Fourteen days in heaven

(Image: Gleneagles King’s Course)

It may have cost a few dollars that were earmarked for retirement, but my two-week trip to Scotland has been worth every farthing and more. I’m writing this between tears and a constricted Adam’s Apple as the plane has just taken off from Edinburgh airport, and I’m on it. The thought that I may never return to Scotland is very sad. The Scots are the most wonderful and welcoming people I’ve ever met, jolly and cynical and very, very funny. The scenery is so beautiful – lush and calm and quaint and sensible. The beer is more drinkable than water, or candy. While green vegetables don’t seem to appear very often on plates here, the rest of the food is pretty edible, especially if you fancy fish.

And the golf courses? Well, paradise is good. Scottish golf courses are better.

Thanks to tour organizer Doug Ball, a longtime acquaintance and an original fixture at Devil’s Pulpit, I was able to tag along with a group of a dozen great guys from Doug’s orbit. My itinerary included: Royal Troon (Championship and Portland courses), Prestwick, Turnberry, the King’s Course at Gleneagles, Kingsbarns, the Kittocks Course at Fairmont St. Andrews, Muirfield, the Duke’s at St. Andrews, Carnoustie, and, fortunately, the Old Course.

Of these eleven, three are not pure links courses, a fact which some people may say is a sacrilege for Scotland, but in fact is not so at all. The King’s Course (1919) and the Duke’s (1995), are both heathland courses, very similar to our North American parkland courses, but with rough that’s more similar to links – deep fescue, heather and thick gorse. The Kittocks course (2002) was designed by Australian Bruce Devlin, and while very links-like, it’s a little more generous and American, befitting a hotel resort course.

Of the eleven, my favourite of all was the King’s at Gleneagles… which I wasn’t expecting it to be. The whole Gleneagles resort is stunning and immaculate, set in the higher lowlands, with incomparable views all round, and three terrific courses on the property. The PGA Centenary course is where they played the last Ryder Cup, and while very good and lush, is generally considered the least desirable to play after the King’s and Queen’s.

The next favourite on my personal rota was Turnberry (1906), which, in spite of now being owned by the Trump organization, is still a magnificent spectacle and a terrific golf course. Trump is redesigning a couple of holes out by the lighthouse, and surprisingly, most of the Scots I spoke with seem to think they’re good changes. But in the meantime, everything in the clubhouse, Pro Shop, and I’m sure, in the Turnberry hotel, has been branded “Trump Turnberry”; the arrogance of that is enough to make you puke.

The Old Course ranks third on my list. Not because of the test of golf, but simply because you’re walking on hallowed ground there. This is, indeed, Mecca for people who love and revere the game. Playing 17 and 18, in particular, for me and I’m sure thousands of others, really was the epitome of a 60-year career in golf. To play it within four days of one of the most memorable Open Championships ever, with the grandstands still up and the echoes of spectator cheers reverberating off the chairs, was pretty breathtaking. And for me, finally playing in the footsteps of my late brother, who was a member of the R&A and genuinely addicted to this ground, was very emotional.

My decades-long desire to par the Road Hole went up in flames the second my clubhead struck the ball on the tee, as I watched my carefully planned drive sail over the barn, clearly fading toward the Tea Garden at the Old Course Hotel. Ah well, a 7-4 finish wasn’t so bad. Sadly, it completed a round in which I used my putter 47 times, including a 4-putt that was surely uglier than Jordan Spieth’s at the Open.

One of the benefits of living in the 21st Century is that we all have smartphones, and smartphones have cameras. I don’t know how many times I reached into my golf bag to grab my phone and snap a photo, but it was a lot, and the collection will give me memories to take to my grave. A decade ago or more, only a professional photographer would carry a camera out on a golf course; now we all do, and we’re luckier for it.

As Gary Player is often seen to say, of another place, “For the love of golf, you’ve got to go!” That’s a statement that I would apply only to where I’ve just been. Thank you, Doug, and thank you, Scotland.

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