ST. ANDREWS — Any golf trip with the guys is nearly impossible to disappoint . . . assuming the weather is decent. But when the destination is Scotland, the safe assumption, when it comes to the elements, is that it’ll be predictably unpredictable.
That’s the approach we took on our pilgrimage recently to the Home of Golf. Prepare for the worst, wish for the best, and happily settle for somewhere in between.
By virtue of my upbringing and now my job — I’ve covered golf for the Globe the past four years — I’ve been around the game most of my life, and fortunate to take trips to places that have become synonymous with US golf.
This was different, though. This was Scotland, a land every golfer is familiar with, even if one’s never traveled there. They’ve played golf for centuries here, and proudly boast of the imprint they’ve made: The Scots developed the game, created rules, built equipment, and nurtured champions and characters and architects and courses. My goodness, the courses.
How could someone who loves the game not want to visit? I grew tired of talking and dreaming about it over the years, finally announcing, “I’m going. Who’s coming?” The result was a foursome — my brother, Dave, and me and and our friends Chris and Mike. We spent the better part of two years poring over every detail, crafting exactly what we wanted: the ultimate, once-in-a-lifetime golf trip to Scotland. No castle or whiskey distillery tours, no search for the Loch Ness monster. Just golf.
The goal? An inspirational, unforgettable, perhaps even spiritual trip.
Tour companies will, for a price, do all the legwork, but putting the trip together ourselves appealed to us. By Thanksgiving 2011, it was beginning to take shape: We had selected the dates, and pinpointed courses we wanted to play. Once the first brick was placed — namely, Muirfield, the site of this year’s British Open, a very private club notoriously stingy with nonmember access — we filled in the rest. One of the perks to our plan: paying as we booked, which spanned a handful of months. By the time we landed in Edinburgh, we had paid for roughly 75 percent of our trip.
We’d start well to the north, which means we had the longest drive immediately after clearing customs. But it took us through the scenic Highlands, a four-hour trip that featured a little bit of everything: sun, rain, fog, even some snow as we chugged up the A9. Look left and right, see farms and grazing sheep on fields the deepest of green. Look skyward, gaze at snow-covered mountains.
Nairn (pronounced “Nurn,” as Hollie, our favorite waitress, sweetly corrected us) was the first stop, with the Golf View Hotel overlooking the North Sea and the Nairn Golf Club within walking distance. So we changed our shoes, slung our bags over our shoulders, and walked down the street to receive our introduction to Scottish golf. We were greeted by weather that only a meteorologist — or someone playing golf in Scotland — could love: rainy at times, sunny at times, always windy. It began hailing as we played the ninth green; we’d see sporadic hail each of the first three days, in fact.
Thirty-six-hole days at Castle Stuart (underrated) and Royal Dornoch (a must-play) followed. Dornoch was the course I was most looking forward to; it didn’t let me down, even before a splendid rainbow arched majestically over the North Sea and across the late-afternoon sky. With nobody behind us — we had the course to ourselves; simply heaven — we stopped playing for 15 minutes, searching for the words to describe the beauty before us, and wondering if it wasn’t a hello from the parents we’d lost, who had a gentle hand in bringing the four of us together years ago. Golf, momentarily, was a complete afterthought.
Not for long, especially with the courses left on our itinerary. After getting pushed around by the week’s strongest wind and toughest layout (Carnoustie), we arrived in St. Andrews with the sun beginning to set, and made a fast track for the Old Course, where we’d play each of the next two days. We watched a few groups finish, along with a handful of other spectators, since there’s always a crowd milling about, residents walking their dogs, and an access road that leads to the beach, where some famous scenes in “Chariots of Fire” were filmed.
Not far from St. Andrews University (which dates to 1413) and the St. Andrews Cathedral (1158), golf’s cathedral provided the setting for a day unlike any other. Playing the Old Course was special enough; but through friends of friends, we lucked into lunch inside the R&A Clubhouse, touring the iconic structure and getting a look inside one of golf’s most hallowed grounds. Jacket and tie required, which we were happy to do if it meant spending time in the trophy room, reading room, snooker room, gathering room, and dining room, with original artwork throughout (including the painting at the top of the staircase by President Eisenhower of Brookline’s Francis Ouimet, winner of the 1913 US Open and the first US captain of the R&A).
Later, we came upon a reception in the clubhouse that featured the leaders of golf organizations from around the world. Right place, right time: Within five minutes, we had exchanged pleasantries with Mike Davis, executive director of the US Golf Association, and Peter Dawson, secretary of the R&A, two of the most powerful figures in golf. Detecting our American accents, Dawson thanked us for bringing over such pleasant weather, since the Tuesday we spent in St. Andrews might have been the best of our trip. “Come back any time,” Dawson told us.
The world will be going to Muirfield in July for the British Open, and when we played, grandstands had already been erected along both sides of the 18th fairway, and behind the ninth green and driving range. It added to the experience, which was amazing the minute you walked through a gate that reminded me of the Wizard of Oz: a world unlike any other waiting on the other side. The golf was good: When Dave hit his shot close to the 18th hole, his caddie said, “Aye, someone will pay a few pounds for that shot on Sunday.” The formal lunch was even better, a three-course feast that made it difficult (or was it the cocktails?) to change back into golf clothes and play a second round.
Muirfield has a reputation for being unwelcoming. Hardly the case. As we were leaving, a member seemed intent on engaging us in conversation, quick to get our thoughts and share his on the upcoming tournament. “I have a terrible feeling that a nasty foreigner is going to come over here and take it,” he said. “Particularly one of yours.”
Our accommodations were a nice blend of bed-and-breakfasts and hotels. Location drove our choices, and allowed us ease and flexibility as we navigated around. Given a bad rap, the food in Scotland is adequate. Very little fruit, but the Scottish pancakes at the Old Fishergate House were delicious; the steaks are always good at the Dunvegan in St. Andrews; and seafood, especially salmon, is abundant. So is sticky toffee pudding, which we quickly concluded was the national dessert of Scotland, a warm, decadent bowl of moist cake, dates, toffee sauce, and vanilla ice cream. I miss it dearly, maybe more than the golf.
No matter where you play, must-haves in Scotland include a waterproof rainsuit (pants and jacket), two pairs of shoes, enough socks, waterproof bucket hat, wool cap, and rain gloves. Bring two pairs of rain gloves, because you’ll need them. Be prepared to dress in layers, and get used to frequent wardrobe changes. I was equipped to have five layers on at once, and during some rounds wore two, three, four, and all five, depending on the ever-changing conditions. It was never a nuisance; we found it to be part of the Scottish charm.
Because there’s no guarantee we’ll ever go back, we selected high-end courses that come with a higher price tag. There are dozens of lesser-known, less expensive options if you’re on a budget, gems that, while not exactly hidden, are much more wallet-friendly, and will have you paired with or surrounded by locals, not tourists. We opted not to scrimp on the golf, playing the venues we wanted despite the per-round cost; we worked off a this-trip-will-cost final number that we were comfortable with.
In my case, because I used miles and didn’t have to pay for my airfare (but did pay tax), my Scotland adventure cost just under $5,000, which included everything: golf, accommodations, rental van, baggage fees, food, caddies, merchandise.
Final scorecard: Eight days, nine courses, 13 rounds. No blisters or pulled muscles. One piece of delayed luggage (sorry, Dave, but enjoy those nice clothes you bought with all those course logos, courtesy of Air France). More sticky toffee pudding than any of us had the right to consume.
We were in Scotland for 212 hours, loved it all, and squeezed in 234 holes of golf. Not once did I wish I was anywhere else, waking up each morning excited at the thought of playing golf again. There was only one 10-minute weather delay, because of hail.
Aye, the perfect trip.