Golf’s spiritual home has never been more popular, with golfers from around the globe descending on its world-class courses. Our correspondent joined the throng for a once-in-a-lifetime experience on and off the course.
Journey to golf’s motherland and you will undoubtedly come away with lasting memories, a tick off your bucket list and a golfing hangover which is likely to take some nursing.
Golf Australia feature writer, Peter Quattro and his cohorts, McHarvey and McBroun, packed their clubs and made a beeline for Scotland – a country with more golf courses per head of population than any other country in the world.
And while the Old Course at St Andrews, the ancient links which dates back to the 15th century, is considered to be a site of pilgrimage for most golf aficionados, many of Scotland’s almost 600 other courses would sit comfortably alongside the world’s best. A week-long assignment to the game’s Holy Land unfolded as smoothly as a fine single malt. Well, almost …
Scotland sure packs a golfing punch, from great links lands to the lesser known coastal gems. What the country lacks in size and stature, it makes up for in history and significance. There’s little doubt Scotland is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the game, which is not only a social norm, but in some parts of Scotland it is essentially the economic lifeblood.
And, while in some corners of the world the game is still seen as elitist, in the land of its birth it enjoys widespread appeal, playing a key role in the nation’s sporting consciousness and is aligned to its egalitarian tradition.
With nine tee times booked from one end of the country to the other in just eight days, ours was a tall order but as we set out from Glasgow – Scotland’s largest city which boasts more than 100 courses of its own – our exuberance was bubbling over and we didn’t give a second thought to the hundreds of miles by car or by foot that lay ahead. We’d been meticulous in our planning and wanted nothing to break our stride.
Bound for the quaint seaside town of Prestwick in South Ayrshire, we made the easy journey in under 40 minutes. Built on the windswept sand dunes that lie between the beach and its inland, Prestwick Golf Club’s history dates back nearly 170 years to a time when golf clubs were in their infancy and Old Tom Morris moved from St Andrews to create a 12-hole course. In nine short years Prestwick, a course that characterises the links of a bygone era became the home of the world’s first Open Championship.
“What the country lacks in size and stature, it makes up for in history and significance. There’s little doubt Scotland is the undisputed heavyweight champion.”
Prestwick is as challenging as it is unique and it’s fair to say they threw away the mould after it was built. In a way, Prestwick jump started our week, given it’s a course that requires you to play virtually every shot in your bag and it was here we first faced off with the dreaded deep pot bunkers.
With our gaze firmly fixed on the clubhouse and the warm thoughts of a wee dram to round out our day, Mother Nature suddenly unleashed her fury and Scotland lived up to its reputation. The wind and rain arrived in biblical proportions and in an instant we felt more like sailors battling a storm than golfers strolling the links. But as we putted out on 17 we knew where we were and why we came. Without a word spoken, we played on regardless as we did in similar conditions the next day at Turnberry.
Love him or loath him, (President) Trump has given golf a shot in the arm. While many traditionalists may find his brazen gun-slinging approach not in keeping with the game’s etiquette and manner, there can be no disputing that with more than 20 courses and resorts now bearing his name, his investment in the business of golf is unprecedented.
There is unlikely to be a better example of his commitment than Trump Turnberry Resort, his biggest purchase to date. Naturally, the first thing Trump did after spending more than £200 million on the course and hotel restoration, is rechristen it. The ‘Trump’ Turnberry Resort is essentially Disneyland for golfers and for the purists, it’s reassuring that while the hotel is everything you’d expect from a Trump resort hotel, the course redevelopments have preserved the traditional Turnberry layout.
With the memory of so many famous Open Champions omnipresent, playing Ailsa was perhaps our most anticipated round. Rated No.4 in Scotland, its ranking is befitting. Tee to green, Ailsa is awe-inspiring and it’s condition almost flawless. With the Ailsa Craig ever-present on the horizon, Ailsa Turnberry has arguably one of the most exhilarating eight-hole stretches of golf anywhere. Each of the outward holes from the 3rd, hugs the dramatic coastline of the North Atlantic and requires precision shot making and raw power, particularly if you’re game enough to tackle them from the back pegs.
With Prestwick and Turnberry’s Ailsa and King Robert the Bruce behind us, we made the 90-minute trek north to Gleneagles.
Such was our anticipation and haste that somehow we arrived at Gleneagles without the car key. Now you rightly ask how we drove a car 155kms without the key. Who would have known that with certain models of keyless cars, the fob only has to be in its proximity for the car to start and, will continue to drive until the ignition is turned off? Of course, we only discovered this after we stopped at the front door of the Gleneagles Hotel, the grandest hotel you’re ever likely to set eyes on.
While a car that wasn’t going anywhere presented a problem for the doorman, our interest was the splendour of our new digs and our tee time on the King course less than an hour later.
Gleneagles is the complete package. This historic five-star luxury resort in the heart of Scotland was built on an 850-acre estate in 1924 and meticulously restored by its current owners at a cost that is anybody’s guess. It’s fair to say no expense was spared. And with the only restaurant in Scotland that holds two Michelin stars, Gleneagles’ old world charm will undoubtedly transport you back to a time when Scottish high society reigned supreme passing time fishing, clay-pigeon shooting, playing tennis, croquet and, of course, playing golf – all of which are still available to guests today. And to this day cravats, sports blazers, canes and toffee accents are not out of place.
With the weather improving we hit the King, a course we didn’t have any expectations about. Designed in 1919, this parkland masterpiece has stood the test of time and is truly an inspirational battle of wits and game. The enormity of the challenge unravels very quickly and so will your score if you’re not solid off the tee and accurate with your irons.
“No trip to Scotland would truly be complete without staying and playing Gleneagles. You will eventually forget the cost but you will never forget the experience.”
The King is brutally good, a true test of strength and character while it’s Queen – a more charming and forgiving course – is one with nature. The Gleneagles trio; King, Queen and The PGA Centenary will tempt you and tease you but, like a well-aged red, these gems will ultimately please you.
After our round we were gently reminded we needed to attend to the unwanted fixture on the hotel’s doorstep. And, after yet another fruitless search we decided to get the car towed back to Edinburgh and replaced with one that required a genuine key.
No trip to Scotland would truly be complete without staying and playing Gleneagles. You will eventually forget the cost but you will never forget the experience. Speaking of cost, while losing a key may seem relatively innocuous, I mean how much could a key cost to replace? Let’s just say, £650 later we’ve put this one down to experience.
Over the next week we played a stunning array of Scottish specials that were all worth putting in the miles for. It would be remiss not to highlight Castle Stuart, a relatively new course by comparison (opened in 2009), that has rocketed up the rankings faster than a Beatles hit.
With commanding views over the Moray Firth, this seaside stunner is ranked No.6 in Scotland and certainly justifies the 250km road trip from Edinburgh. From every aspect it is a visual feast, a layout that will arouse your golfing senses, exhilarate you and leave you wanting more. Having hosted the Scottish Open in 2011 and again in 2016, Castle Stuart was certainly our most pleasant surprise. While we were fortunate enough to enjoy this championship track in rather benign conditions, playing it in more adverse weather would literally make it a game changer. I have little doubt Castle Stuart could and will one day host an Open Championship.
Our next stop was Royal Dornoch Golf Club; one of the oldest courses in Scotland, with its first nine holes laid out in 1616. This is as north as you’re likely to travel to play golf but if you think you’re Robinson Crusoe, think again. Golfers come from everywhere to play this 400-year-old classic. As you potter around the practice green you’ll be forgiven for thinking you could be preparing for a United Nations summit rather than a round of golf. Again, it was left to Old Tom Morris, who was surely the busiest course architect of his time, to lay out the remaining nine holes in 1877.
Ranked No.2 in Scotland, just behind the Old Course at St Andrews, some have argued that while this rather unassuming and timeless work of art may not compete on reputation and recognition of the Old, it is a better all-round course. Royal Dornoch does very little to announce itself but as you set out to play the stellar layout, rest assured it will gradually spellbind and ultimately reward you for making the trip.
Dornoch’s history dates back thousands of years, which for a lad from Down Under is hard to conceive. From medieval castles to historic monuments, Dornoch is essentially an outdoor museum built from stone. You get a sense that this place has rich stories to tell and by contrast dark secrets to keep.
Today’s town folk are understandably laidback, but go back a few years and one could imagine they were far less easy going. The people of Dornoch were famous for burning anyone that was said to practice witchcraft. In fact the last ‘witch’ burning was conducted not far from Royal Dornoch’s 1st tee in 1727.
We rounded out our week with our longest road trip back to St Andrews to play two outstanding courses that sit on the renowned St Andrews golf coast. The Castle Course, known as the ‘7th’ St Andrews course and Kingsbarns, another example of Scotland’s finest. These courses enjoy views of the North Sea from almost every hole. The rippling fairways and natural hallows are maintained immaculately and designed in such harmony with the environment that you’d be forgiven for thinking nature created them and man just mows them. In the words of the Australian music icon Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum “do yourself a favour” and put these courses on your itinerary. You won’t regret it.
The courses and how we ranked them provided for spirited debate but one thing we agreed on, regardless of where you rate them, Scotland is a gift that keeps on giving. There’s a purity in the country and its courses, which is as unique as your DNA. It’s the very reason golfers the world over make the pilgrimage year in year out.
After almost 30 years of traveling and playing golf the world over, I’m convinced perfection is an illusion, although a powerful one. It’s less about the manicured greens or the plush fairways or even how often you hit it; but more about the pursuit, the experience and the ramble. That’s really what brings you back time and time again.
So as the sun set on our trip in a cloudless sky on a perfectly still afternoon we were reminded by the closing quote in the Royal Dornoch course guide of just how fortunate we are to have found this game; “As you prepare to tee off, think about the number of people in the last 400 years who have stood where you are. Regardless of your round, be grateful for the energy to play and for the company and the scenery. Take a deep breathe, swing slow and true and give thanks for the exercise of mind, body and spirit.”