(This article originally appeared in the June 2011 print issue of Flagstick Golf Magazine)
by Scott MacLeod
As we move into adulthood, for most of us, the anticipation of things like Christmas day and birthdays seems to erode. Oh, we might have exciting moments in our lives but it is almost impossible to replicate those nerve-tingling nights where we know the next day will be filled with nothing but joy.
In November of 2010 that feeling returned for me, and although I cannot speak for my friend and the Publisher of Flagstick, Jeff Bauder, I sensed that it did for him as well. The best part was that feeling lasted for almost ten days.
A golf trip to Scotland will do that for you.
This is my firsthand account of the trip that topped any I had ever experienced.
November 2nd, 2010: Time to get Started
I’ve made a lot of golf trips before, but none like this.
Months in the planning, today myself and Flagstick Publisher Jeff Bauder take to the airways on a journey to Scotland.
We’ve taken plenty of Fall journeys together to chase the little white ball. Our annual autumn Road Trip has been a tradition since 2000 and we often spoke of the “Ultimate Golf Road Trip.” There was no discussion as the where it would be, it was just a matter of when.
Having passed on a couple previous opportunities to visit Scotland, with the year 2010 marking the 40th birthdays for Jeff and myself it was time to make it happen.
Of course, we didn’t want this to be just any pilgrimage to the acclaimed home of golf, so we enlisted the help of Robert Warrington, International Product Manager at Ultimate Golf Vacations, the good folks at Visit Scotland, and various regional and local tourism offices in Scotland. With their efforts we now have an itinerary that is sure to provide material a wealth of memories we will cherish for years to come.
For me this trip will be especially meaningful; it is a journey I have wanted to make since I was 5. After becoming a golfer at the age of 10 and learning the heritage of the sport, it became an even brighter beacon for me. When your parents (a MacLeod and a MacGregor) can trace their roots backs to various parts of Scotland (Skye and Stirling), there becomes so many undertones to this trip to become almost unfathomable.
Jeff has an equal respect for the sport, and family ties to Scotland as well, thus making this two friends sharing a journey of a lifetime.
So just how do you make such a trip a truly epic one? By adding all sorts of texture to the experience.
That means wonderful golf courses, great places to rest our heads, time to experience the local flavour, and meeting the people who can truly convey what Scotland is all about and how golf has played a role in its evolution as a nation.
In that vein our schedule will include games at a variety of courses. They include: Gleneagles – Host of the 2014 Ryder Cup. Panmure Golf Club -the course Ben Hogan practiced at prior to the 1953 Open Championship at Carnoustie. The Dukes Course at St. Andrews – the official golf course of the Old Course Hotel. Kingsbarns Golf Links- a substantial design by Kyle Phillips and Mark Parsinen that is so well respected that it is part of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship rotation. The Torrance Course at Fairmont St. Andrews – said to have some of the best views of the town of St. Andrews from its seaside perch. The Musselburgh Links, Old Course (w/Hickory clubs) – home to five Open Championships this 9 hole where golf is recorded to have been played as far back as 1672. Gullane #1 – the final qualifying course when the Open Championship is held at Muirfield, Gullane is centred on Gullane Hill, praised by none other than esteemed writer Bernard Darwin as being “one of the most beautiful spots in the world.” And finally, North Berwick Golf Club- the quirky but loved links that hug the shoreline and have played host to many an important championship, including the co-host of the 2010 British Amateur Championship.
We will also make time to walk the Old Course on a Sunday with the course closed, and meet up with Archie Baird, who is a noted historian, golf collector, and whose wife Sheila happens to be the great-granddaughter of Willie Park, Sr.
For accommodations we’ll look to the Carnoustie Golf Hotel, the Fairmont St. Andrews, and the McDonald Marine Hotel in North Berwick as refuge.
On our final day we’ll also take a walking tour of Edinburgh and visit the oldest golf pub in the world (established in 1456), appropriately called “The Golf Tavern” with some fine people from that city.
In between all this we hope to join up with many other locals, for plenty of tales, meals, and maybe a pint or two.
November 4th, 2010: A Scottish Welcome
Wet. Cold. Tired. But never happier in my golfing life
We arrived in Scotland today in less than ideal conditions but it somehow did not put any kind of damper on the day. Sleep was fleeting on the overnight flight from Toronto to Glasgow but somehow Jeff and I felt somewhat energized on arrival.
Not even a first attempt at right hand driving and the famous Scottish roundabouts could lessen that. Although morning rush hour traffic in Glasgow did make my pulse quicken more than a few times.
On our way to our eventual destination of the Carnoustie Golf Hotel tonight we spent the balance of the daylight hours at the spectacular Gleneagles Resort – home to the Ryder Cup in 2014. I’ll be brief in my thoughts as sleep beckons me after 31 hours awake but let me assure you that it is the most complete recreation facility I have ever seen in my life.
From the stately hotel through to the spa and dining facilities, it is truly first class.
Our host, Graham Hesketh, could not have been more welcoming, just as everybody in Scotland has been. We were also joined by Graham Hood, Director of the East of Scotland Golf Alliance, who proved to be a hearty soul. He even braved a rain and wind laden trip around ten holes of the James Braid designed King’s Course with us.
Despite the fact that not even Scots chose to play when we were on the course (it that was that grim, weather wise) we had a lot of laughs and immersed ourselves in playing creative shots to combat the conditions.
The King’s Course is exceptional but for North Americans’ has a few holes that make you scratch your head. It is only after you get through them and think back that you begin to understand and appreciate the design.
The King’s is favoured by many locals although the Centenary Course gets much attention as it tends to host the bigger events, as it will in 2014. The Queen’s completes the 54-holes of full-length golf available.
While not a complete Scottish golf experience with the coast far in the distance, you will not want for much at Gleneagles. Under the guidance of Head Professional Russell White we toured his teaching facility that is home to the Scottish PGA. It was just another impressive part of the historic property. You can see why many long for a visit to Gleneagles. The world-class hotel even features a children’s golf course on the front lawn.
November 5th, 2010: Carnoustie, Panmure, and More
Hearts have been broken by the Barry Burn on the 18th hole on the Carnoustie Links Championship Course
It’s one word, Carnoustie, which evokes images of nasty Open Championship moments where a single golf course got the best of some of the world’s finest golfers.
But, as we discovered last night and today, Carnoustie and the surrounding area is defined by more than just a single golf course.
In this seaside town in the Historic Heartland of Scotland, golf is an integral part of life whether it be playing at the three public courses within the Carnoustie Links, the two layouts at the public Montifieth Golf Links or at the nearby Panmure Golf Club, which is privately owned but accepts outside play.
At the centre of all this is the Carnoustie Golf Hotel. Opened in 1999 this magnificent property overlooks the Carnoustie Links Championship Course, providing unrivalled views of the 1st tee and 18th greens. I was fortunate to lay my head in the Jean Van De Velde suite last night, and will do so again tonight. I am proud to say it did not have an adverse effect on my golf game today and certainly served up a stunning morning view of the final test at Carnoustie Championship as I looked out from my balcony.
As the Championship Course is currently closed for regular maintenance (except on weekends) we were left to seek golf elsewhere today and Panmure was the chosen locale to fit the bill. And did it ever.
Largely unknown to many people, Panmure Golf Club is acclaimed as the 16th oldest in the world having been established in 1845. With such a pedigree (and for a number of other reasons that I will get to) we looked forward to making it our first full round of our Ultimate Golf Road Trip. Just 1.9 miles from the Carnoustie Golf Hotel in the village of Barry, the jaunt over was a quick one.
The most significant thing I can convey about Panmure is that Ben Hogan practiced for a time at Panmure prior to the 1953 Open Championship, making it just one of two courses he would ever play in Scotland. There is good reason why.
As a final qualifying course for the Open Championship when held at Carnoustie, Panmure is stern in the test it puts forward. It can say that it might be the hardest golf course under 6600 yards I have ever seen. When a 165 year old golf club has a course record just a few strokes under par and has been played by the best in the world, you get a feel for what I am saying.
It has a simple layout, but one that sports 85 deep bunkers, high, waving rough and oodles of thick gorse bushes that line narrow fairways. It’s a stunner.
After the game in which we both fared well (and enjoyed the ambience of trains rushing by regularly on the parallel rail line) we were pleased to have lunch and then have some time with the Club Secretary, Charles Philip. His knowledge of golf in the region was impeccable and his pride in the club was both evident and justified.
Panmure is not to be dismissed by those who visit this region.
After lunch we made our way back to Carnoustie and gave Colin McLeod, Manager of Golf Services of the Carnoustie Golf Links, a ring. At his offices he explained the structure of golf at Carnoustie. Six clubs play out of the three courses at the links with his operation running the courses themselves. All those who join the clubs are simply members of those clubs and then must purchase some form of a seasonal ticket for play on the links. This offering is only available to those who live locally. Others can be members at the clubs but must pay the regular “outsider” fees.
What is interesting is that demand is so high for season tickets that those eligible to purchase them must start with a ticket for the par 66 Buddon Course (scheduled for renovation and strengthening in the next 2-4 years), progress to the Burnside Course (usually waiting 5 years for that privilege) and after 12 years, get access to the full bore ticket for all three courses. (Which only costs 360 pounds, if you need to know)
It was a fascinating insight to one of the world’s most notorious and well-known courses.
We capped the day with a rainy walk through the town of Carnoustie. Sleepy, historic, and charming, we counted at least three golf shops, several inns with golf themes, and numerous other references of the sport, be it in signs or road names.
Jeff and I both have a new perspective on Carnoustie, and when the 2011 Ricoh Women’s British Open is played here; we’ll look at it with a more rounded knowledge.
November 6th, 2010: The Kingdom of Fife – St. Andrews
The dream was realized today. I’ll not provide too many details as the pace of the day is catching up and night has fallen here on Scotland’s east coast, but this was easily one of the most surreal days in my life.
To finally visit the vaulted home of golf was everything I could have imagined and more.
This morning Jeff and I drove the hour down from the Carnoustie to find a land swathed in gold and purple hues provided by the longest stretch of sunshine we have seen in our short few days here.
After crossing the Tay River at Dundee the flat land of Angus gave way to the rolling hills above St. Andrews and before we knew it we had arrived.
Words can hardly convey that first sight of the Old Course or other landmarks that have become familiar to us through the years. It took everything in me to keep my eyes on the road as St. Andrews came into site. I’m sure the memory will give me chills for years to come.
We tucked into the Old Course Hotel first thing to set-up a phone in location for a guest spot on the Tee It Up radio show with Kevin Haime on Ottawa’s Team 1200, then promptly jumped on their shuttle to their official golf course, The Duke’s. This parkland course holds court four miles away in Craigtown, perched on a hilltop that offers up a stunning panorama of the Kingdom of Fife below.
It was a crispy start, with frost keeping us company early on, but soon the sunshine warmed the earth and dazzled us with the colours of Fall in Scotland.
We swept through the course at a brisk pace, playing in about 3 hours. The staff was commendable and pro Aeyden Robert-Jones was more than happy to give us plenty of guidance.
That extended back to the Old Course Hotel where we were set-up in a suite above and along the Old Course’s famous Road Hole to do our radio guest spot. That was entertaining in ourselves as we watched group after group struggle to play one of the most recognized holes in golf. At one point a gentleman actually struck a golf ball onto the lower roof of the hotel directly out our window. It made for a great live radio moment.
The balance of our time was spent wandering the village and the Old Course (more of which we will do tomorrow) with a quick pop-in to various golf shops. Tom Morris’ shop was under renovation but there were an ample number of others to keep our attention.
We are tucked into the Fairmont St. Andrews this evening with a much anticipated golf course set to be played tomorrow.
Everybody we have spoken with, from club pros to shop owners, have told us that the Kingsbarns Golf Links, located in a small village of the same name just down the road, is a special place and we are looking forward to seeing what has impressed so many.
November 7th, 2010: Kingsbarns Golf Links
It opened in 2000 but it has already become world-renowned. The Kingsbarns Golf Links, located in the village of Kingsbarns, just south of St. Andrews, Scotland sets golfers hearts aflutter and threatens to fill up camera memory cards with one breathtaking vista after another.
Jeff and I were both glad that we had finally caught up on sleep before taking on the hillocks and hummocks of Kingsbarns.
Kingsbarns’ head starter George Lawrence and Marketing Manager Donna Clark got us off to a wonderful start with their greeting and certainly underplayed just what a special test was ahead for us.
Mark Parsinen and Kyle Phillips, the fertile minds behind the design, should be commended for creating a place that looks like it has been here forever. That is appropriate as all indications are that golf was played on the site of Kingsbarns as early as 1793.
Blessed with constant views of the North Sea, Kingsbarns delights with rolling land that presents one magnificent view after another. By the time you reach the third hole you are in full flight with a back tee deck nestled above and adjacent to the sea and a test in front of you that follows that theme. It’s the kind of hole you could play over and over again and always be smiling.
Prior to our trip I spoke with Kyle Phillips and he was very coy about his co-creation, preferring that I see it for myself to form my own opinion. I think he knew that I would be impressed. As a golfer it would be impossible not to. The back nine holes bring more “wows”, culminating in the 12th hole, Ordeal, a sweeping 606-yard par five running in a crescent shape that embraces the rocky shores nearby.
After lunch in the compact but comfortable Kingsbarns clubhouse (they window view from the 2nd floor men’s washroom has few rivals) we headed back into St. Andrews to finish up our Sunday. We took some time to visit a couple local shops and then, with the Old Course closed, we walked 18 holes of the layout from 1st tee through 18th green. We finished in the near dark, just as the town was settling into its evening glow. Along the way we jumped in and out of bunkers, recalled famous shots we had only seen on television, and sucked in what felt like the rarefied air of golf’s past greats.
And what better day to close a day in St. Andrews but with a stop at the famous Dunvegan Hotel/Pub. We ate superb steaks (food in Scotland is far better than its reputation) and enjoyed a pint of Belhaven’s Best while owners Sheena and Jack held court and greeted every customer like friends. We lingered on the meal to have enough time to take in the amazing quantity of memorabilia laid out on the walls (and ceilings). They include images of every Open Championship winner, along with caddies, celebrities, and much, much more.
We spend our last night at the Fairmont St. Andrews tonight and will play their Torrance course in the morning. That will prove an extra challenge with winds predicted to blow steady at 50 kilometres per hour and gusts to almost 80.
After the round we head to East Lothian, another revered region for great Scottish golf.
November 8th, 2010: Getting To The Roots Of The Game
When you wake up, look out your hotel window and watch as a heavy wooden bench gets blown over and starts to roll away, you know it might be an interesting day to play golf. That was the case this morning as Jeff and I peeked out from our rooms at the Fairmont St. Andrews Resort.
Of course we expected a little “weather” on our Ultimate Golf Road Trip. It is November after all and the North Sea likes to serve up a storm or two at this time of year. That being the case we were well prepared with abundant layers of clothing. As extreme as it was (I’ll get to the full details in a minute) I must say that the new FootJoy Layering system we both wore worked like a charm in keeping us warm and dry. Even so it made the thought of returning to the confines of the very well-appointed Fairmont Hotel very tempting.
So what exactly are we talking about as far as inclement weather? How does winds gusting to nearly 100 km/h, a wind-chill of close to freezing, and a rain/sleet mix that moved in a horizontal fashion sound? Comfortable to golf in? Not really, but we planned to anyways. And we did, at two different courses, nonetheless.
Our first stop was right at the Fairmont St. Andrews, on their formidable Torrance Course that played host to the Scottish Senior Open this year.
Andrew in the pro shop gave a bit of a chuckle upon our 8:25 a.m. arrival but did nothing to impede our intent to play.
Even in the extreme weather where a 475-yard par four required a full driver, 3 wood, and 9 iron to cover the distance from tee to green, we could still appreciate the quality of the Torrance Course. A links design that sits high above the water on a cliff-side, it boasts impressive views directly to the town of St. Andrews just a few miles away. The steeple of the old Edinburgh Cathedral can even act as a sight-line for tee shots on the par three, 11th hole.
While we did cut short the round at thirteen holes (the front nine and a loop of 10,11,17, and 18) we could clearly tell that it was a course that would be suitable for every manner of player. Ample room in the fairways is great for any golfer dealing with even the most extreme of breezes. The golf will be secondary anyways as your view of the North Sea is continuous and impressive.
Unwillingly we made our way out of the Kingdom of Fife but not before our exit route took us past numerous other credible courses such as Crail (Balcomie and Craighead), Leven Links, Kirkaldy, Elie House, and many more. Our heads were spinning constantly, passing by course after course on the way to the Forth Bridge as we crossed over to Edinburgh with Musselburgh as our destination.
Little did we know what was in store for us in the town where golf, “The People’s Game” has such a rich history.
In our drive of just over an hour the stern weather had failed to subside but we hoped for the best as we arrived at the Musselburgh Links Old Course. Sitting partly in the middle of the Musselburgh Racecourse, an active horse track, is the oldest golf course in the world, as acclaimed by the Guinness Book of World Records.
There we checked in with Kenny Armstrong, the head starter; Jennifer Oliver, who handles marketing; and Allan Minto of Golf East Lothian.
With the trio as an audience Jeff and I bravely (or foolishly, depending on your perspective) wandered out to the first hole of the historic course in pelting rain and wind and teed it up with sets of hickory-shafted golf clubs. We enjoyed it so much that we played the hole a second time before retreating to warmth of their brand new entrance facility that is home to the pro shop and cafe.
As a full round of golf was not advisable Allan was gracious enough to make a few phone calls and in due time we made our way to the far side of the golf course where golf’s original “half-way house”, Mrs. Forman’s Inn, is situated. There we sat with the new owner John Whitehead who is refurbishing the place as a piece of golf history. We were joined by noted historian Lionel Freedman for more insight on golf in Musselburgh. Freedman is the former Secretary of the Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club and also happens to be the Chairman of the World Hickory Open Championship.
Golfers used to complete play on the 4th hole and come to a window at Mrs. Formans to grab a “wee nip.” That would have included some of the greatest golfers to ever play the game since the course hosted six Open Championships between 1874 and 1889. Imagine what it was like then to stand at that very window today, with a “wee nip” in my hand, and look out to the links in front of me? Surreal is an understatement. In that very spot golfers like Willie Park, James Braid, Harry Vardon, and Old Tom Morris had quite possibly enjoyed two things that Scotland is well-known for – Scotch Whisky and Golf. Amazing.
With darkness falling Allan was kind enough to lead us south to North Berwick and the Macdonald Marine Hotel where we will finish out our Scottish Golf journey.
As I finish up tonight the wind is still rattling my third floor window. Hopefully it will settle a little tomorrow as we head for famed Gullane #1, one of 22 fabulous golf courses in East Lothian.
In the meantime, the “Marine” offers comfort from the storm. After a recent renovation the stately hotel is better than ever with modern amenities such as complete fitness facility added. As expected the suites are massive and are reminiscent of a glorious hotel era long passed. For years people (including royalty) would take train up to this hotel and spend their vacations in North Berwick. I can understand why.
November 9th, 2010: The Ultimate Golf Playground
As a golfer, have you ever dreamed of a place where golf is integral in each and every day and where the land is resplendent with one fabulous golf hole after another? Of a place where the views as you play are unrivalled and the appreciation for the grand old game knows few parallels?
There are a few places in the world that could make a claim as being all this and you have to put East Lothian, Scotland, and its 22 golf courses, on that list.
We found ourselves at the Gullane Golf Club (est. 1882) today as we near the end of our Ultimate Golf Road Trip and it is easy to say that this area is a fitting spot to close out our incredible journey.
On an incredible landscape marked by a notable hill, three golf courses are laid out at Gullane, two crafted by Willie Park, Jr. himself with a third, #1, so enthralling that I could easily play it every day for the rest of my life and not feel a sliver of boredom.
We kicked the day off properly courtesy of a chat with historian Archie Baird who has written a book about golf on Gullane Hill, and has a small collection of memorabilia on display just off the pro shop at Gullane. Within minutes he had clubs built by British Open champions Jack White and Willie Park, Jr. in our hands while he conveyed the story of golf as it came to be. We were privileged to get the audience (including the great Scottish golf tradition of a soup and sandwich lunch) with the man who jokes that he has the ultimate golf collectible – his wife Sheila happens to be the great-granddaughter of Willie Park, Sr.
I’ll not be long-winded in my entry tonight as the pace of the trip is wearing on my health (author’s note: it turned out I was fighting strep throat the entire trip) but I will simply say that when we were standing on the 7th tee at Gullane #1, the highest point in the region, and Allan Minto of East Lothian Golf counted out the total of golf courses that could be seen from that perspective, the number reached 14. That includes the iconic Muirfield Golf Club, home to the Open Championship in 2013.
Add to that the sight-lines to Edinburgh and St. Andrews as well as the entire vastness of the Firth of Forth and its significant islands; you can see why Bernard Darwin called it “one of the most beautiful spots in the world.”
More than 75 years after that statement was published in the Times of London, I could not argue the point.
Tomorrow we play our final round of our trip, a visit to the famed North Berwick Links.
Even feeling the effects of a hectic schedule I am eager to see another great East Lothian course, as well as walk in the steps of the legends that have played the game before me.
November 14th, 2010: Scotland’s Final Impression
We’ve made our return to Canada after our Ultimate Golf Road Trip and now that I have some reliable Internet access I can finally recap our final day on Scottish soil.
Our guide through the East Lothian region, the affable Allan Minto of Golf East Lothian “Scotland’s Golf Coast”, might be one of the smartest men in golf. I base that on one decision alone, his choice to schedule our last day of golf in Scotland at the North Berwick West Links.
Already enthralled by the course through years of stories I had read, followed by staring at the layout for a day or so from the MacDonald Marine Hotel, I felt that pre-Christmas excitement by the time we arrived at the clubhouse.
For those not familiar with North Berwick I’ll provide but a brief summation. A comprehensive history would fill volumes.
Although North Berwick Golf Club was officially formed in 1832, it plays along a strip of oceanside turf that has likely been host to golfers for four centuries. It has been home to many historic matches and competitions and it is normally a final qualifying site when the Open Championship is held just up the road at Muirfield.
The real draw, of course, is the layout itself. Regarded as one of the finest examples of links courses in the world, it combines classic architecture with eclectic holes that stamp the place with its own distinct flavour. The 15th hole, Redan, is one of the most copied holes in the entire world.
We had a crisp, yet sunny day to play out our last trip around a Scottish golf course. A steady breeze ensured that we would get the full links golf experience. Allan joined us along with Christopher Spence, Secretary of the Club, ensuring not only great company and all the relevant facts we could handle in our notebooks, but a very game match that lasted to the 15th hole. Obviously their kind advice on how to play the endearing course was reliable as it helped us to close out the match in our favour on the famed Redan.
Victory was the last thing on our minds, however, as Jeff and I continually turned circles in our surroundings and exchanged grin after grin with the beauty of the links and the constant view of the North Sea. We were in full agreement that as momentous as the week had been, this course was the epitome of what we had hoped to experience on our Scottish sojourn – springy turf, amazing bunkering, tantalizing views, and hole after hole of unique challenges requiring all the shots we had learned to play in our golfing lives.
All too soon we had to leave the comfort and congeniality of the North Berwick clubhouse to make our way to Edinburgh for some pre-arranged touring. There we met up with Morag Dunbar, a professional tour guide, who took us on an abbreviated but enlightening walk along the Royal Mile, city streets, and back alleys to get a feel for what the historic city offered.
We capped the day with a quick meet-up (and meal that included what you might call a Haggis version of wonton) with Ewan Colville of Visit Scotland (he has since departed). He was our host at The Golf Tavern, a pub that dates back to 1456. Ewan explained a lot about the visitor connections between Canada and Scotland an all they do to help foster that valuable relationship. Let’s put it this way…Canadians are always warmly welcomed in every part of Scotland.
After eight days on their friendly shores we could attest to that.
The people, the sights, the golf…it was everything we could have imagined.
And much, much more.
Ultimate Golf Vacations
Golf East Lothian
The East of Scotland Golf Alliance
St. Andrews Links Trust
Panmure Golf Club
The Dukes Course At St. Andrews
Kingsbarns Golf Links
The Torrance Course, Fairmont St. Andrews
Musselburgh Old Links
Gullane Golf Club
North Berwick Golf Club
Carnoustie Golf Hotel
Fairmont St. Andrews
The Old Course Hotel
MacDonald Marine Hotel North Berwick