A jog through British Open golf course history in Scotland

A jog through British Open golf course history in Scotland

TROON, Scotland — Remember how Golf Digest had that thing “Worst Avid Golfer”? I’m the slowest avid jogger. Your grandmother is faster than me. I don’t care how old she is.

At least at my pace you see more, and on my last night in Scotland I saw a lot. I left the Marine Hotel, beside the Royal Troon Golf, with no particular plan, except to jog to the Prestwick Golf Club and back. Prestwick is where the first British Open was played, 149 years ago. You could say the first Open, as there were no other opens then. Your Tom Morrises of St. Andrews, father and son, won almost every year in the early Opens, all held at Prestwick. It’s a fantastic course, not just as a museum piece but as an everyday place to play, and it’s on all the golfing tourist itineraries.

But the thing about Scottish golf are the courses off the tourist trail. You could write a book about the subject, and my friend Jim Finegan did, one I heartily recommend. But the best thing to do is make your own discoveries.

On Thursday night of Open week, a fellow typist, Alan Shipnuck, played Royal Troon. It was expensive ($175) but excellent, and if you’re going to cover Opens you have to know the courses and bounces in the Open rota. (I may need that sentence for my expense report, but you do the damn thing on a computer and you get Twitter-like lengths to make your case.) Every course I know in Scotland is, in some regard, public, even ones with posh names like Royal Troon or the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, aka Muirfield.

Most of the time these clubs are closed to “outside play,” but they all have designated times when they permit it, and if you approach the club the right way, and you’re willing to pay, you can get on. Maybe that’s a better system than what most private American clubs do, which is say no to everybody, but have these enormous Monday outings where everybody takes a cart and leaves behind a trail of cigar butts and lost Pro V1s. Of course, the best course in Scotland, and the best course in the world, is an absolute muni: the Old Course at St. Andrews, where the Open will be played next year, 150 years after the first one.

I would have preferred to see it at Prestwick, which last hosted an Open in 1925. Yes, Prestwick is a teeny-tiny course by today’s standards, and there’s nowhere to put crowds and nowhere for John Daly to hit driver, but for one year you could make it work, just to remind the world how things used to be. Limit the crowds to 10,000 a day and give the players some mealy old ball to play with. I really believe if the R & A went to Tiger and Jack and Tom Watson and Ernie Els and a few others and said this is what we want to do, one year only, they would all go along with the idea and sell it to the other players and the public. Maybe for the 160th playing of the Open, 11 years from now, this idea will catch on. C’mon, fellas. Mix it up a little.

Anyway, you have all these very fine courses, your Troons and your Prestwicks and most especially your Turnberrys. Shipnuck and I, with the writer/photographer John Garrity, played Western Gailles on another night. Also a gem. But there’s one thing I really didn’t care for at both Western Gailles and Troon, and that’s the rough on steroids.

I know they’ve had a wet spring in Scotland. I know their thing is to let Mother Nature dictate how the courses play. But when you cannot find your ball half the time when you’re 10 yards off the fairway, that’s way too penal. Naturally, we cheated: drop you ball on the best lie you can find in the area where you lost it, add one shot, play on. But, really, it’s time for a haircut. As Reagan said to Gorby: Cut back your rough! Unless your name is Fred Funk or Jeff Maggert, there is no way you’re playing these courses with one ball. The most satisfying thing you can do in golf, I believe, is to hold on to your ball. (Also, your watch. While playing Royal Troon, I lost my Timex somewhere on the golf course, but not, evidently, in the rough. I say that because the watch showed up inside my hotel room the next day. How good is that?)

I knew that Troon had a second course, called Portland Troon, which I also played one night, and really loved. Subtle, great bunkers, beautiful greens, and rough you can play out of. What I didn’t know, until I went for my jog, is that abutting the Portland Troon course is another course, a municipal course called Lochgreen. It looked to be every bit as good as the Portland course, and I was shocked when a white-haired gent in his waterproofs, pulling a trolley and a bag filled with steel-shafted clubs, showed me a card for the course: 6,700 yards, all the way back. Way more course than I need or want, but usually these funky old delightful Scottish munis are more like 5,700 yards, par 63.5, or some funky thing. The green fee, my white-fringed source was telling me, is on the order of $20. I’ll be back.

So I carried on to Prestwick on a bicycle path obviously favored by horses, past the Prestwick Airport, and finally into the village of Prestwick, following the signs that said SEAFRONT, which I knew from many trips to Scotland bring you straight to the course.

The sky was low and silver and the strange Scottish light was finding holes where it could and the course was empty. You could see all the humps and hillocks and dunes and tees and the golden fescue rough. It looked beautiful, but I wouldn’t want to play out of it.

The course, of course, is on the sea, and that’s why all Opens are played on seaside course, “in sight and sound of the sea,” as Peter Alliss once memorably told me. I started jogging on some tiny trails on the top of the dunes and then headed down to the beach. After a while, I could see the dark red brick of the Marine Hotel, my home for the week, off in the distance. Last call for food in the bar is 10 p.m., and at 10:01 you’re out of luck. I started running harder. After a mile or so, I came upon an inlet with no bridge. If I went back to town I’d miss last food call, and I never miss a meal. I took off my sneakers and waded across, put them back on and carried on home.

After another mile or so I could see a sign in the dunes that read Smugglers Trail. I ran on that for a while until I came upon another sign, posted by the Royal Troon Golf Club, cautioning those on the trail, a public way that crosses the course, to be careful for errant tee shots. You have to love that about Scotland, or I do, anyway, how ancient footpaths take precedent over private property. (Call me a communist; I’ve been called worse.) The only course in the U.S. that I can think of that has that, and this will seem unlikely, is the Trump course in Los Angeles, where you’ll see surfers in wetsuits crisscrossing the course on the way to the beach. I’m pretty sure Donald hates all that, but that right came with the key to the place.

My final few hundred yards were straight down the 18th fairway, downwind to the hotel. I played that hole with Alan. I walked that hole with Ernie and Todd Hamilton, while covering the 2004 Open. I’ve seen it played often over the years on TV. When there’s sand on your feet and your socks are wet, you’re not thinking about any of that. You’re thinking about a hot shower and a cold cider. The Tom Morrises never had it so good.