Murcar Links Golf Club:
Even golf trips eventually take on their own singular identity. By the third day of 36 holes (two rounds each day), our tired limbs were telling us that our walking 12 miles a day, up and down dunes (that seemed like mountains), in search for our wayward orbs, was starting to approximate something of a forced (golfing) march. Like so many things in life, I suspected that I would not fully appreciate the experience until it was over. If our spirits, and bodies, needed any consolation and inspiration, then certainly we found it at Murcar Links Golf Course and Royal Aberdeen.
We were hosted at Murcar by Derek Mortimer, a former detective, who as a long time member of Murcar has taken on the task to market the golf course to international golf tourist (he also holds the distinction of being a board member of Golf Scotland). Derek and I played as a twosome while the club’s pro, Gary Forbes, hosted the others in a group behind us.
Derek was qualifying for a club competition, so he informed me that I would be keeping his scorecard. Given his former occupation, I was careful to pay attention to the details as I was confident he would be doing the same.
Only minutes from the Aberdeen Airport, I got the clear impression that Murcar Links feels that they live in the shadow of Royal Aberdeen, their next door neighbor, and to some extent, Cruden Bay, a short way down the road. The reality is that Murcar Links stands alone as an exceptional golfing experience and the merits of its offerings stand up in comparison to any other. It is a players’ golf course and with its meandering fairways and ever present winds, it will demand you execute every shot in your bag. Murcar is fair, challenging and most of all, a lot of fun to play.
Derek shot an 83, which gave him a net 77 (which is a further testament to the challenge of the course, for Derek is a very good golfer). After the round, as he studied the scorecard I kept for him, I felt like it was I who was beneath the inquisitor’s eye. Good thing he did, for even knowing I had to get it right, I still wrote down the wrong score on one hole (I’ll be sure not to judge Boo Weekly too harshly in the future).
We enjoyed lunch in the clubhouse courtesy of Derek and Gary. In classic Scottish prudence, our hosts ordered sandwiches for the table before we sat down. Soon, three plates were placed on the table (for the five of us). We sat politely waiting for two more to be delivered when our hosts dug in and asked us ‘what we were waiting for?’ We soon realized that what was coming was what had already come, so we all shared off the common plates and we were all happily satisfied, without leaving copious amounts of uneaten food, or worse, gorging ourselves like pigs (it will come as little shock that I saw very few overweight Scots).
The afternoon round was at Royal Aberdeen. Distinguished as “Royal,” the club had an air of stoicism (that perhaps I applied merely through perception). Founded in 1780, it is one of the six oldest golf clubs in the world.
There is something special to standing on the first tee at a golf club of this stature. No doubt my shoulders were a bit tighter, as was my grip on the club, and the butterflies in my stomach were such that I could as easily be about to walk onto a stage as a fairway.
The golf course itself is a study in sharp contrast. As, in general, Scotland’s sea-side dunes do not penetrate as deep into the coast as say, Ireland’s, it is common that only a selection of holes will meander through the dunes and the other holes will be laid out over former farm land. Such is the case at Royal Aberdeen. As the ocean stretches out to its right, the course, laid out in a classic “nine out, nine in,” style has a front nine that is as good a nine-hole stretch of links holes as any I have seen in all the world: Tight, creative and unyielding. The closest to it I have ever found would be Royal County Downs.
In contrast, while the back nine was beautiful in its own right, it was so different from the front nine that it felt like a different course entirely. While the holes were plenty difficult and creative, I do not think I’ve ever played a course that changed so much from one side to the next.
We tapped in our final putts in near darkness and sped off toward the town of Stonehaven, where we were staying at a B & B called the Pitgaveny. The Pitgaveny belongs to a women who raised her family in this very house. After they had grown and moved away and she divorced, she told me that she “needed to find a way to make a living,” so she converted the large house into a lovely B & B. She noted that when she looks out her front window at the large trees in the yard she still sees the memory of her young boys scurrying up and down them like squirrels.
As B & B’s are a house and not a hotel, she had an impact on our racing from Royal Aberdeen down to Stonehaven (45 minutes away). When I called her for directions, I mentioned that we would like to stop for supper along the way and estimated it would get us to the house around 10:00 PM (22.00). “Oh, no,” she said through her soft Scottish brogue, “that’s too late and I’ll be in bed. Come straight away and I’ll phone ahead to the Marine Pub for fish and chips. They’ll be waiting for you after you pick up your key.” And so it was. Along the way, as we sped through the vibrant city of Aberdeen, we pasted an ancient gothic cathedral with a huge stain-glass window in front, that had been converted into some kind of club-disco. It looked awesome and I longed to investigate this place of otherworldly worship that had been converted into a place of worship of more earthly matters. But alas, our tight schedule did not allow such indulgence and I was forced to only wonder.
Cruden Bay Golf Club:
Facing a full agenda on this transitional day, we were out the next morning before the sun was up. The day would start with us being the first group off the tee at Cruden Bay, then end with me taking a long train ride from Aberdeen to Glasgow.
Cruden Bay occupies one of the most stunning locations of any links course in Scotland. Married to the shores of the North Sea, one can see that the union is sometimes a shaky one, as the ocean winds batter her mate with fury, providing for a memorable and highly traditional links golfing experience. At this point in the trip, if one hasn’t mastered the practical subtly of a low draw, then a long day likely waits.
Cruden Bay is similar to Carnoustie in that it requires more than just brawn, it is also a thinking man’s course as burns and dunes make for strategic thinking. As one can imagine, the panoramic views were stunning.
The land that these links sit upon is also highly distinctive in Scottish history. In the year 1012, the Scots fought the Danes on this very sight in what is known as the “Battle of Cruden Bay.” According to historical accounts, the heart of the battle was fought on the seaside plains that later became Cruden Bay Golf Club. Fronting the short, par 5, 6th Hole is what is known as the “Bluidy Burn” or Bloody Burn, so named because it’s waters ran red for days with the blood of the slain. The Bloody Burn is still there and is an intricate component to the hole’s strategic play; go for the green in two and you must carry the Burn, or attempt to position your approach too close to a front cut pin and your ball will tumble back into the Burn (that is what happened to me).
The Scots carried the day in the Battle of Cruden Bay, but both sides lost so many soldiers that it is believed that most are buried in mass graves on the grounds. The par-4, 17th Hole features a large mound in the middle of the fairway that one’s tee shot needs to either clear (near impossible) or you need to place your ball strategically to its right or left (my tee shot landed dead behind it, necessitating a wedge over it and resulting in a bogey). It is said that the mound is a massive burial mound from the Battle. One final note as to the significance of the Battle to this region is the name itself, which draws its origins from “Croju Dane,” or “the death or slaughter of the Danes.”
Glasgow and Loch Lomond:
After the round at Cruden Bay, I boarded a train in Aberdeen to take me on a 3 ½-hour ride through Scotland, down to Glasgow. The experience was one of the highlights of the trip. Scotland is beautiful and aside from walking it, I don't know if there is a better way to see a country then from the window of a train.
In order to stay close to my baggage, I sat in a "four seater," two chairs facing two chairs with a table in-between. Exhausted from the week's festivities, I tried to dose off for a few minutes in-between passing glimpses of castle ruins and dotted villages swishing past. When I awoke, I was surrounded by a young mother and her two and a half year-old son, and his grandmother, who was already happily helping herself to my copy of The Sun newspaper and spending a inordinate amount of time on both the Page 3 and Dear Deirdre columns. "Do you mind if I read this?" she purred in a voice that was equal parts single malt and Marlboro (unfiltered). As it was too late to feel otherwise, I nodded and mumbled something incoherent about my only possessing such a pillar of journalistic integrity due to its probing coverage of the English Premiership (I am a diehard Liverpool fan).
As children are wonderfully devoid of any knowledge or concern for social conformity he broke the ice by shoving a "Thomas the Tank Engine" toy at me with the simple command, "play," in his own toddler-native brogue (I mentioned to the child that the train we were on actually was Thomas the Tank Engine and he greeted this news with great excitement). Thus, I spent the rest of the ride chatting away with this friendly Scottish family, learning who they were and where they were from, and them the same of me, while choo-chooing around the card table with the toy trains. It was a delightful way to pass the time, save that it really made me miss my family.
Upon exiting the train in Glasgow I set out to find my transfer to Loch Lomond. Along the way a women, about the age of my mother and carrying a clipboard, stopped my forward progression. "I'd like to speak to you about a special credit card offer for residents of the U.K.," she stated with a schoolmaster's authority. "I'm sorry, I don't live in the U.K.," I apologized without really knowing why I felt compelled to do so. At that she studied me briefly when a look of revelation settled into her eyes, "Oh," she said with conviction and, I sensed, the slightest bit of sympathy, "you're from Ireland. This offer is only available to U.K. Residents." Before I could reply she politely, yet in a clearly dismissive cue said, "How else can I help you?" At that I simply thanked her kindly for her time and shuffled along as I heard her snag another passing soul behind me.
Moments later I met the shuttle driver and off we went. I should note that along the way we passed another ancient gothic church that had been converted into a high-end entertainment establishment and restaurant. Excited to find out more, I asked Alan, the driver, if he knew anything about it. Alan was very easy to understand up until that point, but when he started to speak in response to this query his answer was not only inaudible, but indiscernible at that. Thus, I was forced to only wonder as Loch Lomond was too far away for any hope of sneaking back to the Glasgow City Center.
At Loch Lomond, I was met by my friends Paul and John from Newport National (RI) and Frank, our host and our mutual friend from Holland. Frank is a member of Loch Lomond and he set up the visit and tour. After freshening up and putting on a jacket and tie, we set off for the massive and beautiful mansion that is the cornerstone of Loch Lomond for what Frank referred to as a "proper diner".
Loch Lomond is an international country club set on almost 700 acres of the clan estate of the Calhouns (Americanized spelling). Everything is immaculate. Perfectly done without being overdone. The golf course, which we played the following morning, is a parkland style that would easily be at home in the United States except that it wraps around the beautiful Loch and is framed by the foothills and mountains of the Scottish highlands that are so beautiful as to be distracting.
The golf course is fabulous and well worthy of its being home to the Scottish Open each year. While nearly every hole that preceded it deserves equal mention, the 18th Hole, a monster par 4 that requires a tee shot over the corner of the Loch deserves note. Directly behind the green are the ruins of the property's original Rossdhu Castle, dating back to the early 1400's. It was in this castle that Mary Queen of Scots used to pen her love letters to the Earl of Bothwell (a love affair that didn't end well for either one of them).
Today, there is only a fraction of the castle left as it was explained to me that many of the castle's stones were used as the mansion's foundation in 1773. What was there was fascinating and that coupled with the small St. Mary's Cathedral sitting right beside it (and containing the remains of the Clan Calhoun Chieftains dating back 1,000 years ago to today), the entire scene was almost too much for someone of my sensibilities. I literally became misty eyed gazing upon something of such stature. A place where people had lived and died and here we were, swords not melted down into plowshares, but golf clubs, slicing away on grounds that were likely the original receiving grounds of the castle. After the round, Frank arraigned for lunch and a tour of the grounds (which was fascinating), before we set off for two nights in Turnberry and a round on the Ailsa Course.
Turnberry Ailsa Course:
Golf can be a meditation, a prayer, if you will. To many, their devotion to the game approaches religion, and if that be the case, then the Turnberry Ailsa Course is one of the game’s great cathedrals.
One of only nine courses in the Open Championship rota, Turnberry is a place that engulfs you as soon as you arrive. For those who love the game’s history, Turnberry is a stage that hosted what could well be the greatest final round in major tournament history, the famous “Duel in the Sun,” at the 1977 Open Championship between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. After distancing themselves from the field with identical third round scores of 65, Nicklaus and Watson dueled shot for shot on the baked links course until the final holes defined Watson as the eventual champion, posting a score of 65 to Nicklaus’ 66. The events that unfolded that day weighted heavily upon my mind as we made our way around the course and in particular on the final four holes. Turnberry was also the site of Greg Norman’s 1986 Open Championship and Nick Price’s 1994 Open victory (the last time the Open was played at Turnberry. It will be played there again in 2009).
After our round at Loch Lomond, we arrived at the Turnberry Hotel just as the sun was setting. The hotel is nearly as famous as the course itself, towering on a high hill above the course, it provides unparallel views over the links and the North Channel, Irish Sea and Arran Isle beyond it. My room looked out on the eighteenth green, ocean, the Ailsa Craig, the lighthouse and the castle ruins that surround it (the castle that once stood there is of particular importance to the Scots for it was where Robert the Bruce, the great Scottish hero, was born and it was from this area that he built his base of power). In short, the views from the hotel, particularly the sun setting over the course and ocean, the nightly bag pipe player on the front steps and the hotel’s classic elegance are nearly as an important part of the experience as would be the Lodge at Pebble Beach, for example.
The Turnberry Ailsa Course was twice almost lost for the sake of the greater good. During both World Wars the hotel and the course were commandeered for use in the war effort and served as an important airbase. At one point, the course was paved over (except the highest dune portions nearest the water), and to this day, large areas of black top can still be seen between holes. To underscore the important role the course played during the War, while digging a new bunker on the second hole only a few years ago, a large unexploded German shell was found buried there.
I had played the course some years before and found that the course was easier this time around for two primary reasons: last time we played, it was raining sideways, and because the high heather and gorse rough, which was past knee high and less than 20 yards off the fairway, has been trimmed back so that a ball slightly off the desired mark can still be found and at least moved forward. Playing in the rain in Scotland and Ireland can make for a romantic links golfing experience, but I was glad to be without it for this one and the modified rough (you could still find the impossible deep stuff farther off line and I suspect as the ’09 Open approaches the thick stuff will come back in force along the former lines) made the course much more fun. I suspect purist will decry this revelation, but I enjoyed it none-the-less.
As we played the 15th hole, I thought about Watson's bomb of a birdie from off the green, and on the dog-leg right 16th hole, I paused near the hill above Wilson’s Burn that surrounds the green and thought about Watson’s ball hanging precariously in a way that witnesses' claim defied gravity. My friend Paul hit the par-5, 17th in two (his second shot was a brilliant 3-wood from 258 yards that finish at the very back of the green, some 40 feet above the front-cut pin). Like Watson in ’77, he missed his eagle putt, but secured the birdie. Of course this was the green where Nicklaus missed his short birdie putt to give Watson the one stroke edge that would decide the Open Championship (not before some great drama on the 18th hole). This was also the hole that Nick Price eagled (jumping wildly into the air) in his march to victory in ’94.
On the par-4, 18th, I was consumed by the thought of the significant events that played out on that stage. Here, in ’77, Watson hit a 1-iron off the tee that split the fairway. Needing to gain back Watson’s stroke advantage, Nicklaus lashed into his drive sending it soaring, yet slightly off line to the right, setting in the heather and beneath the side of a gorse bush (Note: for anyone who has not had the pleasure to tangle with a gorse bush, I believe gorse is best described as ‘the hedge that lines the gates of hell’). Reaching his ball first, Watson hit what he described as his finest 7-iron ever, his ball finishing only 3 feet from the cup. Under immense pressure, Nicklaus did what Nicklaus always seemed to do. Lashing at the ball from an impossible lie with his 8-iron, the ball fired from its tomb and incredibly finished on the green, some 40 feet for birdie. The putt was a multiple breaking putt that would be very difficult to make at any time, but under the circumstances, near impossible for any golfer. Only Jack Nicklaus is not just any golfer. Of course, he made the putt, instantly making Watson’s near tap-in seem much longer. When Watson converted, Nicklaus putt his arm around the 10-years younger Watson and congratulated him on his victory, a gesture and a picture that would leave an indelible mark. From the forward tees (the championship tees are not open for play) I had an 8-iron into the green and was delighted to finish with par after two putting from over the back of the green. My friend Frank had his own heroic finish making a 20-foot birdie putt to allow him to shoot a score of 79 on the grand old course.
Throughout this entire trip on these wonderful links courses, I felt a sense of reverence and awe. At one point, I was so wrapped up in my thoughts and emotions that Paul said I looked like I was “in church.” I guess, in a sense, I was.