The concierge in Edinburgh scoffed at our 6:40 a.m. tee time. Only “naked lady caddies” would get him on a golf course that early in the morning.
But this, we tried to tell him, was the Old Course at St. Andrews, and well worth the sacrifice. Besides, we’d literally won the lottery to secure the tee time.
By 4 a.m., my friend Jenny Kellams and I were on the road, eating Cadbury chocolate and watching the sun rise as we made our way to the “Home of Golf.” It was Day 7 of our summer Scottish adventure, and our fifth round of golf.
As we start the New Year, now might be a good time to start planning a wish list. Every serious golfer needs to make at least one trek across the pond. A few pointers from our girls’ trip:
First stop: Kilspindie Golf Club, a delightful little par-69 track (par 70 for the ladies) in Aberlady that serves as an excellent warm-up round for those feeling jet-lagged. (I told my tired friend that if we were men, we’d be playing 36 holes a day! They generally don’t shop.)
Random warning: The Brits frown on cell-phone use inside most clubhouses. At Kilspindie, a member was tsk’d for using it outside the clubhouse.
Practice facilities are lacking at Kilspindie (no driving range), and I laughed at the sign posted on the first tee: “No practice swings allowed on the first tee.” Great. As Kellams stood on the tee getting ready to take her first swipe on the opening par 3, a member sitting on a nearby bench looked over at me and began shaking his head as he broke into a smile.
I then studied my good friend’s pre-shot routine and understood his amusement. Kellams had taken lessons in Orlando, Fla., from Tom Creavy, who works with the LPGA’s Se Ri Pak and Amy Yang. Apparently, Creavy had told Kellams to shake her hips from side to side as she settled into the proper weight distribution. That’s her story, at least.
By Round 2, the move had a nickname: The Wiggle. It bemused more than a few Scottish lads.
The number of spectacular courses along a 20-mile stretch on the A198 in East Lothian is incredible. We set up shop in the Macdonald Marine Hotel & Spa, which overlooks North Berwick. Right below us was a terrific little junior course, where British Open champion Catriona Matthew learned the game. Matthew now lives just off the 18th tee with her husband and two children.
North Berwick, my favorite East Lothian loop, combines stunning views of the sea and Bass Rock along with holes that feature such great character, they’re impossible to forget.
Like St. Andrews, the first and 18th holes run side by side, sharing a fairway. The 18th green sits in front of a majestic clubhouse, with the town running down the right side. It’s reminiscent of the Old Course, just on a smaller scale and with less historical impact. Goosebumps are unlikely.
Two holes – Nos. 3 and 13 – at North Berwick require approach shots that must sail over a wall. Course notes encourage players not to argue with the wall on the 13th: “It’s older than you.” The 16th green requires the touch of Seve. It’s long and narrow, with a gully cutting it in half. It’s one of the most unusual greens you’ll ever see and definitely worth a picture. The par-3 15th, known as the Redan, is one of the most copied golf holes in the world.
Put this course on your itinerary.
Just up the road from North Berwick is Gullane Golf Club, home to three links courses that are easy to remember: Gullane No. 1, Gullane No. 2 and Gullane No. 3.
Gullane No. 1 is widely regarded as the best. Bring your camera to the elevated seventh tee for outstanding panoramic views.
For those dying to check email, Gullane offers free wifi in the visitors’ clubhouse. If possible, be sure to stop by The Heritage of Golf Museum that’s next to the pro shop. Look for Archie Baird, a treasure of a man who adores sharing with visitors the history of the game in Scotland – and keeps it interesting.
The iconic Muirfield also sits along A198, and though I didn’t get to it this year, it’s open to visitors on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Allan Minto, the golf tourism officer for East Lothian, recommends booking 12 months ahead during peak season. Tee times are available for viewing at http://www.muirfield.org.uk.
For the full Scottish experience, head to Musselburgh for a quick nine-hole loop. Guinness World Records recognizes The Old Golf Course at Musselburgh Links as the oldest course in the world. It sits inside a horse-racing track, which still is in operation. Musselburgh has hosted six Open Championships, all in the late 1800s.
In my opinion, the only way to play Musselburgh is with a set of hickory clubs, available for hire for just less than $50. The old wedge feels like a shovel barreling through the bunkers of Musselburgh. Anyone who can hit the long iron in the bag is a baller.
Don’t leave town without stopping for a bite at Mrs. Forman’s, a Musselburgh institution that sits behind the fourth green. Mrs. Forman’s began serving food – through a window – to those playing the links in 1822. Nowadays, the “Bar and Kitchen” has golf memorabilia eloquently displayed on the walls of the dining room, and owner John Whitehead is eager to pass along the important history that’s taken place just outside the walls of his establishment.
While staying in Edinburgh, we asked our hotel concierge to call and put our names into the daily ballot to play the Old Course. (No need to rack up overseas phone charges!) He was told we’d have a better chance of playing if we were willing to tee off as early as 6:30 a.m. That meant a wake-up call at 3 a.m. to primp, pack and make our way from Edinburgh to St. Andrews. We didn’t get picked the first day, but by Day 2, we looked online and saw our names on the list – 6:40 a.m. (Beginning in 2012, names for the ballot will be drawn two days in advance, rather than one.)
My Golfweek colleague Alistair Tait joined us at the Old Course. To book a tee time, players must give a valid handicap and home club. None of us brought a handicap card, so the starter gave a lengthy speech about expectations on the course. Basically anyone who looks clueless will be asked to leave. To avoid the fuss, bring your card. (Men must have a 24 handicap and a 36 is required for women.)
Caddies cost 45 pounds (about $70); trolleys are allowed only after noon on the Old Course, except for November through March, when they’re not permitted at all. Take a caddie if you’re not playing with someone who has been there before. The lines off the tee are crucial, and with all those double greens, local knowledge is key.
It costs 140 pounds (about $220) to play the Old Course in high season. The nerves are cranking on that first tee – the majestic R&A clubhouse to your back and an enormous double fairway straight head. The single who joined us that morning Ian Baker-Finch’d it (left into the street) off the tee. When his caddie said he could try it again (that’s OB), the man couldn’t bring himself to go through it once more, so he took a drop near the fence.
I managed to split the fairway but leaked my approach shot right and into the burn. Welcome to the Old Course.
Nos. 1, 17 and 18 are what make the St. Andrews experience. It’s not the most picturesque course we played. Nor is it the most intriguing layout. Not a big fan of the par 76 for the ladies, either.
But laughing at Jenny getting swallowed whole by Shell Bunker, holding my follow-through on the 18th tee for a picture, and standing on the Swilcan Bidge, trying to remember which hand Jack used to bid farewell … those are the memories that make the investment – and the wake-up call – worthwhile. Besides, how many times do you putt out on the 18th green as hundreds of tourists take photographs?
After the round, Tait and I headed to Carnoustie to cover the Ricoh Women’s British Open. The only thing that would’ve made my Scottish adventure more enjoyable: A swing like Yani’s.