Links and The Water of Life

Scotch whiskey, the water of life.

Scotch whiskey, the water of life.

The golfe and uisge beatha. Or Golf and The Water of Life. Water of Life as in Scotch whisky that is. The two go together like the classics: horse and buggy, love and marriage, Hepburn and Tracy, bacon and eggs … Arnie and Jack. And in Scotland, a country the size of the state of California, there are great links, with equally great distilleries, dotted along the east and west coasts. Some are easy to get to while others involve a journey, a journey well worth the effort.

Beginning on the east coast, some three hours north of Edinburgh, is the classic and wonderful links at Brora. Designed by James Braid, sheep and cows still graze the fairways of this throwback, with almost invisible wires with a mild current running through them surrounding the greens, keeping the cows and sheep at bay. After your round stop by the renowned Clynelish distillery for a tour and a sample. Not as well known in the US as some of the other major distillers, Clynelish produces a classic single malt, smooth and vibrant.

Royal Dornoch golf club.

Royal Dornoch golf club.

Less than thirty minutes to the south is Royal Dornoch, home course of Donald Ross, rated by all as one of the top five links in the world. When you’re through experiencing this mystical links, don’t miss The Glenmorangie distillery, one of the revered single malt distillers, boasting different whiskys aged from 10 to 24 years in a variety of barrels that have been used for sherry, port, bourbon, and other spirits.

Glenlivet scotch.

Glenlivet scotch.

Head further south to play Castle Stuart and Nairn, both hard by the North Sea, with rolling dunes, swaying fescue, and beautiful but tough gorse. Nearby is a host of great Speyside distilleries: Cardhu, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant, and The Glenlivet, the elegant malt credited with starting the single malt craze in the states some thirty odd years ago.

On to St. Andrews, the home of golf. Besides The Old Course, there are six additional courses operated by the St. Andrews Links Trust, along with a plethora of memorable links within two

Swilcan Bridge Old Course

Swilcan Bridge Old Course

hours’ drive. Across the Firth of Forth from St. Andrews are Gullane, North Berwick, and Muirfield. Gullane was the venue for the 2015 Scottish Open, won this past July by Rickie Fowler. It plays up to a vast rolling plateau, with spectacular holes and equally magnificent views. North Berwick, like The Old Course, plays out and back from the town. It is known the world over for its classic holes, such as the Redan – copied countless times – and its quirky holes, such as the thirteenth, where the approach to the green must be hit over an ancient stone wall. Muirfield is a regular on The Open rota and is considered one of the fairest tests of links golf. Jack Nicklaus won his first of three Opens here and

Glenkinchie distillery tour.

Glenkinchie distillery tour.

honored it when he named his own Muirfield Village. Not a half hour away is the Glenkinchie Distillery, which produces both grain whisky for blending and its own smooth and mellow single malt of the same name. Don’t miss this tour. For a mere £8 you’ll get a comprehensive tour plus a sample of four different Scotches, one Glen Kinchie’s own, and the other three from other distilleries to compare different regions.

Finally, if you’re the adventurous sort, and love “true” links and “peaty” whisky, head northwest to the island of Islay. While there is no quick way to get there by car (Islay does have an airport), the drive is both magnificent and rugged, showing off the best of Scotland: ragged seacoast, drifting moors, and wonderful little towns. Islay is the home of the Machrie Golf Links. Designed by Willie Campbell and opened in 1891, the course is unique in that it runs across the dunes rather than with them, resulting in many blind shots. This may very well be the reason behind the club’s motto: “Keep Your Temper.”

Lagavulin, Distillery located on the island of Islay

Lagavulin, Distillery located on the island of Islay

The tiny island of Islay is home to eight distilleries, and the whiskys here are known for their strong peat taste, a product of drying the malt over peat heated fires. While an acquired taste, those who have adopted the flavour cherish it. Among the distilleries located on Islay are Ardbeg, known for the “strongest” in flavor; Laphroig, possessing a pure peat character; the little known but splendid Caol Ila; and perhaps the best of the Islays, Lagavulin, which has a stong peat punch combined with a heartwarming finish.

Golf and Scotch. There’s not a better combination. Slainte! (To your health!)

The Old Course Is Back Open For Play, Now It’s Your Turn.

The shard greens of the crossing Par  3 11th hole and par 4 7th hole.

The shard greens of the crossing Par 3 11th hole and par 4 7th hole.

There are two ways to get on the Old Course if you don’t have a confirmed tee time. First, there is the daily lottery that you can enter up to the day before you want to play. You are then notified by email the night before whether you succeeded. If you don’t get on with the lottery you can go to the house just off the first tee and submit your name for same day play. The staff are extremely accommodating, understand your eagerness to play, and very helpful. They will estimate your chances – singles or twosomes have better odds, so consider splitting your foursome – and let you know when you have time for a cup of coffee or to do some shopping. If you get there early, by 7:00 AM, it is rare that you won’t get on.

If it’s your first time playing, a caddie is a must. The Old Course is subtle, with specific lines that should be played, different shots needed depending on the playing conditions, and the caddies of St. Andrews know their craft. Whether you’re scratch or twenty, they will competently guide you – they are worth at least three shots a round. And most times they are colorful and memorable as well. Read An American Caddie in St. Andrews by Oliver Horovitz as a wonderful prep for your first round – an enchanting read with a wealth of information.

The general rule on The Old Course is that if you miss, miss left. The layout treks out and back in a counter-clockwise pattern, and many of the holes can be played from the adjacent fairway to the left. The greens are massive, with fourteen of the holes sharing putting surfaces; a putt of seventy feet is not uncommon. They roll up and down and to either side, formed from the rolling dunes. And they are exquisitely true – hit the right putt and the ball will find the hole.

17 at St. Andrews, the "Road Hole"

17 at St. Andrews, the “Road Hole”

The last two holes of the Old Course epitomize the strategic play required throughout the round. Drive blindly over the “Hotel” portion of the sign on the shed of The Old Course Hotel; the farther right on the fairway the better. The second shot must be one of precision, avoiding the famous Road Hole Bunker on the left, and on the right, the road, which is in play. If you’re a bit intimidated, play up short of the green and putt on from the fairway – but don’t go too far left as the Road Bunker attracts balls even from the green. Many have called the seventeenth the greatest par four and a half in the world.

The eighteenth tee presents a fairway more than one hundred yards wide. Your drive heads back into the cradle of the town, framed by quaint hotels and shops on the right, and the R&A clubhouse and the Hamilton Grand behind the first tee and eighteenth green. The play is up the left side for the best approach to the green. Pitch or bump and run your second shot through The Valley of Sin onto the green, but not too far; the fringe behind the green is up against the wall supporting the sidewalk above. Hit a good chip and sink your putt and the townspeople gathered above and behind the hole will applaud your good play.

Give your superb caddie a generous tip and head for the Dunvegan for well-deserved pint.

The Magic of Golf’s Holy Land – St. Andrews

St. Andrews, site of this week’s British Open, is a magical place. Upon arriving in “The Olde Grey Towne,” the mystique is both palpable and unique. What contributes to the aura of St. Andrews is that this is a small college town, inhabited by the oldest university in Scotland.

Market St. in the heart of the town of St. Andrews.

Market St. in the heart of the town of St. Andrews.

St. Andrews is lined with cobbled stone roads, centuries old wood and stone buildings, pubs, apartments, golf shops, cafes … and more pubs. It’s oddly tranquil yet strikingly busy. As you arrive in town, seeking your quaint hotel or bed and breakfast, the immediate sense is that this is a special place. After settling in and deciding to explore, your inner map pulls you towards the Old Course. It seems all roads lead to the 18th green.

Approaching the hallowed ground for the first time, looking out towards the Old Course Hotel while standing in front of the Hamilton Grand, to your right the magnificent and iconic R&A clubhouse, there is a strange sense that fills you: you’re at the home of golf, and you feel at home. Golf here does not seem primed for the elite; it is for all who love this game and enjoy this old-world town. What an overwhelming experience it is to hit your first tee ball from the base of the town, play the links and return on eighteen, back to the warm and welcoming buildings. People out for a stroll stop above the eighteenth green to watch the players come in; hit a good shot or sink a difficult putt, and they’ll even clap for you.

St. Andrews elicits the feeling that this is how golf was meant to – and ought to – be played. It is a place for those who live

Dusk view from the 17th green (road hole) down the 18th hole and back into town.

Dusk view from the 17th green (road hole) down the 18th hole and back into town.

orstudy here to gather and socialize, and for visitors to play where it all began, this game that teaches us so much about ourselves.

A surprise for Americans is that citizens of the town can freely walk the course at any time (beware of the errant shots!). Locals walk their dogs on the many paths, while tourists snap photos and casually stroll the linksland. As the golf ends during dusk, a walk down the first and second holes and back down seventeen and eighteen, instills calmness and total inner peace – you are completely captured in the moment. The R&A lit in gold, the beauty of the Hamilton Grand, and the lights from the windows of the shops and hotels that line the 18th fairway, provide just enough illumination to reveal the bumps and hollows of the 18th hole. It is one of the special moments of a golfer’s life. Take as many pictures as you want – they will never capture the feeling of standing there live, in awe of the beauty that is St. Andrews.

The Greatest at The Greatest

Jack Nicklaus is considered by most to be the greatest player of all time. Winner of twenty majors (he always counted his two US Amateur wins as majors, as most of his era did), he won three Opens, two on The Old Course of St. Andrews, the home of golf. In an interview before his final round in 1978, Jack told Jim McCay of ABC that St. Andrews was his favorite place to play. Along with the intriguing strategy, the ever-changing weather – a vital part of the strategic challenge, the infinite bumps and hollows, and the sublime fescue of The Old Course, Nicklaus also cited the charm of the town, the presence of world-renowned St. Andrews University, the looming Royal & Ancient Clubhouse at the foot of the links, and the warm and knowledgeable citizens of the city, as parts of the total experience that shaped his fondness for St. Andrews.

Jack and Barbara Nicklaus pose with the Claret Jug after his 1970 victory at the Old Course

Jack and Barbara Nicklaus pose with the Claret Jug after his 1970 victory at the Old Course

In 1970 Nicklaus beat Doug Sanders in a playoff after the dandy Sanders missed a two and a half footer on 18 for the win. It was here that Jack dramatically removed his sweater on the 18th tee and drove the ball through the green some 350 yards away … with a driver made of persimmon and a wound ball. At the conclusion of the playoff Jack uncharacteristically and joyously flung his putter into the air … and almost took his own head off.

Jack Nicklaus tees off at 18 in the final round of the 1978 Open Championship

Jack Nicklaus tees off at 18 in the final round of the 1978 Open Championship

In 1978 Jack had not won a major in over two years and many were asking if, at thirty-eight years old, he was over the hill. Tied at the turn with the unknown Simon Owen of New Zealand, Jack put on an exhibition of course management and links knowledge that was exceptional. Nowhere was his calculated strategy more in evidence than in Nicklaus’s sterling play over the final four holes. It was Jack’s seventeenth major, and he would go on to win three more for an even twenty.

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus waves from the Swilcan Bridge as he makes his way to complete his final round ever in the British Open Golf Championship, on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, Friday, July, 15, 2005.   (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus waves from the Swilcan Bridge as he makes his way to complete his final round ever in the British Open Golf Championship, on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, Friday, July, 15, 2005. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In 2005 Jack appeared in his final Open, played at St. Andrews. Prior to the start of the tournament the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a limited edition £5 note. On one side is Nicklaus’s Golden Bear insignia, along with his winning Open scores, and on the reverse are images of Jack holding the Claret Jug and playing during the 1978 Open. At the close of his second round – his last – Jack hit a long drive up the left side of eighteen, the way you’re supposed to play the hole. After posing for a picture on the Swilcan Bridge, the adoring cheers of the crowd raining down on him, Nicklaus was in tears walking up the hallowed fairway. He hit a classic bump and run through the Valley of Sin and onto the green – again, the way you’re supposed to – leaving himself thirteen feet above the hole. Fittingly, Jack Nicklaus, in front of his family, a myriad of fellow pros who were there to witness the historic scene, and thousands of spectators, drained the birdie putt.

The greatest player on the greatest course. It can’t get better than that.

Gullane – “No Quainter or More Romantic Spot.”

“There is no quainter or more romantic spot than Gullane. Nor are there finer links anywhere; try them for yourself. And what with hill and valley, fresh air and fine scenery, say if you can bring me anything to match by beloved Gullane.” Rev. John Kerr, The Golfer’s Guide 1894

The decision to bring links golf back to the Scottish Open has made it once again one of the top events on the European Tour. Phil Mickleson’s victory at Castle Stuart in 2013, along with Justin Rose’s win at Royal Aberdeen last year, only enhanced the tournamant’s stature. The field gets stronger each year as players gear up for the British Open Championship, relishing the chance to play Open-like links courses. Mickelson gave full credit to the event in preparing him for his own Open conquest. Often, Americans “discover’ these courses for the first time simply because they host the Scottish Open. How lucky we are.

A view behind one of the stunning greens at Gullane Golf Club.

A view behind one of the stunning greens at Gullane Golf Club.

This year the Scottish Open is taking place at Gullane Golf Club. The Club is comprised of three links courses whose numbers reflect their age. A few holes from Course #2 will join a majority from #1 to create this week’s test.

Although Gullane is a staple on many golf trips to Scotland, it is still an unknown course to many, even those who are scheduled to play it. It is often over-shadowed by neighboring courses Murfield and North Berwick, who have rich golfing histories. Murfield, besides being a stalwart of the Open rota, is home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, who are said to have formed the original rules of Golf. North Berwick Golf Club has a deep architectural history. It is home to the original Redan green, the 15th, and the original Biarritz green, the 16th. The architectural features of these greens have been mimicked the world over.

With such a rich history of golf surrounding it, it is easy to see why Gullane could be overlooked. The club

The view from atop Gullane Hill across the Firth of Fourth.

The view from atop Gullane Hill across the Firth of Forth.

officially opened in 1884, but records indicate that golf has been played on the links land here for 350 years. The original course – and the best of the three – #1, begins low in the valley and quickly rises up to a vast plateau, where holes three through sixteen lie. From the highland the player is treated to spectacular views of the Firth of Forth, and to the west you can enjoy views of Murfield Golf Club. Although a traditional links “out and back” course – the 9th is at the farthest point from the clubhouse – the holes, much like neighboring Murfield, constantly change direction. The golfer must deal with changing winds from hole to hole, thereby creating great variety. The greens are fast and true, some of the finest in Scotland.

The architect of Gullane #1 is unknown, however the imaginative design is still relevant today. No two holes either look or play the same, and its beauty is unmatched. It is a tough but fair test – if you’re hitting it straight and putting well, you’ll score. This week Gullane will be in the spotlight of Scottish golf, and it is a worthy centerpiece. It is as enjoyable a place as any you will find in Scotland, one you’d be proud to play every day of your life.

A True Links Test of Golf is Finally in America! – Chambers Bay

Chambers Bay, host of the 2015 U.S. Open plays like the links courses of Scotland and Ireland.

Chambers Bay, host of the 2015 U.S. Open plays like the links courses of Scotland and Ireland.

Chambers Bay looks spectacular through a 47 inch LCD TV; I can only imagine its beauty in person. It appears firm and fast, and sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between fairway and green. There seems to be infinite approach shot choices to its massive, undulating greens; the more creative you get, the better your result could be.

Early reports are that true links golf has finally reached the United States in tournament play, and I couldn’t be more excited. We have seen U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills, but if you watch footage from past opens there, players flew most shots to the holes. The design of Shinnecock largely prevents ground hugging, run-up shots. Many see the fescues of Whistling Straits and think “Wow, this looks like Ireland,” and while it does look like Ireland, the golf course plays as if it is deep in the woods. At Whistling Straits you must fly every approach shot to the hole, there are no “ground game” options. Chambers Bay has the elevation changes of a Ballybunion and the flow of a Royal Dornoch. And like those two courses, most of the holes present choices between flying the ball high at the flag, or running it up low onto the green, stiff to the pin.

Links golf is a different animal from what most of us have played; it is a challenge that we in the United States rarely get to

Golfers tee of on the 16th at Chambers Bay, play left and your ball will roll right.

Golfers tee of on the 16th at Chambers Bay, play left and your ball will roll right.

experience. Here we are used to hitting a drive or an approach and receiving immediate feedback for the quality of our shot – “Man I stuck that one!” But with links golf we often need to patiently watch the shot we’ve hit to see what mounds and bumps we roll over, and whether our creativity, skill, and occasionally luck, were able to execute the shot at hand. These golf shots are so much more rewarding.

As you watch the U.S. Open this week, observe the world’s best players, with puzzled looks on their faces, mulling over what type of shot to play. Then watch as their imagination takes over and they play unique shots that have you wondering: “Where in the world are they hitting that?” Experience the excitement as the shot slowly trundles back towards the hole, and as the camera pans back to the player notice the sense of pride and satisfaction that he has on his face; he’s pulled off a shot that he just created in his mind … to perfection. The feeling is similar to when you first started playing golf, struggling, and then you hit that one perfect shot that was so exhilarating you couldn’t wait to play again. Links golf provides similar emotions with every round.

Watching Chambers Bay this week just might give you a wee taste of Scotland and Ireland, and inspire you to cross the pond to experience the joy of links golf yourself.

You Can Pack Your Rain Gear, But You’ll NEED Your Sunscreen.

So you’d really like to experience links golf; the firm fairways, the quirky bounces, the true and rolling greens, the pot bunkers, the heather and gorse, and playing along the sea. But there’s one thing holding you back: the weather. Not so much the wind, but the ever present rain. You’ve watched The Open on TV and some of the most memorable rounds, as you remember, have been played in rain that drenches both players and the course, and is often blowing sideways.

Well, surprise. It doesn’t rain in Scotland and Ireland near as much as we think. In fact, check the numbers of annual rainfall below:

sunny st andrews

Golfers walk the 18th hole at St. Andrews and a sunny, cloudless day.

Miami – 62 inches
Bandon Dunes – 59 inches
New York City – 42 inches
Seattle – 38 inches
Dublin – 29 inches
St. Andrews – 26 inches

While Seattle is certainly known for its rainy climate, who would think that St. Andrews, Scotland the home of Golf, and site of unarguably the best links in the world, has annual rain amounts lower than 30 inches?  Half that of Miami and forty percent less than New York City!

Duel-in-the-Sun-1977-Open

Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus battle at Turnberry in 1977 deemed “The Duel in the Sun.”

Remember that spectacular duel between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977? It’s been nicknamed the “Duel in The Sun” for good reason. Tiger’s record-setting performance on The Old Course in 2000? Three rounds of it in glorious sunshine.  Back to Turnberry for 2009 for the exciting playoff between winner Stewart Cink and the 59 year old Watson, it was cloudy and windy, with just a few holes of rain.

St. Andrews alone, besides The Old Course, has six additional outstanding links in town, including the New Course (actually not new – it was opened in 1895), The Jubilee, The Castle Course, and the highly acclaimed Kingsbarns, all of these on everyone’s list of top courses in the world. Carnoustie, site of the 2018 Open, is 45 minutes away. The delightful Crail, a classic throwback, is within a half hour’s drive, and North Berwick and Gullane (site of the 2015 Scottish Open), are less than two hours. You could spend a week in St. Andrews and play eight world renowned links courses, and never have to drive more than two hours to play.

So bring your rain gear because yes, it does rain, but don’t forget the sunscreen.