Tag Archives: Travel

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