Iain Lowe didn't plan to make a $5,000 golf book.
Lowe, a photographer based in St. Andrews, spent more than four years taking pictures of the hallowed links courses in Scotland. George Peper, former editor of Golf Magazine, provided the words and together they created a two-volume ode to links courses called Golf Links of Scotland.
The first volume is a detailed tour of the Old Course, complete with aerial photographs of every hole and an overlay of the yardages with a pro tip on playing the sacred course. The second volume carries the same theme, but it consists of Lowe's and Peper's compilation of the 18 greatest links courses in Scotland.
For Lowe the book started as a tribute to the Old Course. Once he gave his idea some more thought and spent even more time researching and taking photographs, he decided to create a limited-edition book that could never be rivaled.
Lowe plans to only sell 150 books as a tribute to the 150th anniversary of the Open Championship, celebrated earlier this year at St. Andrews. And, no, there won't be a budget-friendly edition.
"I examined all of the avenues with this," Lowe said recently at the Yale Club in New York City. "Once that I decided I was going to go limited edition with this it gave me the flexibility to go to the best people in their fields and hire them."
Each book comes protected in a clamshell box. Lowe was going to have a simple design inside the box, but he instead added a stunning piece of detail.
In 1923, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club hired Alister MacKenzie — the future course designer of a well-known golf club in Augusta, Ga. — to draw a detailed map of the Old Course. A friend of Lowe's recommended he scan a copy of MacKenzie's drawing inside the clamshell. The finished product gives readers an "ooh, ahh!" moment before they even open the book.
Once inside the first volume, Lowe's photographs take readers on a tee-to-green tour of the Old Course. Lowe said he didn't simply want to have a book filled with beauty shots. Instead, he tried to capture the feeling of actually playing a round at St. Andrews.
To get the right photos, Lowe used his own experiences playing the Old Course, plus the knowledge of caddies, teaching pros and groundskeepers to show the mystery and challenge of the Old Course, which is difficult to convey to people who haven't played it. For those who have played it, the photos will be a reminder of what it's like, Lowe said.
The tricky part was capturing the atmosphere and the humps and bumps that give the Old Course its charm. Fortunately Scotland is blessed with long periods of low light, the optimal time for photographers to capture their best shots.
The importance of shooting in low light is evident in a remarkable photo of the first and 18th holes at St. Andrews. The holes are side-by-side, but thanks to the setting sun, you can see the relative flatness of the first fairway compared to the rolling mounds on the 18th.
"It's like two completely different courses next to each other," Lowe said.
However, Lowe needed more than perfect light to get his pictures. He needed a helicopter. Over the course of four years, Lowe estimated he took about 12-15 helicopter rides, which cost between $30,000-$40,000 total. Add in the leather binding (by hand) with 23-carat gold-leaf inlay, plus the cost of printing the books in China on some of the finest paper available, and you start to see how a $5,000 book is made.
However, the time and money Lowe spent hovering 1,000 feet in the air was worth it. The overhead pictures capture the amazing vastness of links courses, and they also allowed Lowe to do something unique with his photographs. Lowe wanted to include the yardages and lines of strategy for every hole, but that wouldn't allow readers to simply enjoy a great photograph of their favorite hole at the Old Course.
The solution: The yardages and other notes were added to transparent overlays that cover each overhead photo. If you want to soak in the beauty of the 18th hole, you simply lift the overlay and you have an unobstructed view.
The second book, a collection of the 18 best links courses in Scotland from classics like Carnoustie and Prestwick to newcomers like Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart, gets the same treatment, but instead of hole-by-hole tours of all 18 courses, Lowe's photos and Peper's prose highlight key holes at each course.
"It's my honoring of the links courses of Scotland," Lowe said. "I have such a lot of fun on them. I really like photographing them. And I think we're very lucky that people so long ago laid out this ground, and they're so publicly accessible."
Lowe's love of the links began during his time in the military. A photographer for the Royal Air Force for 23 years, Lowe was stationed at an airbase outside of St. Andrews running the photo unit. Due to his long tenure and a feeling that he wasn't being challenged, Lowe retired from the service, bought a house near the Old Course and plotted his future.
Photography wasn't Lowe's only love. He played water polo and badminton. He was a ski instructor, and even led climbing expeditions despite battling vertigo. Lowe knew after the military that his future was somewhere in photography, but he had no inkling that he might become a golf photographer. He didn't even play at the time.
His life changed one evening when he strolled down to the fence along the 18th fairway at St. Andrews. The sun was slowly setting and a small crowd was gathered around the course watching groups complete their final holes.
Lowe looked down and saw a hand come through the fence and stroke the grass of the hallowed course. That small gesture sparked Lowe's fascination with the game, and it has stuck with him to this day.
"It shows just how special this place is," Lowe said.
Now that he's hooked on the game and makes a living photographing some of the greatest courses in the world, Lowe has a dilemma each time he walks out the door.
"My conflict is I love my job so much that it's a very difficult decision whether or not to play golf or take a camera," Lowe said. "Nine out of ten times the camera wins. Because when that image comes back and it sparkles at you and really captures the drama and beauty and challenge of a golf hole, any golf course photographer will tell you exactly the same thing — it's like the perfect [golf] shot. It's what makes you go back again. But just like golf, we always leave a couple of shots on the course."