We were in Scotland – 12 of us – to celebrate the 40th birthday of a good friend, Cameron Ferguson.
Cameron had caddied for me when I won both the Australian Open and PGA titles. And, much more impressively, he once spent nine months or so on the bag of Seve Ballesteros, a time that included a Masters Tournament at Augusta National.
Anyway, the plan was for us all to take a golf trip to the home of golf – six from Australia, six from the US, where Cameron now lives. So we met at Edinburgh Airport and drove to St. Andrews, where we played the New Course. That was perfect for me. Every time I go to Scotland I have to play golf straight off the plane, jet lag or no jet lag, which makes sense to me. That’s why I’m there.
I’d played the New a few times before as an amateur in the St. Andrews Links Trophy. I’m always blown away by how good it is and by how much I enjoy it. It’s a wonderful layout, one of my favourite courses in the St. Andrews area. It helps that you can see the Old Course to the left as you play the opening holes, but it is a terrific test in its own right.
From there, we made our way in our two eight-seater vans to the house we had rented in Elie. It is a great wee place, as are so many of the small towns on the Fife coast. They all feel like what I call “old school Scotland.” Sitting in the local pub that night, it occurred to me that everything there is just different and better when it comes to golf. Of course, it also helps that I don’t get to live that life all the time.
Every day we played a Presidents/Ryder Cup style match between the two “nations” in our party, one that ended up in an honourable tie. My handicap was, as you might expect, a source of some debate and controversy. A fair estimate, one eventually acceptable to all, was plus-four. But that was adjusted to plus-three because I was carrying only a half-set of clubs.
On day two we played Carnoustie, which one week earlier had hosted the Dunhill Links Championship on the European Tour. Then it was Kingsbarns. Then the Castle Course at St. Andrews. Then Lundin Links. Then, finally, Elie. We entered the daily ballot to get onto the Old Course but none of us were successful on any of the three days we tried. That was disappointing. The Old Course is my favourite place in the world to play golf. Maybe next time.
The highlight of the trip – for me at least – turned out to be Elie. I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of golf in Scotland over the years. And I’ve played a broad cross-section of courses. But I had never been to Elie. I’d done Musselburgh, Prestwick and North Berwick and most of the older courses. But not Elie, which was founded in 1832.
The clubhouse and the 1st hole has to be the most Scottish thing there is. At some point you think that you have seen all of the “quirk” Scottish golf has to offer. But I’m not sure you ever really do. The opening shot at Elie has to be fired blind over a massive hill. It’s like hitting over a house, it’s so steep. Back in the day the club would employ a young lad to stand on top of the hill and signal when the fairway was clear. Now, however, there is a periscope next to the starter’s hut to do that job. Yes, a periscope, one that apparently came from a ship, the HMS Excalibur.
“You see kids walking down the street to the courses carrying their clubs. In the pubs at night we saw guys standing at the bar wearing golf shoes and talking about their rounds.”
It’s brilliant, especially for an architecture geek like me who loves all the “crazy” stuff you can’t build any more. You can even swing the periscope round and look across the Firth of Forth to Muirfield, Gullane and North Berwick. It really is the most Scottish-links thing possible. The hill was there. The hole had to go over the top. And they just worked something out. It’s so unique and fun on a course that has some really dramatic and enjoyable ocean holes.
Another striking aspect of our trip was how welcoming and kind the locals were at each of our stops. Lundin and Elie – both members’ courses – were brilliant in that regard. They were just happy that we were happy playing their courses. That is what it felt like. There was no sense that we were invading their space. It was such a great vibe.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that golf is the national sport in Scotland. But there are constant reminders when you go into the towns during the day. You see kids walking down the street to the courses carrying their clubs. In the pubs at night we saw guys standing at the bar wearing golf shoes and talking about their rounds. Brilliant.
The favourite course for the Americans in our group was Kingsbarns, which is no surprise. For someone going to Scotland for the first time, Kingsbarns is a brilliant intermediate step between US-style courses and classic links. It’s an appetiser. It is a lovely course on a great piece of land. And it has all the comforts American travellers demand when they play golf. So it feels “normal” to Americans before they move on to the older, more traditional venues. Starting on those is just too big a leap for most, I think.
Which brings me to the Castle Course. We had a good time there and we were well looked after on a course that gave me a view of St. Andrews I had never seen before. But the holes were pretty disappointing. The greens are particularly eccentric (I’m being kind). It is so different from the other six courses controlled by the St. Andrews Links Trust.
That actually got me thinking. When people talk about “links golf” they tend to suggest that every seaside course can be thrown into the same basket. Not so. We played six courses on this trip and they were all very different. Links golf is actually more varied than parkland golf. Because there are no rules. You can have 600-yard par-5s and 230-yard par-4s. You can have stone walls crossing holes. And you can have any number of blind shots. Almost anything is possible. And that is the fun of it.
“Fun” is the word that sums up my time in Scotland. I had never been on what you might call a “boys’ trip,” one where conversations are dominated by tales of shots and putts. But it is one of the best things you can ever do. It doesn’t get any better than travelling, eating and playing golf with your mates. In Scotland, a country that has retained so much of its green space. The towns and the villages are so understated and charming. They get the balance between quality of life and standard of living just right. I’ll definitely do it again.