A Toast to Scottish Greens

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By Timothy Gay
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 7, 2002

It was around midnight on Day 3 of our golfing pilgrimage to the Scottish Highlands when it occurred to us that sampling every pint of beer in the village pub was probably not the best way to lower our scores.

But it wasn't just the Murphy's and the Guinness stout, the Belhaven lager, the "extra smooth" McEwan's ale and the lemon shandies that were causing our scores to soar. It was the wind whistling down from the Grampian Mountains, which wreaks havoc with any golf ball struck less than pure. In our group, that meant a lot of golf balls.

It was the wicked beauty of the North Sea and its firths of Moray and Dornoch -- almost never more than a hacker's slice or pull away. It was the disconcerting amount of daylight in this land fully 600 miles from London, so far north that its summer sun sets for only a few hours each night. Enterprising duffers can order fish 'n' chips at 8 p.m., still have plenty of daylight left after dessert to slip in nine holes, then repair to the local pub for a couple more pints – and tee off all over again when the sun pops back up three hours later.

It was the gnarly gorse that grabs errant tee shots, swallowing them up whole. The Scots call this beautiful but dastardly bush "whin," as in, we joked, "whin are we ever going to see our golf balls again?"

And it was the beguiling, distracting charm of the Scottish people. During our week in the Highlands, we met freckle-faced kids obsessed with the World Wrestling Federation, chain-smoking septuagenarians, earnest young college grads, a woman who styles herself as a "golf psychological therapist," a guy researching a book about classic links courses, ruddy-cheeked men with twinkles in their eyes and brogues so thick we could barely understand them, and a cast of other characters straight out of "Brigadoon." And those were just our caddies. The folks we met in pubs were even more colorful. Let's put it this way: Somewhere in the north of Scotland there's a sheep farmer named Hamish who tends to his flock while sporting a Chevy Chase Club visor.

But these are excuses. The reason our scores were so high was because we were playing links courses so diabolically difficult that, if a bit longer and less remote, they could easily be part of the British Open rota. Oh, Humility! Thy name is a middle-aged, double-digit handicap hacker who's come to play the Highland links.

Our group of eight played seven links (seaside) courses in northeast Scotland over seven days. Our odyssey began in Aberdeen, with rounds at Murcar and rugged Royal Aberdeen, the sixth-oldest club in Scotland. We wound north to breathtaking Cruden Bay, then west to Nairn, site of the 1999 Walker Cup and the course reputed to have the best and quickest greens in Scotland. We went up and around the Dornoch Firth to play at hallowed Royal Dornoch. Then we celebrated the summer solstice by playing a winsome two-fer: Brora, where sheep and cows are allowed to graze the course undisturbed; and Golspie, a lovely little village layout that combines the best of links and parkland golf. Finally, it was back to Dornoch, a town so enchanting that Madonna chose to get married there, for one final round of wondrous golf in a wondrous setting.

Despite our poor performance, the eight of us would come back to play Highlands golf in an Inverness minute. As golfing muse David Owen wrote: "To play classic Scottish courses is to glimpse the logic that shaped the game we play today. Plus, the beers are bigger and you get to drive on the left side of the road."

The courses and our ratings:

1. Murcar

Hard by the North Sea, the lesser-known course of Murcar (pronounced mur-ker) is immediately to the north of Royal Aberdeen. Its seventh hole, called Serpentine, features a "wee burn" (small creek) that snakes into the fairway at critical junctures. It's one of the best par 4s in Scotland. One of the strangest par 4s in Scotland is Murcar's third hole, a short downhill, downwind shot with a narrow two-tiered fairway that's indecipherable from the tee.

Severity: Two pints

Average Guy Playability: Three pints


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© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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