I have finally recovered from my epic Scotland and Ireland trip July 11th-22nd and I thought you'd like to hear a little about the trip and maybe start thinking about your own for next year.
Wednesday, July 11th
I landed in Edinburgh after an inexpensive (but not that comfortable) flight from Providence RI on Norwegian Air. Norwegian has very inexpensive direct flights from Providence to Edinburgh, Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Belfast but their planes are 737’s that are more suited for short haul flights. They offer great convenience and very low pricing but you give up some comfort. If you fly Norwegian make sure to get exit row seats if you can.
The first few days of my trip were a solo fact-finding mission to test out the courses in Aberdeen on the Northeast Coast of Scotland. I landed in Edinburgh about 8:30 am and after a two-hour train trip up to Aberdeen, I grabbed a rental car (free upgrade to a Jag!) and drove north 45 minutes up to Cruden Bay (Ranked #10 in Scotland by Golf Digest) for my first round of the trip. I dropped my bags at the Cruden Bay B&B and headed across the street for my 3:30 tee time. I had the course pretty much to myself and my caddie and I cruised through in less than 3 hours. Cruden Bay was firm and fast after the driest summer Scotland has seen in 40 years. Cruden Bay qualifies as a semi-hidden gem and is in the mold of Lahinch and North Berwick. The course has wonderful views of the sea and of the ruins of Old Slains Castle. The castle was supposedly the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula. Cruden Bay has some really interesting holes and is a classic links at a reasonable price. They also have a strong 9-holer (St. Olaf’s) that you can play if you have time. St. Olaf’s is included in the greens fee for your 18-hole round. Cruden Bay is a sleepy little town. But is really the best option north of Aberdeen. The Cruden Bay B&B was a great value but there is more action down the street at the Kilmarnock Arms which had a nice restaurant and pub.
Thursday, July 12th
My second round of the trip was 20 minutes south of Cruden Bay at Trump International Aberdeen. This is a spectacular facility and golf course that is shrouded in controversy. The bad mojo started well before the owner became President and has intensified since. This course is a beast with incredible views and great conditioning. It will probably never host the Open while the Donald’s name is on it, but it could and should. This is one of my favorite modern links courses. TI was ranked #54 in the World by Golf Digest Magazine in 2017. The rack rate is £240 but people seem to be avoiding the place due to politics so you can grab a tee time for under £100 if you roll the dice and wait to book until a day or two before your round. I noticed on the website that there were plenty of open tee times even in mid-July. There are several other great courses nearby that are not terribly busy (Cruden Bay, Murcar and Fraserburgh) so you can easily move your tee times around at the last minute if you have a small group.
Friday and Saturday, July 13th and 14th
Friday brought incredible sunny and warm weather for my third round of the trip at Royal Aberdeen (Ranked #13 in Scotland by Golf Digest). This was one of my favorite classic links courses of the trip, well worth the steep price tag. My caddie Niall was the best looper of the trip. Niall carries a plus 1 handicap and is also a member at Royal Aberdeen. Royal Aberdeen reminded me of a smaller version of Royal Troon with some quirky elements thrown in. After my round I drove the Jag south into the Home of Golf.
My hotel in St. Andrew’s was the perfectly located and very nice Ardgowan Hotel. It’s located a few steps from the famous Dunvegan Hotel and Pub and the 18th green of the Old Course. Unfortunately, I was one of the last guests to check in on Friday and my room on the 3rd floor (really the fourth as they call the first floor “the garden” floor) left me lugging my bags up four flights of stairs. As the Ardgowan has no elevator, it’s not a great option for the weak, tired or obese and at that point I was feeling like all three. If you stay there, make sure you request a room on a lower floor.
The St. Andrew’s Links Trust courses (Old, New, Jubilee, Castle, Eden, Strathtyrum) are public courses. There are several private clubs in town that play their tournaments over the Links Trust courses. The most famous being the R&A. The other two clubs with actual clubhouses are located just off the 18th fairway. The St. Andrew’s Golf Club and The New Club of St. Andrew’s date back to the late 1800’s and have beautiful old mansions as clubhouses and unlike the R&A, you can actually become a member fairly easily. Over the winter I joined the New Golf Club and on Saturday morning, I teed it up with my fellow New Club brethren in my first official tournament as a member. We played the New Course and I played like crap but after a few drinks in the beautiful New Club Bar, things were looking much brighter (literally, see pic below of the view from my table at the club). My mission for the evening was to meet some club members and get the inside scoop on how to get on the Old Course without having an advanced tee time. This info would be critical when the rest of my foursome got to Scotland. A few hours of investigation and several rounds of drinks were not getting me any closer to an answer but then around midnight my new best friend Tom would educate me about the little known “Dark Times” at the Old Course. I had noticed that official tee times seemed to end around 5:00 pm on the Old Course but at the height of Summer there is light until after 10:00 pm in Scotland. “Dark Times” fill the gap at the end of the day and are reserved for locals who live in St. Andrew’s proper and hold Links Trust Tickets. My man Tom happened to be one of these lucky few. I explained to Tom that I had three friends arriving the next day and that we were going to try to get a time on the Old Course through the Ballot process for Tuesday and Wednesday. He generously offered to Ballot for a DT for himself and three of our group for Wednesday if we didn’t hit for Tuesday. Having played The Old twice before, I was happy to sit out a round if it meant the other guys could play it for the first time.
Sunday, July 15th
On Sunday, the rest of my group arrived at Edinburgh Airport. The group consisted of my friend Kevin Murray from Newcastle, Northern Ireland, David Salm, my friend and doctor for 27 years and his best friend, Stuart Shoflick. Dave and Stu play out of Wampanoag CC in West Hartford and Kevin is a member of the Mourne Club in Newcastle which has playing privileges on Royal County Down. The Mourne is wedged between the Slieve Donard Hotel and the Royal County Down first tee. We met at the airport where I dropped off my Jag and jumped in the massive Hyundai Van that Kevin would pilot around East Lothian and Fife for the next five days. Unfortunately for Dave and Stu, their clubs got lost during their connection on Aer Lingus through Dublin so there was plenty of extra space in the back. This was a hard-learned lesson that shipping the clubs over might be a good idea, especially if you have a connecting flight. Stu would spend many frustrating hours on the phone over the next week chasing the bags with Aer Lingus but unfortunately they never made it. According to Aer Lingus, they were always arriving tomorrow, as in “free beer… tomorrow”. The rental clubs were surprisingly high quality, mostly new Titleist irons and woods but it’s not the same as your own gear and with Stu being a lefty, his choices were limited. If playing with your own clubs is critical, ship your sticks. Even if you don’t, consider packing your rain gear and other essentials in your carry on.
Our first round as a foursome would be on Sunday afternoon at North Berwick (#50 in the World by Golf Digest). NB belongs in a small group of original classic links courses that form the template for thousands of other later designs. North Berwick has the original Redan hole (a par three with a green sloping front right to back left with a bunker guarding the front left, as well as what might be the original Biarritz green (a green with a huge swale in the middle like Yale #9). The course also features stone walls that cross fairways and even guard greens. As the sign says, “don’t argue with the wall, it’s older than you”. The first time I played the second hole at NB, I argued with the wall and lost, this time I managed to avoid the wall and made par. North Berwick is a great little town and a nice place to stay for an East Lothian golf trip. There is really only one other place I would stay in the area and that is the Greywalls Hotel in Gullane and the only reason I would stay there other than the fact that the hotel is beautiful is that it sits on the tenth tee of Muirfield and offers a two-night package that includes a very difficult to get tee time at what is probably the most exclusive club in Scotland.
The genesis for the entire trip to Scotland was shot in the dark call I made to Greywalls in December 2017. My friend Rob and his son Kevin were going to Scotland for the Open in 2018 and Rob had called for some advice on courses. I knew advance tee times for Muirfield would be long gone but I figured I’d give Greywalls a call. My timing was perfect as Greywalls was about to get their tee time allotment for 2018 from Muirfield the following week. When I got an email from Greywalls offering a tee time on July 16th, I immediately booked the package and called Rob. Unfortunately, Rob had already booked flights and wouldn’t be landing in Scotland until the 19th. There was no way I was giving up a guaranteed tee time at Muirfield so my focus turned to finding three other guys to fill out the foursome with me. My efforts would eventually yield the eclectic group of Kevin, Dave and Stu.
Our first night at Greywalls happened to coincide with the final round of the Scottish Open at Gullane which is literally just down the street from the hotel. We briefly considered trying to catch the end of the tournament but settled on a twelve pack on the back patio of Greywalls. I think we made the right choice.
The Greywalls Hotel is a beautiful Victorian mansion backing up to Muirfield. It’s a much fancier place than my usual golf trip lodgings but the package was actually a pretty good deal as it included two nights, two dinners and two breakfasts in their very nice restaurant. The only downside being the small bar with no TV and it’s not walking distance to a pub. This turned out not to be a problem as by the time we finished drinks and dinner each night it would already be late and everyone was ready to drop. We had a few nightcaps on the patio and went to bed at a reasonable hour to rest up for our round with the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers: aka Muirfield (Ranked #9 in the World by Golf Digest).
Monday, July 16th
On Monday we woke up and headed down to breakfast at the Greywalls. Our tee time was 10:30 so we were able to sleep in a bit. The Concierge at Greywalls nervously told us he would be walking us over through the back gate at Muirfield at 9:55. It felt like we were trespassing as we snuck around the back shed at Greywalls and through a hole in the hedges behind the Muirfield clubhouse. Muirfield has a well-deserved reputation as a stuffy club that does not treat guests very well but if you consider that this place is basically the Augusta National of Scotland, you realize that they are actually being pretty generous in allowing outside play. One of the greatest things about golf in Great Britain and Ireland is that even the most exclusive clubs usually allow some outside play. They may charge a fortune but you can’t get on Augusta National, Cypress Point or Pine Valley at any price without a member. If you are lucky enough to befriend a member at one of the exclusive clubs in GB&I, your reward will be minimal guest fees and wide-open access. (Thanks Kev!). We learned on Monday morning that Muirfield would only allow us to play as twosomes so Kevin and I headed out first and Dave and Stu followed. Maybe my expectations were too high but I found Muirfield to be a great course but nowhere near as spectacular as I was anticipating. The major hazards of the course are the very high fescue lining almost every hole, some deep bunkering and very fast greens. The views are not spectacular and while the course is very strong, it lacks memorability.
Since everyone got a good night’s sleep and the weather was perfect, we decided on a late afternoon round. My original thought was to play the Glen/East Links in North Berwick. The Glen is one of the most scenic courses I have ever played and more importantly, offers open access to buggies making it a solid afternoon beer and cigar round choice. Kevin worked some magic and scored us a free tee time at Longniddry, an interesting combination parkland and links course about 20 minutes west of Gullane so we called an audible and went there. We finished up at around 9:00 pm, grabbed a quick beer dropped and headed back to the Greywalls, just making last call for dinner.
Tuesday, July 17th
Unfortunately, we did not hit the ballot for Old Course so we needed to call an audible for Tuesday. Everyone who doesn’t score an advanced time on the Old Course is balloting when near St. Andrews and it usually means that the people who do hit the lottery wind up cancelling other tee times. My guess is that is how we were able to score a last-minute tee time at Kingsbarns (#69 in the World Golf Digest) for Tuesday. Kevin was a little disappointed that we weren’t going to be playing the Old on his 36th birthday but Kinsgbarns was a nice consolation prize. Kingsbarns is on everyone’s top 10 list and is a beautiful facility with a nicely manicured modern links course. It’s a little too manufactured and a lot too expensive in my opinion but most people love it. The weather was perfect and everyone played pretty well. After our round we headed into St. Andrews and checked in to The Saint hotel, a cool little 4 room place right above the Saint Bar and Restaurant. After cleaning up and a quick drink at the New Club, we headed out for a great birthday dinner at Forgan’s, one of the best restaurants in St. Andrews. We stopped off at the Keys bar on the way back home and enjoyed several whisky tastings before heading back to the Saint for some much needed sleep.
Wednesday, July 18th
Our 9:30 tee time came way too early the next morning. We would be playing in the New Club Stableford tourney contested over the New Course. Kevin and I would be matched with two other New Club members and Dave and Stu were right behind us with two other members. The weather was terrific, actually hot and sunny which made for a nice morning. After Golf, we grabbed lunch and headed back to the Saint to rest up for that evening’s 6:00 pm tee time with Tom on The Old Course (#8 in the World by Golf Digest). We met our host for a quick pint at the club at 5:30 and walked about 75 yards across the 18th fairway and first fairways to the first tee at The Old Course. I watched and photographed the guys opening drives and everyone managed to finish the first hole at bogey or better. By the second hole the nerves settled down and some decent golf started to be played. It was a gorgeous night, still sunny and warm. On 16, We happened to run in to a couple of other New Club members, one had just finished burying his father’s ashes in one of the Old Course’s famous bunkers, Shell Bunker, and another was just finishing a practice session on the range off of the 16th hole. We were also joined by a member of the St. Andrews University women’s golf team that was playing behind us for most of the day. Everyone took their rips over the hotel and though we really couldn’t see much, nobody hit the barn. At this point finding your ball was hit and miss unless you were in the fairway. We finished up with some great photos on the Swilcan Bridge and then hustled over the New Club to grab a beer before last call and went back to the Saint to collapse into bed after an epic day.
Thursday, July 19th
Thursday was another incredible weather day, hot and sunny. Kevin had arranged for another comped round this time at Leven links, about 30 minutes outside of St. Andrews toward Edinburgh. Leven turned out to be a true hidden gem. A classic links course with many strong holes. It sits right next to Lundin Links which we almost had a chance to play as well when we crossed over onto their sixth tee by mistake. The guys on the tee asked if we were playing through and directed us back toward the 6th tee at Leven. I had probably my best round of the trip, arriving the long and treacherous par 4 18th hole at one over par. The 18th would be a par 5 anywhere else, the 460 yard bruiser features a burn (creek) fronting the green so even after hitting a solid drive, I was left with a 215 yard carry into the wind. I decided to play conservatively and laid up right into a divot. My third shot was right at the pin but I missed the ten footer for par and happily walked off with a 73. After the round we had to swing back through St. Andrews and drop off the rental clubs before heading over to Carnoustie for the first round of The Open. Even though we didn’t get on grounds at Carnoustie until almost 5 pm, that left us with four solid hours of time to enjoy the tourney. I passed out the Cuban birthday cigars that we never got around to Tuesday and we enjoyed a spectacular evening at the Open. We departed the Open a little after 9:00 PM and went directly to our hotel near the Edinburgh Airport to prepare for the Ireland portion of our journey.
Friday, July 20th
A cancelled flight and quickly rejiggered itinerary had us landing in Belfast on Friday around 11:30 am. We would need to hustle to make our 1:30 tee time at Kevin’s home course in Newcastle. Some friends of mine from County Louth near Dublin would be joining us in a second foursome with Kevin’s younger brother Pete and the group went off just ahead of us. Friday brought the first rain of the trip and it turned Royal County Down (#1 in the World by Golf Digest) into a monster. The dry conditions had turned every other course we played hard and fast with dry wispy rough. The fairways and greens at RCD were certainly firm and fast but the rough was thick and full of gorse and heather that seemed very healthy. The rain had also turned the deep bunkers at RCD into pits of mashed potatoes. The bunkers at RCD are some of the most penal I have ever seen. Many of them feature a canopy of vegetation hanging over the top lip making getting out toward the target almost impossible. It was the kind of round that changed your focus from scoring to survival and Stu and I were just happy to finish without injury as we were taken down by Kevin and Dave. I can’t remember the score but it wasn’t close. We dried off, had a few pints at the Mourne Club with Pete and the gang and had a chance to visit with Kevin’s wife Aine and his two young boys before finally releasing Kevin back to his family. Kevin handed us over to Pete for dinner and the final leg of our trip south.
Saturday, July 21st
On Saturday morning we headed down to County Louth (#7 in Ireland by Golf Digest) or Baltray as the locals call it. Baltray is a fine traditional links course located about 30 miles northeast of Dublin Airport. We would be playing as the guests of my friend Michael Kierans that afternoon. Pete and Stu went off first with Pete’s friend “Nuggets” (his father’s nickname is Chicken) and one of Michael’s buddies who had been with us at RCD. Dave and I followed with Michael and his friend Gary, a plus 4 handicap who would go on to shoot an easy 68 in the sunny and mild conditions. I played well and carded a 74 despite a three-putt bogey on 18. After a quick shower we met Michael for steaks at the Club. Michael had an early tee time at the Island Club near Portmarnock the next morning so he left us on our own for the evening. Baltray has a very nice classic clubhouse with nine dormitory style sleeping rooms upstairs. Since we would be staying in the “Dormie” it would make for a nice night with only a short stumble upstairs to bed. Behind the clubhouse Baltray has a beautiful putting green so naturally a putting tourney was put together between Dave, Stu, Pete, Nuggets and I. According to Pete, Nuggets was the best putter at RCD. After 36 holes, Nuggets and I had pulled clear of the rest of the guys by 5 to 10 shots (all holes were par 2’s). We declared a final 9-hole finish and I managed to come to the last hole with a two stroke lead. I let Nuggets pick the hole and he selected a hole forty-feet away hoping for me to stumble. I went first and when my ball dropped out of sight for a one, I had bested the vaunted Nuggets from RCD. After 13 rounds in 11 days, that putt was the most memorable shot of the trip. Pete dropped us off the next morning at the Dublin airport for our return to reality.
I could not have hoped for a better 11 days. Near perfect weather, playing 6 top World 100 courses and a night at The Open. This one will be tough to top, but I am already planning the 2019 trip complete with a visit to the 2019 Open at Royal Portrush. Tickets are pretty much sold out but I have scored a few for GBI Links clients so if you are interested in a 2019 trip to Scotland or Ireland and want to hit The Open, let me know ASAP!