The Swings of Scotland
Robert Charles McInroy and I have been playing a game together for half our lives. The setting may change, so may the conditions, but the result is always the same: he wins. This is bad news for me as our standard wager is GBP 1 million; I owe him roughly the GDP of Belize. We’ve been playing golf with custom golf balls so long that it’s not a competition anymore – given the vast gulf in our abilities I’m not sure it ever has been – but so far as I can tell, and despite those mounting debts, we both still enjoy it.
When we are on the golf course, we are simpatico, almost symbiotic: one gets the flag while the other lines up their putt; one repairs their pitch mark on the green while I look for my ball; flatulence during a backswing is verboten. Play golf with someone long enough and you get to know a lot about them – and since he started teaching me the game in the year 2000, Robbie and I have played a lot.
Yet, as the cliché goes, there’s a first time for everything and for us, that is the considerable matter of debuting at the fabled St Andrews Old Course. Getting a tee time here is a fraught, complicated business that requires either paying a huge amount of money to an agent, or queuing in the predawn light, or being a resident of the famous town on Scotland’s east coast. In almost all circumstances, visitors don’t play alone – the demand for the world’s most ancient course means that four players will often tee-off at the same time, behind four in front, with another four following shortly behind. The Old Course hosts over 45,000 rounds a year – well over 100 a day – with people travelling from all over the globe to have a go.
Lots of players mean lots of other people too – play the Old Course at any time of day and you’re guaranteed an audience. In front of a gallery or 50 or so people, Robbie and I are introduced to our playing partners for the round (Americans Jeff and Steve, amiable men with big handshakes and expensive golf gear) before being asked to start the round. We’re both worried that we haven’t had a chance to warm up properly, much less take in the moment, but after Jeff and Steve send their balls bouncing down the wide fairway, we’re moved on to the point of no return.
Robbie does what he almost always does, smashing the ball into the great beyond, so far it almost reaches the iconic burn 330 yards away. I’m next to go, so I take a deep breath, focus on the wee white ball, turn my shoulders, rotate my hips…
Scotland isn’t slow in marketing itself as the place where golf originated, and I’m proud of it – most Scots are – but given our relentlessly inclement and occasionally vengeful weather, it strikes me as an illogical place to create a sport which is necessarily outdoors. Ice hockey is big in Canada because they have lots of ice – that makes sense, but our miserable days outnumber the good, and golf requires a minimum of three hours to follow little balls around big fields.
Regardless, we’ve been playing this game, or something like it, for hundreds of years and even though there are Chinese and Dutch claims to have played something similar first, a bit like whisky making, with a similarly obfuscated origin, Scotland claims golf as its own.
The first records date back to the 15th century when King James II tried to ban it, fearing that essential skills like archery were being ignored in golf’s favour. His descendants, Jameses III and IV, tried to do the same, before the latter realised he couldn’t beat them and so, in 1502, would join them. As though to rub salt into his ancestors’ wounds, his first set of clubs was fashioned by a bow-maker. Partly because of that decision, today hundreds of courses are dotted around the country, with the west and east coasts hosting the very best links courses in the world.
Though no courses survive from quite that far back, traditionalists insist the country’s great courses are its oldest. But it’s a dynamic sport and sometimes its most famous venues are left behind. Consider Old Prestwick, just a few kilometres from where Robbie and I grew up. It opened in 1851 and was the home of the first ever Open Championship. Today it isn’t used for serious competitions as it simply isn’t long enough – a professional who has his body analysed by lasers and unleashes a graphite-shafted, titanium-compound driver with a 190kph swing hits the ball far too long for places like that.
You might think that at almost 600-years-old the St Andrews’ Old Course would have gone the same way, yet with limited space, the designers have to try and keep the old place fresh and testing, not least because The Open, arguably the most prestigious tournament in golf, is held here every five years.
The Old Course is the most famous 18 in St Andrews but it’s one of seven courses dotted around town. To play there was an honour – especially as my first drive finished just a few yards behind Robbie’s – but it always had a novelty feel. We had seen it so many times over the years on television that there was an air of virtual reality to it, as though perhaps we weren’t really there at all.
A 20-minute drive down the coast at Kingsbarns, the challenges are very different. Though there has been a golf course of one kind or another there for over 200 years, the modern Kingsbarns Golf Links was completed at the turn of the millennium. In the intervening years players have learned to hit the ball even farther, but there’s still plenty to test golfers of all abilities. Every hole feels unique too – clearly defined, equally filled with character and challenge. It’d be sacrilegious to suggest that it’s a better course than its ancient forebear up the coast, but it is perhaps more fun.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club is also headquartered in St Andrews, very close to the point at which the Old Course starts and ends. It’s there they literally write the rules for everyone playing golf outside of North America; those players instead follow the Professional Golf Association of America (PGA) which also has a headquarters in Scotland – around 100km inland from St Andrews at the historic Gleneagles Hotel.
At almost 100 years old, Gleneagles is one of the world’s first dedicated golf resorts. Today it’s the starting point for three golf courses of varying lengths and tests, as well as the grand old hotel itself, which among other things boasts Andrew Fairlie’s eponymous, two-Michelin-star restaurant.
The PGA Centenary Course was designed with modern golfers in mind (two years ago it hosted the Ryder Cup, the biennial grudge match between Europe and the USA) but the shorter Queen’s and King’s courses were built in a different era, to different specifications. When Robbie and I play the outstanding King’s, we’re following in the footsteps of James Braid, the five-time Open-winner and later course designer. It was he who laid these 18 holes out, just as he laid out the Belleisle course in our hometown of Ayr. Yet while that is a municipal course managed by the local council, the King’s can be as much as GBP 185 per round – six times Belleisle.
The most exclusive courses in Scotland are priced with foreigners in mind but unlike many countries in the world, golf in Scotland – and the UK generally – is for the most part accessible and affordable. Even though it’s been decades since we could say any of the world’s best players were Scottish, it means that people of all socio-economic backgrounds can at least give it a go.
Not that that sort of communal spirit is on the mind of the owner of two Scottish golf courses: tikka-tinged demagogue Donald J Trump.
In a presidential year, it feels almost impossible to write about Trump without mentioning politics, but even when focussing solely on his golf courses, controversy is unavoidable. This summer, he acquired the Open venue, Turnberry (now predictably rebranded Trump Turnberry) and its accompanying hotel. Many locals supported the purchase, believing the old place to be in need of refurbishment. That was over on the west coast, about 25 minutes’ drive from my home in Ayr.
Things were not so simple or smooth in Aberdeenshire, in Scotland’s north east, where the American bought land to develop a new course, Trump International Golf Links. He opened it in 2012, following seven years of planning and USD 150 million of investment which triggered local and national protests from almost the very start.
The thing is, four years later, and although the New Yorker is a more polarising figure than ever, if you ignore the man and play the course, it’s impossible not to be impressed. In a small nation where many courses measure their ages in centuries, it is absolutely necessary that things aren’t allowed to stagnate – that new developments keep it fresh, even if they’re owned by pantomime villains.
When Robbie and I visit the Trump course it is, almost miraculously, the only time it rains during a week of touring some of Scotland’s best courses, yet even the hailstones bouncing off our umbrellas don’t ruin our enjoyment of it. The place feels aged and natural when it is neither; some of its elevated tees are utterly astonishing in their scale and ambition.
“This is truly the greatest golf course anywhere in the world,” said the man who would be President, in typically bombastic style when he opened it. “Everybody knows it. Most people are saying it and most of the golf people are saying it, most importantly.”
Should that be taken with a pinch of salt? Well, when he opened Trump Turnberry this summer, he said the same thing about it, too.
A version of this piece was published in Etihad Airways’ Aspire magazine in August 2016.