Something happens as we prepare to celebrate our midlife birthdays. Some of us go shopping for red convertibles. Others turn introspective and secretly write an outline for their memoirs.
Golfers, however, plan a special buddy trip. One that will be fun but with serious endeavors on the golf course, with good food, drink, and companions of like mind, to a destination we’re not likely to visit every year but wish we could. When one of my friend’s 50th loomed on the horizon, he chose Scotland and invited me to make the journey.
The resulting pilgrimage to the birthplace of golf was a resounding, memorable success. We played 10 rounds over seven days, traversing the country from west to east, with all the hassles ironed out by an experienced golf-tour company. We ate well, imbibed occasionally, saw a few sights on the side, and thoroughly relished every experience. Here’s a day-by-day run down of the trip.
After a redeye from JFK, we arrive at Edinburgh Airport in the early morning and meet our driver, who takes us to Troon on the country’s west coast. We check into the Highgrove House Hotel, an intimate nine-bedroom lodge with commanding views of the Firth of Clyde and the Isle of Arran. A quick bite of lunch, and we’re ready for our first round of golf.
Since we’re a bit groggy, we don’t want to take on a brutal A-list course like the ones we’ll be playing the rest of the trip, so we head for nearby Gailes Links, one of two courses operated by Glasgow Golf Club, which acquired the course in 1892. It’s a pure links course, true to the work of Willie Park, who designed it in 1912.
Fairways are surprisingly tight and greens are small for a links course, so distance and direction control of your ground game matter at lot. Bunkers are a factor, of course, and there are just the right number of blind shots to enliven the round and give us a taste of what lies ahead.
We start the next morning at the Ailsa Course at Trump Turnberry, a seaside gem that weaves in and out of spectacular dunes. Ailsa Craig towers 1,200 feet above the sea to command the far horizon, and Turnberry lighthouse and the ruins of Robert the Bruce’s castle are in view from several holes.
The course has been extensively remodeled, but it’s not hard to imagine Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus fighting the famous “Duel in the Sun” in 1977, the first year it joined the Open Championship rota. Although unconfirmed, it’s believed (or hoped) the course will once again host an Open sometime after its owner leaves the White House.
One of the great advantages of Scotland’s latitude is the late sunset in midsummer. The brilliant sunny day gives us time to play Prestwick that afternoon. Prestwick is the birthplace of the Open Championship, which was played there 24 times between 1860 and 1925. Variegated doesn’t begin to describe the landscape that shapes play at the venerable links.
Pow Burn flows through the property, and tall sand dunes mark the center of it. The most famous hole at Prestwick is the baffling par-5 3rd hole, a 533-yard dogleg right. The hole begins simply enough, but the fairway disappears about 300 yards from the tee as it descends into a bunker that’s at least 50 yards across and faced with railway ties.
If you’re unlucky enough to land in it, pay close attention to the line your caddie gives you for your recovery shot, since you can’t see the fairway you’re trying to reach on the other side.
Royal Troon, immediately north of Prestwick, hosted its first Open Championship in 1923 and its most recent in 2016, when Henrik Stenson won the ninth rendition of the tournament. Quirky greens and long holes make for exciting golf on the prestigious links.
The shortest hole of all the Open venues is the 123-yard par-3 8th hole, aptly named “Postage Stamp.” The tiny green covers a mere 2,600 square feet and perches next to a steep sand dune. It is surrounded by five bunkers, the worst of which carries an ominous name: “the Coffin.”
We head east after the morning round, to Greywalls Hotel in Gullane, where we check into the Edwardian country house next door to fabled Murifield, where we will play the next day. Our rooms overlook the 10th tee, and the hotel itself is worth the trip across the Atlantic.
Bedrooms are furnished in period style, there’s golf memorabilia throughout the common areas, and the restaurant, Chez Roux, serves award-winning Continental cuisine. A visit to the hotel’s library is a must.
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, aka Muirfield, was organized in 1744, and the course we play today was laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1891. It is a spectacular test of golf that has seen 16 Open Championships contested on the links Jack Nicklaus described as “the best golf course in Britain.”
This is an unique links course for Scotland, most of which are routed nine holes out and nine holes back to the clubhouse, whereas Muirfield has two nine-hole loops, one clockwise and the other counterclockwise, so that virtually every hole plays to a different wind direction. And in links golf, the wind matters a lot!
Also unique are Muirfield’s club rules, which dictate that golf attire is not permitted in any of the club’s public rooms and that jacket and tie must be worn after 10 a.m. in the dining room. Best of all, visitors are only permitted to play four ball matches in the morning rounds, but afternoons are reserved strictly for alternate-shot matches.
This makes for a perfect day of golf, however, since it allows for a sumptuous buffet lunch (remember to change into jacket and tie!) with libations after your morning round and a fast, fun round of team play in the afternoon.
Exhausted and exhilarated, we are driven to St. Andrews, where we check into the Hotel du Vin, less than a minute’s walk to the Old Course and the R&A Clubhouse.
Not every golf course in Scotland predates the invention of the locomotive, nor does every day need to be dawn-to-dusk golf, especially when you’re in the old town of St. Andrews. This day is leisurely and casual, with a round at Kingsbarns in the morning and a special destination in the afternoon. Kingsbarns opened just 20 years ago but plays like it has been there for centuries. It embraces the North Sea coastline, with seven holes playing over or alongside the sea.
The highlight of the day, if not the trip, is a visit to the R&A Clubhouse in the company of a member and officer of the club whose generous hospitality we arranged through a friend of a friend. He shows us through the dining, meeting, social, and locker rooms before taking us across the street to the British Golf Museum for a private viewing of The Golfers, perhaps the most famous golf scene ever painted.
The morning dawns gray and drizzly, and we solemnly gird our bodies in full rain gear to tackle the Old Course. We warm up a bit on the range, then test the roll on the putting green, waiting for our turn to play. Just as we are called to the first tee, the rain stops, and our grins widen. It is going to be a great day of golf.
Photos are taken, jocular starter instructions are delivered, and we take perhaps the most nerve-jangled tee shot in golf. It matters not how much golf you have played or how jaded you are, putting your peg in the ground on the first tee of the Old Course will always be an electric moment. We aim left — way, way left — to avoid the ultimate embarrassment of slicing a ball out of bounds. When four balls are safely in play, we loose a communal exhale and stride down the fairway.
Bunkers destroy some aspirations for par, wind and fescue and gorse take their toll, lipped putts evoke groans and curses, but none of that robs the day of its wonder. Scores don’t matter when you trod the most sacred ground in golf, although I’ll never forget the impossible birdie I made on the 11th hole and my finishing pars on 17 and 18.
Our afternoon round is next door, on the New Course, which is “new” because it is only 125 years old. It’s a delightful links course that makes a perfect second round for the day.
Like a well-composed symphony, our trip to Scotland ends with a crescendo. We face Carnoustie, easily the most demanding course of the trip. The year before we play it, the Open Championship is won there by Francesco Molinari. The first British Amateur Championship played on the course was in 1947, and it was won by Westchester amateur golf legend Willie Turnesa.
The sun shines, but the wind blows hard this day, making Carnoustie’s unforgivingly narrow fairways extraordinarily hard to find from the tee. The course’s intricate greens and punitive bunkering punish us, as well, but the round is the perfect finale to our trip. •