My Year in Golf: Politicians and golf don't mix; Scotland remains a can't-miss

The Machrie Links, Isle of Islay, Argyll and Bute, Scotland.(Picture Credit / Phil Inglis) Phil Inglis

My Year in Golf: Politicians and golf don't mix; Scotland remains a can't-miss

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My Year in Golf: Politicians and golf don't mix; Scotland remains a can't-miss

Here’s what I learned in 2017:

 

Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) senior member Larry Nelson (L) shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) as fellow senior PGA member Scott McCarron (C) looks on during their courtesy call at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on September 5, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / TORU YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

Larry Nelson shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as fellow senior PGA member Scott McCarron looks on during their courtesy call. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

A politician should never play golf in front of the media. This sound advice came courtesy of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during my visit to Tokyo in September.

Abe strikes me as a wise and decent man, and one who enjoys golf on its own terms, not just as a diplomatic tool in his dealings with his American counterpart. He enthusiastically greeted PGA Tour Champions players at his official residence prior to the inaugural JAL Championship, and seemed genuinely pleased to accept a pair of Loudmouth pants from John Daly, among other gifts.

Alas, Abe didn’t heed his own advice. An aerial camera later caught Abe tumbling back into a bunker after playing a shot during a round with President Donald Trump. With great power comes great responsibility – and great scrutiny.

I was in Japan for the JAL Championship, a new PGA Tour Champions event, and also to explore Tokyo and some of the golf courses around the city. My takeaway: It’s not a golf destination, mainly because the best courses are private and require a fair amount of driving. But Tokyo is a fabulous city. As Jeff Sluman noted, you can walk all day and not hear the blare of a single car horn. That’s a reflection of the generally civilized, respectful manner of the citizens.

 

David Kidd and company

Just off the 18th green at Mammoth Dunes, David McLay Kidd (foreground) captured his playing partners (clockwise): Tory Wulf of Gamble Sands, the author, Casey Krahenbuhl of DMK Golf Design and Chip Caswell of Gamble Sands.

If you want to eat well, hang out with David McLay Kidd. In September, I crashed at the rental home the architect and his team maintained near Sand Valley Golf Resort in Nekoosa, Wis., where they were running through a checklist of the final nips and tucks on Mammoth Dunes.

Kidd, as usual, was manning the grill and serving steaks to me and guests from Gamble Sands, his 2014 design in Brewster, Wash., before settling in to watch “Monday Night Football.” For all the time I’ve spent with Kidd visiting his various projects in the Northwest, Fiji, Nicaragua and elsewhere, I never realized the native Scotsman, now a U.S. citizen, had developed a fondness for American football. (I got the sense his efforts to impart this new-found sporting passion on his father, Jimmy, were still a work in progress.)

Kidd, of course, does more than just cook and watch football. He operates one of the game’s top boutique design firms. I use the term “boutique” with purpose. What you notice with architects such as Kidd, Gil Hanse and Mike DeVries is the personal investment of time in each of their projects – and that usually includes living onsite for extended periods of construction. They might only open one new course per year, two at the most, but you’ll know they sweated the smallest details.

That was evident as Kidd and I walked around the nearly completed Mammoth Dunes. He and sidekick Casey Krahenbuhl were still grinding over the most minute details, not unlike a book editor making a final pass through a manuscript and agonizing over subtle changes in verbiage.

Preview play this past fall on a nine-hole loop was enthusiastic, to put it mildly. By the time Mammoth Dunes opens all 18 holes to the public in late spring, I would anticipate the response will be so strong that Sand Valley will move forward with plans for a third course.

The Machrie Links, Isle of Islay, Argyll and Bute, Scotland.(Picture Credit / Phil Inglis)

The Machrie Links, Isle of Islay, Argyll and Bute, Scotland. (Phil Inglis)

If you want to drink well, go to Islay. This island off the west coast of Scotland, at the southernmost end of the Inner Hebrides chain, is the country’s greatest scotch destination. There are eight – soon to be 10 – active distilleries on an island of slightly more than 3,000 people, and they are some of the genre’s greatest brands: Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Bowmore, among others. The smoky, peaty character of these whiskies sparked my love for scotch and, by extension, Scotland.

Truth is, my stated reason for visiting Islay was to see the recently renovated Machrie, a links that dates to 1891. The fact that my trip corresponded with the annual Islay Festival – a week-long celebration of scotch and music – was less than a coincidence.

I’m a big fan of D.J. Russell’s renovations to The Machrie – I’ll have more on this in early 2018 – and hope to get back later this year to see the new hotel that is nearing completion behind the 18th green.

This is a real sleeper destination, particularly for those who are well traveled. If you’ve been everywhere on the Scottish mainland and are looking for something different, take a ferry or flight from Glasgow to Islay.

 

 

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND - JUNE 25: Presumptive Republican nominee for US president Donald Trump arrives in a helicopter at Trump International Golf Links on June 25, 2016 in Aberdeen, Scotland. The US presidential hopeful was in Scotland for the reopening of the refurbished Open venue golf resort Trump Turnberry which has undergone an eight month refurbishment as part of an investment thought to be worth in the region of two hundred million pounds. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Trump Turnberry underwent a major refurbishment. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Trump Turnberry is fabulous. Over the previous decade, I had visited the resort on two occasions prior to the Trump Organization’s ownership and renovations. The hotel was pleasant enough, though everyone knew it needed extensive renovations. The Ailsa Course was lovely, but the second course (then called Kintyre) usually was deemed not worthy of an extra day’s stay.

On this visit, I was blown away by the hotel, which had all of the Five Star comforts a leisure traveler would want, while also addressing all of the business traveler’s needs. The Ailsa Course, following Martin Ebert’s renovations, suddenly leapfrogged into the conversation with my Scottish favorite, Royal Dornoch. The middle of the round on Ailsa is defined by some of the most thrilling shots you’ll ever experience, and the decision to turn the lighthouse into a suite on the upper level and halfway house on the ground floor was inspired. And while the renovated second course, now called King Robert the Bruce, didn’t reopen until after I left, I’ve heard comments from tour operators suggesting that it’s definitely worth that extra day’s stay.

A note: I write all of this, fully aware that praising anything that carries the Trump name is verboten in some circles these days. Frankly, I don’t care. All I care about is that new ownership took over an iconic, but troubled, property, poured a lot of money into it, and put it on par with the world’s greatest golf resorts.

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