Never mind the 'usual suspects.' Come along on a journey to the heart of the Old Country -- and the courses locals love best
In 1992, when I was new to the game, I took my first golf trip to Scotland. You can probably guess at least part of the itinerary. I played at Turnberry, Gleneagles, St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Dornoch, and I finished at Tain, an Old Tom Morris course at the inland end of Dornoch Firth. That last round went by so fast that it left me with most of a day to fill, so I asked my playing partners, who were Tain regulars, if they could recommend a course on the long road to the airport -- any course at all. They suggested Kingussie, just off the A9, about a third of the way between Dornoch and Glasgow, in what is now Cairngorms National Park. So that's where I went.
My expectations were neither high nor low; I just wanted one more chance to swing my clubs. But during the decade and a half since then I've probably thought about Kingussie as often as I've thought about Carnoustie. You could never hold a British Open there -- among other reasons, the course is almost 2,000 yards too short for a major championship -- and golf-tour operators rarely send American travelers to play it. Nevertheless, it stuck in my mind. The course (which was expanded and redesigned by Harry Vardon in 1908) is set in and around the elevated valley of the River Gynack, in the rocky hills above the village. The first hole is a long, semi-blind par 3, the sixth is a short par 4 that plays past the ruin of an old shieling, or shepherd's hut, and the 14th, called the Dyke, runs along an old stone wall. It was a memorable finish to a memorable trip.
No American golfer would travel to the birthplace of the game to play a course like Kingussie -- but, well, why not? Scotland has almost 550 golf courses, and therefore has the highest golf-to-golfer ratio in the world, yet the vast majority of American pilgrims pick and choose among the same 10 or 20 names -- all of them worthy destinations, several of them British Open venues, a few of them nearly as sacred as the Holy Land, but by no means a representative sampling of "Scottish golf," if such a thing exists. There's more to the country than St. Andrews, just as there's more to the United States than the Grand Canyon.
This past spring, I decided to take a different kind of Scottish golf trip, to spend 10 days traveling the country avoiding any course I'd ever heard of: no Old Course, no Prestwick, no Troon, no Machrihanish, no Kingsbarns. In fact, no itinerary. I'd rent a car at the airport, throw my clubs in the back, ask strangers for recommendations, search my road map for blue pennants and see where serendipity took me.
Scotland's population is concentrated in the country's slender southern waist, between greater Glasgow, in the west, and greater Edinburgh, in the east -- a girdle of suburbs and traffic congestion transected by the M8 motorway. Most of the most famous golf courses are within 30 or 40 miles of that short band, so American golf travelers tend to see the country through a very narrow window. If you break free of the populous axis by driving north or south, though, the cities quickly give way to villages, the highways turn into winding roads, and the pubs become less likely to be filled with quartets of middle-age American men wearing Bandon Dunes windshirts.
I began my back-roads journey where I had ended my first Scottish golf trip, at Kingussie, a couple of hours northeast of Glasgow. My memory had placed the village on the wrong side of the highway, but I recognized the clubhouse, which is painted white and green and was built in 1911, 20 years after the founding of the club. The green fee was £24 -- about $48 at the exchange rate. (I could have bought a weekly ticket for £70, or, for that matter, joined the club for £200.) I played with three young Scots, two of whom were on holiday from the Orkneys, a cluster of small islands north of the Scottish mainland, and I was happy to find that I recognized many of the holes.
When we had finished, we had a drink with a group of regulars sitting at two picnic tables outside the clubhouse. One of them told me, "Kingussie has more left-handed and cross-handed players than any other golf club in the world" -- a consequence, he said, of the town's intense devotion to shinty, a bruising Highlands stick game that is similar to the Irish sport hurling (from which it evolved) and to field hockey, and in which there is a tactical advantage to playing from the wrong side of the ball, apparently. No, no, another member insisted: There are more left-handed golfers in Newtonmore, Kingussie's principal shinty rival, three miles to the west. The conversation then veered into a discussion of Newtonmore's golf course, which my new friends unanimously dismissed as too flat to bother with.
That evening (after a second 18), I drove over to Newtonmore and watched a youth shinty practice, the only form of the game available locally that evening. I stood with a group of shinty moms in a parking lot filled with Scottish minivans and saw that grade-school shinty players, unlike the adult shinty players I had heard about in the stories at the picnic table at Kingussie, wear helmets and still have their teeth.
When I asked the regulars at Kingussie where I should play next, their top recommendation -- after "Not Newtonmore" and "Why not just stay here?" -- was Boat of Garten, about 20 miles northeast, the best known within the boundaries of the national park. I set out the next morning after breakfast at my hotel, the Osprey, on Kingussie's charming main street.