Dan and Bill (middle) ); Lisa & Bill (top); Dan and Simone (bottom)
Twice before in our trips to Scotland, we have visited the wonderful East Lothian destination of North Berwick. On both trips, Lisa and I spent two days in this picture-book seaside town, usually golfing on the storied West Links, before reluctantly taking our leave. We decided that for our 2011 trip, the old town warranted a more extended stay. Coincidentally my lifetime friend Dan MacLellan and his wife Simone were spending August golfing in the North Berwick environs. When Dan told us that he and Simone were renting a flat in the town, we decided to follow suit. Most rentals are rented from Saturday to Saturday and that did not square with the time we intended to spend in North Berwick. But ultimately we found an agent at Coast Properties who accommodated our request to take a flat for a nine-day period. We wound up with a one bedroomer called "Stepping Stones" on Church Street just off the beach. Better yet, Dan and Simone's place was right around the corner from ours on the main road. Still, we did not have much in the way of photos of Stepping Stones, and I was uncertain whether it would be comfortable.
My trepidation increased when we arrived in North Berwick bleary-eyed from our flight when we climbed the stark concrete staircase to our second-floor digs. But once inside, my fears were alleviated as we found a snug but bright and cheery living area. A plaque on the exterior of the building identified Stepping Stones as the birthplace of Jimmy Thompson, the longest hitter in the game in the 30's and the 1935 U.S. Open runner-up.
the red door entrance to "Stepping Stones"
We made no starting time for the day of our arrival, but after we got settled, Lisa suggested we go play. We settled on little Kilspindie Golf Club, an undersized links not far from North Berwick, and a pleasant venue for jet-lagged golfers to get their bearings. We toured it quickly (3 hours) and then savored our Guinesses outside on the terrace. It was very pleasing to contemplate that we had safely completed our journey and that we had our whole holiday in front of us.
We found Dan and Simone for dinner thereafter and we eagerly anticipated the great golf that lay ahead. The next morning we tackled Royal Musselburgh, a classic James Braid parkland-style course. I have known Dan for over 50 years and we have played together many times, but never in Scotland at the home of the game. So teeing off with him and our golf-loving wives in the shadow of the old castle clubhouse was a meaningful moment indeed! And everybody played pretty well! Dan has always had a strong short game, but his tee-to-green game was also in good order that day and for the whole trip. Simone has lovely rhythmic swing and is a very consistent. I was thrilled to shoot a steady 77 and Lisa played well also. Her highlight was a 90 yard hole-out for par after she had announced she was considering picking up. After the round, we inspected the Old Links at Musselburgh, a 9 hole layout that believe it or not was the site of several of the initial Open Championships. We retired for lunch to Mrs. Forman's Inn, hard by the Old Links 4th hole. Mrs. Forman's is now owned by an English gentleman with whom Dan engaged in a spirited discussion regarding whether the early Musselburgh golfers such as Willie and Mungo Park were more important figures in the game than Old Tom Morris. The innkeeper's advocacy on the Parks' behalf struck us as preposterous, but we nonetheless chuckled at the back-and-forth between Dan and the Englishman.
The following day, Dan sponsored us at North Berwick's West Links. He is a member of the Tantallon Club, one of several clubs whose members have playing rights on the venerable links. Playing amidst and through the ancient stone walls of the West is always a hoot, but make no mistake, it is a tough and exacting test of golf! I came down off my high of the day before while Dan's well-judged knock-downs and approach putting made him the man of the day.
On Friday, we played down the coast at Dunbar, a wonderful links that Lisa and I somehow missed on our previous East Lothian forays. Dunbar, like the West Links, features stone walls, strong winds sweeping off the North Sea, and majestic views of Bass Rock. The MacLellans outdid the Cases. But lunch in the intimate clubhouse soothed our frustration over our errant play.
Below: Dan drives at Dunbar; next below, undulating green at Dunbar; lowest, "hole in the wall at Dunbar
Saturday was the appointed day for North Berwick's Glen Club course. I am not sure any course in the game with the possible exception of Pebble Beach and Cypress Point has more spectacular seascape scenery. And the course is tough enough! It does not sport the sometimes penal bunkering of the West but there are elevation changes on several holes that can knock the unwary off stride. Dan and Simone also are members of this club and were able to take us on as guests for a greatly reduced greens fee which is always appreciated! Dan broke 80 continuing his strong play on the links.
Lisa and Bill post-round in front of the Dunbar clubhouse
On Sunday, we did something that more visiting golfers should definitely do. We played a mixed alternate shot open competition at off-the-beaten-path Haddington Golf Club. What a nice way to meet folks of a common interest- the game of golf! And the price is right. We paid 10 pounds a head. This was the one day of our vacation where the weather was less than optimum. A steady rain followed us around this parkland course. Regrettably our play suffered somewhat as a result. Dan and Simone hosted us at their flat thereafter where we met some of their North Berwick friends.
Below: Bass Rock; next below: a tight fairway at the Glen
Lisa excused herself from the following day's play as she was under the weather from from a nagging case of poison ivy she brought from the US (the chemist at the apothecary advised that poison ivy does not exist in the UK), and a cold. On our Monday tour of Longniddry Golf Club. Dan, Simone, and I started in the rain, but the weather cleared up quickly and we had a pleasant round over this tree-lined but still linksy lay-out. Of course, I thought it was pleasant because I made a couple of birdies and shot a tidy 78. Dinner with the ladies at Greywalls, a fabulous inn adjacent to Open Championship site Muirfield, followed. It used to be that you could not enter the grounds at Greywalls unless you rented the entire inn, but the recession has hit the upper-crust too so we were welcomed with open arms
below: Simone prepares for the mixed foursomes at Haddington; lower: Longniddry's clubhouse
Tuesday was our last full day at Stepping Stones and North Berwick, and Dan and I were closing our time together in style with a double-round at the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, otherwise known as Muirfield. Months before, I managed to find the one available August tee time on the internet at this hallowed ground and pounced on it. I have to say that it was fitting that Dan and I were playing our final round together at this top-ten-in-the -world bucket list mecca. We were greeted at the gate by the club secretary who gave us our instructions for the day. We met our caddies on the first tee and off we went. I was pretty excited to give it a go given my stellar performance at Longniddry, but about five holes out I started making a lot of mistakes. Let me tell you, Muirfield is the least forgiving of courses. Deep- really deep-bunkers litter the fairways. They are everywhere, and if you land in one, you have to pitch out sideways , and sometimes backwards. I'd like to say that I savored the atmosphere, but when struggling mightily on a links of world-class difficulty, you lose sight of all the grandeur as you try in vain to cope with the situation. Dan managed to shoot a respectable round but I cannot claim that for myself. Well we did savor the extravagant lunch in the long room after round one. Attired in coats and ties as required, Dan and I chatted with the Greywalls owner who was dining at the long table with us. We both had a drink with lunch, a decision we came to regret during our afternoon round. I did manage a 41 going out, but, loggy from drink and exhausted, had trouble finishing holes coming home. Well, still a most memorable day!
Below: clubhouse of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh golfers; next below: Lisa and Bill in downtown North Berwick; lowest: the MacLellans and Cases storm Greywalls
We left North Berwick for St. Andrews the following day, but one final thought: North Berwick, as a golf town does not take a back seat to any other place, including the home of golf. With two great courses right in the town; bustling streets filled with restaurants, pubs and cafes, and a beautiful harbor- North Berwick is unparalleled.