The Ultimate Trip
Continued (page 2 of 2)
Our last four nights in Scotland we spent at the St. Andrews Bay Golf Resort & Spa, about two miles southeast of the town. The resort, which opened in 2001, was built on the grounds of an ancient farm and has jaw-dropping views of the river Tay, St. Andrews Bay and the town of St. Andrews, whose distant spires looked distinctly medieval when lit by the setting sun. The rooms had comfortable beds, full-volume showers and a complete menu of Internet connections, but the rest of the place was off-putting. The main restaurant was cavernous, unattractive and decidedly mediocre (never a surprise in the U.K., alas). The hotel, from some angles, looked like a modern mega-chateau and, from others, like a huge regional high school.
The nature of our accommodations was one of a relatively few non-swing-related recurring topics of discussion on our trip. The majority view was that it probably would have been more fun (if not also somewhat less expensive) to stay at a smaller hotel or bed and breakfast, ideally in St. Andrews itself. I was torn, despite my generally negative reaction to St. Andrews Bay. On an earlier trip to Scotland, I stayed at an extraordinarily charming converted country house—where the bathroom nevertheless had just a shallow, unpleasant tub, with no shower, and my bed was small and uncomfortable. Those were fatal drawbacks, in my view, because the only in-room activities I truly cared about were spraying hot water at maximum volume on my Advil-depleted body and sleeping like a dead person. In fact, the ideal lodgings for a golfer might be just a large shower with a bed in it. Maybe throw in a minibar, too.
One of the most agreeable hotels I've ever stayed in between golf rounds was the Bushmills Inn, in Northern Ireland, where Quinlan billeted my buddies and me three years ago. It had comfortable rooms, a very good restaurant and an inviting bar warmed by smoldering peat fires, and it was situated within a short distance not only of one of the greatest golf courses in the world (Royal Portrush) but also of a major distillery. I stayed up so late one night drinking snifters of 25-year-old Bushmills with my friends Brendan and Tim that we almost met the next morning's tee times coming around the other way. (Meanwhile, the three other guys on our trip--the ones with the lowest handicaps, of course—were snug in their beds, dreaming of their flawless backswings.) We played like zombies the next morning but didn't regret the whiskey, which went down like maple syrup.
There wasn't much carousing on our Scotland trip--although one of the guys did nearly set his lips on fire at Turnberry after a waiter persuaded him to top off dessert with a shot of flaming Sambuca. (Thankfully Davis Love III and Brad Faxon, whom we ran into and chatted with before dinner, didn't witness that show.) For the most part, we were asleep by midnight and up again by 6 or 7, raring to go. In Scotland in early July, the sun doesn't set until after 10, and even then it scarcely dips below the horizon. On an earlier trip I played 54 holes in a day at both Gleneagles and at Royal Dornoch—because I couldn't think of anything better to do and because wasting perfectly good daylight seemed almost sinful. Playing that much golf wore me out, but I didn't care. I knew there'd be time to sleep when I got home.
Royal & Ancient finale
The main event of our Scot-land trip was our round on the Old Course, which took place the final day. The Old Course is golf's historical and spiritual epicenter, although its power can be difficult to convey to someone who doesn't have a sense of it already. Parts of the course resemble nothing else in golf: The first and 18th fairways form a vast, continuous tabletop, which is crossed by a public road and backs up to a city street corner; the tee shot on the 17th hole is ideally played over a particular letter in a large sign on the side of a wooden structure that reproduces the profile of a 19th-century coal shed.
The Old Course is so quirky that taking a caddie there is almost a necessity (about $90, including tip—at the high end of the range on our trip). My caddie was an affable but directionless 20-something still living with his parents. He was quite helpful but considerably less colorful than the alcohol-steeped flatterer who carried my bag the last time I was there, made me feel like the second coming of Old Tom Morris, and squeezed me for an absurdly large tip. Still, I was happy to have a guide—and, in fact, I almost always enjoy playing with caddies. (I'd had my only truly unsatisfactory caddie of the trip the day before, at North Berwick: an older man whose reading of the greens was dazzlingly specific—"exactly a quarter-inch right of center"—yet bore only a random relationship to reality.) Using caddies less often would have cut our trip expenses considerably, although I think it's almost always a good idea to have at least one caddie per foursome in Scotland, if only to help search for missing balls.
Because we made our final trip plans just a couple of months before our departure and wanted to be sure our two foursomes could tee off successively, we paid a fortune for our round at the Old Course—the equivalent of about $1,200 per golfer, compared with the standard green fee of roughly $200—and Quinlan had to subcontract the booking to a Scottish tour operator called the Old Course Experience, which since 1995 has had an exclusive contract with the course's quasi-public owner, the St. Andrews Links Trust. If we had been earlier or more flexible, we would have had less costly options. Some tour operators control tee times of their own, and golfers can apply directly to the Links Trust in advance or participate in a daily drawing for unfilled spots the next day (for details, see standrews.rog.uk). In addition, a golfer who is willing to play with strangers can simply show up at the starter's booth and wait in line—something I once did successfully twice on the same day. Just after we had checked in this time, an American stopped by to ask the starter whether he and his son had moved up the waiting list and was told that they could have teed off an hour earlier if they'd stuck around instead of going to breakfast. They ended up with a tee time an hour or so after ours, at considerably less expense.
Then, suddenly, we had hit our final drives and were crossing the old stone bridge over the Swilcan Burn, on our way up the 18th fairway, just like Arnie at the Open in 1995. It was a thrilling experience—but also a depressing one, because I knew that the next morning I'd be heading home. I've never been happy to see a golf trip end, but this trip seemed almost cruelly short. Several members of our group professed to be "golfed out," but I'm sure they would have found the will to continue if we'd suddenly been granted a departure reprieve. Ten days would have been a better length—well, why not a month? During most of my long flight home I replayed our rounds in my mind and had exactly the same thought I'd had on my return flight from Scotland a dozen years before: As soon as I can figure out a way, I'm coming back. Playing golf in Scotland with friends is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would like to experience at least once a year for the rest of my life.