Great Golf Course on TV This Week: Kingsbarns

The British Women’s Open is on this week, and it’s being held on one of my favorite courses: Kingsbarns, in St. Andrews. The Golf Channel’s coverage so far seems to be limited to putts, commercials, and talking heads, but occasionally the camera drifts past a few holes, on its way from the leaderboard back to the commentators’ booth. I’ve played Kingsbarns only once, and that was thirteen years ago, but I still often think about it, and I want to go back.

Kingsbarns looks like a links course but is actually an optical illusion. It was carved (by an American! in 2000!) from a featureless swath of seaside pastureland—but despite its lack of an ancient pedigree it’s a terrific course and it’s unusually fun to play. In addition, the clubhouse is the right scale (small), and it has a good bar with the most amazing panoramic windows, plus leather chairs you could sleep all night in.

During my single round, in 2004, we were held up on every shot by a painfully slow group ahead of us. On the suggestion of our bus driver, we complained in the bar and were given all our drinks for free (then left a tip that was big enough to cover pretty much the entire tab). That night, we ate at a restaurant recommended by the same driver, who had overruled the recommendation of our caddies. The suspicion on the trip was that the driver was receiving kickbacks from the restaurants he took us to, although I was inclined to trust him, having eaten in a few caddie-recommended pubs over the years. Here’s the Kingsbarns clubhouse:

Back-Roads Scotland: Tain Golf Club

Tain is an Old Tom Morris layout on southern side of Dornoch Firth. It’s less than five miles in a straight line from Royal Dornoch, and less than ten miles by car. I played it in 1992, on my first golf trip to Scotland. Jerry Quinlan, of Celtic Golf, who planned my trip, had arranged for me to play with the club’s general manager and one of the members. I got lost in the town and didn’t arrive at the club until exactly eight, when we were supposed to tee off. Here’s where I got lost:

The manager, whose name was Norman, and the member, whose name was Ian, were already on the tee when I pulled up. Ian looked peeved and impatient. I jumped from my car, pulled on my shoes, breathlessly hit a drive without a practice swing or a waggle, and took off after them.

Norman and Ian, it turned out, where playing in a club competition. Even so, they played at a pace that would have staggered the average American golfer. I have friends at home who think I play ridiculously fast, but I had to concentrate to keep up. I watched them closely, to make sure I put down my bag on the side of the green that was nearest the next tee, and I always had to be aware of whose turn it was to do what. No plumb-bobbing!

If there was any doubt about the playing order, one of them would quickly establish it. “First David, then myself, then Ian,” Norman said on one hole as he pulled the pin. Each golfer was expected to line up his putt or select his next club while the others were putting or hitting. Even so, we played more slowly than the two players behind us, who occasionally had to wait.

Tain is surrounded by farms and separated from Dornoch Firth by fields full of sheep; at one point, I had to retrieve my ball from a pigpen, which was out of bounds. Still, my round was one of the happiest of my trip. After I had jogged along with Norman and Ian for a couple of holes, they apparently forgave me for being late, and from then on we chatted between shots. Norman told me where to aim on every tee—the bunker on the left, the last tree on the right—and I manged to hit my ball on the proper line surprisingly often. Later, it occurred to me that my unaccustomed accuracy was probably the result of my aiming at something. Before that day, I don’t think I had ever aimed a drive at anything smaller than the entire fairway—in effect, aiming at nothing.

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After our round, Norman and Ian bought me a beer in the clubhouse bar. The two players who had been behind us were also there. Ian good-naturedly complained to them that they had talked too loudly during their match, and that their voices had bothered him. “If you had been playing at the proper pace,” one of them said, “you would have been too far ahead to hear me.”

Linksland is Not Called Linksland Because It “Links the Town to the Sea”

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Despite what television announcers sometimes say (ahem), linksland is not called linksland because it “links the town to the sea.” Nor is “links” as a synonym for “golf course.” Links” is a geological term. Linksland is a specific type of sandy, wind-sculpted coastal terrain—the word comes from the Old English hlinc, “rising ground”—and in its authentic form it exists in only a few places on earth, the most famous of which are in Great Britain and Ireland.

Linksland arose at the end of the most recent ice age, when the retreat of the northern glacial sheet, accompanied by changes in sea level, exposed sand deposits and what had once been coastal shelves. Wind pushed the sand into dunes and rippling plains; ocean storms added more sand; and coarse grasses covered everything.

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Early Britons used linksland mainly for livestock grazing, since the ground closest to the sea was usually too starved and too exposed for growing crops, although even that use wasn’t always allowed. As someone in Aberdeen wrote in 1487, “No catall sale haf pastour of gyrss apone the lynkis.” When significant numbers of Scotsmen became interested in smacking small balls with curved wooden sticks, the links was where they went (or were sent), perhaps because there they were in no one’s way.

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The Other Major Tournament at Royal Troon

The southernmost end of the championship course at Royal Troon directly abuts a trailer park, called the Prestwick Holiday Park—which also separates Troon from Prestwick Golf Club.

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In fact, the trailer park is so close to the course that when you tee off on the tenth hole you practically hang your rear end over the fence. (In both the U.K. and Ireland, a surprising amount of what looks to an American like prime seaside real estate is occupied by mobile homes and RVs.)

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A Troon member once told me that another Troon member, while traveling, overheard some other diners in a restaurant discussing a recent tournament at Troon and eagerly went over to introduce himself. It turned out that the tournament they were discussing was an event conducted surreptitiously by golf-playing residents of the trailer park, on the Troon holes nearest their caravans—including the Postage Stamp, which I played in 2009 (in neither the Open Championship nor the Prestwick Holiday Park Invitational):

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Troon is a Time-travel Wormhole to Machrihanish

Machrihanish is a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland. Part of the routing was created by Old Tom Morris in 1879, when what was then called the Kintyre Golf Club acquired additional acreage and expanded from 12 holes to 18. Machrihanish has one of the awesomest opening tee shots in golf. Here’s the first tee:

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The rest of the course is terrific, too. The only difficulty with Machrihanish is that it’s tricky to get to. The drive from Glasgow Airport can take more than three hours, with little or no hope of golf along the way. But there’s a shortcut, if you do what 11 friends and I did in 2014: charter a boat from an outfit called Kintyre Express. The trip from Troon Harbor (which is just up the road from Royal Troon) to Campbeltown Harbor (which is just down the road from Machrihanish) takes 75 minutes. That means that the round trip saves you more than enough time to squeeze in one entire bonus round at either Machrihanish or Machrihanish Dunes. Here we are getting ready to set out from Troon:

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And here’s some of what we saw along the way:

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And here’s what Tony looked like when the skipper gunned his engine:

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And here’s what we saw as we approached Campbeltown:

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And here’s where we stayed, just up a long ramp from the dock:

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Three days later, we took the same boat to Northern Ireland—which is even closer to Campbeltown than Troon is. All our golf bags and suitcases went into the hold:

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Kintyre Express has lots of other routes, too. The Troon-to-Campbeltown trip starts at £500 for up to 12 passengers. Thanks to Brexit, that currently works out to only about $55 a head. Kintyre also operates regular ferry service to a number of destinations in the same region. Ask for Mairi!

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Open Countdown: Troon, Foursomes, Kümmel, and the Queen

Foursomes is a game in which two golfers take turns playing the same ball. In the United States, it’s usually called Scotch foursomes or alternate shot, and it’s often a prelude to divorce. (The great British golf correspondent Henry Longhurst once recounted, with disapproval, an old joke about a male golfer who was “alternately playing and kicking his ball” because he was “practicing for the mixed foursomes.”) Foursomes moves fast, and hitting just half the shots ensures that someone in the group always has a hand free to hold the kümmel, a clear, anise-and-fennel-flavored alcoholic beverage, which is sometimes called the golfer’s liqueur:

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Kümmel is a popular drink at Troon. Every year, its members play a cross-country foursomes match with members of Prestwick, which is right next door. Half the field starts on the first tee at Prestwick, and half starts on the first tee at Troon. Everyone plays to the eighteenth green on the other course, breaks for lunch, and then plays all the way back. Two Troon members I played a non-foursomes round with in 2009 told me that, usually, a team scores better if it starts at Prestwick, because a typical Prestwick lunch includes so much alcohol that golfers who make the turn there sometimes have trouble finding their way home.

  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Competitors who start at Prestwick get to eat lunch in the dining room at Troon. Hanging on the wall at one end is a portrait of one of the club’s founders:

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Hanging on the wall at the other end is a portrait of the Queen:

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A member told me that pictures of the Queen are always supposed to be hung so that her eyes are higher than the eyes of any person in any other picture in the same room. Doing that at Troon would have meant pushing her almost all the way up to the ceiling. So they didn’t.

Back-Roads Scotland: Tarbat Golf Club

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Last week, Alex Noren, of Sweden, won the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart Golf Links, in Inverness. About an hour farther to the north is Tarbat Golf Club, in the microscopic village of Portmahomack. I played a round there in 2007, and, although I wouldn’t suggest planning a trip around it, if you happen to be in the area you could do worse than to stop by.

Tarbat is a links course on a sandy promontory on the southern side of Dornoch Firth, and on a clear day you can look across the water to Dornoch itself. The course has 10 holes, which are listed on the club’s website as 1-9 and 14. To make an 18-hole round, you play all the holes twice, from different tees the second time around—except the fifth, a 125-yard par 3, for which you substitute an entirely different hole, a 155-yard par 3—the fourteenth. I played with two middle-aged members, both of whom lived nearby and worked in the oil industry.

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They were competing in a club tournament but had no expectation of winning any prizes and so didn’t mind having me along. My favorite hole—in fact, one of my favorite holes of the trip—was the ninth/eighteenth, a short par 4 that plays either around, over, alongside, or into a cemetery, depending on the shape and length of your tee shot.

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The Case for All-male Golf Clubs

Marion Hollins, the captain of the first American Curtis Cup team and the founder of Women's National Golf & Tennis Club. (Photo by Puttnam/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Marion Hollins, the captain of the first American Curtis Cup team and the founder of Women’s National Golf & Tennis Club. (Photo by Puttnam/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The men-only membership policy of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews was scandalous and indefensible, since the R & A is the main worldwide governing body for all of golf. But the men-only membership policy of Muirfield is not, since the tournament it will no longer be allowed to host, the British Open, is also men-only. Why shouldn’t a sports event whose participants are all of one sex be held at a sports club whose members are also all of that sex?

I wrote about this issue in Golf Digest thirteen years ago, when the controversy involved Augusta National and the Masters. The bitterest argument then was that the absence of women from the membership of any golf club is, ipso facto, the sexual equivalent of racism. At that time, the Rev. Jesse Jackson described men-only membership as “gender apartheid,” and said, “The gender bigotry is as offensive as racial bigotry or religious bigotry.” Others made essentially the same claim: that operating a social club whose membership includes no women is morally indistinguishable from operating a social club (or a society) that excludes blacks or Jews.

Yet Jackson’s accusation depended on a false analogy, and on his own (willful) muddling of the possible reasons for making distinctions between human beings. Racism is a belief in nonexistent racial differences, especially ones that imply the inferiority of one race in comparison with another. Sexism is more complicated, because genuine, non-prejudicial differences between men and women really do exist. (Maintaining separate restrooms for whites and blacks is morally repugnant; maintaining separate restrooms for males and females is not—and the current debate about restroom access for transgender people underscores that truth, since the one thing both sides agree about is that the differences are monumentally important.) Indeed, one of the transforming accomplishments of American feminism has been to foster a broader appreciation of the meaningful ways in which men and women are not the same. Women who prefer to be treated by female physicians, or to join women-only health clubs, or to be represented by female divorce attorneys aren’t guilty of “gender apartheid”; their preferences merely reflect the fact that they, like men, have needs and emotions and desires that are not sex blind.

If you aren’t tired of this issue already, you can read my entire argument here.

Marion Hollins and Maureen Orcutt, 1932.(Photo by J. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Marion Hollins and Maureen Orcutt, in England for the first Curtis Cup, 1932. (Photo by J. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Back-roads Scotland: Grantown-on-Spey

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Grantown-on-Spey is a small town on the Spey River, near the northern edge of Cairngorms National Park, in Scottish whiskey country. It was the birthplace of Bobby Cruikshank, a Scottish golf pro whose principal claim to fame is that he lost to Gene Sarazen in a semi-final match in the P.G.A. Championship twice, in 1922 and 1923. The town was founded in 1765 and was named after a local rich guy, James Grant, who is at the far left in the foursome below. I don’t know why the golf clubs these guys are holding don’t have heads:

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The local course isn’t one I would plan a trip around, but I did enjoy playing it. It was designed by Willie Park and James Braid in 1890, during the second Scottish golf boom, which accompanied the rise of the railroads. (The first American golf boom took place at the same time. In those days, just about the only thing you needed to be a golf-course architect in the United States was a Scottish accent.)

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There’s a practice area in a field next to the course. A member with a tube of shag balls was working on his short game.

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Ladies’ Night was about to begin, but the pro said I could tee off ahead of the crowd. A member of another club had told me that Grantown is really three distinct six-hole golf courses—and he was right. The first six holes are flat; Nos. 2-5 work around the corners of a big triangular field, at upper right in the aerial shot below. They were more fun to play than you might think.

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To get to the second six holes, I went through a gate and across a road, into much more dramatic terrain.

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I liked those six holes the best.

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The final six holes are quirky, and are squeezed into a sort of open valley bordered by two schools. I surprised myself, after my round, when I realized that I could mentally walk through all 18 holes, something I’m usually terrible at unless I’ve played a course four or five times.

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As I finished, I saw the last of the women’s groups heading out—the grans of Grantown. There were several foursomes, and then the last group was a sixsome:

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Two guys were drinking beer on a bench in front of the golf shop when I finished. A carnival had been set up in a field next door, but I didn’t stick around for that.

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Back-roads Scotland: Strathpeffer Spa

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The village of Strathpeffer is roughly forty-five minutes northwest of Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands. It’s been a popular vacation destination since the Victorian era, when it was celebrated for its sulfur springs. It’s sort of on the route to Brora and and Royal Dornoch. If you’re headed that way on a golf trip and feel like playing an unusual course that none of your friends will have heard of, you should stop at the Strathpeffer Spa Golf Club. The course is barely 5,000 yards long, but it isn’t a pushover, and the scenery is spectacular, and Willie Park, Jr., and Old Tom Morris contributed to the design:P1030258

The first hole, a 330-yard par 4, plays down a vertiginous hill, and if you make a smooth swing, as you almost can’t help doing at that altitude, you can drive the green. According to the club, the tee shot has the longest drop of any hole on any course in Scotland:

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The second hole, a 250-yard par 4, plays straight up a different hill, and it’s followed by four consecutive par 3s.

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Here’s how severe the elevation changes are: The eighteenth hole is roughly the same length as the first, and the drop from tee to green is almost as long, and the eighteenth green is at almost exactly the same elevation as the first tee—yet the eighteenth tee isn’t the high point on the course.

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I followed a junior match, in which the competitors’ caddies—of whom there were five—were frequently unable to agree on which of them was supposed to be carrying what:

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The club, which was founded in 1888, has many active, involved members, and because of the topography most of them are as fit as Sherpas. Fifteen years ago, they renovated their clubhouse themselves:

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