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.”

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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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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Naked Putting With Jennifer Lawrence! (I Mean, a Poet Laureate for Golf)

Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. He has taught at Lehman College, in the Bronx, since 1968, and he is a senior distinguished fellow of the Winter Park Institute, at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida. He’s also a golfer. This summer, he wrote to ask for advice about playing golf at Askernish, a restored Old Tom Morris course on the island of South Uist, off the northwestern coast of Scotland. I put him in touch with Ralph Thompson, the club’s chairman, and Collins visited with his fiancee, whose name is Suzannah.

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From Collins’s report:

Just back from the Western Isles to report a near transcendent golf experience at Askernish. When Ralph initially wrote back to me, he mentioned the upcoming Askernish Open, and after reading that sentence my heart sank with the assumption that I couldn’t play. But, as you might guess, his next sentence said he was entering me in the tournament.
Suzannah and I took the Oban car ferry (five-plus hours, two of gin rummy) and we drove to our hotel in the dark: the Orasay Inn, on the north end of the island. Next day was spent in churches and cemeteries doing some very unprofessional genealogical work (“Hey, here’s another MacIsaac!”) but not before a stop at the clubhouse, where Ralph said we could tee off straightaway, if we liked. But we had MacIsaacs to find. Next day, in the Open, I was paired with David Currie, a Toronto guy and an Askernish life member, who holds the golf club cack-handed — i.e., right one on top. Try that at the range.
All I can say about the course is that it is pure links, and therefore the purest golf experience I have ever had, never mind my 103, partially the fault of rented, steel-shafted clubs. Glorious weather. And between the eighth and sixteenth greens stood a truck, tailgate down, whose bed was filled with drinks (whisky) and little bite-size salmon things with tiny wedges of lemon on them. I wolfed down about six.

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Here’s one of my favorite of Collins’s poems. It’s the second best poem ever written about golf:

Night Golf
I remember the night I discovered,
lying in bed in the dark,
that a few imagined holes of golf
worked much better than a thousand sheep,
that the local links,
not the cloudy pasture with its easy fence,
was the greener path to sleep.
How soothing to stroll the shadowy fairways,
to skirt the moon-blanched bunkers
and hear the night owl in the woods.
Who cared about the score
when the club swung with the ease of air
and I glided from shot to shot
over the mown and rolling ground,
alone and drowsy with my weightless bag?
Eighteen small cups punched into the
bristling grass,
eighteen flags limp on their sticks
in the silent, windless dark,
but in the bedroom with its luminous clock
and propped-open windows,
I got only as far as the seventh hole
before I drifted easily away—
the difficult seventh, “The Tester” they called it,
where, just as on the earlier holes,
I tapped in, dreamily, for birdie.

The best poem ever written about golf was written by me. Well, I did have a co-author—Emily Dickinson—and on a percentage basis she wrote more of it than I did. But I did contribute the crucial word:

Golf is the thing with feathers—
That perches on the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
Collins gave a terrific TED talk about poetry in 2012. You can watch it right here:

And you can read a poem he wrote about Askernish on the front page of the club’s website.

Great Golf Courses: Machrihanish and Machrihanish Dunes

Machrihanish Golf Club, near Campbeltown, Scotland, May, 2014.

Machrihanish Golf Club, near Campbeltown, Scotland, May, 2014.

Machair is a Gaelic word that means pretty much the same thing as links, the sandy, wind-shaped coastal grasslands where the game of golf arose. It’s pronounced “mocker,” more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat. The word is still used in parts of Scotland—for example, on the island of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. The photo below, of me and my golf clubs, was taken on the machair at Askernish, the ghost course, on South Uist, in December 2008:

owenaskernish2008The word machair is also preserved in a number of places in Ireland and Scotland: Magheramore, Maghera Strand, Machair Bay, Macharioch, and Machrihanish. Those last two are villages on the Kintyre Peninsula, in southwestern Scotland. The southernmost tip of the peninsula, called the Mull of Kintyre, was celebrated in 1977 in a song by Paul McCartney, who owns a house nearby. A few miles north of the Mull is Machrihanish Golf Club, which was founded in 1876, with twelve holes, and was enlarged three years later by Old Tom Morris. Here’s the view from the first tee at Machrihanish — one of the coolest opening shots in golf (the beach is very definitely in play):

machrihanishfirstteeAnd right next to Machrihanish is a second course, Machrihanish Dunes, which was designed by David McLay Kidd, the architect of Bandon Dunes. It opened in 2009. It has my favorite kind of clubhouse:

dunesclubhouseMachrihanish was the setting of Michael Bamberger’s book To the Linkslandwhich was published in 1992. One of the most and least appealing features of Machrihanish is that it isn’t easy to get to. If you’re traveling by car, the round trip from Glasgow can be more than seven hours, without much in the way of golf along the route. Flying is possible, although scheduling can be problematic, especially if you’re trying to connect from an international flight. The workaround my friends and I used during a recent buddies trip—with help and planning from Celtic Golf—was to go by water, on a chartered boat, which was operated by Kintyre Express. We made the trip, from Troon, in less than an hour and a half. The boat ride turned out to be one of the week’s many highlights:

tonyrichardboatWe passed this lighthouse on the way:

lighthousefromboatAnd this is what we saw as we entered the harbor at Campbeltown, the town closest to Machrihanish:

campbeltownviewOur hotel was right on the harbor, a short walk from where the boat tied up:

royalhotelAnd both courses were just a short drive (by van) from the hotel. This is Peter A., putting from a fairway at Machrihanish:

peterfairwayputtThe two guys in the photo below, who were out for a walk with their wives in Campbeltown, chatted with us about golf, and then came back without their wives to tell us a story about Tony Lema. I think they were interested in us partly because I had played two Scottish courses they hadn’t believed any American golfer would even have heard of: Reay and Strathpeffer.

twoscottishguysThe photo below is a view of the water from Machrihanish Dunes. The course was built, with numerous conservation restrictions, on what the British call a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The maintenance crew doesn’t use fertilizer, and there’s no irrigation system. Only a tiny fraction of the land was disturbed during construction. And the course is terrific.
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The photo below is of a former R.A.F. base, which borders both courses. A U.S. Navy SEAL commando unit used to be stationed there. Part of the facility still functions as Campbeltown’s airport. The runway is so long that even I could land an airplane on it, probably.

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After three days at Machrihanish, we got back on our boat and headed to our next destination: Northern Ireland, which is actually closer to Campbeltown than Troon is. Here’s the skipper, loading our golf bags in Campbeltown harbor:

That's Robert G. holding my awesome Sun Mountain Atlas golf-bag travel cover, which I bought years ago, after Northwest Airlines snapped the head off my driver during a trip to Bandon Dunes. It has traveled all over the world with me. I'm sorry to say that Sun Mountain doesn't make it anymore.

That’s Robert G., on the left, holding my awesome Sun Mountain Atlas golf-bag travel cover, which I bought about ten years ago, after Northwest Airlines snapped the head off my driver during a trip to Bandon Dunes. My friends call it R2D2. It has traveled all over the world with me. I’m sorry to report that Sun Mountain doesn’t make it anymore.

On the way to Northern Ireland, we passed the Mull of Kintyre, an area of weird currents and whirlpools, a place where a guy had recently drowned, a goat (basking on some rocks) that was descended from goats that were brought to Ireland by the Spanish Armada, and what used to be the cottage of Gugliemo Marconi—whose name was not derived from machair, and who may or may not have been a golfer, but who was one of the inventors of radio. In fact, he made his first long-distance transmission was from the cottage, which is right on the water, to an island a few miles away. Here’s the cottage as it looks today:

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The weather was perfect during our trip. The skipper took us close to both coasts, so that we could get a better view.

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Here we are landing in Ballycastle, where the first thing we did was go to a grocery store and buy about a thousand dollars worth of junk food. Then back to golf.

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Back-Roads Scotland: Askernish

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

In 1889, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman named Frederick Rea was offered a job running a small school on South Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides, more than fifty miles off the west coast of Scotland. He didn’t recall having applied for the position, and when he accepted it his relatives thought he’d lost his mind. South Uist was windswept, treeless, and only intermittently accessible, and it was seldom visited by anyone from the mainland except a few wealthy sportsmen, who came to hunt and fish.

May, 2007.

South Uist, May, 2007.

Rea’s students were the children of crofters, or small tenant farmers, the island’s principal residents. The crofters subsisted mainly by growing potatoes and grain, raising starved-looking cattle and sheep, and gathering seaweed, which they used as fertilizer or sold. Most spoke only Gaelic. The children went barefoot year-round and often walked miles to school, even in snow, and on winter mornings each was expected to bring a chunk of peat for the schoolhouse hearth. The Scottish historian John Lorne Campbell wrote that South Uist in those days was so primitive that “the appearance of a pedal bicycle was sufficient to send the island’s horses and cattle careering in panic.” Yet Rea was captivated. He didn’t return to the mainland permanently until 1913, by which time his students had included two of his own children.

Rea's schoolhouse stood near this old house, South Uist, Scotland, December, 2008.

Rea’s schoolhouse stood near (and resembled) this old house. Garrynamonie, South Uist, December, 2008.

When Rea arrived, South Uist and several neighboring islands were owned by Lady Emily Eliza Steele Gordon Cathcart, a wealthy Scotswoman, who had inherited them from her first husband, who had inherited them from his father. She is said to have visited South Uist only once, but she made business investments, including the construction of hotels and commercial fishing piers. In 1891, probably hoping to make South Uist more attractive to wealthy tourists, she commissioned a golf course near a tiny farming settlement known as Askernish.

The view from my room at the Lochboisdale Hotel, which was commissioned by Lady Cathcart and opened in 1882.

The evening view from one of the guestrooms at the Lochboisdale Hotel, which was commissioned by Lady Cathcart and opened in 1882. Lochboisdale, South Uist, December, 2008.

Rea, the schoolmaster, played the golf course with a friend when it was new, and he described the experience in his memoir, A School in South Uist, which was published in 1927 and is still highly readable. Lady Cathcart’s factor, or estate agent, Rea wrote, “told me that a professional golfer from St. Andrews had been to the island and had specially laid out an eighteen-hole course along the machair near his house, expressing the opinion that this part was a natural golf-link course.” Machair is the Gaelic word for “linksland”; it’s the root of Machrihanish, and it’s pronounced mocker, more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat.

The machair of Askernish, May, 2007.

The machair of Askernish, May, 2007.

The factor invited Rea and a friend to play the new golf course one Saturday, and they met at his house. “Here we found quite a small party assembled,” Rea wrote; “beside his wife and children were a young lady cousin from Inverness, two or three clergymen and two junior clerks. Introductions over, we selected balls and clubs.” Rea didn’t say so, but the St. Andrews professional who had created the course was the most famous golfer of his day, Tom Morris, Sr., better known as Old Tom Morris.

The house of Lady Cathcart's estate agent, mention by Frederick Rea in "A School in South Uist." Old tom Morris's golf course began not far from its door.

The house of Lady Cathcart’s factor, mentioned by Frederick Rea in “A School in South Uist.” Old Tom Morris’s golf course began not far from its door. Rea’s friend dismissed golf, initially, as “a silly, stupid game,” but both men quickly became hooked.  Askernish, May, 2007.

Lady Cathcart died in 1932. Her will included a provision for the perpetuation of the golf course. In 1936, a small airstrip was built near its northern end to accommodate wealthy tourists. (The passenger service was commercial but unscheduled; when a pickup was desired, the proprietor of a local hotel would send a homing pigeon to North Uist—the island still lacked telephones and, for that matter, electricity—and Scottish and Northern Airways would dispatch a plane.) Then the war came. The number of golfers dwindled. The course was reduced to twelve holes, then to nine, and the connection to Old Tom Morris devolved to legend. By 2000, what was left of the course was maintained by a small group of local diehards, who mowed the putting greens with a rusting gang mower, which they pulled behind a tractor.

Askernish Golf Course, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

Askernish , May, 2007.

I first visited South Uist on assignment for Golf Digest during the spring of 2007, and I visited it again in December of the following year, on assignment for The New Yorker. My New Yorker article about Askernish, called “The Ghost Course,” was published in 2009. Below are some more photographs I took during those two trips.

Askernish, May, 2007.

South Uist doesn’t have an airport. On my first trip, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, one island to the north. It’s connected to South Uist by a causeway, as is the island of Eriskay, at the southern end. The only other passengers on my flight were two bank couriers, who were accompanying a load of cash, for ATMs. All the other seats were filled with “Bennetts Seat Converters” containing the day’s newspapers:

South Uist doesn't have an airport. On my first trip, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, one island to the north, and drove south, across a causeway. The only other passengers were two bank couriers, who were accompanying a load of cash for ATMs. All the other seats were filled with "Bennetts Seat Converters," containing the day's newspapers.

On my second visit, I took the car ferry from Oban. That trip took almost seven hours. We passed islands called Mull, Coll, Muck, Eig, Rum, Sanday, Sundray, Vatersay, Hellisay, Gighay, and Stack, among others. We also passed this lighthouse, on a tiny island called Eilean Musdile. It’s just off the shore of a larger island, called Lismore, which has a population of a hundred and forty-six. The lighthouse was built in 1833:

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Most of the roads on South Uist are a single lane, and you share them with sheep. There are frequent bump-outs for yielding to oncoming traffic. Resident drivers become adept at gauging each other’s speed, and often slip past each other without seeming to slow down:

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During my first visit to South Uist, I stayed at the Borrodale Hotel, about a mile and a half down the road from Askernish. The hotel’s laundry facility was just outside the door:

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My guide to Askernish was Ralph Thompson, who was born on the mainland in 1955 and spent summers on South Uist, where his grandparents lived. One reason he liked those visits, he told me, was that he was allowed to go for weeks without bathing, because his grandparents’ house, like almost all the houses on the island at that time, had no running water.

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His wife, Flora, was born on Barra, two islands to the south. Barra was even more isolated and primitive than South Uist, although today it has a small airport. Takeoffs and landings on Barra are scheduled to coincide with low tide, because the runway is a beach. Here’s one of the planes, which I photographed as it passed over Asknerish:

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At the time of my first visit, Ralph Thompson was working with two links-course experts—Gordon Irvine, who is a turf consultant and a former greenkeeper, and Martin Ebert, who is a golf architect—in an effort to restore Old Tom Morris’s course at Askernish. In the photo below, Irvine is on the left and Ebert is on the right, and the flag in the background marks what they had decided was probably one of the original green locations:

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I played all of the holes I could on that trip, and, with some of Ralph’s friends, helped test a few of the rediscovered ones:

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We often had to play around cows and sheep, which grazed on the same stretch of linksland:

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Even when there were no animals, the shot-making was challenging. This is a friend of Thompson’s:

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When I returned to Askernish in 2008, the golf course had begun to look and play much more like a real golf course. The green in the photo below was puttable, and it had a single-strand barbed-wire fence surrounding it, to keep cattle and sheep from trampling it:

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There isn’t much daylight in northern Scotland in December, but we had time for eighteen holes, and the weather was milder than the weather at home:

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Since then, the golf course has come a very long way—as you’ll see if you visit the Askernish website. Someday, I’ll go back.

My most recent round at Askernish, December, 2008.

My most recent round at Askernish, December, 2008.

Why a Golf Course is Not a “Links”

Rosapenna, Ireland, 2011.

Most people think of the word “links” as a synonym for golf course, but it’s actually 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. 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. When significant numbers of Scotsmen became interested in smacking small balls with curved wooden sticks, as they first did in 1400 or so, the links was where they went (or were sent), perhaps because there they were in no one’s way. In some parts of Scotland, linksland is called machair, a Gaelic word. It’s pronounced “mocker,” more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat. (Machair is the root of Machrihanish, a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland.)

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, 2007.

The major design elements of a modern golf course are the synthetic analogues of various existing features of those early Scottish playing fields, and the fact that golf arose so directly from a particular landscape helps explain why, more than any other mainstream sport, it remains a game with a Jerusalem: it was permanently shaped by the ground on which it was invented. Groomed fairways are the descendants of the well-grazed valleys between the old linksland dunes; bunkers began as sandy depressions worn through thin turf by livestock huddling against coastal gales; the first greens and teeing grounds were flattish, elevated areas whose relatively short grass—closely grazed by rabbits and other animals, and stunted by brutal weather—made them the logical places to begin and end holes. (“A rabbit’s jawbone allows it to graze grass lower than a sheep,” the Scottish links consultant Gordon Irvine told me, “and both those animals can graze grass lower than a cow.”)

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, 2007.

On the great old courses in the British Isles, the most celebrated holes often owe more to serendipity and to the vicissitudes of animal husbandry than they do to picks and shovels, since in the early years course design was more nearly an act of imagination and discovery than of physical construction. One of Old Tom Morris’s best-known holes, the fifth at Lahinch, in southwestern Ireland, is a short par 3 whose green is concealed behind a tall dune, so that the golfer’s target is invisible from the tee—a feature that almost any modern architect would have eliminated with a bulldozer. The greatest hole on the Old Course is often said to be the seventeenth, a long par 4 called the Road Hole, which violates a long list of modern design rules: the tee shot not only is blind but must be hit over the top of a tall wooden structure that reproduces the silhouette of a cluster of nineteenth-century coal sheds; the green repels approach shots from every direction and is fronted by a vortex-like circular bunker, from which the most prudent escape is often backward; a paved road runs directly alongside the green and is treated as a part of the course, meaning that golfers who play their way onto it must also play their way off.

The Road Hole, 2008.

Over the centuries, every idiosyncratic inch of the Old Course has acquired, for the faithful, an almost numinous aura. Alister MacKenzie once wrote, “I believe the real reason St. Andrews Old Course is infinitely superior to anything else is owing to the fact that it was constructed when no-one knew anything about the subject at all, and since then it has been considered too sacred to be touched.”

Royal Aberdeen, Scotland, 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: