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
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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."
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