Second in a series
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It’s a weather-beaten strip of land that has been virtually untouched for centuries, no good for growing, no good for grazing. Primarily, the cash crop here is pilgrims.
The Old Course at St Andrews, a much revered place from its exulted bogs to venerable fescue, is the birthplace of golf and the centerpiece for golfing nomads from around the world. A golfing junket to Scotland that does not include an Old Course round would not be tragic – considering all the other celebrated options – but it would be like skipping the Louvre in Paris or the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
The Old Course is the golf’s gold standard. It’s not the longest, toughest, greatest or grandest but it is the oldest with golfing lore seeping from its soil. There are written references of play at St. Andrews that go back to the 14th Century. Twenty-eight of the 150 Open Championships have been held there.
It’s part of the biggest golf complex in Europe, with five other courses on site, including the ‘New’ Course that was opened in 1895. Fine courses all of them, but where does the attention flow and where do the golfers go – the Old Course.
It was the focus for our six-day, late-March Scottish sojourn for my son and I, as outlined Sunday in part one of this Scotland Golf series. We would play the Old Course on our fifth (of six) days in Scotland, building up to it with rounds at Muirfield, Gleneagles, Crail and Carnoustie.
Using the Internet exclusively, we actually played seven courses in the six days, four of those days spent in the historic city of St. Andrews.
PUTTNG IT TOGETHER
A homemade golf trip to Scotland is much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. You generally have a fixed number of consecutive days to play but some courses are open for public play only on certain days, some don’t open at all until late spring, some require an overnight stay at the expensive course hotel, some are too hard to get to and some you have win a ballot selection or lottery just to play.
Once your intention is set on the fabled St. Andrews area links, then Edinburgh and Scotland’s east coast are where you start. St. Andrews is only about 40 miles north of Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth bridge and into the Highlands.
We had nine days to work with, March 20-29, but really only six golf dates because we lost one day flying and wanted to spend two days at the end touring London. I flew out of Seattle while my son Bobby started in San Francisco. We landed at Heathrow at the same time, late morning on March 21.
Heathrow does not have flights to Edinburgh so we took a bus 25 miles to Gatwick Airport for our final-leg, hour-long flight to Edinburgh and much-needed sleep.
There are 21 golf courses within a five-mile ratio of Edinburgh. You think they like the game here? We prearranged three of them, Muirfield, at 9 am on our first day, along with quirky Musselburgh and North Berwick on our final day in Scotland.
In between, we spent four days at the Rusacks Hotel, adjacent to the 18th fairway at St. Andrews’ Old Course. From there, we drove inland to play Gleneagles, site of the 2014 Ryder Cup, Crail and Carnoustie before our wildly anticipated Old Course round.
This is not to say that those courses are the only decent options. There are plenty of wonderful courses to consider. Kingsbarns, just south of St. Andrews along the coast is an incredible layout. It’s only 10 years old yet already ranked among the top courses in the world. But to our disappointment it doesn’t open for play until April 1. There also are marvelous courses to the north, such as Royal Dornoch and Nairn, but were a bit to long of a drive for our limited time.
You can use a travel agent for such a trip and, in fact, I would recommend it for groups larger than a foursome. Traditionally, St. Andrews provides tour operators with a ample portion of guaranteed Old Course tee times. Yet be ready to pay handsomely for such a service. A package that includes four or five courses, including the Old Course, hotels and some meals can begin around $2,500, and up from there. That doesn’t include your air fare. We put together our entire trip for less than $2,500 per person.
Spending thousands for the two of us was not a viable option when I hoped we could piece together a cool trip on our own, gambling that we’d somehow get on the Old Course. What I found out early on was that the odds of playing the Old Course were between slim and fat chance.
When we finally settled on our March dates we were already about a year behind golfers trying to get on the Old Course. Yes, a year, maybe even 18 months. We started just three months out, in mid-December, supposedly when there were only scattered available dates for 2012. And we had missed that final deadline by three months.
Talking to other golfers who had played there, they suggested we simply try the daily ballot, showing up at 4:30 am to take a chance at a lottery to fill any no-shows that day (who’s NOT going to show up?). The daily ballot was changed this year for the first time in 116 years as aspirants now can apply 48 hours in advance. That was our fallback position. We were prepared to get up any and every day knowing it could be futile.
Under that arrangement, however, we feared the possibility that one of us could get on while the other was shut out. What would we do then? Neither one of us would enjoy playing (or not playing) without the other.
Further limiting our chances was the fact that the Old Course is open for public bookings only on weekdays and Saturdays. There is no play Sundays as it is used as a public park for residents and visitors to walk around. Under our tight schedule, we had just two dates available, Friday, March 23 and Monday, March 26.
One Old Course oldtimer told me that he befriended a local shop owner, who used their influence with certain people to get him on. We were not adverse to Plan Schmooze.
You also can make reservations at the Old Course hotel, which offers a pricey packages of lodging, food and tee times. They gladly accept American Expense.
In some ways we were fortunate to be going in March. It’s a less demanding time and cheaper. Also, after April 1, St. Andrews requires golfers to play two of its courses. Our schedule did not have that flexibility so we were glad it was still March. We were all in for the Old Course.
With missed deadlines, no guarantees and a sketchy lottery opportunity, it was not looking so bright for us until I noticed yet another entry point in late December on the St. Andrews web site. It offered a ‘late availability group application’ that had to be filled out and emailed back no earlier than 10 am on Jan. 4, St. Andrews time. That’s 2 am Seattle time. Our final shot. Our only shot.
At exactly 2 am, I pressed the ‘enter’ button and dispatched that application into cyberspace. The subsequent instructions were clear. There would be no contact by us or them for 14 days while the application were being reviewed. Precisely two weeks later, on Jan. 18, in my morning computer check came our our fateful reply. We had been offered an Old Course tee time for two on March 26. Payment was required within 14 days. It was there in 14 minutes.
We were in the club.
One of the biggest expenses for this kind of trip always is the air fare. Here’s my precautionary warning: Use British Airways only as a last resort. BA’s passenger regulations are so restrictive, so punitive and intractable that you would be advised to seek another more flexible and accommodating carrier, particularly for this kind of peculiar mix-and-match trip.
Here’s my example – and it could be yours. My wife and I purchased BA tickets last fall for my youngest daughter’s graduation from a London college in early December. Then her final dance performance was unexpectedly moved back a week so we had to change our flights.
British Airways charges $275 per ticket, plus the difference in fares, to change. My new quote for the same flight was now $3,189. Who would pay that? What we did is purchase two more tickets from another carrier – at about the same price as our original tickets.
However, we then learned that if you do not take your scheduled BA flight, you forfeit the entire cost unless you set new dates at the time of cancelation. We had no intention of flying back to Europe but arbitrarily picked the March 20-29 dates for fear of losing everything.
About that time we decided on a father-son trip, figuring we could switch my wife’s ticket for my son Bobby. Then BA had one more unpleasant surprise. We were told passengers cannot be substituted. If Bobby wanted to fly to Scotland, he needed to buy yet another full-priced BA ticket. We purchased one – on another airline – which meant, unfortunately, flying separately from different cities.
After a series of phone calls and emails, I managed to recover the $275 change fees, but not the cost of my wife’s original ticket. That goes down as a $768.04 ‘donation’ to British Airways. I figured that would have paid for all of my Scotland greens fees.
No way to run a business.
In putting together a golf group to Scotland or even attending the London Olympics this summer, what you need most is flexibility. Since we make reservations so far in advance with so many variables among the courses, there’s a good possibility things will change. Also, with that much lead time, there’s a chance at least one member of the flying party will drop out due to injury, illness or family issues. BA makes no allowances.
Checking travel sites for the major West Coast airports, L.A., Phoenix, Vegas, San Francisco and Seattle, I found that they all have non-stop flights to London on American carriers. Those also have more amendable regulations and better flying options.
PREPPING AND PACKING
What to bring to Scotland depends on the time of year you travel. And even that is an uncertainty. For our March trip, we both packed piles of long underwear and rain gear. Yet unseasonably warm temperatures – above 60 degrees every day with no rain all week – made those clothes unnecessary.
That’s not to say next March won’t be typically rainy, windly and cold. Or that this summer you could freeze or get thoroughly soaked. It’s a good idea to bring rain gear and layers to stay warm. You can always peel off.
You’re going to be walking six or seven miles every day so get a light bag, 2 ½-to-3 pounder, and carry your clubs like they did centuries ago.
Try to get into reasonable shape because there are no golf carts available. They are walking courses. You can rent trollies, as they call them, but they’re a bit pricey.
Strengthen your legs before the trip. Stretch. Take Tylenol. Bring bandages or new skin treatments.
We didn’t hire a caddy but for the traditional Open courses, such as the Old Course, Carnoustie and Muirfield, you might think about one. They not only can provide good local insights, especially since there are so many blind shots, they can give you a sense of history and offer stories about past championships.
Even though there’s no charge for bags on international flights, you likely still will take domestic flights that do charge. My suggestion is throw your clothes in a small bag, as I did, and stuff that bag into your club’s traveling bag if there’s room. That way, you have just one bag to check in everywhere. It also can be pretty heavy. The load limit is 23 kilos, about 50 pounds.
What adds weight is extra balls. I had 12 in my bag then took another 30 along, figuring the rough would swallow its share. I ended up losing just two balls in seven rounds. But this was also before the rough got long and dense. Nevertheless, don’t take an excessive number of balls. If you’re running low, you can always buy more there. Spare the weight.
We didn’t experience the notorious winds but we had some strong breezes at times that billowed our shots. Before you go, practice keeping the ball on a lower trajectory. Hood the club more to allow a longer release for bump-and-runs. For those shots on tight lies inside 100 yards, practice using different clubs, even the putter, because your normal wedge shot have to be absolutely perfect contact.
Try to practice on tight-lie courses. There’s a number of them in the desert climes of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Southern California. The Bandon Dunes courses replicate well what you will see in Scotland as does Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Wa.
Interestingly enough, we played seven courses and at no time did the starter put another twosome with us. On the Old Course, we went off as a twosome and there was a twosome ahead of us and behind us. So much for degree of difficulty to get on these courses. We had room for another twosome every day. It could be that March is not as demanding as May. Or it could be the Scottish custom to just sent out whoever shows up, one, two, three or four. Either way, it was disappointing. I enjoy playing with new people, especially golfers from another country and culture.
Take care of yourself as you count down the days. My most irrational fear was cutting one of my hands. A wound, especially in a rub zone, could ruin the week since you’ll have more than 500 swings. Stay away from sharp objects, another excuse for getting out of doing the dishes or mowing the lawn.
PART THREE: Incomparable, Invisible Muirfield