To: Thistle, Tartan & Tweed Tours
Subject: Open Championship Travel Packages
Thank you for the brochure detailing your three-day, five-day, 11-day and 33-day Scottish golf vacations. I wish I could afford your Gleneagles from Dawn to Dusk package, including motor-coach transportation to and from Scotland's most expensive golf resort. Ditto your Firms of Fife excursion, which includes rounds at St. Andrews Old Course, New Course, Jubilee Course and Duke's Course, plus complimentary golf towel and ball marker as well as welcoming remarks by the motor-coach driver.
As it happens, I just got back from a Scottish golf trip. Nothing like what you folks offer, I hasten to add—no motor coach, no guides, no 5 a.m. wake-up calls, no "cocktails with the hotel manager." My wife and I simply rented a car and cruised the lowlands. She visited cathedrals and crystal factories, and I played golf. Ten courses in 10 days, none of them famous, none of them "championship," none of them costing more than £15 to play. In fact, and this isn't meant as a criticism of your tours, my greens fees for the whole trip came to £105. That's less than the cost of a single round and a caddie at the Old Course. Anyway, I thought you might get a laugh out of my self-styled travel package, which I call Town Courses of Scotland.
First off, my wife and I saved a few quid by flying separately, I on a full-fare ticket to Glasgow, she on a frequent-flyer coupon to Manchester, England, via Laredo, Texas, and Kuala Lumpur. (She missed my airline's in-flight film about Scottish golf, narrated by a Texan.) Once settled into our downtown Glasgow hotel, I warmed up with a quick nine at the King's Park municipal course, a rudimentary layout with pleasing views of the city and a pleasing price: gratis. "The Council shut it down on April 1," a trolley-pulling Scot explained, "but they keep mowing it, so we keep playing it." There were no flagsticks, but there was a metal cup on every green; and I only lost four balls in the matted rough. You might consider adding an abandoned golf course to your tours.
Our trip began in earnest the next day, when we drove down Scotland's west coast into the district of Ayrshire, artfully dodging the golfing shrines of Royal Troon, Prestwick and Turnberry. I played instead at rustic Maybole—at £8.50 the cheapest of 43 courses listed by the Ayrshire and Arran Tourist Board—and then at Girvan, where the fee was £12.50 and the view of brooding Ailsa Craig as good as that from Turnberry. Girvan was designed around 1903 by five-time British Open champion James Braid and consists of eight wind-lashed seaside holes and 10 pastoral inland holes. (To get from the 8th green to the 9th tee, players must march through town, dodging traffic and resisting the lure of pubs and chandleries.) The course is challenging enough, with its parade of drivable par-4s and unreachable par-3s. Par is 64, so Girvan is down the list of future Open sites, but as the head starter, Marion Brown, told me, "The majority of people here are not interested in championship courses. We're interested in having a good time."
Girvan, like most Scottish courses, has names for its holes. The 8th, a 243-yard par-3, is called Right Scunner (something you're fed up with). Haggerty's Loup (Scottish for leap) got its name when a club member stepped behind his ball on the 9th tee, backed up for a better view and fell into the River Girvan. "Come back when the wind is blowing," said Brown. "I've seen tee shots fly backward into the car park."
The next day, on the recommendation of an innkeeper in Ayr, I played at Ballochmyle Golf Club, on the A76 outside Mauchline. Ballochmyle is not as inviting as Girvan: Eight of the parking spaces are reserved for club officials, while signs define seven UNACCEPTABLE MODES OF DRESS. Fortunately, the arch tone was offset by a cow grazing at the 1st tee—I like to play in close proximity to livestock—and by the Gents Locker Room, which features wooden lockers painted in birdhouse colors. After my round, my wife and I sat in the lounge under a portrait of the poet Robert Burns, who lived and farmed nearby. Also on the wall was this poem by a lesser Scottish bard:
In ev'ry glen the mavis sang
All nature list'ning seem'd the while
Except where greenwood echoes rang,
Amang the braes o' Ballochmyle.
I mention the poetry because your tours seem heavy on golf and light on culture. My golf courses offered a Pictish burial site (St. Michael's Golf Club, outside Leuchars), a Stonehenge-like ruin (in the 2nd fairway at the Lundin Ladies Golf Club in Lower Largo) and an active lawn-bowling club (Maybole). At the Glencorse Golf Club, south of Edinburgh, I even got an art lesson. It came on the 16th tee, atop a high bluff, when a club member introduced me to a new way to take in the landscape, what he called the picture frame. "Just bend over and look backward through your legs," he said. Warily—and only because he did it first—I bent over and got rewarded with a significantly more sublime view, though inverted, of the lovely Pentland Hills.
Speaking of poetry, the 12th at Ballochmyle is called Aft Agley. This allusion to Burns's "best laid plans" came to mind on day 5, when I scaled the legendary Braid Hills in central Edinburgh. Bliss! Blue sky, rocky crags, great golden swatches of whin and a view of the city so vast that dark Edinburgh Castle, on its citadel rock, looked as small as a toy.