Different Strokes in Scotland
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Standing in the Edinburgh airport next to a group of Connecticut investment bankers, the two of us -- one with a badly torn golf bag cover -- must have looked like penny-stock salesmen at a Goldman Sachs reception.
They had just finished playing at some of Scotland's finest golf courses. But then again, so had we. Only we had done it for a fraction of the price.
The investment bankers, on arrival, had headed north of Edinburgh, home to some of the world's most famous golf courses, including St. Andrews, and then moved to the west coast to play other well-known courses. They'd shelled out as much as $400 per person for a single round of golf, and overall no doubt spent thousands of dollars more than we did on hotels, meals and greens fees.
We had turned east out of the airport, spending a whirlwind 3 1/2 days playing seven courses in East Lothian. The region hugs the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, across the water from the more famous -- and pricey -- golf mecca to the north.
Yet golf enthusiasts in the know, particularly those with an appreciation for the game's roots, consider East Lothian an equally choice destination, with a concentrated string of historic links-style layouts as good as any in the world. (The linksland was the transitional stretch that "linked" the sea with the more fertile inland.) Six of our rounds during our trip in mid-October cost an average of $75 per person. The seventh round, at the legendary Muirfield, would have set us back $290 were it not for our great good fortune of having a friend who is a club member.
Greens fees are only one place to save, however. East Lothian caters primarily to British golfers, so the cost of hotels and restaurants tends to be lower than those to the north, where wealthy international travelers drive up prices.
Just as important as the savings: Most courses in the East Lothian region are relatively uncrowded and accessible. Moreover, with fewer tourists competing for tee times, visiting golfers are more likely to be paired up with local players, most of whom provide the type of local knowledge so necessary to avoiding the subtle dangers that lurk on most of the area's layouts.
Scotland generally is a golfer's dream destination, and the dramatic views and challenging courses are only part of the allure. For one thing, the ubiquitous bulldozers that have done so much to shape (or ruin) most U.S. golf courses were not around when these courses were developed. Instead, years of wind, rain and sheep have sculpted them, replete with gorse and bunkers that impose serious penalties on the wayward golf shot.
The venerable history of Scottish golf adds another layer of glamour to playing here, where the game was born in the 14th century, most golf historians believe. Both King James II and James III banned golf in the 15th century because it was taking too much time away from archery practice. James IV, however, became an avid convert and reinstituted the "infernal" game that has plagued the world ever since.
Mary, Queen of Scots, then helped spread the game to France during her years at the French court. Golf historians believe she may have introduced the term "caddy" to the golf lexicon since military cadets carried golf clubs for royal players. Legend has it that she engendered the antipathy of the church when she was seen playing golf only a few days after the murder of her second husband.
Golf spread throughout Scotland and was taken up by all classes and ages and both sexes by the 17th century. The egalitarian approach lives on today: We were as likely to pass teenage girls carrying golf bags as we were middle-aged men.
Such openness extends to the terrain where most courses are located. The non-playing public has the right of way on most seaside venues. Although Britain's increasingly Americanized tort laws may eventually restrict the practice, children and other walkers, including dogs, are often encountered on the course.