Ireland or Scotland? Why choose?
As a golf writer with double-digit U.K. trips under my belt, I’m sometimes asked my opinion about one of the game’s great debates: Ireland or Scotland? (And sometimes, after a few drinks at the 19th hole, I offer my thoughts unsolicited.) My answer is always the same: Yes. Yes, you should go to Ireland, and yes, you should go to Scotland. Tomorrow, if possible.
It’s a nonsensical question, of course. In golfing terms, there isn’t one Ireland or one Scotland. There are essentially three apiece. Ireland has the Northwest, the Southwest, and Northeast; Scotland has the West (centered on Turnberry), East (St. Andrews) and the Highlands (Royal Dornoch), although the last two certainly could be combined. Unless you have unlimited time and money (call me if you need a friend), you’re going to have to make hard choices. Likewise, there isn’t one trip type but several. Buddies road trips. Stay-in-one-place buddy trips. Father-son trips. Couples or family trips (lose my number).
As you can see, it becomes a complicated question, so normally I’ll just say “Ireland” if I’m drinking Guinness and “Scotland” if I’m drinking Glenfiddich. With some time here, let’s see if we can’t analyze things a little more thoroughly and clear-headedly.
• Courses. Start out easy, why don’t we? Some quarters have it that
Scotland has more great courses, and maybe that’s true. Certainly it has the major-championship pedigree. I happen to be partial to the greater overall drama of Irish golf – the vast dunes of Ballybunion and Carne, the sheer gorgeousness of Royal County Down. I’ve also found its (pardon the cliché) “hidden gems” – the second-tier courses like Ballyliffin, County Sligo and Portstewart – to offer a few more thrills than their Scottish counterparts.
Of course, that’s just a personal preference. Reasonable people could take the other side of the argument. What’s inarguable is that the depth of great golf in both countries is such that one could make double-digit trips across the pond, playing different courses each time, without ever hitting a dud. And should.
• Weather. You’re concerned about the weather? Go to Spain’s Costa del Sol. Or Florida. You’re not meant for an Irish or Scottish golf trip. (Ditto food, although that’s underrated in both spots: Go to Paris.)
Four of my favorite memories of Ireland are weather-related: Hitting a full 7-iron pin-high from 85 yards in a near-hurricane at Carne. Shooting only a few over par on the back nine in the gales at Lahinch without hitting a shot above head-high. Basking in sunshine one minute and ducking under a bench to avoid hailstones the next at Westport. Cajoling the caddies (yes, caddies!) to continue for the back nine in a torrential rainstorm at Waterville. You want to come home not just with bag tags but also with stories to tell. Unlike the rest of life, in golf weather makes for good stories. Battling the elements is at least half the fun.
If, Mr. Roker, you are intent on maximizing your odds of staying dry, the east of Scotland is the call. Otherwise, just bring raingear and a spirit of adventure, and you’ll be fine.
• The once-in-a-lifetime trip. Sad to say, but many golfers only get one shot at crossing the pond. Ireland’s Great Triumvirate of Ballybunion, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush is logistically unfeasible. If this is The Bucket-List Trip, the reality is that you can hit all the home runs in a Friday-to-next-Sunday Scotland sojourn: The Old Course at St. Andrews. The day at Muirfield (four-ball in the morning, coat-and-tie lunch in the members’ dining room under the portraits of past club captains, foursomes in the afternoon). Royal Dornoch. Turnberry. Of course, a trip like that is only going to bring you back to the British Isles the second you’ve again scraped together enough nickels, assuming you haven’t kicked the bucket.
St. Andrews might be best suited to the father-and-son one-off – it’s hard to top the Old Course for gravitas, meaning, what-have-you. “In some ways, fathers and sons at the Old Course is a rite of passage dating back to Tom Morris and his son,” says Gordon Dalgleish, co-founder and president of PerryGolf. My dad and I had a blast, and bonded, competing in a three-day father-son tournament at Waterville. We also minimized being trapped in the car together for too long, which brings us to….
• Driving. In a word, don’t – if you can afford not to. My cultural experiences in both Ireland and Scotland have extended beyond the pubs only briefly and usually under duress. (Dalgleish neatly summarizes the countries’ non-golf offerings: “Scotland: Castles, genealogy, whisky. Ireland: Castles, scenery, Guinness, nice spas, some genealogy.”) There are also 36 holes a day to play and only so much daylight. You don’t want to be fighting with your mates about whose turn it is to be designated driver. You don’t want to be driving on the wrong side of the often sketchy, confusing roads. You just plain don’t.
The other question about driving concerns logistics. With exceptions (say, Machrihanish) Scotland’s courses tend to be more conveniently clustered. Ireland’s Northeast trip (Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, European Club, etc.) isn’t bad on that front. Ireland’s Southwest (Ballybunion, Waterville, Old Head, etc.) is pretty bad, and the Northwest (Carne, Connemara, County Sligo, etc.), my favorite trip of all for its authenticity (read: lack of tourists) and value, is worse if you throw in the necessary outliers. If you’re looking out the side window, the countrysides are lovely. The front window? Stressful.
• New courses. At first blush, going to Ireland or Scotland to play new courses seems like visiting the Museum of Natural History in search of robots. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of classic links to check out. But some of the world’s best new courses have been built in the British Isles in recent years, and bragging rights mean a lot. Here, the Scots have it all over the Irish at the moment – at least for American tastes. Doonbeg and Old Head are seven and 12 years old, respectively (man, time flies); the country’s most recent layouts have been parkland tracks geared toward the Continental European market. Carton House, The Heritage and Lough Erne have been warmly received, but let’s face it, we Yanks cross the pond to play putters from 40 yards off the green.
Meanwhile, in the past two years the Scots have debuted the Castle Course at St. Andrews and Machrihanish Dunes (both from David McLay Kidd, of Bandon Dunes fame) as well as Castle Stuart Golf Links (built by Mark Parsinen, the man behind Kingsbarns). Kidd’s courses have generated plenty of buzz; meanwhile, the veteran tour operator Sam Baker, of Haversham & Baker, told me that given the early comments from his clients, “Castle Stuart will unquestionably be the hottest new course in the world.”
• Camaraderie. Which is to say, where is it more fun to down a few pints? It would take a far bolder man than me to say that the Scots are more pleasant company than the Irish. (There’s a reason that “craic” – “fun, enjoyment, or lighthearted mischief; often in the context of drinking or music,” per Wikipedia – is associated almost exclusively with the Irish.) What I will say is that this isn’t quite the rout that you’ve been led to believe. The Scots may be generally more reticent, but they can be quite friendly once they get to know you a bit.
From my experience, the larger point is that you’ll make more new pals the smaller your group. If you’re one of 12 golfers, the natural tendency is to talk golf amongst yourselves, and it’s harder for would-be friendly locals to penetrate your group. (You’re also more likely to have a jerk in your circle, too. And neither Scotsmen nor Irishmen like an ugly American.) You may well need to make the effort; an American golfer in, say, Sligo or Dornoch isn’t exactly the most rare of birds. My most cherished encounter with a local came at Machrihanish, where I wandered alone into a local pub after my round and spent the afternoon chatting with a town resident about golf, Scotch and who knows what else. (His accent was occasionally impenetrable.) As I recall, we were the only two in the place, or maybe it just seemed that way.
• Summary. Yes. Go. Seriously, why haven’t you left already? If you went trophy hunting the first time, return for the smaller names. Cut the drive time. Add to the happy-hour time. Just, please, no Miller Time – try a Smithwick’s, or a Tennent’s. Go, go, go.