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No Country For Auld Men: To mark his 40th birthday, Alan Shipnuck set out on a 10-rounds-in-six-days blitz of Scotland

St. Andrews Swilcan Bridge
Matt Ginella
The author, front right, and his pals pose for the requisite photo-op on the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews.

DAY TWO: THE ULTIMATE DOUBLE-DIP

The first sign that Muirfield is not exactly set up for tourist golfers is that there is no pro shop on-site. We almost missed our tee time when Kevin couldn’t find his glove and had to sprint back to the car to fish out a spare.

The club dates to 1744, and hosted its first Open Championship in 1892. The list of winners at Muirfield attests to its quality: Nicklaus, Player, Trevino, Watson, Faldo (twice), Els and now Mickelson. Many links courses are routed out and back -- half the round the wind is in your face, the other half it’s at your back, and the lack of variety can be a little tedious. But Muirfield crisscrosses an expansive piece of land, and there is seemingly a different wind on every hole. The greens were among the quickest we would play, even with the Open two months away. Nicklaus calls Muirfield “the best course in Britain,” and one of the reasons persnickety pros love it is because it’s a straightforward test with a stark absence of blind shots and unusual quirks.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel the magic at Muirfield. It’s an undeniably great course but not exactly fun. In a 30 mph wind it was relentless. Typically, Matt and I halved only two holes, and I won the brutal 449 yard 14th hole with a double bogey. It was exceptionally cool to play through the canyon of bleachers on the 18th fairway. Of course, Matt semi-shanked a shot out of the rough that rattled around the metal benches, handing me our match, and Kevin drew a tough lie in the wicked greenside bunker and took half a dozen swipes to excavate his ball, in full view of wrinkly old members frowning from the clubhouse windows. We slinked off knowing we didn’t belong.

Back at Greywalls, waiting for sandwiches we would eat in the car, a gent asked, “Where are you playing next?”

“Old Course.”

“Lovely! I hope the weather is good tomorrow.”

“Actually, we’re playing it today.”

“That doesn’t seem possible.”

Variations of this conversation would be common throughout the trip, and it always left us feeling self-satisfied with the ambition of our itinerary.

Two hours after leaving Muirfield, we roared into St. Andrews with just enough time to poke around the R & A clubhouse before our 4:50 (!) tee time. We were all feeling the majesty of the first tee. Kevin is a superb driver of the ball, but he hit a smother-hook that ran clear across the 18th fairway onto The Links road. We granted him a mully and he piped it down the middle. “I can’t remember the last time I felt that nervous,” he said walking down the fairway.

His caddie, a leathery older gent, said, “Ian Baker-Finch did the same thing. But unlike him, you recovered.”

Indeed, Kevin would go on to shoot 73, the lowest round of the trip, though Tom pretty much matched him shot-for-shot with a stellar 75. (Matt and I, in a moment of poor judgment, took them on in a team game and somehow pushed the match to the last hole, as I scrambled to a 79 and he made two birdies en route to an 83.)

I’ve been lucky enough to play the Old Course a few times, so it was interesting to see it through Kevin’s eyes. He found it underwhelming off the tee, and it’s true -- many tee shots are awkward and mostly blind. But the course grows progressively more interesting the closer you get to a given hole, and there’s nothing like the wild double-greens. Even the hillocks have nicknames. The 15th fairway features a couple of shapely mounds known as “Miss Grainger’s bosom.” This left Tom feeling a bit homesick, as Grainger happens to be his wife Amy’s maiden name.

We played the closing holes in the twilight, with the town’s lights twinkling in the distance.

“This doesn’t feel real,” Matt said.

If Muirfield is an ass-kicking you’re just happy to survive, the Old Course is outrageous fun, and when you finish a round there, you want to walk straight to the first tee and try it again. Although on this occasion, we were happy to make the short stroll to the Dunvegan, one of golf’s best 19th holes. We ate and drank until well past midnight and then drove to the cemetery on the edge of town. Our plan was to hop the wall and seek out Old Tom Morris’s grave, but Matt was skittish and refused to get out of the car. It was just as well -- we didn’t get to the swank Fairmont Hotel until 12:45 a.m. Our next tee time was just seven hours away.

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