Three Days and Nights in St Andrews
It was 80 degrees, not a cloud in the sky and about as perfect a day as you’ll ever get for golf. Unless you’re playing in Scotland, where a day like this stands out like the rapeseed fields on a country drive.
The sign was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Mother Nature did have locals wondering when they last experienced such a heat wave.
David Scott, among many, believed it to be a record for this time of year.
Scott manages The Duke’s course in St. Andrews. He’s also been my Scottish contact for months, helping me set up golf and accommodations for my trip to the Auld Grey Toon to preview the Open Championship.
Over the course of three days and three nights, I spent two evenings at the Dunvegan Hotel and one at the Old Course Hotel. I also had the privilege of playing The Duke’s, the Old Course at St. Andrews and Kingsbarns Golf Links – while also getting some work done, of course.
THE DUKE’S, ST. ANDREWS
Upon arrival in St. Andrews, following an hour-long taxi ride from Edinburgh and no sleep on the flight over, I met up with Scott, a tall, sinewy, low-level handicap – and very amicable chap – to play 18 holes at The Duke’s.
Even more pleasing than the company, though, was the fact that we toured the course in a buggy.
“There are a lot of golf options around St. Andrews,” Scott said. “We try to provide people with something different.”
Golf carts, or buggies as they are known east of the Atlantic, are an uncommon sight in these parts. Much like 80-degree days.
But The Duke’s prides itself on standing out, and it does so with more than mobile transportation.
It was crowned the 2010 Best Golf Club in the U.K. at the inaugural Golf Club of the Year Awards. The award, which is voted on by members, guests and societies who play the venues, was based not just on course quality, but on the overall golfing experience.
That says everything you need to know about the atmosphere and overall convenience.
As for the course, it stands on par with the award-winning hospitality.
The heathland layout is set above St. Andrews, about five minutes from the Old Course, and offers beautiful panoramic views of the countryside. Just as outsiders envision a Scottish course born from nature, this one seems to rise from the land. It might not be the most scenic in Scotland, but when you're accustomed to playing Stateside courses with less personality than Bob Newhart, it makes an impression.
It also offers five sets of tees to compliment golfers of all skill levels. Playing to a handicap in the mid-teens, I found the course quite fair and straight away, which is one of the best things you can say about a layout nowadays. There seems to be an alarming misconception that excessive length and quirks make the game more enjoyable. They don’t.
What makes a round pleasurable is a visually appealing layout which rewards good shots, combined with a great staff and warm hospitality – and a good rate.
All are on offer at The Duke’s.
THE OLD COURSE AT ST. ANDREWS
Sam Snead called it “raggedy and beat up.”
Before Jack Nicklaus ever played it, his father warned him: “That’s the worst golf course I’ve ever seen.”
Legend has it that Bobby Jones ripped up his scorecard and stormed away the first time he played it.
Scott Hoch referred to it as “The worst piece of mess I’ve ever played.”
The American vantage point regarding the Old Course at St. Andrews has never been fully tilted to reverence.
“Is it the most beautiful course in the world?” longtime Old Course caddie Frank Carter rhetorically asked. “No. But it’s the greatest championship course because of what it is and what it means.”
Standing on the first tee, overlooking the connecting first and 18th fairways, the Swilken Bridge and Burn sectioning the two, I fully understood what Carter meant. I felt like I’d be just fine if this was my final round of golf [read about my playing the Old Course].
I don’t buy into golf mysticism, never desired to read “Golf in the Kingdom,” and have a severe gag reflex when people call golf a metaphor for life.
Playing the Old Course, I didn’t see the ghost of Bobby Jones or feel the presence of Old Tom Morris. I didn’t get goose bumps.
But I had reverence for it all. For the double greens and the adjoining fairways. For Shell Bunker, Hell Bunker, the Coffins, the Elysian Fields, the Principal’s Nose, the Road Hole and the Valley of Sin.
For the champions and the commoners allowed to play it. For the people and the dogs allowed to walk it on its weekly Sunday closing.
Everything from the first tee to the 18th green, which are only a short pitch apart. Everything from the 15th century until now. Everything that has changed and everything that never will.
It’s not the most beautiful course in the world; it’s the greatest course in the world.
KINGSBARNS GOLF LINKS
If history supersedes beauty at the Old Course, the opposite is true at Kingsbarns Golf Links.
The course, which lies six miles down the coast from the Old Course, was opened in 2000. The scenery, however, makes you feel as though you’re playing a layout that is centuries old, one carved by a pair of hands far more powerful than man’s.
Kingsbarns was named the Best New International Course by Golf Digest upon its opening. Two years thereafter, it was Golf Magazine’s 46th Best Course in the World. It’s served as co-host of the European Tour’s Dunhill Links Championship since 2001 and was 18th in Golf Digest’s most recent ranking of top courses outside the U.S.
David Scott used to serve as Kingsbarns' Director of Golf and was able to get me on this masterful creation. This time I used no cart (like i did at The Duke’s), no caddie (like I did on the Old Course) and cared not how I scored (like I do most every round I play).
My foursome included Chad Conine, an American freelance golf writer, and Mike and Francesca, a couple from Surrey, England who had to split after nine holes.
This was my final round of golf in Scotland – perhaps ever. Carrying a black, leather journal in my back pocket – filled with notes over the past few days – I pulled it out on the first hole and never more after the third.
Instead of jotting, I just wanted to do some viewing and enjoying, golf ball go where it may.
More than half the holes at Kingsbarns border the North Sea, while the others offer views of the craggy shoreline. Along the walk you can see Carnoustie in the distance one direction and Muirfield in the other.
This day was perfect for golf. The morning rain had subsided just prior to arrival and overcast skies kept the sun away and temperatures moderate.
Before I ever made the trans-Atlantic trip I had prepared myself for the Scottish staples of rain and cold. I thought, “It will be fun to play in foul weather; that’s Scottish golf.”
I was wrong. Dead wrong. The-Earth-is-flat wrong.
A downpour occurred just after we crossed the 18th-hole finish line and made it into the classic Kingsbarns clubhouse. As I watched soggy sap after soggy sap trudge in from the course I realized that regardless of where you are playing, bad weather is never a good thing.
Eighteen holes at Kingsbarns brought with it an occasional laborious walk that seemed to have more uphills than downhills. There were some difficult holes, but certainly nothing unjust.
In all, I have no idea what I shot, where I made birdie, on which holes I made par. I know Chad trounced me pretty good in our skins game. Aside from that I just remember nature’s beauty. And how Kingsbarns perfectly stamped my Scottish golfing experience.
THE DUNVEGAN HOTEL
My first two nights in Scotland were spent enjoying considerable hospitality at the Dunvegan Hotel.
Owners Jack and Sheena Willoughby purchased the establishment in 1994. Jack is a native Texan and Texas A&M grad, while Sheena is a native Scot. Together they make for a most gracious and entertaining couple.
The Dunvegan is situated on the corner of North Street and Golf Place Road, about 100 yards from the 18th green on the Old Course. It has eight rooms, which can accommodate 16 people. There is a 'power shower,' fan, color TV, and telephone in each room, as well as a complimentary breakfast each morning (click for room rates).
The “Claret Jug Restaurant” offers up some of the best steaks in Scotland, as prepared by Jack. It’s a pleasantly small room in the back of the hotel where celebrities, golf legends, Open champions and regular folk have been dining for over 15 years.
Those celebs, legends and champions – and even the regular folk – scatter the walls of nearly every room of the Dunvegan, as Jack and Sheena have posed for photographs with everybody who’s anybody who loves the game of golf.
And then there is the hotel bar, which is certainly the best 19th hole I’ve ever visited. It’s not just the beers, ales and over 50 malt whiskeys on offer; it’s the amiable staff which makes the experience so enjoyable.
Physically, the Dunvegan can best be described as quaint. Atmospherically, it’s a heavyweight among must visits in St. Andrews.
THE OLD COURSE HOTEL
Thanks again to the graciousness of David Scott, I was able to spend my final night in St. Andrews at the Old Course Hotel – in a room overlooking the Road Hole 17th, nonetheless.
The Old Course Hotel is as five-star as General Eisenhower, with 144 rooms (£360.00-410.00) and 35 suites (£680.00-1,200.00).
There’s the famous Jigger Inn, The Duke’s Bar & Grill and the award-winning Road Hole Bar. There’s every luxurious amenity imaginable, from spa treatments to helicopter service.
But after spending three days on the golf course and three days per diem on booze, I just wanted a Sunday night church service (St. Andrews Baptist) to attend and a super sweet bed to sleep in.
Open up the windows and let the night breeze blow in off the 600-year-old course.
No air conditioning needed.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.
Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.
The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.
McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.
McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.
Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title
The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.
Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.
Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.
Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.
Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.