For years, I used to hear about friends taking days off from work to play golf. I didn't get it. Even worse, when they would travel, they would always take along their golf clubs. I didn't get that either.
Now I am as bad as they are! I play regularly and I rarely travel without taking my clubs. Business meetings are scheduled by tee times. What is this world coming to?
I started playing golf five summers ago. Today, I belong to four golf clubs and carry with me a list of golf courses that I'm dying to play. Slowly, but surely, I check them off.
During the summer, because I have a home in the Hamptons on Long Island, New York, I am able to play an amazing number of great courses: Atlantic, The Bridge, Hampton Hills, Maidstone, National, Noyac, Sebonack and Shinnecock. Not bad for a weekend golfer!
For the first time, I would be going to Scotland to play golf. The plan was six great courses in seven days. I was told the weather may be cold, windy and rainy. No problem.
I was told they're all walking courses. Now, that's a problem. I usually ride. I have bad feet, am out of shape and have no stamina. This could be the first true test of my love for the game. Could I hang in there and show up to play each course?
I would be traveling with my wife, Hazel, and our good friends Tony and Janet Goldman. He's a 10 handicap and has played the courses of Scotland many times. I'm a 19. This could be among the great weeks of my life (weather permitting).
Thursday, June 22
As our Continental flight No. 16 from Newark entered Scottish air space, the excitement began. Below me, out my windows, I began to see gray, thick-layered clouds. Between the cloud openings, I began to see lush, green lawns and thick forests intermingled with numerous small lakes of mirrored glass. As I came closer to Glasgow's Airport, small houses dotted the landscape followed by large industrial buildings and high rises. My flight touched down at exactly 7:46 a.m. My journey had brought me to the birthplace of golf. I sensed the aura and the history and I felt the excitement of the moment.
Although I was unable to sleep on the flight over, my engine is running full throttle. We rented a car and were off on our first leg to the Westin Turnberry. After about an hour's drive, we checked into our hotel, which was first-class in every way. (For a listing of hotels in Scotland, see the map on page 104.) We settled down, had lunch at the golf course grill and then were off to our first match at the Turnberry Ailsa Course with a tee time of 2:40 p.m.
The weather was cold (in the 50s), windy (a two-club wind) and off-and-on light rain. Welcome to Scotland! Tony and I were introduced to our caddies, Ian and Steve. We stepped up to the first tee box, full of adrenaline, and hit our balls into the fairway. For the first few holes my game was awesome. I parred the first hole followed by four bogeys, which for me is as good as I get. Then my day turned to night!
My lack of sleep on the plane flight caught up with me. My body turned off. I crashed. No timing. No control of my muscles. I was a wasted man! And between the rain, chill and wind, I was getting the Scottish welcome I had heard about. I shot a rather weak 98. Tony started off slowly, but as my game deteriorated his flourished. We did not keep his score.
I returned to the hotel depressed. My game had been better than ever before this trip, and I had been shooting regularly in the high 80s to mid-90s. Would this trip turn into the trip from hell?
Friday, June 23
Friday morning we left the hotel at 7:30 a.m. for a 9:00 a.m. tee time at Royal Troon Golf Club (Old Course).
We were playing with two Scots: Douglas (the member) and John, a friend of Tony's. Again, it was cold weather, but fortunately there was no rain.
This was the most difficult course I've ever played...and I've played many. Very narrow fairways, many strategically located deep bunkers, and gorse (or rough) that's virtually impossible to get out of.
To make matters worse, I was in terrible pain. My legs and feet ached from walking the two courses. My heels were beginning to hurt so much I had sharp pains with each step.
The match was devastating for me. Not one well-played hole. I shot a record high of 106, while Tony shot a respectable 92. Was it time for me to return to New York?
Saturday, June 24
Although we had a tee time at the Turnberry Kintyre Course, I opted out. I needed to rest, sleep and rebuild my confidence, which was shattered. We drove to Edinburgh and checked into The Balmoral hotel. The others walked the city while I stayed in my room to soak my feet.
That night we had an amazing dinner at an Italian restaurant in downtown Edinburgh called Bellini. Interesting pasta and vegetable dishes washed down by a magnificent 1985 Gaja Barbaresco. My mood was somber. I was quite concerned that from a golfplaying standpoint, this trip would turn out to be a total disaster.
Sunday, June 25
The four of us drove the 20 minutes to Kingsbarns. It was a beautiful setting. While I was highly skeptical of the day ahead, my wife, Hazel, kept reminding me it was "only a game, lighten up and have fun." Easy to say, hard to do when you're on your first golf trip to Scotland! I prayed for help.
My prayers were answered. With sleep and rest, I returned to the old Marvin. I went out with a 44 and came back with a 45, for a round of 89. I had six pars and a birdie. Tony played extremely well with an 84, including 11 pars. There was a God!
While the course was amazing—among the most beautiful I had ever played—with its wider fairways, it proved to be a great venue for my mid-level golf game. The course reminded me of Pebble Beach, with its ragged rocks at the water's edge.
Monday, June 26
Today, we headed to the home of golf, St Andrews. This was the day I had been dreaming about. We checked into the Old Course Hotel. Out my window was the historic course. And I could see the famous footbridge.
My opponents this day were Johann Rupert, the South African entrepreneur and CEO of Richemont, and Jean Engelbrecht, who is partners with Ernie Els in his wine company in South Africa. I played against Rupert in March at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida (see story, page 110 of the June issue of Cigar Aficionado), when I was teamed with Els. Since Rupert is a member of the Royal & Ancient, he was able to secure an otherwise very-difficult-to-get tee time of 3:20 p.m. There was a message in my room to meet Johann and Jean at 1:45 p.m. in the Sands restaurant off the hotel lobby. Johann is very competitive. Marvin is very competitive. This would be an interesting day. Would Marvin, the shotmaker, show up?
At lunch the teams were agreed upon: America versus South Africa. They and Tony would all play as 8s. I would play as an 18. Thus, I would get five shots a side. A five-pound Nassau was agreed. Although Johann had requested four caddies, only one was available. As we teed up on the first tee, a second caddie arrived. Genuinely courteous, Johann insisted that the Americans get the caddies while he and Jean use pull carts. The only stipulation was they could also have the caddies help to read greens. Of course, I agreed.
This match was without question the highlight of my trip. Pinch me. I was playing St Andrews Old Course. It was a magnificent day. And nothing could spoil it. Nothing.
The course offered many interesting challenges. The greens going out for the first nine holes had white flags, while the nine holes coming back had red flags. On a number of holes, other players crossed our fairway and there were a number of shared greens. While teeing off on a number of holes, you also had to drive on an imaginary line, as you could not see the fairway. The views were blocked by high gorse and mounds.
Going out, the American team was three up on the strong play of Tony. He shot a 41, as did Johann. I had a 46. Not bad! Jean had not played in several months and it showed. While he hits a very long ball, many landed out of bounds and he was in his pocket on many holes.
Coming back was a different story. Johann doesn't like to lose. He was playing without much help from Jean, who in all other ways is a delight. The South Africans were down four with four holes to play.
Johann declared, "We are down but not out." He started to make his move. On the difficult 15, he won with a bogey. Three down with three to go. On the 16th, he had a spectacular second shot to land six inches from the pin for a birdie. Two down with two to go. The pressure was on.
Seventeen was a lengthy 436-yard par four. Tony's third shot, an amazing 50-yard putt up and down several steep gulleys, stopped four feet from the pin. He then sank the putt for a par. Johann was in with a bogey five. The match was over.
Tony and Johann played the back nine extremely well with a 43 and 42, respectively. I had a 47. For the 18 holes, Johann finished with an 83, Tony an 84 and Marvin a 93. We didn't total Jean's score, as a courtesy.
The day finished up with dinner at the Seafood Restaurant (the winners paid) and then late-night drinks at the Old Course bar (the losers paid). We each downed three or four rounds of Scotland's best whisky and had a most pleasant chat about golf, Scotland and life.
The next day, Hazel and I returned to New York. Tony and Janet stayed on so Tony could play the very difficult Carnoustie Golf Links.
I walked four courses in five days. My feet were killing me. But I had a great time. I knew my first appointment the next day would be with my foot doctor. He told me I had plantar fasciitis. With some pills and some stretching exercises, the pain would disappear. As of this writing, it had. But not my grand memories from my first golf trip to Scotland.
For previous stories in Marvin R. Shanken's golf series, see My Day with Tiger in the December 2005 issue, and Confessions of a Weekend Golfer (My Day with Ernie Els and Gary Player) in the June 2006 issue.