It’s hard to imagine that golf was once banned in what is widely regarded as the birthplace of golf. Although golf in Scotland dates back to the 1400’s, the game was banned by King James II in 1457 who felt that it was distracting his army from archery practice. Thankfully the ban was repealed shortly thereafter paving the way for what has become the world’s most renowned golfing destination.
Given its proximity to water, rolling terrain and windswept landscapes, it seems only fitting that golf originated in Scotland some 600 years ago. With over 500 golf courses scattered across its countryside, it comes as no surprise that Scotland has more golf courses per capita than any other country in the world. In addition to the country’s spectacular physical attributes, what makes golf so special in Scotland is that it remains a game to be enjoyed by all. Sure there are courses like Muirfield that are as difficult to play as Augusta; however, most of Scotland’s greatest golf courses can be easily accessed by locals and visitors alike. Even the Old Course at St. Andrews can be played by just about anyone. In fact, many people don’t realize that the Old Course is one of seven public golf courses located in the charming town of St. Andrews (pop. 20,000), the town where Prince William previously lived while attending university. Historically, over 40,000 rounds of golf are played on the Old Course at St. Andrews every year – and the course isn’t open on Sundays.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Scotland, where I was able to experience the same 30 mph winds, fescue-lined fairways, penal sand bunkers and impenetrable gorse bushes that have brought many amateur and professional golfers to their knees. Regular Open venues such as Royal Troon, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Turnberry and the aforementioned Old Course at St. Andrews provide such an opportunity. I had the good fortune to play Turnberry and the Old Course at St. Andrews and neither one disappointed. In fact, after reflecting on my experience, Turnberry may be the best the golf course I have ever played.
Located 1 ½ hours southwest of Glasgow, Turnberry was originally developed as a train station for a railway company in 1906. A luxury hotel was built afterwards and Turnberry’s reputation quickly evolved becoming one of Scotland’s grandest social and sporting venues. Unfortunately its intended purpose wasn’t fully realized until the 1950’s after being restored by architect MacKenzie Ross in 1946. The history of Turnberry and the significance it played in both the first and second world wars remains evident to this day as remnants of old landing strips still border the fairways of its two golf courses.
Today, in addition to the luxurious Turnberry Resort, there are now 45 holes of golf at Turnberry. The Ailsa course is Turnberry’s crown jewel having hosted numerous tournaments including the 1977, 1986, 1994 and 2009 Open Championships. It is perhaps the most perfect example of links golf you will find anywhere in the world. The course extends alongside the rugged Ayrshire coastline for most of the first 12 holes before turning inward leading you back to the clubhouse. The day I played the course it was extremely windy forcing me to figure out how to play foreign knock-down and bump-and-run shots. It was a game of golf I was unfamiliar with having grown accustomed to the more benign playing conditions of our Canadian summers.
The most famous hole at Turnberry is the 454-yard par-four ninth hole. Running adjacent to the sea this hole brings you closest to the course’s indelible landmark, a magnificent lighthouse that can be seen from every vantage point on the property. Acclaimed golf course author and historian Donald Steel wrote about the Ailsa course in his book entitled, The Classic Golf Links of Great Britain and Ireland. In it he wrote, “as a stage for great events, it is ideally cast. It is however at its best when the crowds have gone and the evening sun is reflected on land and sea. There is nowhere lovelier.”
For different reasons, the same can be said about the Old Course at St. Andrews. I had the privilege of playing the oldest golf course in the world during my recent trip and it truly was a surreal experience. Despite the typical Scottish spring weather (cool, windy and raining) nothing was going to dampen my spirits the morning of my tee time. After all, here I was at the “home of golf”, the venue of twenty six Open Championships dating back to 1872 and the place where Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods had hoisted the coveted Claret Jug.
As someone who appreciates golf’s history and tradition, it came as no surprise that I had more than a mild case of the first-tee jitters prior to commencing my round. I can vividly recall standing on the first tee of the Old Course at St. Andrews in front of the mystical Royal and Ancient clubhouse trying to convince myself that this was just another golf course. The problem was this wasn’t just another golf course. This became apparent to me in the middle of my backswing as I subsequently proceeded to hook my tee shot through the adjoining 18th fairway and onto the road in front of the famous Rusacks Hotel. Fortunately my caddy, who had befriended me 30 minutes prior, had seen this happen before and kindly told me to hit another ball. I did, this time safely down the middle of the fairway. Thank goodness!
My day at St. Andrews passed too quickly. As I walked over the famous Swilcan Bridge en route up the 18th fairway I realized that in order to truly appreciate St. Andrews you had to play the golf course more than once. As my caddy noted, because of the ever-changing weather conditions, the golf course never plays the same way twice. Add to that St. Andrews’112 infamous bunkers and it becomes obvious why the golf course has proven to be the most formidable and unpredictable test in all of golf. What other golf course in the world has a name not only for all of its eighteen holes but for each one of its bunkers as well. With names like “Hell”, “the Coffins” and “Cat’s Trap”, it’s obvious why the Old Course is both feared and revered. It was golf legend Gene Sarazen who said, “I wish that every man who plays golf could play St. Andrews once.” I would agree and add that I wish that every man/woman who plays golf could visit Scotland once. It truly is an experience of a lifetime.
British Airways has daily flights from Toronto to London’s Heathrow airport. Connecting flights from Heathrow to Glasgow and Edinburgh
British Airways – www.ba.com/scotland
Where to Stay:
In St. Andrews:
St. Andrews Bay Golf Resort