At some point in a golfer's life, a trip to Scotland and Ireland is a "must". Recently, I decided the timing was right to head across the pond, to see what all the fuss was about. Is it possible for a trip of this stature to exceed expectations? Let me try and explain...please read on.
First off, a little background is in order. I've been blessed with the god given talent to hit a golf ball. I can hit a nice five iron when I need it; a screaming two iron from a couple hundred yards out is always a reliable choice. My driver and three wood are generally pretty accurate. On some days, I can even be a formidable putter.
I played to a USGA 7.4 for most of my fifty year amateur career. I've loved the game; the courses, the natural beauty, the thrill of competition, the mental challenges, the people...everything about it.
As I was planning my itinerary for this trip, it became readily apparent I'd need to make several important and critical decisions. I decided in order to get the most out of my adventure, I would need to make it a solo expedition. Some days I knew I would want to play golf from sun-up to sun-down, other days I might not want to play at all; some days might include sightseeing, other days a long sleepy morning.
I would need flexibility...more importantly...I couldn't expect my golf buddies to put up with my ever changing schedule.
My travel history has included several vacations with my wife, fellow golfers, other friends...sometimes by myself. I wasn't the least bit concerned at travelling with just my golf clubs in an unfamiliar country...who drive on the wrong side of the road no less.
My departure day from Sky Harbor International in Phoenix finally arrived and off I went to Gatwick in London. My two day, one night stay in London included the London Philharmonic performing at the Royal Festival Hall, my hotel of choice was at the exquisite Dorchester, with a memorable "after concert" evening, spent at the hotel bar. My debut was off to a flying start !
Bright and early the next morning I was at the London train station to board the high speed train for the three-and-a-half-hour trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. A good pal of mine had recommended this particular jaunt...it turned out to be an absolute delight. Fast, smooth, comfortable and scenic.
The bright, yellow mustard fields were in full bloom, each community along the way was marked by a church steeple pointing skyward. The European train system is very impressive indeed.
In Edinburgh, my rental car was waiting for me, I double-checked my route...and headed off to my first stop...a two hour drive away to The Old Course at St. Andrews.
I hadn't made any advanced tee times as I didn't want to take space away from someone else if I happened to be a no-show. I knew full well, I would need some good fortune, in order to play some of these premier courses.
As luck would have it, St. Andrews would start the next day with a Four Ball, meaning people like me, without a tee time, could just show up and play on a first come first served basis. Over dinner that night, my waitress told me to get there early, be first in line and I would have no trouble. She was exactly right. Later on, she would arrange lodging for me at a nifty Bed & Breakfast, for about $30, three blocks from St Andrews.
I should interject at this time, I was already experiencing the Scottish hospitality that I had heard so much about. The people I was meeting were polite, friendly, and more importantly, shared the same love of golf that I did. Golfers seem to know other golfers, we can't hide our enthusiasm.
The banging of the shutters on my B & B woke me up at about 4:30 AM. Much to my chagrin, I was faced with a nasty, cold rainy morning...not ideal golfing weather. I gave myself a pep talk:
"Come on Paul, you're on a golf trip, get up and get going...you're at St Andrews".
I finally sauntered over to the starter's shack, I was the first one there...no one else would be foolish enough to play under these conditions.
Before long, however, the rain stopped, the skies cleared and I met my other three players, an attorney from Southern California and two gents from London. We got our assigned caddies and the excitement started to build.
Our group was first on the tee at 7 a.m. sharp. We had fifty other players and caddies watching us, I was relieved when my first drive split the fairway, 250 yards out.
We would soon discover we were playing St Andrews at a perfect time, about two months before the Open...the grandstands were all in place, the course was in immaculate condition...it was a dream come true, to be finally playing at the "Home of Golf".
Three and a half hours hours later, the four of us and our caddies were walking up eighteen, already reminiscing about our, "round of a lifetime". At seventeen, we had our picture taken on the Swilken Bridge, with none other than Peter Alliss, the world renowned British broadcaster.
Mr. Alliss was filming a promotional video for the upcoming Open Championship, he was more than happy to lend his smiley face to our group.
I shot a very respectable 41-41 which included birdies on two and nine. A triple bogey on a front side par five, was the only real blemish.
After golf and a nap, it was time for a good old fashioned American style pizza at Ziggy's, a well known local bistro in the picturesque village of St. Andrews. As I was entering the highlights of the day in my journal, the couple at the next table over, took an interest in what I was doing and started a nice chat...about golf, of all things.
Jeremie and his girlfriend, Lorraine were on holiday from Forres, Scotland, a small town along the northern coastline. One thing led to another and Jeremie suggested we play his golf course in about a week. Lorraine immediately got on her cell phone and arranged lodging for me at her parents' Bed & Breakfast...for $23. I immediately accepted their offer.
My trip was unfolding exactly like I had envisioned...playing golf, meeting the locals, having the time of my life.
Next on my agenda was Carnoustie, known to some as, "The Beast." I checked in at the Carnoustie Hotel overlooking the golf course. It offered a guaranteed tee time, dinner and breakfast, with a swimming pool, sauna and whirlpool all included for a reasonable fee.
Dinner that evening in the clubhouse featured a Japanese fellow who was beside himself at meeting an American (me), who played golf. Through broken English, we traded stories, laughed, drank scotch, and polished off dinner with a fine cigar.
He made a pledge that night he would watch me tee off at 10:00 AM the next morning from his hotel room balcony. I completely forgot about his promise until I heard some loud cheering, just after my first drive went whistling down the fairway. We exchanged a long distance "high five!"
I played Carnoustie on May 21st, my 55th birthday. A couple of Carnousties' finest members, Derrick and George, joined me for the round. George was the resident historian and pointed out the "Nicklaus Bunker" on hole No. 10 and several other unique aspects of this historic course.
A celebratory birthday dinner at Gleneagles, just a short ninety minute drive away, completed another terrific day. How good can life get?
Wait a minute...it gets better.
Before leaving Carnoustie the next morning, it was important for me to find a local church service to attend. The National Church of Scotland was nearby, I became intriqued when I noticed the large crowd.
The residents of Carnoustie were turning out enmass, dressed in their Sunday finest. I ended up sitting next to a stunning, seventy-five year old women, with shimmering blue eyes. We got introduced, I could tell immediately she was a golfer, her steady, firm handshake gave herself away. She would tell me later on she was a Past President of the Carnoustie Ladies Club. During the church service, we sang the hymns together in unison...with a strong, heartfelt conviction...it was another thrilling experience.
We'll have to fast forward a bit. My trip was progressing famously, each day was better than the previous one. Ian and Duncan, a father-son combo at Cruden Bay, on Scotland's Northeast coastline, were excited to have me join them at their remarkable, seaside golf course. Some of their views resembled the best at Pebble Beach. Awesome !
Jeremie, Lorraine and her parents couldn't do enough for me during my visit to Forres. Their golf course was cut out of a beautiful forest, with lakes and streams highlighting several holes. Jeremie arranged the guest green fee for me for $6.50. A Guiness and cheeseburger on a freshly baked bun was Jeremies' final gift. Delicious !
The highly touted Royal Dornoch course in Dornoch, Scotland was next on the horizon. It certainly deserves a few comments.
The American Industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, fell in love with the Dornoch area in the mid 1850's. Mr. Carnegie decided to finance a golf course that would rival the best courses in the world.
PGA Tour champion, Tom Watson, would later describe Royal Dornoch as his favorite course he's ever played. The Open tournament officials say that if it weren't for it's remote location, Royal Dornoch would be added to the Open rotation.
With these accolades and impeccable reputation, I couldn't wait to see this fabulous layout. I hired a caddy, Mr Andrew McCleoud, who the locals told me was one of the best around. Mr McCleoud was a retired, 77-year- old gentleman who epitomized the best of Scottish golf...polite and like-able, he loved and respected our great game. He was a true gentleman in every sense of the word.
Mr McCleoud turned out to be an absolute gem, he knew Royal Dornoch like the back of his hand. He sized up my game after just a few swings and accurately told me what club to hit, what bounces to avoid and how my putts would break on the greens. We got along famously; I can still hear his beautiful Scottish brogue.
The gorse at Royal Dornoch was in full bloom. This bright, yellow creation would welcome us at each turn. My golf swing that day led to several good shots, some even bringing a smile to Mr. McCleoud's face.
My putter failed me though, several three putt greens brought me in with an 87. A smooth single malt scotch and some fun golf conversation in the clubhouse, brought another memorable day to a close.
After Royal Dornoch, this kid needed a break from golf, a leisurely drive through the Scottish landscape broke up whatever monotony was creeping in.
The Inverlochy Castle in Fort William provided my wife Chris and I with a memorable stay a few years earlier, I couldn't help but to stop in to relive some of those magic moments.
The Scottish Highlands are a photographers dream. It wasn't unusual to hear bagpipes playing as you turned a corner in this fabulous part of the world. The lakes, streams and forests seemed to get better with each passing mile. A tasty dinner at a restored castle was just what the doctor ordered.
After a long drive, The Rectory, a pretty cool Bed & Breakfast in Campbellstown, provided me with a comfortable bed for the night. Everyone in Scotland seems to be connected to golf. The owners of the Rectory went on to proudly tell me how their grandpa was a former golf pro at Macrahanish, the site of the next days golf game. Little did I realize what a thrill was in store for me.
Macrahanish was another course that came highly recommended. My golf buddies all encouraged me to make the effort to get to this remote location. The golf books would describe Macrahanish as being designed by "God" himself. Little if any dirt was moved during construction.
Hole No. 1 has the distinction of being named the "toughest opening par four in the world". A player needs to navigate a treacherous opening tee shot over the ocean in order to reach the fairway.
I fell in love with Macrahanish right from the beginning. The bright yellow flags would be waving in the breeze. The rolling fairways were in mint condition, the views along the coastline were spectacular.
I thought I was playing by myself that day, in reality, my partner was "God". We had the greatest time. The fact I shot a nifty 39-39 didn't hurt the cause.
After the round, a brief chat with Mr. Ken Campbell, the golf pro, was followed by lunch in the clubhouse. I was due in Glasgow in a couple of hours to catch a flight to Dublin, where this adventure would continue for another ten days.
I'm not sure when, if ever, I might return to Scotland. I'm tempted to let her stand...right where she is.
The word "magnificent" seems like an understatement.