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.”

Back-roads Scotland: Strathpeffer Spa

strathpeffer spa pump house

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:

strathpeffer clubhouse

I didn’t spend the night in the village, but I now wish I had—another reason to go back.P1030268

What’s In My Bag: Dana McQueen

This is an aerial view of Tony's and my match this afternoon. We're somewhere there near the center of the map.

This is an aerial view of Tony’s and my match today. We’re somewhere near the center of that big green-and-orange thing.

Tony and I happily played anotherA statewide tournament that I was supposed to play in tomorrow has been postponed because the rain that was falling when Tony and I played is expected to continue through the night. I was actually looking forward to slogging around all morning, then loading my soaking-wet golf bag into my travel case, racing a hundred miles to Newark Liberty International Airport without a shower, and taking a night flight to Kansas City to play golf on a Golf Digest assignment and visit my mother. In fact, my only chance to finish the tournament above the middle of the field was probably to go off in a downpour, since I actually like playing when the people I’m competing with don’t.

In 2006, I took back-to-back golf trips to Dubai and Ireland. During the Ireland portion of that two-climate packing adventure, I learned how to dry wet golf stuff with a hotel-room iron and hairdryer (after first blotting up the worst of the water by rolling up everything in bath towels and stomping):

Doing this produced tremendous clouds of steam. Getting the towel half dry took forever.

Doing this produced tremendous clouds of steam. Getting the towel half dry took forever.

Before using the hairdryer, I tried drying my rain pants in my room's heated trouser press, but that didn't work.

Before using the hairdryer, I tried drying my rain pants in my room’s heated trouser press. That didn’t work.

Rain gloves don't really need to be dry, but if you have the equipment why not?

Rain gloves don’t need to be dry, but if you have the equipment why not?

The hotel was in Killarney, and the golf course where I got so wet was Tralee—which is seldom ranked among the very best courses in Ireland but is plenty nice enough and is almost certainly the best course that Arnold Palmer ever designed. (It opened in 1985.) As we approached the middle of the (terrific) second nine, the wind reached the velocity necessary to propel liquid water through the fabric of my previously reliable Sunderland of Scotland rainsuit, and I stopped trying to clean my glasses between shots. It wasn’t just the worst weather I’d ever played golf in; it was the worst weather I’d ever been outside in. Nevertheless, my three companions and I all enjoyed ourselves immensely, and we played far better than you might think—perhaps because over-swinging and over-thinking are impossible when remaining upright requires most of your concentration. (I don’t know what our caddies thought.)

Recently, I heard from a reader who has also been to Tralee: Dana McQueen, who lives in Purcellville, Virginia, and is exactly the same age I am (fifty-eight). Here he is at Tralee last summer:

Dana McQueen and some other guy, Tralee, Ireland, July, 2012.

Dana McQueen and some other guy, Tralee, Ireland, July, 2012.

And here’s McQueen’s golf bag:

The first thing I notice about McQueen's golf clubs is that he keeps them a hell of a lot cleaner than I keep mine.

The first thing I notice about McQueen’s golf clubs is that he keeps them much cleaner than I keep mine.

Here’s what he’s got in there:

Cleveland Classic XL driver, 10.5 deg, stiff graphite
Cleveland FL fairway, 17 deg, stiff graphite
Cleveland Mashie hybrid, 18 deg, stiff graphite
Cleveland 588TT irons, 4 thru PW, stiff steel
Titleist Vokey 50 deg wedge
Titleist Vokey 57 deg wedge
Taylor Made ATV 60 deg wedge
Ping Redwood ZB putter

“Pretty standard stuff, overall,” he told me in an email. “Sometimes the 60-degree wedge comes out of the lineup, especially on courses with thick rough around the greens. I really haven’t gotten comfortable with the ATV bounce concept yet.” McQueen is a retired C.I.A. officer. He now works as a systems engineer for Stratos Solutions, and he also works for Britannia Golf, which puts together custom golf tours, mostly to Scotland and Ireland. He took up golf as a teenager.

“I started playing,” he wrote, “when I realized that my baseball career was going to come to a screeching halt, at about the same time that I got my driver’s license—trouble with the curve was reality, not a future movie title. I had a great mentor, and within three or four months I was shooting in the low eighties. As you might expect, dreams of grandeur invaded my thoughts. These lasted until I discovered that there were other golf courses on the planet, and that most of them were much more difficult than the little muny up in northern Ohio where I began my golf journey. Since that time, golf has been a series of peaks (nearly qualifying for the U.S. Amateur in the late nineteen-eighties) and valleys (being soundly trounced by an eighth grader in the club championship semifinals). Now I look forward to the weekly game with the Saturday morning group and the occasional trip to Scotland or Ireland. My favorite course (so far) is Royal Dornoch. Unfortunately, a sliver of beach on the North Sea is not exactly what my wife has in mind as a retirement spot.”

McQueen plays most of his golf at Stoneleigh Golf & Country Club, in Round Hill, Virginia. The course was designed by Lisa Maki, one of the very few women course architects in the history of the game. Anybody know if she’s still around?

I have received a number of What’s In My Bag contributions. I’ll run them all eventually. In the meantime, send me yours. And here’s a bonus photo, showing how to dry wet golf shoes with the defroster of a rental car:

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