Tag Archives: Scotland

You Always Hurt the One You Love

I recently had a chat with an old golfing buddy of mine, a retired three-star general who has seen service in Vietnam and later was on NATO’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (his nickname, not surprisingly, is “The General” – sometimes it’s just best to go with the obvious). The General is a very good golfer; his handicap is typically in the single digits and though well into his 60’s, still has plenty of length off the tee. We were commiserating over my recent putting escapade; he commented, “Some game we love, isn’t it? Glad I made a living doing something else.”

I made a joking response – “Yeah – combat had to be easier.”

He responded, “More predictable.”

While to the undying gratitude of a nation, I’ve never seen combat duty (or wore a military uniform), but I have to think he’s right. How else can one explain the great drive that precedes the chunked approach shot; the nifty birdie followed by a double bogey (fondly referred to by golfers as PBFU – “Post Birdie F*ck Up”); the solid front 9 backed up by a horrendous backside; the 75 on Saturday that becomes a 90 on Sunday? Hell, even at his most dominant, Tiger Woods won slightly more than 20% of the tournaments he entered, which in any other sporting endeavor would have him seeking other employment.

Yes, General, this is indeed some game we love. I think about the 1999 Open Championship, when after playing 71 holes in brilliant fashion at Carnoustie (an already difficult track rendered nearly unplayable thanks to a sadistic course superintendent who had narrowed some fairways to a ridiculous 12 yards in width), Jean Van de Velde came to the final hole needing only a double bogey 6 to capture the Claret Jug. Instead, he butchered the hole so badly that he actually waded into the Barry Burn (a narrow creek that is brilliantly leveraged throughout the course to wreak havoc) to contemplate hitting a shot, at which point Curtis Strange, commentating for ABC, proclaimed, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course.” Ultimately, Van de Velde took his drop from the creek, pitched on, and made an 8 foot putt for a triple bogey 7 to put him in a three-way playoff, ultimately losing to Paul Lawrie. If I were Van de Velde, I certainly would have been considering a change of occupation at that point.

I had my own adventure at Carnoustie a few years back. It’s certainly not my favorite place in Scotland. The town, which is not particularly charming, is hard to reach, and the course itself is  perhaps the least scenic of all of the noteworthy Scottish links. Noted course designer Tom Doak describes it thusly: “It’s not that Carnoustie is unfair; it is just depressingly efficient at exposing the flaws in one’s game.”

To be fair, several of my golf acquaintances have told me they love the course, usually because either they shot an exceptional score when they played it, or because they bested Van de Velde’s final hole 7 on the 18th. I can proudly raise my hand to the latter, having lipped out a 6-footer for par to cap off an infuriating round of golf.

I made 8 pars during my round at Carnoustie, which under normal circumstances would have had me tracking towards a score in the mid-80’s, which on a course of that caliber would have been a quite satisfying score. That was not to be the case for yours truly.

After a start of three bogeys and two pars, our group came to the par 5 6th hole. There are three fairway pot bunkers strategically placed in the fairway. The golfer can either play to the right of the bunkers, which lengthens the hole considerably, or shoot through a narrow gap between the bunkers and the out of bounds markers that constitute the left boundary of the fairway. In 1953, Ben Hogan took the latter path successfully in all four rounds en route to his only Open Championship win; this hole was henceforth referred to as “Hogan’s Alley.”

Naturally, we all wanted to take the aggressive route through Hogan’s Alley. It was my misfortune to find one of the fairway bunkers, and was forced to play out sideways. I extricated myself successfully – but to my horror, the ball rolled merrily through the “alley” and out of bounds – which meant replaying the shot, with penalty, from the same bunker. I again got the ball out; this time keeping it in play – but now lying 4 with a good 250 yards remaining to the green. Three shots later, I arrived there, but I somehow managed to putt off the green and into a bunker.  Another three shots later, I was in the hole, carding a rather impressive 11 shots for the hole.

Amazingly, this was not the most embarrassing moment of the round for me.

Earlier in the day, a few of us were walking through St Andrews. I spotted a really cool pair of plaid pants in a shop there (my friend Ben had previously bought a pair during the trip, and I felt the need to do some styling of my own) and decided they would be the perfect sartorial statement for Carnoustie.

So . . . returning now to our hero’s travails . . . after the disaster at Hogan’s Alley, I recovered nicely with a par on the 7th (a combination of a helping wind, a sweeping right to left hook, and a severe case of red-ass produced my longest drive of the day, and indeed the entire trip) and a respectable bogey on the difficult 8th hole.

Unfortunately, the 9th was not so kind to me, and I wound up making double-bogey. While reaching into the hole to retrieve my ball after holing out, I heard a tearing sound. My new pants neatly split along the inseam of my right leg, encompassing the entire length of my thigh. This, of course, was the source of much merriment among my friends, although I was not particularly amused.

Fuming, I hacked my way to make a 9 on the next hole, and declared my disgust for Carnoustie, the game of golf, and mankind in general.

And then proceeded to par 4 of the next 6 holes. Yes, General, this is some game we love.

The Kingdom

For better or worse, I’ve become the de facto go-to guy on Scottish golf among my circle of friends; consequently, if one of them is thinking about a trip across the pond, I’ll get questions about where to stay and eat, and, of course, what courses to play. The latter can be a little tricky, for much like wines, food, music, and romantic partners, golf courses are a matter of taste.

Consider the Kingdom of Fife, for example, which is the area that is bordered to its south by the Firth of Forth, to its east by the North Sea, and to its north by the River Tay.  The crown jewel of the Kingdom, of course, is the Old Course at St Andrews, which rightfully belongs on every golfer’s bucket list.  In addition to the Old Course, there are 6 other courses associated with what’s called the St Andrews Links Trust, several of which are quite good.  Within a 45 minute drive of St Andrews are probably a half-dozen or more seaside links courses worthy of attention, including the diabolical Carnoustie, which is definitely in the conversation regarding the hardest golf courses at which I’ve teed it up.

I’m not sure I can write much about the Auld Grey Toon that hasn’t been already said, except that in addition to being the official Home of Golf, St Andrews also is home to the third oldest University in the world, and centuries ago was an unfortunate battle ground of the Protestant Reformation.There’s a museum commemorating this period nearby the University, and is really a must-see when you’re in town.

Above all, St Andrews is a marvelous walking town, with plenty of shops, galleries, and, oh yes, pubs. The Dunvegan (which used to be a wedge shot for me away from the Old Course’s first tee; now it’s more like a knock-down 8-iron) and One Golf Place (even closer) are popular stops after a round, as is The Jigger Inn, which sits by the Old Course Hotel along the RoadHole (#17). On the somewhat rare perfect day, it’s great fun to sit outside, enjoy lunch and a pint while watching the Great Unwashed mangle the Official Hardest Par-4 in the World.

(For those of you not familiar with the Road Hole – you hit a blind tee shot over a hotel sign to a narrow fairway with high fescue on the left and a hotel on the right.  Even after a good drive, you’re left with anywhere from 180 to 200 yards into a green that is skinnier than Cameron Diaz and not nearly as easy to navigate. A hideously deep bunker borders the left side of the green; on the right is the infamous Road, of which one must play off if he hits it there. I once played with someone who somehow managed to hit the hotel sign, the Road, and that bunker and still walk away with an 8.)

If you venture outside of town, there are options that range from the quirky (the links at Elie, where the starter will send you off the first tee only after peering through a periscope to make sure the group in front of you has cleared) to the ultra-modern (Kingsbarns, built the 2000, is perfectly conditioned, has great sight lines, views of the North Sea, a huge clubhouse, a hefty price tag, and, despite all this, leaves this golf nerd cold).  But if I were to choose one course to play in Fife outside of St Andrews, it would be the Balcomie Links at Crail.

It’s interesting how we perceive golf courses. Upon first examination of the scorecard, a “serious” (quotes intentional) golfer might scoff at Crail’s short yardage (about 5,800 yards) and its par of 69. Be aware that par is a very honest score. There are 6 good-to-outstanding par-3’s, two of which are over 200 yards, including the monstrous 13th, a 220-yard uphill beast that typically plays into the wind, and the drop-dead gorgeous 14th,which ranks with the 11th at The Old Course as my favorite in Scotland. The 5th, aptly named “Hell’s Hole,” is a 450 yard Cape-style dogleg right that dares you to cut off a section of the North Sea (Hint: Don’t).  My criteria for a memorable golf course is one that doesn’t beat you up, but has you scratching your head over why you didn’t score better. Crail has those qualities in spades.

But what makes Crail special is its setting. Golf has been played there since the 1700’s (The Crail Golfing Society was established in 1785, making it the 7th oldest such organization in the world), and Old Tom Morris laid out the current track in 1895. I’m sure not a spec of dirt has been moved there since then. When you look out from the first tee, which sits on a high crest, the confluence of land and sea is almost overwhelming in every sense. I’m not a religious person by any means, but I do believe that this piece of land was put to its desired use by whatever Deity or Natural Order one cares about.

And if you’re fortunate enough to have Bill Brown or Andy Carr carry your bag, either one of them will guide you expertly around the course while reciting its history, and will join you in a wonderfully situated clubhouse after the round.  And while enjoying a first-rate pilsner, you might contemplate Michael Murphy’s tome,“Golf in the Kingdom,” in which the author spins a fanciful yarn of playing a round of golf at “Burningbush,” and meeting up with a golfing guru named Shivas Irons, who, along with his yogi, Seamus MacDuff, teach Murphy the values of patience and self-awareness that can unlock the human potential.  I mention this because “Burningbush” is actually a very thinly disguised version of Crail, including the aforementioned 13th, where Murphy and Shivas, after several drams of whisky, decide to go play the hole in the dead of night in the midst of a howling wind.

To find out what happens, you need to read the book. Or better yet, just go play Crail.Gary on the Road Hole Crail 4

Golf in Scotland

[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.

This is just a taste. I’ll share more with you along the way.Poppy at Crail