How to Play Golf in Scotland.

And Other Advice for a Trip to the Home of Golf.
The view of #1 tee and #18 green at The Old Course from the Macdonald Rusacks.

I’ve long considered the day after the Masters to be the official beginning of the amateur golf season (unless you live in CA, AZ, FL or Hawaii that is). With Tiger back on top, every dad in America laced-up his 990s yesterday and headed to the local golf shop —frothing at the mouth— to gear-up and get back out there. Maybe instead of hitting the range a more interesting thing to do with your golf fever would be to plan a trip to Scotland. Nothing is Scotland remotely resembles the lush and perfect conditions at Augusta, but it is just as pure in its own way.

There are two big challenges with a long golf trip in Scotland: logistics and walking 12 miles a day for more than a week straight. The logistics just takes some research and planning. The walking bit just is what it is. If you walk when you play normally — you are obviously going to be better prepared for the physical endurance needed.

There are a few different ways to successfully explore the fountainhead of golf. One way is to hire a tour organizer who makes the itinerary, drives the van and greases the starters to get your tee times. This is the easiest way to do it, but also the most expensive. I would argue that it is considerably more fun, and a lot less expensive if you plan the trip yourself. The big caveat here is that you have to do all of the driving —on the left side of the road — which is the stuff of nightmares for Americans. After two rounds of golf in the rain and dozens of miles walking the driving becomes even more difficult than you might think. Though on our trip, the driving insanity only served to heighten the adventure.

To help with planning we were lucky to have the assistance of our friend, mentor, and Scotsman Graeme Russell. Graeme spent years playing golf and drinking whisky all over Scotland (and America!) while he was a brand ambassador for The Macallan (come here young man, let’s talk about what you want to be when you grow up) so he’s as much of an expert as you are going to find and it’s quite obvious that he is uniquely qualified to help build an itinerary. We asked for his advice and Graeme quickly shot back a rough game plan. “There are four main areas of golf as follows: St. Andrews and Fife: The Old Course, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie being the main courses.  East Lothian: Muirfield and North Berwick the two classics. Visitor days for Muirfield are on a Tuesday and Thursday and these are the only days you can play your own ball,” he told us.

It’s as if he has thought about this a bit. His golden advice was just flowing free and easy. “On the West Coast, you’ve got Prestwick, Troon, and Turnberry. Prestwick is a historic club and the home of The Open Championship. Finally, the North, Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Castle Stuart, Royal Aberdeen are all great courses.” What I didn’t know at the time was that what Graeme was recommended was akin to someone playing 10 of the top 50 courses in the U.S. back-to-back-to-back over the timespan of a little more than a week. “At your age it is unlikely that this will be a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip to Scotland so there is no need to try and play every championship course — since it is pretty much impossible to do all at once.” So we narrowed it all down to 3 of the 4 golf regions and started to plan for tee times and hotels. It takes some research and a lot of time on Google Maps, but eventually, we got every hotel booked and as many tee times arranged as possible.

Being the most famous golf course in the world, it was expected that everyone (including Graeme) told us that we have to play the Old Course. If you hit one links in Scotland this is the one. As the name suggests, it is historic and old, famous, and unbelievably fun. Even though it can be tough to secure a tee time — there are a few possible points of entry. The first thing you can do is plan extremely far in advance and book your tee time a calendar-year out. There’s also a “local ballot” where you can try for a close-in reservation based on what the tee sheet looks like the next day. These spots are rare, but it could work out for you. The failsafe way (outside of bribery or actually being a member) to get on (if you have a little bit of flexibility) is to stay at the Macdonald Rusacks Hotel which sits right on the 18th green. They don’t have any special access per se, but the property is so close to the Old Course that there’s a bit of a workaround for those willing to wake up early and wait a bit.

When I say early, I mean early. Our phone rang at 3:30am. It was the night-manager Ian on the line. “It’s time to go gentleman.” We quickly get dressed and took a drowsy jaunt across the 18th fairway to the Old Pavilion to get in line. When we arrived at 3:45 am there were about 15 people who had arrived before us. One man said he queued up at 1 am. (Good god, that is nutty.) The group was mostly American and every new arrival was greeted with exuberance and some relief that we aren’t the only crazy ones. We waited for a few hours for the office to open and filed in one group at a time. There were several openings for the day and it was first come, first served. If you are flexible with when you can play there shouldn’t be a problem getting a time that day. We snagged a 7:30 tee time which gave us time to walk back over to the Rusacks to get breakfast and grab our gear.

Western Gailes

Why go to such trouble to travel so far and spend so much for this experience? Part of it is about exploring the traditions of the game and part of it is about camaraderie. There’s a certain bond that can only form with the help of pot bunkers, tall grass, weather and post-round drinks. There’s also a certain friendliness and charm to the people, plus the quirk of the land that is magical.  Out on the local Elie links (which was a small but highly recommended excursion from our plan)— we noticed a father and son out playing together. They were walking (nearly all golf in Scotland is played under your own power) and they had the family dog tethered to their pushcart. My pal Randy and I both looked at each other and right then and there we realized that golf in Scotland is a much more casual affair than in the states. It’s all part of the allure. The historic courses that serve as the templates for thousands of courses everywhere, the friendly people, the beautiful wild terrain, life-threatening adventures in a rental car and all of those punishing bunkers. It makes for an adventure of a lifetime that should be revisited every summer if possible.

STAY

Macdonald Rusacks. If it weren’t for Ian we wouldn’t have been able to play the Old Course, and that would have been a real disappointment. The days are long out there sometimes playing (and walking) two rounds in a day. You want a nice hotel like the Russacks to rest your weary bones. On top of being the most perfectly situated hotel to the Old Course, the Rusacks is a really nice place to stay. Our room had insane views of the golf course and a great breakfast. I never plan to stay anywhere else in St. Andrews. 

The Caddie Closets at the Greywall’s Hotel is a fantastic hotel that overlooks Muirfield. They have a super cozy bar and excellent views of one of the most historic clubs in all of the U.K. It’s close to the town of Gullane —which in addition to its own great golf course— has a few nice restaurants and pubs. 

The bar at Greywalls. Fairly well stocked.

GEAR

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” This is especially true out on a wet and windy golf course. 

Even in summer, the weather in Scotland can be touch-and-go. Be prepared for chilly temps and the possibility of rain. The number one most important thing is waterproof shoes. You need to bring two pairs. It’s like Lieutenant Dan said. “Try and keep your feet dry when we’re out humpin’. The Mekong will eat a grunt’s feet right off his legs.” These Ecco waterproof shoes will be the difference between an enjoyable trip and a miserable one. Good shoes are worth the upgrade. I suggest bringing two pairs that you have already broken in. You’re out there walking 13 miles a day, you have to have good shoes. Don’t cheap out here or all you will remember about historic golf courses is how miserable you were.

The other critical thing you need to pack is waterproof clothing. Skip the umbrella and hit up Galvin Green who makes the best golf rain gear. Buy Goretex pants and jacket from them and make sure to pack a layering program as the weather can be erratic. I wear the Patagonia Capilene base layer shirt and pants. They are light, easy to wear under khakis or rain pants and dry out easily. Dunning makes the most technical golf fabrics out there and the layering pieces are excellent. Don’t forget a knit winter hat — it’s going to come in handy more than you might think for a summer trip. Nike Golf has comfortable shoes and good layering pieces as well. And buy a rain hat at a club when you get there — it’s the perfect souvenir.

Western Gailes

COMFORT

There’s not much by way of refreshments on the course. Bring a water bottle, some protein bars and definitely a flask. You’ll want a nip depending on wind or rain. (Not having a flask was my one big regret.) Or you might need a drink because of your putting.

The other thing is balls, both your own and the little ones with the Titleist logo. Again, you’ll be walking a dozen miles a day. You’ll be getting close to a half marathon’s dose of chafe daily. You need this stuff, trust me. Secondly, golf balls are really expensive in the UK. Bring a few dozen for your trip and save some money for branded club merch.

Turnberry Ailsa

COURSES

Our itinerary went like this. Warm-up round at the Eden Course at St Andrews Links. Next, we went to Elie – which was a recommendation of a Scottish woman on the bus at Heathrow, seriously. It ended up being one of our favorites. After that, we played at Kingsbarns. People seem to really love it, but we found it a bit too American for our liking. It was still great don’t get me wrong, but not as pure as some of the other Scottish golf we played. The next morning was the early call at the Old Course. Obviously, it is a fantastic and truly special experience. It lives up to every bit of the hype you have heard. That opening tee shot definitely gets your heart racing! After we played the Old Course in the morning we went to Carnoustie in the afternoon. This was sub-optimal timing, but the fact that our Old Course round was sort of up-in-the-air we had to do it like this. Turns out playing Carnoustie in the second half of a double-header is ill-advised. We got affiliated there — with the highlight being fishing multiple balls out of the burn and the sausage roll.

After a much needed night’s rest we drove out to North Berwick for a blue sky morning at the famed North Berwick West Links. This place is truly special and there are so many memorable (and famous) holes — the 15th Redan being the most famous. When you visit North Berwick as a guest they make you a member for the day and allow access to the clubhouse. This is a nice perk and a great place for post-round beers. The following day we played Gullane 1 and 2 back-to-back. Last summer Gullane hosted the Scottish open and it was awesome to see the pros playing there on TV. These courses are both highly recommended.

After a good sleep at Greywall’s we headed to the west coast for our final swing. The first stop was Western Gailes. This golf course was probably the most punishing after Carnoustie, but it was probably in my top 3 for the trip. The whole course is only 200 yards wide — tucked between a rail line and the sea. This meant the place is super tight and the grass is quite long and unforgiving. You need to really make shots to score here. Also, the bacon roll for breakfast was delicious — don’t miss that. On from Gailes we headed to Turnberry. The Ailsa course was our pick for the most beautiful round on our trip. What a stunner with incredible coastal views.

Our last stop was at the historic Prestwick Golf Club. Even though we had played so much golf, we were both really excited to get a chance at such an amazing place. Everything had come together for us by the time we tee’d off at Prestwick. We were used to walking. We were playing the ground as one does in Scotland and we had learned that it doesn’t matter how you score, it’s just great to have a chance to play these iconic courses.

Elie
Gullane 2

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