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Scotland - A Golf Excursion of a Lifetime
Eleven days, 10 rounds of golf, the ball in my pocket more often than I care to mention, and I returned home with these thoughts driven into my subconscious:
One of the Views from Kingsbarns
Pot bunkers are a diabolical hazard that most certainly once served as a form of medieval torture.
Heather is one nasty, unforgiving lady.
It was the golf excursion of a lifetime. Four friends who've known each other for 30 years making their way across the pond and onto the most famous courses in the world. We retraced the history of the British Open, beginning at Prestwick - where it began in 1860, and finishing on the Old Course at St. Andrews, where golf was introduced in the 12th century. There were rounds at Muirfield, Royal Troon, Turnberry and Carnoustie, along with visits to lesser-known layouts like Kingsbarns, North Berwick and Gleneagles.
Although all the Open courses are available for public play, planning the trip required diligence. Tee times were booked up to nine months in advance, while Muirfield and St. Andrews demanded persuasion and dogged determination. Unless traveling on a tour package, tee times at the Old Course are available mainly through a lottery on the day before play. As for Muirfield - called by some the stuffiest club in the world, tee times, it seems, are available only by whim.
Golf in Scotland isn't solely about a dramatically different style of play than Americans are accustomed to encountering. It's also about discovering the game's origins, and walking the same rock-hard soil as its greatest competitors. Our journey took us through the isolated Scottish countryside, down narrow two-lane roads that meander past rolling green fields, thatched-roof stone cottages and scores of sheep. And we always wound up on the steps of history.
At Prestwick, I attempted to play out of the cavernous "Cardinal" bunker that once bedeviled Old Tom Morris. At Carnoustie, I teed off the first hole beside a plaque honoring Ben Hogan (who won his only British Open there in 1953). At Royal Troon, I was humbled by the Postage Stamp hole. At St. Andrews, I was humbled by just about everything.
We began in southwest Scotland, where Prestwick, Royal Troon and Turnberry are all within a one-hour drive. It seemed natural to start at Prestwick, which hosted the first 12 Open Championships and hasn't changed much in 150 years. Although it long ago disappeared from the Open rotation, Prestwick is a must-see for serious golfers. It features an endless array of blind shots, bumpy, rolling fairways, deep bunkers and thick rough. No one would design a layout like it today, which merely adds to its charm.
The "Cardinal" bunker splits the fairway on the 482-yard, par-5 third hole and is fronted by a skyscraper-sized wall. The fifth hole, called the "Himalayas," is one of the world's most famous par-3s, requiring a 206-yard blind tee shot over a mountain. We learned too late that the green is surrounded by bunkers. Caddies are a fine idea at Prestwick.
From Prestwick, we headed south along the Atlantic coastline for a two-night stay at the magnificent grand old hotel at Westin Turnberry Resort. The hotel's red-peaked spires overlook two championship golf courses, along with a majestic lighthouse and Ailsa Craig, the dramatic rock that sits 11 miles out to sea.
Author Duca Gets Set on Kingsbarns Par-3
The Ailsa course has hosted four Opens, the most recent famously known as the one Tom Watson nearly captured at age 59. But the tournament that announced the resort's scenic pleasures to the world occurred in 1977, forever known as the "Duel in the Sun," for its four consecutive days of unusually warm, sun-splashed weather and for the titanic battle between Watson and Jack Nicklaus.
The Ailsa might not rank as the most challenging of the Open courses, especially in calm weather. But none is more breathtaking, with views of the Mull of Kintyre and the Isle of Arran. The fourth through 11th holes line the shoreline, followed by four holes framed by sandy dunes, and then the awe-inspiring 10th and 11th flanked by craggy rocks that tumble down a cliff toward the sea. The championship tee at the ninth, backed up to the edge of the sea, offers an unparalleled view of the lighthouse to the left and an imposing tee shot that must carry a gorge onto a narrow landing area.
After being awed by Turnberry's scenery, we anxiously anticipated the next morning's round at Royal Troon. Be forewarned: Only golfers with single-digit handicaps are allowed to play from the tips here. But Royal Troon is plenty testing from the members' tees. The heather is just as thick, the greens just as sloped and the pot bunkers just as intimidating.
I came to despise those pot bunkers by the time I left Troon. I'd landed in a dozen or so the day before at Turnberry, and when I found another on Troon's first hole, my cursing could be heard down the second fairway. By the time I landed at the par-3 123-yard eighth hole, known as the Postage Stamp for its minuscule green, I had declared war on pot bunkers.
But the frustrations of Troon were minor compared to the anxiety we experienced the next day, when we had a 9:10 a.m. tee time at Muirfield. We were told that the drive from our cottage would take 30 minutes. We weren't informed that making it across the Firth of Forth Bridge at rush hour would require 45 minutes, and then it would be another hour to Muirfield.
And there was another surprise when we finally made it across the bridge and learned that one member of our foursome forgot his golf shoes.
"Do we have time to turn back?" he asked.
I thought, he's not only shoeless, he's clueless. We kept driving. Upon reaching Gullane, where Muirfield is located, we spotted a golf shop and instructed him to buy the first pair that fit. Moments later, Clueless Shoeless was $140 lighter in the wallet and we were speeding toward the golf course. By the time we located the road to Muirfield, it was 9:08.
Tick, tick, tick.
The parking lot was 200 yards from the golf course entrance, and we didn't actually know where the entrance was. We were told to walk to the end of the dead-end road. I hopped out of the car and began running until I reached an imposing iron gate that stretched across the road, where I came upon a gold plate with the words, "The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers."
It was 9:10 - exactly. I frantically pounded on the gate. "How do I get in?" I shouted.
"Open the gate," came the reply in a measured, proper Scottish voice.
The man, a proper Scotsman in blue blazer and tie, was the Muirfield starter. When I provided my name, he looked at his watch. And then he looked at me, eyebrows raised. And then he looked at his watch again.
"We got bad advice on directions, one fool forget his shoes, we missed the turn," I spit out, thinking of every excuse I could muster.
He looked at his watch once more. Finally, he said, "We'll send the next group ahead, and then put you out."
Is it any surprise that none of us played well at Muirfield? But the bigger shock was that none us were especially impressed with the course. Words like bland and boring came to mind, and I was gratified after returning home to hear former U.S. and British Open champion Johnny Miller echo those sentiments.
The next morning we were at Carnoustie, site of the 1999 Open that came to be called "Car-nasty," due to the difficulty of the course. After Muirfield, we figured we were about to go from being slapped around to being pummeled beyond recognition. But the rough was not nearly as thick and high as in '99 and the fairways were in superb condition. Still, the omnipresent bunkers are always in play and the 520-yard, par-5 sixth, named "Hogan's Alley," is one of the tightest, most demanding holes in golf.
Although the town of Carnoustie borders the North Sea, the golf course is inland, with the lone water hazards being the burn that snakes across most of layout. It was at Carnoustie's 18th where Jean Van de Velde - needing only a double-bogey six to win the 1999 Open - scored seven and later lost in a playoff.
A Rare Moment of Inactivity on the Old Course's 1st Tee
So as we arrived at the 18th tee, I chided asked my playing partners, "You need six to win the Open. Can you do it?"
I then drove into the Barry burn.
After Carnoustie, we left the Open courses to play North Berwick, Gleneagles and Kingsbarns. Of the three, Gleneagles is the most difficult and most Americanized, with rolling, groomed fairways and lightning-fast greens. North Berwick and Kingsbarns are spectacular links-style courses that should make the cut on any Scottish golf trip.
North Berwick was founded in 1832 and enjoys a world-wide reputation. Set alongside the ocean, with views of Bass Rock and a wide variety of bird life, the unique layout has a stone wall splitting the approach on the third hole (they tell you to aim for the gap in the wall), numerous opportunities to land on the beach or in treacherous gullies, deep pot bunkers and one of the world's most copied par-3 greens in its famous "Redan" hole.
Kingsbarns, located about 10 minutes outside St. Andrews, opened in 2000, although its origins as a golf course date to 1793. Nonetheless, it is perhaps the most visually stunning and finest example of a Scottish links course I have ever seen. Every hole features an ocean view, while the rolling fairways and glass-like, severely tilted greens provide the ultimate test.
But it was all a prelude for the Old Course at St. Andrews. Simply, there is no substitute. It's not the stiffest layout on the Open rotation, or the most scenic, or even the most creative. But when you tee off in front of the Royal and Ancient Club of St. Andrews or walk across the Swilken bridge, there is no finer place on earth a golfer should care to be.
Playing the Old Course is to discover quirky designs, seven double-greens and 112 pot bunkers, while being constantly reminded that this is where it all started.
Looking at the 1st Tee & 18th Green on the Old Course
For me, the round was highlighted by the 461-yard, par-4 17th, named the "Road Hole." Could I cut the corner by driving over the Old Course Hotel and back onto the fairway? I could. Could I avoid the infamous pot bunker that fronts the green while managing not to hit long onto the road? I could. Could I make a six-foot putt for par on what is generally considered the world's most difficult par-4? I couldn't.
Funny thing, though. As I sat afterward sipping a single malt Scotch on the outside patio of the Jigger Inn, which overlooks the 17th hole, the sun was setting in the distance, bathing the famous R&A clubhouse in a soft, golden glow. With darkness descending, we lit up cigars on this, the final night of our trip.
And we talked, and we laughed, and we talked, and we laughed about all we had experienced on the linkslands of Scotland. And all those bogeys, pot bunkers, and balls in my pocket just melted away.
Rob Duca is an award-winning sports columnist who wrote for the Cape Cod Times for 25 years, covering golf, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. He is now managing editor of Golf & Leisure Cape Cod magazine and has written for a variety of other publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, Yankee magazine and Cape Cod Life.