DAY FOUR: AS GOOD AS IT GETS
We had breakfast at the Trump clubhouse. It was not a success. Tom is still grumbling about having paid the equivalent of six dollars for a cup of coffee. Our $12 selection of breads came with three bite-sized pastries and a few pieces of dry toast. Kevin counted exactly 11 pieces of granola in his parfait. Somehow this meal crystallized our feelings about the golf course. “This place has no soul,” said Kevin.
Luckily the perfect antidote was waiting 40 minutes up the coast: Cruden Bay. Upon arrival, we received our warmest welcome of the trip -- the lads in the pro shop were good fun and the caddies milling about the first tee couldn’t have been chattier, but this was all a prelude to the droll musings of starter Dave Singleton. This distinguished gent was turned out in a coat and tie, and he treated the opening tee box as a kind of stage. It should be noted here that an unfortunate consequence of a trip like this is that marauding Americans tend to co-opt the native lingo. Thus we began saying “good weight” for well-judged putts, “lovely shot” for good ones and “fer fook’s sake” for the bad ones. So after busting four perfect drives off Cruden Bay’s first tee, Matt turned to Singleton and woofed, “Crackin’ shots, wouldn’t you say?”
“That’s what they’d say in Northern Ireland.”
“What would you say here at Cruden Bay?”
Laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1899, the course offers a perfect mix of holes: long, tough ones to test your ballstriking, a pair of drivable par-4s to test your nerve, and a blind par-3 to stretch your imagination. From the ninth tee there is an all-encompassing view of the coastline and the spooky majesty of Slains Castle, where Bram Stoker reputedly stayed while writing “Dracula.” Along with the sixth green at Pebble Beach, this is my favorite spot in golf. Maybe my favorite back-to-back pair of holes anywhere begins with the par-4 14th, which requires a blind approach to a gorgeous green nestled into a narrow dell. The 180-yard 15th calls for a hard draw around a towering dune to an unseen green. Then you get to rush down the hill to see what fate awaits. This is the kind of unique golf that compels a man to cross an ocean.
Seventeen years ago, I said Cruden Bay was my favorite course in the world. I’ve played a bunch of good ones in the years since, but my opinion hasn’t changed. Alas, on this day the course didn’t love me back -- after the first hole I drove it pitifully, and Matt took 17 and 18 to beat me for the first time. As consolation, Cruden Bay offered the best clubhouse grub of the trip. There’s an amazing view from the dining room but we didn’t get to enjoy it: it was three hours due west to Castle Stuart, so yet again lunch was eaten in the car.
It was after 5 p.m. when we hustled to the first tee at Castle Stuart, a neo-classic that has hosted the last few Scottish Opens. Castle Stuart made Gil Hanse Gil Hanse, and it’s easy to see why. The place is a golf wonderland, a nonstop thrill ride of one great hole after the next. The course plays around the Firth of Moray and up and down bluffs that offer endless views. The sun was setting as we came to the final two holes, turning the sky and water various shades of pink and orange. We were so loopy -- from fatigue and all the sheer grandeur of it all -- that on the 17th tee we played shots down the hill to the 11th green, just for kicks. (Note to miffed greenskeepers: none of us hit the putting surface.) On the 18th tee, we decided to drive balls into the firth. Freed up from worrying about a target, I made my best swing of the trip. It was 9:45 p.m. when we putted-out on 18, with Tom and Kevin making birdies for a pair of 75s.
Straggling into the nearby Sandown House -- a stylish B&B in a converted farmhouse – where the proprietor Liz Burgess treated us like long lost sons, opening a bottle of whiskey, pouring us (cold!) beers and conjuring a warm, cheesy bread. The four of us were so blissed-out from an epic day of golf that we sat around talking forever, despite the fatigue. On another trip we would have loved staying at Sandown for an extra day or two, allowing for a few more rounds at Castle Stuart. But we had to move on. Once again, we went to bed well after midnight, with the alarm cruelly set for 6:30.