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Thursday, August 21, 2014         

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Linking golf's past and present

A golfer returns to where the game began -- the storied courses of Ireland and Scotland -- after 45 years

By Lee Catterall

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Editor's note: Nearly 45 years after he first played St. Andrews, Star-Advertiser editorial writer Lee Catterall made a return trip this year to play the venerable course and several others in Scotland and Ireland.

When the pros competing in the British Open Championship depart the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, later today, the course will return to be open and accessible to the not-so-great golfers among the general public. Numerous links courses that are more than a century old remain favorite destinations for those lured to the cradle of golf, beginning with St. Andrews but extending along the shores of Scotland and Ireland.

Many venues on the PGA Tour ranging from Honolulu's Waialae Country Club to Georgia's Augusta National Golf Club are limited to members only, but all host courses for the British Open are open to the public for reasonable prices, as are Ireland's Ballybunion Golf Club and nearly all golf courses in the British Islands. From Honolulu it's a one-stop flight directly to Scotland or Ireland.

***

Approaching the first tee at the Old Course of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews on a Saturday afternoon in August 1965, Bill Churchill murmured to me, "I'm a bit jittery."

The robust young man from Worcestershire, in England's midlands, had every reason to be nervous. While I had not played a round since the previous summer at home in Wyoming, Churchill, a friend in Bradford, Yorkshire, where I had a summer job away from college, had never picked up a golf club in his life. In the half-hour prior to our tee time, I gave Churchill his first golf lesson as inconspicuously as possible behind the pro shop.

At the tee I hit a decent drive down the fairway. Churchill bumped his to the right. We grabbed our bags and hurried to our balls before someone could question our presence on the famous course. By the time I reached my ball, the leather soles of my street shoes had collected every loose blade of grass in that distance. Our scores using rented clubs as we slipped around on unfamiliar terrain would justify our uneasiness.

Nearly 45 years later, Honolulu businessman Brian Moore and I set out to play as many rounds as possible in a two-week period in Scotland and Ireland. Armed with the latest in golfing technology -- graphite-shafted clubs, freshly cleated golf shoes and GPS intelligence from ball to green -- we were prepared to put our modest handicap indices of 10 to the ultimate test at golf's cradle.

GOLFING IN IRELAND AND SCOTLAND

HOW TO GET THERE: Continental Airlines flies nonstop both ways between Honolulu and Newark, N.J., and nonstop between Newark and Edinburgh, Dublin and Shannon, Ireland.

WHERE TO STAY: Bed-and-breakfasts are numerous in the St. Andrews area and throughout Ireland. Rentals, called self-catering accommodations, also abound, as a "cottage" or "flat," a house or apartment with any number of bedrooms and a kitchen with utensils, as alternatives to more expensive hotels. They can be found through an online search.

WHAT TO WEAR FOR GOLF: Scotland is generally cool, damp and cloudy. In summer, the average temperature in Fife is 66 degrees. From the belt up, put layer upon layer, beginning with a T-shirt, followed by a cotton turtleneck pullover, a short-sleeved golf shirt, sweater vest and rain jacket constructed of a waterproof but breathable fabric, preferably part of a rain golf suit. Thermal underwear may be desirable in some months.

HOW TO GET AROUND: Car rentals are available at airports. Note that cars are driven on the left side of the road in the United Kingdom and Ireland and the driver sits on the right side of the car, so automatic transmissions are wise for Americans and should be reserved well in advance.

GOLF ACCESSORIES: If using rented pullcarts -- "trolleys -- to carry clubs, bring one or two 4-foot bungee cords to tie your golf bag to the trolley, which is not equipped with straps. Bring plenty of balls, which are expensive in Scotland and Ireland.

Tee times -- Scotland: Except for the Old Courses at St. Andrews and nearby Carnoustie, reservations can be made at most courses in or near Fife by phone a day or two in advance. More likely than a foursome, a twosome -- called two-ball in Scotland -- can be confident in getting a tee time at St. Andrews through the daily ballot for the following day at least once over a three-day period. A single also has a good chance at getting a tee time as a walk-on the same day by showing up early in the morning.

TEE TIMES -- IRELAND: Tee times, with green fee payments in advance, are available online in the southwestern counties of Ireland through SWING -- South West Ireland Golf Ltd. -- at www.swinggolfireland.com for 14 top courses in counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Clare. A 28-page brochure with extensive information and photographs is available at that website by downloading or by postal mail.

COST: The summer green fees for the Old Course at St. Andews are #130 (about $200). Fees for the adjacent courses range from #25 to #65 ($38-100). Summer rates at Ballybunion's Old Course are 180 euros ($234).

 

Arriving on a Saturday morning, Moore and I wasted no time putting our games to the test. Moore, a transplanted Australian accustomed to driving on the left side of the road, took charge of steering our rental car from the airport up the North Sea shoreline of the area still called the Kingdom of Fife, home not only to St. Andrews, founded in 1754, but numerous golf courses dating back to the 1800s. Moore had played some of them, including St. Andrews, in the recent past.

The scenic drive, which passes perennial stone homes and green hills punctuated with bright yellow gorse, took us to within three miles of St. Andrews. There we stopped and unloaded our golf clubs to challenge the Torrance Course, on former farmland essentially turned into a parkland course next to St. Andrews Bay.

Afterward, we picked up the key for our rented apartment on North Street in central St. Andrews, a five-minute walk from the Royal and Ancient clubhouse. The next morning, we were off and away from Fife north to Carnoustie, the site of the 1999 British Open known most for the extraordinary collapse of Jean Van de Velde, who lost a three-stroke lead with a triple bogey on the par-4 18th hole after hitting his ball from the rough into a stream, then lost the ensuing playoff. (It is possible, I learned, to make a high score on that hole without getting the ball wet.)

Carnoustie, created in 1850, was our only reserved tee time in Scotland, booked online three months earlier. We left the itinerary open so we could take our chance to fill vacant spots for at least one round at the Old Course. All advance reservations had been made many months earlier or through hotel arrangements with St. Andrews Links Trust, which manages the St. Andrews courses. Our strategy was not as risky as one might think.

"There's a misconception that it's impossible to get to play the Old Course, and the reason for that is that we only sell a relatively small number of tee times for advance bookings," explained Mike Woodcock, communications manager of the trust. "Fifty percent of the tee times go into what we call the daily ballot, and that's how most people play the Old Course. ... If you're here for three days and you enter the ballot each day and you don't get drawn, then you're really unlucky."

The only requirement is that men show documented handicaps of no more than 24 and women have one no worse than 36 to play the Old Course. (If that had been required 45 years ago, Churchill and I would not have been allowed to play.)

While waiting for the Old Course doors to open for us, Moore and I played mostly other long-established courses that share the publicly owned St. Andrews Links with the Old Course, which closes to golf on Sundays so it can rest or nongolfers can use it to stroll or picnic. Today is an exception, of course, as final play of the British Open wraps up.

Moore and I obtained a tee time at the Old Course through the ballot system on our second attempt and won another starting time two days later. We were paired at our first Old Course round with area residents and found, not surprisingly, that local knowledge is much more valuable than any GPS; mine was useless because of the many St. Andrews courses weaving beside each other. Of course, I sometimes lacked the skill to hit my ball where the locals had advised.

At the famous Road Hole, the 17th, I remembered 45 years ago directing my drive to the left of the intruding extension of old railway sheds connected to the Old Course Hotel. Our new local friends, who had been driving the ball about the same distance as Moore and I, shot over the sheds. We successfully did the same, in both our rounds, reaching in two shots the green 436 yards away.

"That's the longest putt I've ever seen," one of the Scotsmen laughed as my thinly hit three-metal second shot scooted nearly 200 yards before settling on the green.

The white championship tees on the Road Hole were 19 yards farther back from our yellow commoner tees, and the white tees were backed up an additional 35 yards back for this week's British Open.

Away from St. Andrews, the most fascinating course that we played was the Crail Golfing Society's Balcomie Links about 10 miles east of St. Andrews. The society was formed in 1786, and the course was built to the design of golf history icon Old Tom Morris in the 1890s along the North Sea coast, with the peculiar mix of three par 5s, six par 3s and nine par 4s. Don't be fooled by the par 69; it is as challenging as any course we played in Scotland, as well as being spectacularly scenic.

We planned on playing the Elie course and Lundin Links further down the coast from Crail on our final day in Fife, but the rain poured in the morning. We hesitated for a few minutes outside Elie's inland clubhouse, watching a local put on his rain gear and, followed by his son, rolling his eyes, march to the first tee.

The skies soon cleared, allowing us to play Lundin Links, originally a nine-hole links course when created in 1910 but made half parkland with expansion to 18 holes in the 1970s. It was not a disappointment.

We ran out of time in Fife to play several courses with high marks, such as Elie, the 10-year-old (and expensive) Kingsbarns Golf Links three miles east of St. Andrews and the 90-year-old Leven Links Golf Club, and, west of St. Andrews, the 15-year-old Duke's Course and Scotscraig Golf Club, established in 1817. We chose not to play the expensive Castle Course a mile outside of St. Andrews, which has received mixed reviews since opening two years ago.

Moore and I were not exhausted by the 36-hole days in half of our golf outings, carrying our clubs in rented pull carts -- "trolleys" in Scottish parlance. My regimen in the month preceding our trip had consisted of walking and jogging for an hour at least five days a week. Most Hawaii courses require that golfers ride in motorized carts, called "buggies" in Scotland and Ireland, where golf remains a walking sport.

However, as Fife play progressed, I was increasingly tormented by shin splints caused by walking down the hard fairways. In our final days in the British Isles, I rented a buggy for the second 18 on days that we played two rounds.

Ten days after arriving in Scotland, Moore and I flew from Edinburgh to Cork on Ireland's south coast and, upon arrival, played Kilarney Golf & Fishing Club's Killeen parkland course, host to the Irish Open later this month. The beautifully lush course, similar to many American courses, was a pleasant diversion from links courses on our way by rental car to Tralee in County Kerry, where we had reserved bed-and-breakfast accommodations in the heart of Irish golfdom.

Unlike our open strategy in Scotland, we had made reservations online for tee times on all but one of our six days planned for Ireland. First and foremost was the Old Course and the Cashen Course at Ballybunion, about a 45-minute drive north from Tralee. Built on the hillocks along the mouth of the Shannon River in 1893, closed for financial reasons, then reopened in 1906 and expanded from nine to 18 holes in 1926, the Old Course is recognized in all quarters as Ireland's top course. The Cashen Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones as an equally challenging test of golf on neighboring hills in strong winds, was added adjacent to the Old Course in 1981.

Next on our calendar was Waterville Golf Links at Ballinskelligs Bay on the Ring of Kerry. Its beauty on the ground nearly equals that of aerial photos that are online and lured us to the course. It was established in the 1880s and recently updated by international golf architect Tom Fazio, designer of the initial Turtle Bay course on Oahu. Numerous Americans ready themselves for the British Open by playing Waterville.

Large dunes awaited us at the Tralee Golf Club at Barrow Point. It was built as a nine-hole course in the 1890s, but Arnold Palmer produced a new design for an 18-hole course, which came into play in 1984 next to the remains of a 14th-century castle. The second nine is especially staggering with steep hills and ravines. Commented Palmer, "I may have designed the first nine, but surely God designed the back nine."

Our final round of golf in Ireland was at a parkland course, Dromoland at Newmarket-on-Fergus, because of its proximity to Shannon Airport in County Clare, where we were to leave for our return to Hawaii the next morning. Dromoland is an excellent course and could be mistaken for American were it not for the centuries-old castle-turned-five-star-hotel that it surrounds.

Unfortunately, we lacked time and the wherewithal to experience Tom Morris' Lahinch Old Course, dating back to 1892, and its Castle Course attachment, above the County Clare cliffs of the Atlantic, or other links courses along the shores of Counties Cork, Kerry and Clare.

My shins were pleased that our ambitious golf outing had come to an end, but my next return to the links of Scotland and Ireland will not be delayed so long ... and it will be at a more leisurely pace.






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