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From Crail to Machrihanish: A spring fling through Scotland

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MACHRIHANISH, Scotland -- A window seat on the early morning descent into Edinburgh Airport is always a treat; fields below burst with emerald green, peppered with roaming, little white dots.

The view also reveals scores of golf courses (this time, my trained eye could even make out Prestwick Golf Club and next door Royal Troon Golf Course as we soared over the southwestern coast). No country bleeds the game more. As we made the final descent over Edinburgh Castle, I began going over my week's itinerary in my head. With courses from Fife to the Kintyre Peninsula, I'd be covering quite a bit of ground, not to mention play practically every type of golf course in Scotland.

Crail's Craighead Links in Fife

Craighead

On arrival day, it's best to shake the heavy eyes and aching muscles of jetlag best with a mild afternoon round, where the sea breeze and sunshine will acclimate your body faster than any pillows, pills or spas. Both of Crail's courses, on the easternmost edge of Fife, are a great way to escape your home time zone and parkland style of golf.

Having previous played Crail's Balcomie links, I was eager to try out the Gil Hanse-designed Craighead Links, especially after I played his other Scotland design, Castle Stuart Golf Links last year.

Craighead certainly isn't out to rival Castle Stuart or any of the country's A-Listers; it was built merely as a way to keep up with demand in this golf-happy town nine miles from St. Andrews. Rather, Craighead succeeds as one of the best affordable golf links -- with a blend of scenery and modern length and design. Low-handicappers who balk at next-door Balcomie Links' shortish, 6,000-yard length will be sufficiently challenged tee-to-green.

Fairmont St. Andrews

There is no better road in golf: A917, the road that begins in the heart of St. Andrews, steps from the Old Course's 18th hole. Follow it out of town, and it takes you up a hill to cliffs just beyond town, where four more courses -- all in succession -- await: the St. Andrews Castle Course and Kingsbarns Golf Links, sandwiched in the middle by the Fairmont St. Andrews.

Now my fourth time in St. Andrews, I'd driven right by this 36-hole resort every time until now. This time, I walked both courses in bright sunshine and a mild wind. Both the Torrance and Kittocks were crafted by man into links from farmland. The Kittocks is the pretty school girl with postcard-worthy scenery, including a handful of holes that hug the seaside cliffs. The Torrance, while a little further inland at most spots, has more substance shot-for-shot. Together, the well-conditioned pair maintain their own identity in the shadow of their illustrious neighbors. The hotel makes the most of its location overlooking the town. The large atrium, where breakfast is served, is filled with early morning sun rays, where you can barely make it through your plate full of bacon before wanting to get back out onto the links.

The Queens Course at Gleneagles

Queens

After two days in Fife, it was time to head west towards Loch Lomond and Machrihanish. But first, I made a pit stop at one of the world's great golf retreats, Gleneagles. This five-star resort is literally home to a course of every size, from a pitch and putt on the front lawn to the 2014 Ryder Cup host PGA Centenary Course, which has been closed all winter for renovations. Having played 36 holes the day before, I opted to play an old, shorty: the Queens Course. Like the King's, it was designed by James Braid and it's about as perfect of a par-68, 5,800-yard course as there is. Nicklaus' modern design, while sure to be a fitting Ryder Cup host, may never capture the hearts as Braid did with his two heathland gems built nearly a century ago.

The Carrick, Loch Lomond

Carrick

I was last in Loch Lomond in 2006 to preview a few holes on The Carrick, which was set to open the following spring. I've been eager to get back ever since. Anyone familiar with Doug Carrick, the Canada-based architect, knows his work is some of the best in destination golf. I paired up with three local golfers, one of whom's pregnant wife's due date was this very day!

He risked a little trouble at home to play The Carrick, which has a gorgeous, loch-front setting that allows for both holes playing beside it and also some elevated spots where holes play on hillsides high above. It's always tough to talk Americans off the links and onto a parkland design when in Scotland, but Loch Lomond is just beautiful enough to warrant the detour, especially when coupled with a night's stay at the Cameron House Hotel, a luxury, chateau-style property on the shores of the loch.

Machrihanish Dunes and Machrihanish Old

Machrihanish Dunes

From Loch Lomond, I successfully navigated the two-plus-hour drive to Machrihanish with no errant turns, then trekked 17 holes on the raw links of Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club without a lost ball. Walking to the 18th tee, I felt good enough to step to the back tee box, where I launched a perfect draw straight over the aiming pole.

It was then, walking off the tee box, I got that unmistakable feeling (anyone who's played enough links golf knows it): I'd aimed for the wrong pole -- and my ball was in the eighth fairway.

Opened in 2008, Machrihanish Dunes has come a long way since it opened. Built on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, it's sensitivity means crews must be extra careful. But the completed laundry list for 2012 includes thinned rough, raised tee boxes and softened greens, all in an effort to make the round more manageable than when it first opened to critical acclaim. It's present form is certainly worth a loop - and even better two.

That night, I enjoyed a helping of 'Haggis Nachos' (similar to ground beef, only a little sweeter) at the Old Clubhouse. Then I rested my head next door at the Ugadale Hotel, a wonderfully restored property that's easily one of my favorite onsite golf hotels (along with the Royal Golf Hotel in Dornoch), and I gave thanks to six rounds thus far with nothing but sunshine and a mild breeze.

I awoke in the morning for my final round of the trip to the unmistakable whistle outside my window of a stiff, winter breeze. It was time to realize that Scotland wouldn't be letting me head home without at least one round in cold, blustery conditions.

From my room, I could see 'Battery,' Machrihanish's famous par 4 that plays along the beach. The whipping flags in the parking lot revealed I'd be hitting straight into a fierce wind on the first tee. But no trip to Scotland is complete without facing the elements head-on.

With a mix of snow flakes and hail hitting me in my backswing, I bunted a baby fade into the right rough (it was far too frigid to trek out onto the beach to chase down a hook), and embarked on one of the great 19th century links few too many golfers have ever made the trek to. Now my fourth visit to Scotland, I should have come to the edge of Kintyre much, much sooner.

Many of these golf courses can now be booked online at GolfNow.com/Scotland

Photos by Brandon Tucker

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