I made my first pilgrimage to Scotland when I was 23, an enthusiastic but largely uninformed golfer. The itinerary was bonkers: 17 rounds in nine days, hoofing all the way, though in my youthful vigor I don’t ever remember being tired. The trip changed me forever in how I played the game -- three-quarter swings! chipping with a 6-iron! – and, more importantly, how I thought about it. I had grown up venerating exclusive private clubs but fell in love with Scotland’s democratic ideal, with courses tucked into the middle of town as an important part of every day life. And where I once revered velvety fairways and extreme designs at which man had imposed his will upon the land, after that Scottish sojourn I lusted for natural, quirky layouts with ragged bunkers, blind par-3s, bouncy turf and other hallmarks of an ancient game.
Since that first trip I have been lucky to return to the home of golf a handful of times to cover the Open Championship, sneaking in some short side trips along the way, but serious gaps remained in my Scottish education. I had never played Muirfield, which plenty of folks think is the best course in the British Open rota, and I had never journeyed to the Highlands, where Royal Dornoch enjoys a cult following. Increasingly, I found myself staring at golf porn of neo-classics like Castle Stuart and that new course set amidst vertiginous dunes outside Aberdeen. (I am loathe to type the word “Trump”.) But this linksland felt beyond my grasp. As a carefree twentysomething, I had assumed that I would make regular buddies trips to Scotland but the years flew by and they never happened, for various reasons. By the time my kids started arriving en masse a decade ago I had pretty much given up on the idea of a long trip in which I could again immerse myself in the game and the rituals of male-bonding. Luckily, this May I had a trump card: my 40th birthday. A couple of weeks after that grim milestone, my lifelong best friend Kevin Price would also be hitting the big 4-0. Kevin is the most avid golfer I know but somehow had not yet traversed the auld sod of Scotland. We resolved to make the trip and invited two other pals to be part of the wolfpack: Matt Ginella, the travel editor at the Golf Channel, and Tom June, who hails from the hometown Kevin and I share, Salinas, Calif.
We started plotting a dream itinerary. Muirfield and the Old Course were a must, ditto Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch. I longed to return to Cruden Bay. Back in 1996, it blew my mind, and ever after I pined for Cruden as the idealized essence of Scottish golf. Eventually I enlisted the professional planners at Perry Golf to help us with the logistics.
We settled on 10 rounds in six days, with lotsa driving in between. “’Tis not for the faint of heart,” said Perry Golf’s managing director Colin Dalgleish. That was exactly what I wanted to hear. As much as I craved the chance to re-experience golf in the kingdom, there was a strong ulterior motive to this trip. Now that I was officially middle-aged, a haunting question needed to be answered: Was I man enough to soldier through such an ambitious itinerary? Time would tell.
PREPARATIONS: A TEE TIME AT MUIRFIELD
Muirfield, site of this year’s Open, is basically the Augusta National of Scotland: obnoxiously stuffy and aggressively private. Yet unlike Augusta, Muirfield recognizes that its golf course is a civic trust and every Tuesday and Thursday two hours of tee times are set aside for the great unwashed. These fourballs can be reserved through the club’s website and tend to fill up a year in advance. By the time we decided to take this trip, around Christmas time, Muirfield was booked solid from March through October. I was in the process of sucking up to various golf dignitaries in hopes of getting help with a tee time when, on a January morning, Dalgleish awakened me with a frenzied phone call. “There’s been a cancellation at Muirfield for May 14,” he said breathlessly. “Get on their website and book it immediately!” I did, sitting in the dark in my boxers. All the other logistics flowed from there.
As the trip grew closer, I turned my attention to packing. My belief is that on a journey like this the single most important item is socks -- it’s a must to change into a fresh pair between 18s. My golf bag came to be stuffed with basic necessities -- Alleve, Band-Aids, a fleece ski cap -- but also a couple of specialty items. One is Body Glide, an anti-chafing balm favored by runners. We’d be walking 10 miles a day and this could be a lifesaver on the inner thighs. I also packed some baby wipes. There are very few restrooms on Scottish golf courses. I’m not going to go into great detail here, but one time on a famous links I had a gastrointestinal emergency miles from the nearest water closet. A very nice golf towel wound up getting buried among the dunes.
I tend to eat a lot when I play, but there are no beer-carts over in Scotland, so you have to bring your own food. I packed a dozen fruit bars, a dozen energy bars, four pounds of Trader Joe’s trail mix and five pounds of Kingmade beef jerky in four different flavors. (This artisanal jerky is cooked up by PGA Tour caddie Jeff King and has become an obsession among dozens of top players.) The only thing missing was a good swing thought. In the months before the trip, I was trying to break-in a new R1 driver. I couldn’t really hit it, and then I lost the feel for my old R11. A few weeks out from Scotland my desperation was turning to panic. Kevin is among the lunatic fringe who prowls the message boards at golfwrx.com, and he had read about -- and sought out -- a custom-fitter named Joe Kwok who works out of his garage in South San Francisco. Assured that Kwok had Mr. Miyagi-style wisdom to impart, I drove up to see him a few days before the trip. I left with a new shaft in my R1, a whole new address position and the kick up the backside I needed. “Relax, you’ll find it over there,” Kwok told me upon parting. “And if not, don’t come home.”