Golf Courses & Travel

Rock Of Ages

A trip to remote Scotland reveals more of the game's mysteries

Shiskine Golf & Tennis Club

The 146-yard fourth hole, The Shelf, at Shiskine Golf & Tennis Club on the Isle of Arran, with a rock outcrop from the Drumadoon cliffs.

March 2013

Next to the reproductive urge, man's most powerful impulse is to see the other side of the river, the mountain or the world.

In Scotland, even the Scots—most of them—have never made it to their western isles, especially the Outer Hebrides. (The word "Outer" is a clue. The Inner Hebrides are isolated enough.) Getting there is an expedition. Multiple ferry crossings are involved, as well as a few hops on puddle-jumping airplanes, including one that takes off and lands on a beach.

"What time do the newspapers come in?" the stationmaster at Barra is asked.

"When the tide goes out," he replies.


The first rusty ferry loads at Ardrossan on the mainland and drops at Brodick on the Isle of Arran, a 20-minute drive to Blackwaterfoot and the Shiskine Golf & Tennis Club, where rain is pitching down. Like Prestwick when Willie Park won the inaugural Open Championship, Shiskine is a 12-hole course, stretching 2,996 yards to a par of 42. In fact, Park was the designer.

He meant to build an 18-hole track, but shifting sands and a couple of world wars intervened. Ruddy-faced islanders, playing hatless in the rain, are particularly grateful for the uniqueness of a 12-hole layout—"the perfect number, 12," one of them says, "the iron tongue of midnight"—and especially proud of the fourth hole, called The Shelf (146 yards), the ninth, Drumadoon (506-yard par 5), and the 12th, Kilmory (128 yards). The members have more than a right to be both pleased and wet.

The second isle is Islay, the next course Machrie. Its whitewashed clubhouse is as cheerful as a tuberculosis hospital, but a brighter one is on the drawing board. The road to Machrie, like most of the roads all over the archipelago, is a single-lane thoroughfare bulging intermittently with shoulders no wider than Davis Love's.

Motorists compete at being courteous, giving way to each other with little finger signals, and not the familiar kind. No, you go first. No, you.

Machrie is a real golf course full of blind and semi-blind shots that almost require you to play a second day—if only to hawk the golf balls you've already lost—and you don't mind. On the trophy-room wall is a London Times account of a match contested at Machrie on June 14, 1901, between James Braid and John H. Taylor for a prize of 100 pounds sterling. Over 36 holes, Braid beat Taylor, 1 up, and then they went off together on a tour of the local whiskey distilleries, that still require touring, with names like Bowmore, Laphroaig and Ardbeg.


Stornoway comes next.

Norrie T. MacDonald, the cab-driving columnist, has contracted to pick you up at the airport, but he is two hours late. Just about every employee in the tiny terminal fans out in a mobile-phone search party to locate their friend MacDonald. Meanwhile, you pass the time by reading his column in the Stornoway Gazette, titled The 19th Hole.

I don't feel like an old man, okay? I may have a spare tyre around my middle from sitting in a taxi eating Mars bars for a living. So what? I may even have to loosen another notch in the belt after a decent curry (who doesn't?), and I may have to suck in my breath to make my old(er) shirts look like they still fit me. Hey, I still carry my own golf bag, dontcha know. Not like these so-called fit young men who clutter up the fairways these days. I may be a senior, but I'm hardy. I'm tough. I'm durable. And I am, of course, deluding myself. Yet, despite all of the evidence to the coronary, I can't stop thinking of myself as a young golfer.

The par-4 16th hole at the magical Askernish Golf Club is named Old Tom's Pulpit, for course designer Old Tom Morris.

Eventually a cab screeches up, and out pops MacDonald with sleepy eyes and a two-pronged alibi about 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. night shifts and the forgetfulness that comes over a man when his handicap balloons from 6.8 to 8.5. Though the Harris Golf Club (in a region known for its tweed) is 50 miles away, he insists on stopping off at the Stornoway Golf Club first. "Because that's my stamping grounds," he says, "and you have to see her." She's a pretty parkland course, "trickier than she looks," he warrants. "At first glance, you'd think the best players might tear her apart; but, believe me, they never do."

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