the green.
It’s having your caddie stoically stand by as you try to extricate yourself from a pot bunker for the third time.
It’s the approach shot to #13 at North Berwick, over a three foot high stone wall that runs diagonally across the right side of the green.
It’s walking off the 18th at Carnoustie secure in the knowledge that you’ve bested Jean Van de Velde’s horrific triple-bogey 7 on the final hole of the 1999 Open.
It’s enjoying a post-round dram of whisky or a pint in the clubhouses at either Cruden Bay or Crail, both of which sport panoramic views of the North Sea. Or sauntering over to the Dunvegan or The Jigger Inn in St Andrews for the same.