May 31, 2007

The Ultimate Trip

The Ultimate Guide to the Ultimate Buddies Trip

The cure for jet lag (it turns out) is golf. You take the overnight nonstop to Scotland from Newark, arrive bleary-eyed in Glasgow at 8 in the morning, drag your clubs past the bomb-sniffing dogs in customs, stumble into a men's room designated "Loo of the Year," change a tall stack of American dollars into a short stack of British pounds, drive 55 miles through Robert Burns country while trying to remember to admire the sheep-dotted hillsides, reach Turnberry in a daze—and tee it up on the Ailsa Course, where Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus fought their legendary Duel in the Sun at the British Open in 1977. You haven't slept since what seems like the day before yesterday, but your first drive somehow finds the fairway, and a little mental arithmetic reveals that your colleagues back home are arriving, just now, at their desks. Suddenly, you feel happier than you've felt since the birth of your first child, or since the time you and your brother nearly won your flight in the member-guest. (Not to worry: The cure for excessive cheerfulness is also golf.)

Or so I discovered recently, during a week-long visit to the birthplace of the game. I was traveling with seven golf-addled friends from the staff of this magazine, and the group managed to play 10 rounds on nine courses in 5 days. Needless to say, we had a terrific time, and reaffirmed the complex ties of our friendship in ways that only other men will understand. ("Hey, you know what this trip has made me realize, guys? We ought to take another big golf trip sometime!")

I've been married for more than 25 years, and my wife and I have traveled together to some pretty spectacular places, whose names you would recognize in an instant. The trips that stick in my mind, though, are the ones I've taken with various golf buddies, such as our annual three-day trip to four not-all-that-terrible courses near Atlantic City. Ah, the memories: the time we played poker for Tic Tacs with the manager of our hotel, the time we persuaded Howard the bartender to come back at 6 the next morning to make bloody marys, the time we told a waitress where we had eaten the night before and she said, "You're not from around here, are you?" Golf trips with your friends are much better than the wife kind of trips, because you never have to visit a castle, a museum or a cathedral and there's nothing to worry about except frost delays, lightning and dark. You also get to be even better friends with your best friends, and to learn intimate details about their private lives, such as whether they hate the Giants more than the Jets, and where they work.

As great as southern New Jersey is, though, Scotland is even better, and every serious golfer ought to visit at least once, ideally in the company of his closest pals. Golf has been played in Scotland since before Columbus sailed for the Indies. Modern golf courses have bunkers because Scottish golf courses have bunkers, and they have 18 holes because the Old Course at St. Andrews ended up with that many, for no particular reason, in 1764. Virtually every great player in the history of the game has taken divots on the Old Course—and you can take divots there, too.

Traveling to Scotland and playing 36 a day for as many days as you can afford is the perfect male-bonding activity, and it gives you the kind of historical perspective you need to get the most out of your off-season viewing of The Golf Channel. It will also make you the envy of every golfer you know back home. If going to Scotland isn't possible, you can go to Ireland and Northern Ireland, where great courses are equally abundant and accessible. Heck, you can even go to England.

The idea for our trip arose last winter. To help us with our planning, we contacted two well-known golf-tour operators: PerryGolf (perrygolf.com) and Jerry Quinlan's Celtic Golf (jqcelticgolf.com), both of which offer a wide variety of prepackaged and customized golf trips in the United Kingdom, Ireland and continental Europe. We said we wanted a seven-day-trip, including travel time; we wanted to play the Old Course at St. Andrews and as many other British Open courses as possible, along with a selection of less-familiar treasures, which we could then claim to have discovered on our own; we wanted to play two rounds a day; we didn't want to drive ourselves; and we were willing to double up in hotel rooms. We provided a wish list of courses, including all the usual suspects, but said that we were flexible.

Both companies came back with similar proposals, at prices that worked out to about $6,700 per person, including a bus with a driver, meals and caddies, but not including airfare. We ended up going with Quinlan, mainly because we liked his itinerary. I'd also happily used Quinlan's services in the past—for a solo trip to Scotland in 1992, and for a 10-day trip, with five friends, to Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2001—and I have recommended him to several other people, always with good results. I'm sure we would have been pleased with PerryGolf, too.

I also know people who have put together their own Scottish or Irish golf trips, sometimes with the help of an ordinary travel agent. My feeling is that there are great advantages to using an experienced golf-trip planner. The pros know how long you need to allow for the drive from Turnberry to Crail, and they know the days and times when nonmembers can't play at certain courses, and they have better access to tee times, and they have ongoing relationships with golf clubs and hotels. Using them isn't even necessarily much more expensive than doing it yourself, because they usually get to pay wholesale prices for things like hotel rooms, rental cars and tee times. The Internet has made it easier for individuals to book their own rounds on foreign courses, because many popular clubs now have at least rudimentary websites, but juggling reservations from across an ocean can still be a frustrating, time-consuming chore. A few weeks before our trip, Quinlan mailed us a package containing our itinerary and a stack of vouchers. All we had to do was remember to take it with us.

Get on the bus

On our second day in Scotland, after a mulligan round on the Ailsa Course—under a sky so clear that we could see all the way to Ireland—we boarded our coach, which was roughly the size of a Greyhound bus, and rode a half-hour north, to Prestwick, where our afternoon tee times had been booked. The coach had seemed like an extravagance when we requested it, but it quickly became a necessity. It had comfortable seats, large windows, tables for card-playing and DVD-watching, a beer-stocked fridge, acres of room for randomly stowed belongings, and, best of all, a sober, attentive driver, who didn't suddenly discover that he was driving on the wrong side of the road (as I did in a rented minivan in Ireland) or back into an enormous concrete urn near the entrance of a fancy hotel (ditto).

Quinlan figures about 70 percent of the golf vacations booked through his company use a driver these days. Though it added about $400 per person to the cost of our trip, hiring a driver actually becomes less expensive than renting minivans when you have 20 or more people on your trip, he says.

Our driver, John, filled the golf-travel role that my regular buddies and I call Trip Dad: the member of the group whose job it is to keep everybody else on task, and to decide potentially divisive disputes, such as where we should eat dinner. (Among my friends, this assignment shifts around, mostly by repulsion.) At the end of each round, we re-boarded our bus, popped open beers, and settled in for the customary wager-settling (see accompanying story," Games Buddies Play") and tedious shot-by-shot round recapitulation, while John drove us to our next destination. And when our schedule didn't leave time for a sit-down lunch between our morning and afternoon rounds, John bought sandwiches for us while we played, and we ate in the bus en route.

John also seemed to know the location of every ATM in Scotland, and dropped us off at the nearest one when we needed to refill our pockets with indigenous cash. Does anyone except your great-grandmother still think traveler's checks are a good idea? You can use your hometown bank card to obtain local currency 24 hours a day almost anywhere in the civilized world—and you seldom even need to do that, because you can charge almost anything (except caddie fees and bellman tips) on your credit card. What's more, the exchange rates offered by banks and credit-card issuers are usually quite competitive—and almost always better than the ones offered at those currency-exchange kiosks in international airports.

Most of the courses on our itinerary were private golf clubs—at Prestwick, we looked through a clubhouse window and saw a roomful of banker-type guys in tuxedos drinking wine and smoking cigars—but all of them, like virtually all the best-known courses in the United Kingdom and Ireland and unlike virtually all of the best-known courses in the United States, are essentially open to the public. The only British Open course in Scotland that's genuinely stuffy about outsiders is Muirfield—and even it handles 8,000 guest rounds a year. This amazing accessibility is one of the best reasons for crossing the ocean to play golf. To put together a comparably impressive tour in the United States you'd have to spend years sucking up to the friends of friends of friends.

Rooms with a view

We spent our first two nights in Scotland at a century-old hotel known today as the Westin Turnberry Resort, whose main building broadly overlooks the Ailsa Course and the Firth of Clyde from the top of a commanding ridge. (I spent two blissful nights there last time I traveled to Scotland.) Sadly, we stayed not in the hotel proper but in the much newer, more condo-like Lodges, which are down at the bottom of the hill, directly across the road from the clubhouse. When my roommate and I checked in, we discovered that our twin beds had been pushed together, honeymoon style. We moved them as far apart as the layout would allow—so far, in fact, that neither of us could reach over and prod the other with the butt end of a 9-iron, an anti-snoring technique I learned from another golfer.

Nighttime noise is an issue when you travel with grown men. On a ski trip a couple of years ago, I shared a room with two other 50ish dads and spent much of the night trying to decide whether the chainsaw-like snoring was less or more annoying than the innumerable brief trips to the bathroom. When my friends and I travel to Atlantic City, we pair the snorers and coughers with the heaviest sleepers and make sure that the guy with the anti-apnea machine shares a room with someone who likes white noise. I employ two snoring-related sleep aids: gumdrop-size silicone ear plugs and a vaguely wishbone-shaped appliance called Nozovent, which sprongs my nostrils wide open. (One night last year, while my wife and I were getting ready for bed at home, I groggily inserted my earplugs into my nose instead of my ears—as the first one went in, I thought, Whoa, time to buy some fresh ones--then realized what I had done and laughed so hard I nearly suffocated.) On a golf trip to Ireland, my friends and I decided to splurge on single rooms, an upgrade that would have cost $1,500 apiece on our Scotland trip. But sharing a room in Scotland turned out not to be the problem I had feared. I snored and my roommate snored, but we both slept through most of it, just like an old married couple.

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.