Back-Roads Scotland: Boat of Garten

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Eight years ago, I took what’s probably my favorite golf trip ever. I flew to Glasgow,
Scotland, without an itinerary, and spent a little over a week playing only golf courses I’d never heard of. My second stop was Boat of Garten.

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The village of Boat of Garten (population 700) was possibly named for a nearby river ferry, long since put out of business by a bridge. The region is a major summertime holiday destination for bird watchers, among others; Loch Garten, a nearby lake, is a national bird sanctuary. The golf course, which is known locally as “the Boat,” began as six holes in 1898, and was extended to 18 holes by James Braid a little over 30 years later. There are four clocks on the wall above the counter in the golf shop; they give the time in Boat of Garten, Pebble Beach, Augusta, and the United Arab Emirates. I paid £32 and, because no one else was around, teed off by myself. The Boat’s first hole runs past a station of the Strathspey Steam Railway:

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It’s a so-so par 3, but the second is terrific par 4, and many more terrific holes follow. Here’s the second, from the tee:

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On the fourth, I caught up to Andy and Pat, a retired couple from Aberdeen, and played the rest of the way with them.

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Andy had lured Pat to the course by assuring her that it was flat, and he did penance for this untruth by pulling her trolley up the steeper hills, of which there were many. (He had already lightened his own load by leaving eight of his golf clubs at home.) This hole is called Gully:

P1020860On the tenth, we got stuck behind a slow foursome, and Andy told me that an American group had once visited his home club, Stonehaven—a seaside, cliff-top course with spectacular views, 15 miles south of Aberdeen—and had played so slowly (five hours) that the club secretary asked them never to come back. I apologized for my countrymen, and didn’t point out that the golfers holding us up at that moment were Scottish.

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We waited on the next tee, too, and as we did an old man on a tiny, one-person motorized golf cart came up behind us. He was wearing a broad-brimmed hat, leather boots, a green jacket, brown plus-fours, and long yellow socks. “That may be Willie Auchterlonie himself,” Andy said. I asked him how long he’d been a member. “Fifteen years,” he said — a deeply disappointing answer, Andy and I agreed later.

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Andy and Pat were playing a match. Pat had a low, flat swing with a big lift at the top, but she hit the ball a long way. On one tee, she asked Andy what he was waiting for, then looked up the fairway at the group ahead, maybe 200 yards away, and said, “Oh—them?” and gave a great throaty smoker’s cackle. She was three down with three to go and won the last three holes with pars. Good pars, too.

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The Capital of Left-Handed Golf (No, Bubba, It’s Not Augusta, GA)

Clubhouse, Kingussie Golf Club, Scotland.

In 1992, when I was new to the game, I took my first golf trip to Scotland. You can probably guess at least part of the itinerary. I played at Turnberry, Gleneagles, St. Andrews, Carnoustie, and Dornoch, and I finished at Tain, an Old Tom Morris course at the inland end of Dornoch Firth. That last round went by so fast that it left me with most of a day to fill, so I asked my playing partners, who were Tain regulars, if they could recommend a course on the long road to the airport—any course at all. They suggested Kingussie, just off the A9, about a third of the way between Dornoch and Glasgow, in what is now Cairngorms National Park. So that’s where I went.

My expectations were neither high nor low; I just wanted one more chance to swing my clubs. But during the decade and a half since then I’ve probably thought about Kingussie as often as Carnoustie. You could never hold a British Open there—among other reasons, the course is almost 2,000 yards too short—and golf-tour operators almost never send American travelers to play it. Nevertheless, it stuck in my mind. The course (which was expanded and redesigned by Harry Vardon in 1908) is set in and around the elevated valley of the River Gynack, in the rocky hills above the village. The first hole is a long, semi-blind par-three, and the sixth is a short par-4 that plays past the ruin of an old shieling, or shepherd’s hut, and the fourteenth, called the Dyke, runs along an old stone wall. It was a memorable finish to a memorable trip.

The Shepherd's Hut, Sixth Hole, Kingussie.

I returned to Kingussie in 2007 and played with three Scots, two of whom were on holiday from the Orkneys, a cluster of small islands north of the Scottish mainland. When we had finished, we had a drink with a group of regulars sitting at two picnic tables outside the clubhouse. One of them told me, “Kingussie has more left-handed and cross-handed players than any other golf club in the world”—a consequence, he said, of the town’s intense devotion to shinty, a bruising Highlands stick game that is similar to the Irish sport hurling (from which it evolved) and to field hockey, and in which there is apparently a tactical advantage to playing from the wrong side of the ball. No, no, another member insisted: there are more left-handed golfers in Newtonmore, Kingussie’s principal shinty rival, three miles to the west. The conversation then veered into a discussion of Newtonmore’s golf course, which my new friends unanimously dismissed as too flat to bother with.

One of my new friends from the Orkneys.

That evening (after a second eighteen), I drove over to Newtonmore and watched a youth shiny practice, the only form of the game available locally that evening. I stood with a group of shinty moms in a parking lot filled with Scottish minivans, and saw that grade-school shinty players, unlike the adult shinty players in the stories I had heard at the picnic table at Kingussie, wear helmets and still have their teeth.

Shinty practice, Newtonmore, Scotland, 2007.