The Right Side Of The Tracks
Combining golf and rail travel in the U.K. is not only easy and economical--it actually adds to the experience
Three hours after the overnight flight touches down at Gatwick Airport outside London, the first tee at Walton Heath's Old Course stretches out invitingly. I approach in a Zen-like calm. My morning has not been marred by the usual trudge to the car rental counter. I haven't had to stuff my golf bag and suitcase into the trunk or desperately acclimatize to driving on the left by wheeling 'round every rotary twice. Instead, I simply hopped the train to Tadworth, then took a four-minute taxi ride to the course.
Golf established itself in the U.K. long before the automobile, meaning some of its finest courses are within close proximity to railway stations. You can practically crawl from the platform to the first tee at Prestwick, where the first British Open was played in 1860. Ditto this year's host, Carnoustie, where the Golf Street station will handle thousands of spectators daily. The train also will take you to countless marvelous courses you won't find in a car-centric trophy hunt for Open venues: Gleneagles. Formby. Pitlochry. And hundreds of others awaiting discovery.
There are many ways to combine golf and rail travel, but my favorite is the simple approach: setting up camp in a single city and taking day trips out to the courses by train. Imagine sleeping in the same bed for your whole journey. No more late-night scrounging for restaurants. No sitting in a cramped car stuck in traffic. You can visit a museum in the morning and play 18 in the afternoon, easily segueing from a round to the theater afterward if you're up to it. Play cards traveling to and fro. Read three newspapers.
You can even nap--though, if you do, you'll miss out on some terrific scenery. Railways showcase countryside hidden from a sterile motorway: massive stone estates and wee cottages, narrow boats on rivers and canals, tidy community gardens and pastures filled with sheep, babbling brooks and schoolyard cricket ovals.
If romantic visions of train travel do not move you, perhaps economics will. A rental car big enough for four adults and luggage runs $1,000 for a week. Petrol is 95 pence a liter, so with a $2=£1 exchange rate, a gallon of gas is just shy of $7. Throw in parking and you're looking at $500 each for a foursome. By comparison, the least expensive regional rail passes dip below $200. Toss in a few short taxi rides to the first tee and it's still a bargain. The most expensive eight-day pass, first-class across England, Scotland and Wales, is $500 (britrail.com). Even then you're ahead of the game.