Saturday, July 4, 2009

To Scotland! Part 1

For six of the last seven years, Lisa and I have taken annual golf vacations in the UK or Ireland. These trips have provided us wonderful experiences and we have made good golfing friends along the way. We relish the challenge and beauty of seaside links golf, and the accessibility of all the wonderful courses. You don't have to have an "in" in order to play all the courses that constitute the "rota" for the Open Championship (my U.K. friends would take umbrage if I referred to the tournament as the "British Open."). We also enjoy the Scots who as a rule will break their back to make a visitor feel welcome. Previously, Lisa and I were treated so royally at the Lundin Golf Club on the eastern coast of Scotland near St. Andrews, that I actually applied for membership there.

Twice in the past, Lisa and I entered a golf competition known as the Carnoustie Country Classic and found that a great way to enjoy wonderful courses at a reasonable price. We also made good friends at the "classic." For 2009, we thought we would try playing a different competition - the "Ayrshire Golf Classic." This event is played over four classic courses on the west coast of Scotland. We sandwiched the event between a visit to my Scottish golf club, the aforesaid Lundin Golf Club and a final two rounds of golf at the lovely town of North Berwick back again on the east coast.

Upon arriving at Edinburgh Airport around 8 AM on Friday, May 1, we packed our bags and clubs into our rental car and headed for Lundin Links which is located in the East Neuk of Scotland. As is our custom on our arrival day, we had arranged for a 2:04 tee time at Lundin Golf Club. .

In the past, Lisa and I have been able to play golf without difficulty coming right off the plane despite the time change. In 2006, I had shot 75 at Lundin on arrival day. That good play no doubt had something to do with my falling in love with the course and club. But this time, I did not get enough sleep on the plane beforehand. For some reason, I watched the old Bette Davis movie, "All About Eve," and squandered valuable resting time. Playing in breezy wet conditions, I shot a poor 44 on the front nine, and my play deteriorated further on the second nine. Even frequent nips of scotch from my ever-present flask could not revive me. Lisa was tired too, but played comparatively better. By the 16th hole, I ran up the white flag and declared an early end to the proceedings. I have to concede that at least on this occasion, Lisa was more of a "gamer" than I.

After checking in to Room 8 at the very serviceable Lundin Links Hotel, we fell asleep before our heads hit our respective pillows. After a nap, we had a delicious late dinner back at Lundin Golf Club. The club steward, Ian, along with his hostess wife Jan, made sure that all the preparations were of the highest order. Lisa feasted on steak with pate while I sampled local seafood.

The next morning, I played in my first "event" as a member at Lundin Golf Club- the May "Monthly Medal." I do not as yet have an established U.K. handicap, but the club generously let me play off my U.S. 7 handicap .

The club secretary, Alistair McDonald, knew from previous correspondence that I am a member of the James Braid Golfing Society James Braid who grew up in Elie, just down the coast of the firth from Lundin was a fabulous player. He was a five time Open Championship winner in the early days of the last century. But his most enduring legacy is his contribution as the architect of scores of notable courses in the U.K. including Gleneagles, Carnoustie, and Lundin. The Braid Society celebrates Braid's accomplishments and hosts various golfing events for its members. A gentleman who had much to do with the activities of the society is Ken Horne. When I joined the society earlier this year, Ken was the one who sent me the club tie.

It so happens that Ken is a member at Lundin and so Alistair paired us together in the medal along with long time member John Moncrief. Both proved to be amiable companions. The white-haired Ken played to a 9. He sported a flowing easy swing which resulted in a repeatable draw off the tee. John proved to be long off the tee , and an excellent chipper. The view from the first tee at Lundin is spectacular. The Firth of Forth crowds the left side of the hole. On a clear day you can see across the firth to Muirfield and North Berwick. But the par 4 can be daunting indeed when played into a 30 M.P.H. gale as we did. Frankly I was a little nervous but hit a good tee shot down the middle; but then thinned my hybrid into a mean reveted fairway bunker- blasted out sideways - then a skulled wedge over the green; chili-dipped wedge back; fourth wedge shot of the hole on - two putts- 8. Now how is that for my debut hole at my new club! I followed that up with a bad 6 on the par 4 second hole featuring another skulled wedge. I was having great difficulty with the tight lies that the Scottish fairways provide. Unfortunately skulled wedges plagued me periodically throughout the week,

Well, I got better after that ignominious start and even made a couple of birdies including a holed sand shot from the back bunker on 16. But my ancient Sarazen putter behaved wretchedly. In the course of that one round my infatuation with "the Squire" was transformed into genuine loathing. My final tally was 86 - net 79. I was consoled that Ken and John also had trouble with the blustery conditions. A net of 69 won the medal. I was surprised to see that my net 79 placed me squarely in the middle of the pack. But still I expected a better performance. I had difficulty shrugging off the array of skulled wedges and missed two footers which characterized my ragged play.

My threesome retired to the club lounge where a Highland Park scotch, graciously provided by Ken, restored some equanimity to my damaged psyche. The conversation was mostly golf; Lisa and I have found that in the U.K., social conversation does not always include discussion regarding what everyone does or has done for a living. Ken and John Moncrief got on so well that I assumed they were long-time friends. Turns out they had never met before. This ease of fraternization is a delightful aspect of the game.

Finishing after our group was Malcolm Campbell who is also a major player in the Braid Society and author of many golf books including the coffee table appropriate "Scottish Golf." Ken introduced us. It is always fun to network with folks who share your passion. After a second serving of Highland Park, I was feeling pretty mellow.

I made it back to the hotel where I found Lisa. She had spent a relaxing day meandering through the streets of seafaring Lower Largo.

One of the attractions is the home of Alexander Selkirk- i.e. Robinson Crusoe. where a notable statue is erected in tribute.

Ironically, she also met Malcolm Campbell's wife who runs a shop in Lundin Links. Lisa purchased a Malcolm autographed copy of "Scottish Golf" from his wife.

After lunch at the hotel, I suggested we play nine holes at Lundin Ladies. This is a nine hole layout just down and across the street from our hotel. Lundin Ladies Golf Club. is the oldest ladies golf club in the world. Men are not permitted in the small (but Lisa tells me cozy) clubhouse. The nine hole parkland course is only 2400 yards, but several of the James Braid designed holes packed a punch.

The most noteworthy is the second where three prehistoric standing stones loom as obstacles smack in the middle of the fairway.

I photographed Lisa drilling her five metal just short of the green making sure to capture the standing stones in the background of her shot. We actually had decent weather for once as the ever-present gale blessedly died down in the late afternoon.

After another fine dinner at the club, we slept the sleep of the dead. We arose early Sunday morning and motored across to the west coast of Scotland to Ayrshire. I had scheduled a game at the Kilmarnock Golf Club located in Irvine. This is yet another classic James Braid design.

Irvine presents a bumpy links terrain but the holes are bracketed by pines, heather and gorse- really more of what might be described as a heathland course along the lines of Gleneagles. In his designs, Braid was partial to very long and very short par 4s, and Irvine is also unusual in having only one par 5 and two par 3s. The short par 4s were diabolically tough in the high winds which we were disappointed to find we had not escaped when we departed Fife for the Ayrshire coast.

As an example of how strong the wind blew, I played the 289 yard fifth hole ("Sandface") with a three wood and a full seven iron. Given the conditions we faced , I would vote for Irvine as the toughest test of golf we faced on this trip. Lisa had just about had enough when we reached the 18th tee. Confronting her was an uphill tee shot in which she needed to carry two of the deepest yawning pits in Scottish golf. I am happy to report that Lisa rose to the challenge and sailed her teeball well clear of this monstrosity. Her notable effort is preserved for memory in the photgraph below.

While the course afforded some misery, we found the clubhouse to be a treasure trove of golf history. Correspondence and billings from Braid to the club's founders were on display. So were notes from Harry Vardon who had occasion to play Irvine. After our game, it was a short drive down to Troon to the Barcelo Marine Hotel immediately adjacent to the Royal Troon championship links and the Irish Sea.

The Marine Hotel was to be our headquarters for the Ayrshire Golf Classic played over four great courses in Ayrshire. Despite the fact we had beaten up by the wind for three days, we looked forward to Sunday evening's opening reception and the first round of the classic on Monday morning.

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