Well-Rounded Trip Features More Than Just Golf
With another Sandhills graduation safely in the books, it was time for another trip to Scotland. I went in May this time, partly for family reasons, but partly to see and savor Scotland's beautiful spring colors.
Scotland in May is a feast for the eyes. In the west and in the highlands the whin bushes are alive with golden blooms. In the east there are fields of oil seed rape -- a crop whose blossoms eventually make their way into cooking oil. These fields are so brilliantly yellow that they almost look artificial, and they turn the countryside into a beautiful patchwork quilt. Add to these Scotland's May rhododendrons and it's easy to see why this is the loveliest time of the Scottish year.
Of course I didn't come to Scotland just to see the flowers -- I came to play golf. May is prime golfing season in Scotland. The gold whin bushes line the fairways of most of the courses, and there is less rain than later in the summer. True, the breezes in May are a bit fresher that they are in high summer -- but what would golf in Scotland be without a little wind! My wife, Evelyn, stayed home for this trip, and I went instead with two golfing friends of long-standing. Emmet Logan of Pinehurst came with me, partly to finalize arrangements for the house he will rent in St. Andrews later in the summer. Also along was Tom Livingston, who taught with me years ago at the College of Charleston, and who shares my two loves of golf and baseball. Our two-week trip saw us traveling for the first week, lodging in bed and breakfasts, then renting a flat in North Berwick for week number two.
My major focus on this trip was to see some of Scotland's newer courses. Despite worldwide economic conditions, several new -- and very fancy -- courses have opened in Scotland during the last year. Some of these places have received a lot of hype, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Naturally, we paid homage to the game's roots with several rounds on its classic links courses -- Machrihanish, Nairn, North Berwick, and the Old Course at St. Andrews. But my real purpose was to get a look at these new places, all of which aspire to a place on GOLF Magazine's list of the world's top one hundred courses. Our trip took us from Machrihanish Dunes in the far southwest of Scotland through Spey Valley in the heart of the highlands to Castle Stuart on the Moray Firth near Inverness, then down to the Kittocks course in St. Andrews and finally the Renaissance Club in Gullane, east of Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth.
We arrived at Glasgow Airport on a rainy Sunday morning and set out for the three hour drive down the Kintyre Peninsula to the new course at Machrihanish Dunes. Kintyre sticks out of Western Scotland like Baja California sticks out of Mexico. It is a wild and wooly place with forests, beautiful lochs, waterfalls and crashing surf. Down at its tip (the "mull" of Kintyre, made famous in a song by sometimes local resident Paul McCartney) sits the tiny town of Machrihanish (mock-re-hannish), now home to two golf courses. The original course at Machrihanish was designed by Old Tom Morris back in the mists of time. It is one of the world's most beautiful and charming golf courses, bounding along the sea, with nearly all of its holes framed and bordered by the most dramatic dunes in Scotland. The new course, Machrihanish Dunes, was built on land right next to the older one to take advantage of the location's dunes and views. Unfortunately, it falls far short of its promise. The course's design is not very imaginative and, almost incredibly, it doesn't take advantage of its majestic setting. It is built in a rather convoluted fashion, and the walk from the green of one hole to the tee of the next is often several hundred yards, adding nearly two miles needed to walk the course. The course is a struggle to get to (Machrihanish is a long way from everywhere) and a struggle to play not a good combination for a new, expensive course opening in the middle of a recession.
Fortunately, things were much better at Spey Valley, a lovely course in Aviemore in the center of the Scottish highlands. Spey Valley is surrounded by the Cairngorn Mountains covered in snow even in May and boasts some of the loveliest scenery in Scotland. It features flowers, whin bushes, lakes, and wildlife all in great abundance. We played our round in the company of the course's professional Murray Urquhart, a delightful young man who had played his college golf at the College of Charleston. Murray's course has golf carts to rent a rarity in Scotland, but definitely recommended on this hilly terrain. The course is a wonderful collection of holes and sights that delight the senses. It is well worth a visit.
Forty miles north of Spey Valley is Castle Stuart, located five miles from the Inverness airport on the banks of the Moray Firth. The course and the hotel which will accompany it is the creation of Mark Parsinen, the Californian who built Kingsbarns near St. Andrews about a decade ago. The course doesn't open officially until July but when it does the golf world is in for a shock and a treat. I have seen and played golf in a lot of places, but I have never seen a more impressive course that Castle Stuart. Its only rival in terms of beauty and grandeur are the courses that have been created by Mike Keiser in Bandon Dunes, Oregon. My wife Evelyn often accuses me of overstating things, so this ought to be taken with a grain of salt, but I think this course is better than Pebble Beach. I believe that in ten years only the Old Course in St. Andrews will rank above Castle Stuart among the many wonderful and venerable golf courses of Great Britain and Ireland. The course may not have the quaint Scottish charm of a Prestwick or a North Berwick, but it is destined to become one of the leading golf destinations in the world. Anyone who plans a golf trip to Scotland needs to give a visit to Castle Stuart priority second only to securing a tee time on the Old Course in St. Andrews.
After Castle Stuart, our games at Kittocks in St. Andrews and the Renaissance Club in Gullane had every right to be anti-climactic. They had every right to, but they weren't. The Kittocks course is an altered version of a course Bruce Denlin designed on a promontory high above the town of St. Andrews. The old town's steeples and spires form part of the course's backdrop, the other part supplied by the Firth of Forth and the North Sea far below the course's hundred foot cliffs. The Kittocks is a visual splendor, even if the topography caused the course's routing to be a bit of a jumble. Several of the holes are absolutely spectacular, including the 15th, a par four that I consider to be one of the best holes in the world. The hole starts with an uphill drive to a flat area far above the level of the green below. The green sits at cliff's edge and requires the golfer to hit an iron shot to an 'infinity' horizon and one of the most exhilarating views in all of golf.
The Renaissance Club is located on the same piece of linksland that is home to the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and their course at Muirfield. The course was designed by Tom Doak, widely acclaimed for his minimalist approach to building golf courses. This one is no exception, and the American architect moved very little earth to create a course that is superbly natural and that seems to have been there for decades. Many of the newer courses in Scotland seem to have 'sharp edges' and exaggerated greens that cause them to look artificial. Doak's work is just the opposite, and his course at Renaissance is delightful to play. I think I may even prefer it to its more famous neighbor.
I guess I've been to Scotland nearly a couple of dozen times now. Each time I come, the place captivates me all over again. The natural beauty (especially in May), the warmth of the Scottish people, the sensible pace of life, the wonderful golf -- I find them all delightful. This trip may have been more about the new than the familiar -- newer courses in corners of Scotland I have never seen before. But like all my trips to Scotland, it ended as it has on each of my previous visits -- with me counting the days until I can come back again.
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