Monday, July 13, 2009
Three flights, three security checks, two times I had to check my bags and only one lost one later (my clubs of all things), I'm back in Arizona after a fantastic trip to Scotland. I really wanted to post some stuff while I was overseas, but the wireless Internet in a few of my places was less reliable than a celebrity's punctuality.
Now, back and rested (well, "rested") I thought I'd jot down some stuff about the trip. Here goes ...
We arrived in Cruden Bay on the first night after snagging a rental car in Edinburgh and roundabouting it for three hours north. Driving through Aberdeen was a little hectic, but Cruden Bay is an incredibly quaint town, similar to something you'd see in a Jude Law romantic comedy. As we pull into the town, our first stop is at the golf course to grab our first grub of the trip. My choice? Fish and chips. My dad's choice? Fish and chips. The clubhouse at the 27-hole links facility was empty when we arrived, but a waitress right out of the cookie-cutter Scottish mold took care of us perfectly. As I was staring out at the course, around 7:30 PM, I couldn't shake the fact that I wanted to play ... I wanted to play RIGHT then.
Our bed and breakfast was down the road, so after dropping off my tuckered father, it was back to the course for a quick nine holes. Cruden Bay has their 18-hole championship facility and a nine-hole St. Olaf Course, that the locals have coined, political correctness aside, the "ladies course." It begins with a 365-yard par-4, and includes five par-4s and four par-3s. I get around in a couple over par, making my first birdie of the trip on the 166-yard par-3 5th hole. After concluding my round, I headed up to a much busier Cruden Bay clubhouse. I take a seat with a pint of Tennents after a 15 minute chat with an older gentleman on the putting green, and eventually find my way over to a seat with Bill and George, two older Scottish gentlemen enjoying a pint and some good, Scottish chatter (synonym -- tall tales).
George turns out to be a caddie at Cruden Bay, who bags for my dad the next day on our second 18 holes. They give me some insight on the course and the castle down the street, which apparently was the basis of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." The two men tell me that at one point, you had to pay a "roof tax" for anything built in the area, so the owner of the Dracula castle took off all the roofs. The castle is beautiful in the night sky, and would give you shivers if the haar (or fog) was wrapping itself around the outstretched building.
After a pint at Cruden Bay and a finishing pint at the Kilmarnock Arms, our host facility for the night, it was bedtime for what would be an early tee time at Royal Aberdeen.
The next morning we wake up and enjoy a traditional Scottish breakfast, which included black pudding and Haggis for me (my dad, surprisingly, declined the Scottish flavor). A couple of driving instructions from the owner of the Kilmarnock got us directly to Royal Aberdeen, the fifth oldest golf course in the world (which, of course, rested on "Links Street"). We pulled into a parking lot that looked about as busy as an Applebees in the middle of Hollywood. Our rental car joined three other cars, and we were just hoping someone was in to let us tee off.
A young lad had our yardage books and scorecards ready, sending us out without a caddie because none were around at 8 AM (Interesting side note: I guess caddying at St. Andrews had me spoiled, because 6:30 AM was normally our call time. If you showed up at 8 AM, you were considered a lazy caddie). I asked the young man in the pro shop if there was anything tricky we should know about the golf course, since the night before, Bill and George had told me a story about Aberdeen, when a group of Americans went out on the front nine, and ended up finishing their back nine on another golf course that runs adjacent to Aberdeen. The legend goes that the men ended on the 18th hole, looked up at the clubhouse and said, "Why is this building a different color?"
I was told to make sure when we finished the ninth hole, we headed back in, as a lot of links golf course are basically nine holes out, nine holes in (thus the reason the front is always referred to as "out"). Both our initial tee shots found the first fairway, and both found the green, but that was about the highlight of our front nine. The wind blew so hard at Aberdeen, a tough test without any wind, that we were struggling just to keep our lost ball count under double digits. The front nine was all into about a 25-30 MPH wind, with the back nine playing all downwind. How downwind? On the par-5 12th hole, that measures 530-yards, I hit 3-iron off the tee and a chip 7-iron over the green. Looking back, I'm not sure a 9-iron would have held the green with as much wind as was behind us.
Royal Aberdeen was in as pristine condition as any course I have ever played in Scotland. The greens rolled true, and the fairways weren't browned out like most you find. My dad continued to tell anyone and everyone that would listen that Royal Aberdeen might have been the finest course he had ever played, and looking back, I don't think he was too far off (balls in your court, Augusta. Just send us a tee time and we'll be there).
A couple of meat pies in the charming Aberdeen clubhouse and a few purchases in the pro shop, and we were off to Cruden Bay for the afternoon time. As we were driving, the wind was freshening, and at Cruden Bay, there is nothing to stop the wind whipping off the water.
George took the reigns of my dad's golf bag, and we were set on the second 18 of the day. Bay, apparently, hosts an annual golf tournament the week of the British Open, where it cost 50 pounds and all you need is a handicap. You get four rounds at the exquisite links course and an atmosphere I could only imagine would match anything we've seen here in the States. If changing your flight was a simple process, I think I would have stayed for the match. It is two stroke play events that qualify you for match play, but even if you don't qualify you get to play the last two days.
Unlike Aberdeen, Cruden Bay was browned out like what you'd see on television. The fairways rolled out and my dad experienced that on the second hole. Told to aim down the left side, Monte smashed a drive perfect, or so it seemed. Like Tom Watson once noted on his first ever tee shot at a links golf course, you can hit it in a certain spot and end up somewhere completely different. My dad looked and looked and looked and eventually found himself in a pot bunker on the complete opposite side of the fairway.
The wind was now at 40-45 MPH. On certain holes it was nearly impossible to take enough club. Downwind, I drove the 311-yard par-4 12th hole with a 3-iron (my dad was over the green with his drive, explaining "I don't hit drives over 300-yard par-4s"). Into the wind, I hit a 6-iron 100 yards and the hardest 4-iron I've ever swung 150 yards. Our caddie George admitted at one point, "This is some strong wind," which from a Scottish person is like Jenna Jameson coming up to you and saying about your new girlfriend, "I think she's a little too slutty for my taste." If Jenna is saying that, there must be something very, very wrong.
All things considered at Cruden Bay, I played pretty well. I made three birdies and no double-bogeys and got a ton of interesting advice from George about the course and the history behind it (on the 17th hole, for instance, there is a huge mound in the middle of the fairway that is supposedly filled with hundreds of Viking skeletons dating back to a 1012 battle).
A drive down to St. Andrews, where we checked in to the Braeside Inn, met my mom and went directly for the obligatory Dunvegan dinner was perfect. The weather had turned for the better and we had a morning tee time at the Old Course and an afternoon tee time at the Castle. It can't get much better, eh?
We wake up to pancakes from James, the owner of the Braeside. After gulping those down, my dad and I drive over to the St. Andrews range to try and loosen these aging bones. After the warm-up, it is to the first tee at the Old for one of the best scenes in all of golf. As they say, left on the way out and left on the way in at St. Andrews, and that is what we did. If you have never played the Old, there is something you must understand -- the first and 18th holes are beautiful and historic, but rather easy from simply a golf standpoint. It isn't like there is a lot to them, you just must avoid the burn on your second shot and you'll be fine. Yes, avoid the burn. Avoid the burn, Shane. Avoid the ... argh. An 8-iron second ballooned and came up short and it was a bogey. I actually started my round at the Old Course like I had never seen golf clubs before. I would have been more successful at hunting rabbits with my AP2 irons than hitting golf shots. Six-over after five holes isn't exactly the start you'd like, but I settled in and played the rest of the day even-par. My dad and I played James and his brother-in-law and after being behind the eight-ball early, we righted the ship and ended up halving the match.
Sitting in the New Course club overlooking the majestic scene that is the Old, a familiar face was being asked to take some photos in the first fairway. It was Bubba Watson, getting in a round at the Old Course before heading to Turnberry. One of the caddies told me later that Watson didn't hit a single wood all day around the Old.
Next was the Castle course, the seventh golf course built at St. Andrews that opened last summer. If the Old Course is St. Andrew's Model-T, a legend that never seems to die, the Castle is its Bugatti Veyron. A beauty that overlooks the Firth of Tay, this course is shunned by some of the locals as too modern, and not linksy enough, but it is beautiful in its own regard. Rolling hills that take you on a march up to the top spot on the 12th green, the Castle is one that will eventually be as humbling as Kingsbarns. Sure, it has some years to grow in, but you can't help but enjoy the beauty of the course. The 17th is a par-3 right out of Pebble Beach 2.0. Pictures can't truly do the hole justice (even though that is the 17th in the above photo), but imagine a short hole with ocean on the right, a cliff in front and a view of the St. Andrews backdrop behind.
The course was so beautiful that dad and I ended up driving in to snag my mom and aunt so they could come out and look out over the water.
Our final day in Scotland was another visit to the Old. We had contemplated our final day options, with names like Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and even Ladybanks making their way into the discussion, but we love the Old and when there are times on the most famous golf course in the world, you take them up on it.
I started out bogey-bogey AGAIN, with a caddie named Nigel (who you can follow on Twitter, here) on my father's bag that says he is a great golfer in his own regard. After the nasty start, my swing started clicking but my putter was left somewhere west of the Atlantic. I birdied the fourth and fifth holes, and offset a three-putt bogey on eight with a two-putt birdie on nine, but never got the speeds and lines on the greens down and eventually let what could have been a disgustingly low round go for naught. I carded 38 putts on way to a 75 that included a triple on 17 (sorry Herb Kohler, if I chipped any paint off your magnificent hotel with my tee ball).
On a trip like this, the scores hardly matter. Sure, you want to go low, but the moment takes precedent and I had to continually tell myself that.
It was one of those trips you don't soon forget. In three and a half days, I played 99 holes of Scottish golf at some of the best courses in the world. My dad had some good holes and some birdies. We met some great people and wrapped it up with a firework night in Edinburgh with a couple of English chaps I met at a bar off George Street. Say what you want about the American courses, and I love Augusta and Pine Valley and Pebble as much as the next guy, but there is something about Scottish golf that steals my heart away.
All in all, an experience I'm lucky to have gone on.