Scotland: The Eden of Golf
The Birthplace of Golf For Avid Golfers, Playing the Windswept Links of St. Andrews and Scotland's Other Courses Is Like Returning Home
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96
Standing on the first tee of the Old Course at St. Andrews, the wind in your face and the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse to your back, the hand trembles and the mind races as you bend to tee up that first ball.
If history is a fable to which we all agree, then here at the Old Course you agree, as millions before you, that you are at the birthplace of golf. Taking the first tee at the Old Course is at once the most humbling and most exhilarating experience in the game, though only slightly more humbling and more exhilarating than taking the first tee virtually anywhere across golf-blessed Scotland.
It was at St. Andrews in the fifteenth century, so the fabled history of the game goes, that shepherds beat rocks with sticks, rolling them into holes in the ground for sport and to break the monotony of minding the mutton. Five hundred years later, the game having spread around the world, players come to St. Andrews and other Scottish courses to revel in history, to connect themselves with the true soul and spirit of the game.
For most pilgrims, Scottish golf is pure golf. With few exceptions, nary a bulldozer has ever scraped and molded the Scottish seaside links courses. The wind, and in some cases the sea itself--along with a few shovels, rakes and rollers-were enough to fashion these precious links. Scottish links courses weren't designed so much as they were discovered. If a tee looked as if it belonged here and a green looked as if it belonged there, so be it. Ridge lines created by windswept dunes became either natural sites for tees and greens, or natural outlines for fairways.
It is the natural, pristine, unadorned quality of Scottish golf that is so appealing. St. Andrews' windswept beauty, like that of other Scottish courses such as Carnoustie, Royal Dornoch or North Berwick, is in its simplicity and its accessibility. Americans have complicated golf beyond reason, overdesigning and overpricing it in search of ever greener fairways and ever plusher clubhouses. American golf tends to be exclusive. Scottish golf tends to be welcoming, even if you have to do a little bowing and scraping to get into private clubs like Muirfield or Troon or Prestwick. That same bowing and scraping is unlikely to get you into a private club in America.
So the hand trembles and the mind races as you push your peg into the soft, sandy turf of the Old Course. There be spirits here, such as that of Old Tom Morris, the legendary nineteenth century pro at St. Andrews, who is buried in the graveyard adjoining the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, a 10-minute walk away. You do not want to embarrass yourself and offend the spirits.
"Plenty of room to the left, lad. Keep it out of the burn."
With that gentle admonition from your caddie to beware of the water, you approach your first tee shot on the Old Course. Scottish caddies are important, if you get a good one. They are not only guides and gurus to the sometimes mysterious ways of links golf, they can be connections to history, too. Tip Anderson, who until recently caddied for 18-handicappers at the Old Course, used to caddie for Arnold Palmer in British Opens.
Saying that the Old Course is accessible is a bit of an overstatement. Though it has always been open to the public, the Old Course is in such international demand that it can be difficult to get on. You have to contact the Links Trust, the governing body of St. Andrews (44-1-33-447-5757) well in advance of your trip to assure yourself a tee time; when you arrive at the starter's booth, you must provide your handicap card. The summer months are the toughest, but like the rest of Scotland you can play golf at St. Andrews all year round.
The first and 18th fairways on the Old Course are one large lawn. Down the right side of the first hole is Swilcan Burn, a tiny ditch with four inches of water that runs in front of the first green and the 18th tee. Behind you is the stone-faced Royal and Ancient Clubhouse and just behind that is the town of St. Andrews. Like so many Scottish courses, the Old Course is connected directly to the town. It's a quick walk from the Old Course's 18th green to the popular Rusacks Hotel or the Birdie Restaurant. Your room, be it hotel or bed and breakfast, might be no more than a five-minute walk from your last putt. It's all part of the connection between the Scottish people and their golf, a connection for which others yearn.
The first hole at St. Andrews really doesn't introduce you to links golf; it merely seduces you. It's a simple, straightforward hole that doesn't tell you what's to come. By the time you get to the fourth tee, you will be in the midst of the mystery: the blind tee shots to fairways that pitch and roll, the evil lurking pot bunkers, the greens that hold precious few approach shots and contain devilish breaks, the tall fescue rough, the heather and the gorse that gobble up golf balls, and on occasion, golfers. And of course, the wind. As the Scots say, "Nae wind, nae golf." This is the mystery for which you have come to the links, a mystery not to solve but to revel in.
Links, by the way, does not refer to a chain of holes. The word derives from the old Scottish word, lynkas, for ridges or hummocks, or rough, open ground. By American standards, all Scottish golf courses are rough, open ground. The Scots aren't terribly concerned that every blade of grass is perfectly green, and the biggest shock for first-time visitors is often the overwhelming sense of brown, amber and blond in the links palette. An abundance of green is saved for--what else--the greens.
A round at St. Andrews seems almost obligatory, at least to those on their first pilgrimage to Scotland. Yet there are so many courses, some of great repute, others little known, that provide the soul-searching player with the deeply emotional experience he craves. Within a half hour's drive of St. Andrews are the terrific little town courses of Crail, Levén Links and Lundin Links and the inland courses of Ladybank and Scotscraig, all well worth a visit. From the tee of the par-3 14th at Lundin Links lies one of the most
beautiful vistas in the game, with virtually the entire course spread out at your feet, as are a few holes of the adjoining Levén Links.
An hour's drive north and east of St. Andrews is the mighty Carnoustie. No more stout test in the land exists than this muscular course, with its abyssal bunkers and its endless par-4s. You cannot see the North Sea from any of Carnoustie's holes, but you can hear its constant dull roar and feel the cool, damp wind that it tosses ashore.
Ben Hogan won his only British Open here, in 1953, and his legend lives on. On the par-5 sixth hole, it is said that to shorten his line of play, rather than playing the safe route to the right, he played his tee shots to a thin sliver of fairway between out-of-bound stakes on the left and a nasty bunker cluster. The legend is that he hit the ball into the same divot hole two days in a row. That's why this little strip of otherwise unremarkable turf is called Hogan's Alley. (Hogan, by the way, says he can't remember driving the ball there.)
The finish at Carnoustie is arduous. The last five holes contain four par-4s, the shortest of which is 421 yards--and that's from the regular tees, not the championship tees. The other hole is a par-3, a mere 235 yards from the regular tee, 247 yards from the back, a hole Jack Nicklaus couldn't reach with a driver during a round of the 1975 British Open.
The trick at Carnoustie is to stay out of the bunkers. Those looking for deep meaning at Carnoustie will find these bunkers deeply mean. They have revetted walls in the traditional Scottish sense; that is, the sidewalls of the bunkers are layers of sod brink, a building technique that allows them to be vertical. Your only shot from these bunkers is the one that will get you out, even if that means playing backwards.
Perhaps better than any other links course, Carnoustie demonstrates the value of playing the ball along the ground, both to avoid the wind and to keep the ball in play. Golf has become mostly an airborne game in North America. Many call it target golf, in which the ball must go from point A to B to C, always in the air, always stopping dead at the end, whether in soft, overly lush fairways or on soft, overly watered greens.
"In Scotland, you have to look at the ground and use it," says Tom Watson, the five-time British Open champion. "You have to land the ball short of greens and let the ground take it from there. You have to use your imagination. You just don't hit from one spot to the other with the same high, repetitive shot like we hit in America. In Scotland, the closer you keep the ball to the ground, the better off you are."
The clever European Tour player David Feherty has his own take on links golf. "It's target golf, all right," says Feherty. "But the target moves."
A target for those in the know about Scottish golf is the Royal Dornoch course, a six-hour drive from St. Andrews through the remote Highlands to the north. In this hauntingly beautiful place set along Dornoch Firth and Embo Bay, the links of Royal Dornoch are wild and untamed, with magnificent dune hills and tiny windswept seaside prairies of blond fescue grasses. Playing with an old friend, Sandy Tatum, Watson once stood on a tee at Royal Dornoch with the wind and the rain battering his face. "This is golf," he told Tatum. "This is fun."
On the west coast of Scotland, about two hours drive south of Glasgow, is the grand Turnberry Hotel and its two wonderful courses, the Ailsa and the Arran. Turnberry's Ailsa Course is the Pebble Beach of Scotland. It's not truly a links course, located primarily on bluffs that overlook the Firth of Clyde and the Irish Sea. The big dune hills that define several of the holes on the Ailsa Course, as well as on the Arran, aren't dunes at all. During the Second World War, the Royal Air Force commandeered the courses for use as a training base; afterward, both courses were rebuilt. The base runways were torn up and much of the rip-rap was heaped to form the faux dunes that are so impressive today.
The ninth tee of the Ailsa Course sits on a rock promontory high above the firth, near a lighthouse. The view from there to the ninth fairway over the crashing sea would be enough, but the view of the white Turnberry Hotel with its red roof couldn't be any better, and seaward there is the starkly awesome sight of the Ailsa Craig, a huge dome of granite about a mile offshore where curling stones are quarried.
The Turnberry Hotel is one of the world's finest, with large, recently renovated rooms that look out over the courses, the sea and the Ailsa Craig. The dining room serves good to excellent Scottish contemporary food. Near sundown a lone bagpiper plays while walking the length of the immense front terrace, his melancholy chords hitting just the right note after a day's golf and a glass of 12-year-old single malt Scotch.
About halfway between Turnberry and Glasgow are Prestwick Golf Club and Royal Troon, adjacent to each other and across from the Prestwick Airport. Prestwick was the host of the first British Open Championship in 1860, and Royal Troon remains part of the Open rota, or rotation, today. Both clubs allow some outside play; your best shot is to write the club secretary well in advance or go through a travel agency that specializes in golf, like Perry Golf Travel of Atlanta.
Prestwick has its famous Alps Hole, where the tee shot has to be played over a large dune hill. As a result, you never know exactly where your ball will end up, which is why a caddie is so necessary. Troon has its Postage Stamp hole, a short par-3 with a tiny green. Gene Sarazen made a hole-in-one here during the 1973 British Open, his last appearance in a major championship. Both courses exude the history of the game. The clubhouses are filled with pictures and memorabilia from a century and a half of play, with long-dead club captains staring down from dark wood walls.
Inland, roughly halfway between Glasgow and St. Andrews is the Gleneagles Hotel. Gleneagles has three golf courses, the most recent designed by Jack Nicklaus and opened two years ago. Though these aren't links courses, they are wonderful examples of parkland layouts. The Kings Course has been host to the Scottish Open and the hotel itself has been host to kings. Just wandering the grounds of the hotel is a delight, and for the truly adventurous a Jackie Stewart off-road racing school is based here.
On the coast south of Edinburgh are three other Scottish greats: Royal Muirfield Golf Club, Gullane and North Berwick. Muirfeld, whose members are known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, is a delightful and difficult course that is also part of the British Open rota. Muirfield is the snootiest of Scotch golfing clubs, but it is worth the effort to try to play. The excellent Greywalls Hotel is adjacent to Muirfield, a swell place for a cigar and Scotch while telling lies after
North Berwick is the home of the Redan Hole, a classic par-3 much imitated around the world. The hole, the 15th, has an elevated shallow green that runs on a diagonal to the tee from right to left. At its front is a deep, deep bunker. The Redan hole is named after a fortress used in the Crimean War that was guarded by deep pits in front of its walls, maybe almost as deep as the bunker at North Berwick.
The Scottish golf experience is one to be lived, not merely played. Golf is part and parcel of Scottish life. Courses, like the Old Course at St. Andrews, tend to be town treasures open to all, including dog walkers. Part of a good Scottish golf experience is to stay at a bed and breakfast with a local rather than checking into a hotel. Even if the B&B proprietor isn't a golfer, he or she most likely will know many who are and can probably arrange a game with a few.
Anne Hippisley runs a B&B from her stone manse on a bluff overlooking St. Andrews Bay. Virtually every room in the house boasts a view of the bay, the beach (where the runners in the title sequence of Chariots of Fire were filmed) and the links of St. Andrews. It's just a four-minute walk from the house to the first tee of the Old Course. It is a walk that never fails to invigorate, never fails to inspire. It is a walk straight into history, straight into the birthplace of the game, and you come away feeling reborn every time.
Jeff Williams is a senior sportswriter for Newsday.
The Alfred Dunhill Cup
The British Open Championship, the oldest of golf's four major championships, is played twice a decade at the Old Course of St. Andrews. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the Open's administrator, wants to take advantage of St. Andrews' worldwide mystique and popularity with players and fans.
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