I have long campaigned for Open Championship week to be an international holiday. Avid golfers think about Scotland every four minutes or so. But one week a year, links golf mania rises to the surface like a refreshing mountain spring. I just want to bathe in it.
Before you make a face and click over to Rich Lerner, hang on a sec. This will not be one of those irritating stories that bludgeons you with the idea that everything about golf over there is nirvana and everything about golf here is junk. Thats simply not the case. (And you can read Rich later.)
But I do love golf over there. Heres what I know about a country separated from us by a lot of water and a common game.
The Nose Definitely Knows: Turf has a smell, and its different over there. The first thing I do after hitting my first drive on a U.S. course is to suck in a deep breath of that fresh-cut grass aroma. In coastal Scotland, its a little more sour, but no less interesting, informed as it is by the salt air.
I stepped out of the Old Course Hotel one soft night and walked around back. From there, you can see the 17th fairway on your left, the entire 18th hole on your right, and the clubhouse that serves the New, Eden, and Jubilee courses dead ahead. I sucked in a deep, deep breath. The fellows in the passing four-ball gave me a look that told me they thought I was, to use the local vernacular, daft. To use a phrase they might have, I didna care.
Fly It, Bump It, Roll It, Hole It: Options abound, and that makes the golf fascinating. Not all the caddies will look at you goofy if you ask for a yardage. But Tigers right; a lot of times you can just dump the number and come up with something creative. Thats especially important when the breeze is up, which it usually is. Resist the temptation to loft a 9-iron 120 yards when the wind is crossing at freight-train speed. Hit low and bounce it up instead.
Feel the Need for Speed: Dave Seanor, my old editor at Golfweek, told me before my first trip to Scotland, Youll hit your ball, put your club in your bag, take two steps and hear balls landing behind you.
Its true. Everyone plays fast and cant conceive of doing it any other way. People dont hit into groups or do anything unsafe. But they dont waste time either. Makes it easier to get in two rounds a day, walking. And youll sleep like a baby.
The Caddies, Laddies: Sure, the sage, dour, old Scots are still out there. But most of the bagmen over there are gregarious locals aiming to please. As long as your golf manners are up to par, theyll do anything for you. And my advice is to accept whatever they do, be it a driving line or a putt read. These guys are almost all good players, and youre on a course they know as well as their house. Go ahead and have a beer with your caddie afterward too; youll be glad you did.
Which Brings Us to the Pubs: Theyre everywhere, and most of them are low on pretense and high on the cozy factor. Its more like sitting in someones living room than in a bar.
As for that problem finding ice for your drinks, or cold drinks in general, get over yourself. Its not that hot there anyway, and the local beers and ales actually tastes better just cool instead of cold. But in most towns now (including St. Andrews), there are convenience stores featuring (gasp) refrigerators full of Coke and other soft drinks. (One of these is Barrs Iron Bru. Having tasted it, I am proud to say theres no relation.)
The Zen Part: For you Golf in the Kingdom fans, dont go looking for Shivas Irons around every corner. So much of what you find on any trip depends on what you bring to it, and that includes managed expectations.
So if you dont hear a choir of angels or experience some epiphany when you play a course youve been dreaming about for years, dont worry. Find a way to have fun anyway. Something about a well-played bump-and-run shot tends to lighten any spirit.
That said, anything can happen. The scenery, weather, and companionship can coalesce into a permanent memory.
Out on the far end of the Old Course, on the ninth hole, the high bushes block the view of the town. All that was there when I played was the Eden River estuary behind me, the turf below my feet, and the misty sky above. It was unutterably quiet. There were no jets landing at the Royal Air Force base across the river in Leuchars. The hole probably looked much as it did 400 years before that day. The feeling of ancientness was palpable. I expected Old Tom Morris to step out of the bushes and shake my hand. Im not sure he didnt.
Close to that was simply the knowledge that at Carnoustie, I was walking where Ben Hogan walked.
Driving on the Left: Hey, youre on vacation. Go a little crazy. But for the first hour, watch the curb on the left. And please, for your own safety, keep moving in the roundabouts, those clockwise traffic circles found at intersections all over the country.
Single Malt Scotch: This is a family site, so I wont go into detail. But follow these simple instructions: 1. Sip. 2. Say Ahhhhh. 3. Relax.
The Dogs: Seaside Scots cherish their access to the beaches, even if theres a golf course between them and the sand. So youll see a lot of folks making their way down agreed-upon pathways to the North Sea. Many will have dogs. Trust me, if you approach them politely, introduce yourself, and declare your love for all things canine, they will smile and let you pet their dogs.
And who can get peeved about a pushed 3-iron when you can pet a dog?