Reader’s Trip Report: Northeastern Scotland

Fraserburgh Golf Club, Scotland, March 13, 2014.

Fraserburgh Golf Club, Scotland, March 13, 2014.

Seth Low, a reader and, not incidentally, a member of the Sunday Morning Group, recently returned from a winter trip to Aberdeen, Scotland. It wasn’t a golf trip, but he hung around for a few extra days and played several courses I like a lot—among them Fraserburgh, shown above. Excerpts from his report:

The non-business portion of my trip started in St. Andrews. I did some local scouting at the Keys Bar, where I ran into Dave, an American expat who has lived in St. Andrews, on and off, for twenty-seven years. He caddies during the golf season and, as far as I could tell, hangs out at the Keys in the off season. 

seth low keys bar

The next day, I took a train to Carnoustie, half an hour to the north. Perhaps because of the time of year, or perhaps because of the weather, I went out solo, no one in front of me or behind me. I muscled an ugly 4-iron into the wind, and then had my first go at hitting from a “winter mat.” Apparently, these are standard in Scotland. I am not a good golfer, but I can generally get the ball headed in the right direction. However, I could not master the mat. My reward for a good drive was inevitably a sculled iron.

seth low winter mat

I found myself hoping I would miss the fairway, to be spared the mat, and when my ball landed close to the rough I kicked it in. It was interesting to find myself in this alternate golf reality, and I spent a good deal of time wondering what it said about me as a golfer (and as a person) that I was more comfortable playing from what most people think of a bad lie.

Fourth green, Carnoustie. The white stuff on the ground (not the ball) is hail.

Fourth green, Carnoustie. The white stuff on the ground (not the ball) is hail.

Next, I headed north, to Fraserburgh, and, once again, went out on my own. I was the beneficiary of a new employee, who told me that mats were unnecessary, despite signs saying otherwise. The course wanders through the shoreline dunes and is truly spectacular.

Fraserburgh Golf Club, thirteenth hole.

Fraserburgh Golf Club, thirteenth hole.

To navigate among the dunes, I had to follow the signs carefully, which wasn’t always easy. If wondered if they were in Doric, a dialect spoken by folks in the area, but it turned out that they had just been beaten up by a long and windy winter.

seth low doric sign

On my last day in Scotland, I headed west from Fraserburgh, at the recommendation of this blog, to play Cullen Golf Club. [Editor’s note: No one who asks me for a Scottish golf recommendation will escape being told about Cullen.] The clubhouse was empty, so I wandered around until a member came in and showed me some clubs I could use. I managed to assemble an almost-full set, consisting of a couple of Wilsons, a couple of irons of an unrecognizable brand, and a Fazer Contender 404 driver:

seth low golf bag

Cullen’s fairways weave across each other, and there is a complex set of bells and “yielding” protocols that the locals know. The course is complicated by a right-of-way that allows walkers to get from the ridge above the course to the beach below. All in all, it was a somewhat hectic scene, and I was happy to be joined by Graeme, a local member, who was out for a Sunday round. Like many in the area, he worked on a fishing boat before getting a job in the oil-and-gas industry. Now he is a cook on an oil rig, where he works two weeks on, two weeks off, four weeks on, four weeks off—leaving plenty of time for golf. I came away with what I hope will be a new addition to my golf lexicon: “hitting into the skink.” I am not sure what it means, but I like the way it sounds.

The first hole, second tee, fifteenth green, sixteenth tee, seventeenth green, and eighteenth hole at Cullen.

The first hole, second tee, fifteenth green, sixteenth tee, seventeenth green, and eighteenth hole at Cullen.

These are the Best Golf Shoes, and I’m Not Kidding

The True Linkswear golf shoes of Tony, David O., Tim-o, & Tim. Royal Portrush Golf Club, Northern Ireland, April, 2012.

Among the hits of last year’s PGA Golf Merchandise Show were some unusual golf shoes, made by True Linkswear. They look a little like Earth Shoes and a little like Crocs: the front end is wide, allowing your toes to spread out the way they do when you walk barefoot, and there’s almost no heel. A teaching pro who now works for the company told me, “It took me a week to get over it, visually.” But golfers learn to love the look, he said, and are often able to throw away their orthotics, like crutches at a revival meeting. (It’s also possible that True Linkswear shoes promote a slightly better swing, by making it harder for you to lean over your toes.) The company’s reps brought 300 pairs to Orlando but had to stop selling them after just a few hours because they were running out of samples. By the time I got to the booth, they no longer had a pair in my size, but the ones I tried on—which were half a size too small—were still the most comfortable golf shoes I’d ever worn. I now own four pairs.

I took two of those pairs to Ireland this month, along with some New Balance walking shoes. I figured that the walking shoes would be good for après-golf—but I was wrong about that, because by comparison with my golf shoes they felt like army boots. I wore the walking shoes when we went out to dinner our first evening in Ireland but left them in the car after that, and wore only my golf shoes. And I never felt even a twinge, despite the fact that, according to Tim-o’s Fitbit Ultra, we walked between eighteen and twenty-two miles a day (while playing 36 holes and searching for balls among the dunes). And I wore my Trues on the flight home, too.

I wasn’t the only True believer on the trip: Tony, Tim-o, Tim, and I all wore them, in various models and colors—as you can see in the photo above.That’s four of the seven golfers on the group. And Jack wore FootJoy Contour Casuals, which look and feel like sneakers and which he also didn’t bother to take off. It’s now hard for me to believe that golfers ever played in shoes that had stiff soles and metal spikes and had to be broken in.

I’ve retired my original pair of Trues from active golf duty, but I wear them when I work in the yard, walk the dog, and wander through the woods. I’d wear them in the house, too, if I ever wore shoes in the house. And a day will come, I predict, when I will own no other shoes.

Brendan icing a foot rubbed raw by a week of links golf in conventional golf shoes. Cullen Golf Club, Scotland, May, 2008.

Back-Roads Scotland: Cullen

In 2007, I traveled to Scotland on an unusual Golf Digest assignment. I landed in Glasgow without tee times or an itinerary, and I rented a car and set out in a more or less random direction, with the goal of playing only courses I’d never heard of before. You can read my article about that trip here or here.

One of my favorite stops was a quirky course called Cullen, in Aberdeenshire, on the southern coast of the Moray Firth. The original nine holes were laid out by Old Tom Morris, and the course has blind shots, crossing fairways, otherworldly topography, and a cool tee shot that you hit from the top of a cliff. Partway through my round, I joined (as the fifth player) a group of older golfers from a club called Hopeman, about thirty miles to the west. They were on a golf outing, and this was their second round of the day, and they were playing a scramble, in competition with three other groups from their club. Most of them were carrying flasks, from which they were sipping a mixture of something and Drambuie—I couldn’t quite make out the recipe—and their golf bags were so full of empty beer bottles that they clanked when the wind, which was fierce, knocked them over.

They urged me to have a swig from one of their flasks. I declined, because I’d quit drinking about a year before, but they were so relentless that I eventually decided it would be better to risk falling off the wagon than to come to blows. As soon as I’d drunk a capful, though, they began to worry about their supply. “Are you driving?” one asked. His brow was furrowed with concern. When I said I was, he and the others concluded that offering me another swig or a beer would be unwise. Toward the end of the round, one of them asked, in a slurry brogue, “Wha hoe wah noo?” and only I could understand him: “What hole are we on now?” (It was the seventeenth.) Photo below. That’s the eighteenth green in the distance. I went back a year later with friends from home.

The boys from Hopeman: "Wha hoe wah noo?"

The specialty in the clubhouse—at left in the photo above, behind the big rock—is Cullen Skink, a fish soup that has its own Wikipedia entry.

The bent flag shows how hard the wind was blowing.

Looking back toward the clubhouse and the town.

The boys from Hopeman and some of their beverages.

Here’s where my friends and I stayed in Cullen when we went back the following year: