Lessons Learned from One Bad Golfer’s Great Journey through Scotland
Our friend Scott joined us for the two-week golf tour through Scotland, all the way to the historic Swilcan Bridge on the 18th at St. Andrews.
For the 32 other countries on our One-Year Retirement, the goal has been to explore the culture, the food and the people. But in Scotland we focused on two priorities — golf and whisky. Here’s what I know about the former, in case you’re interested in taking a similar golfing trip. (To learn what I know about the latter, buy me a glass of Macallan 12 and settle in.)
Golf Clubs — to Ship or to Rent?
You may be considering shipping your treasured golf clubs to Scotland or checking them with your luggage. My advice is that if you’re not a pro golfer (and let’s be honest, if you’re reading my blog, you’re not a pro golfer) then regardless of whatever set of adequate-quality clubs you play with, it’s not going to be the determinant in a good round. With so many foreign travelers coming to Scotland for the sole purpose of golfing, there are plenty of available options for high-quality club rentals. Renting clubs also allows you to avoid damaging your clubs in transit. Plus you don’t have to deal with lugging them to and from the airport.
You could rent the clubs at the course you’re playing, but I found a much better option — long-term in-country rental. I used Edinburgh-based golfgearhire.com and they made renting clubs a breeze. It was much cheaper than renting from the course, and they even delivered the clubs to my door. A great set of TaylorMade clubs with bag, umbrella and towel for two weeks will cost you only about 9 pounds per day, with free delivery and pickup in Edinburgh. You can also rent trolleys, range finders and shoes, so all you need to pack is your ball marker and enough golf balls to get you out of that pesky Scottish fescue.
Booking Scottish Tee Times
Booking a tee time was a challenge, as some Scottish courses are more focused on their manicured greens than their online booking experience. Expect for at least half of your tee times to require booking over the phone. For the online bookings, some require an extra step of establishing a username and password, but unlike American courses, usually no credit card information is required beforehand.
For the championship courses, pre-payment is required, with very restrictive refund policies. And online check-ins require you to have an established handicap. We played at Royal Troon, the fabled course two hours southwest of Glasgow that hosted the 2016 British Open. The online booking listed that men would need a handicap of 20 or better and women would need 30 or better. They didn’t ask for our handicap certificates, but that might have been because we opted to play the non-championship Portland course; it had no other players, it was a wide open course, and it was our first round in Scotland so it allowed us to break in our rental clubs. (Translation: We were scared as hell we’d embarrass ourselves on the fabled Old Course. I was convinced that if we played there, I’d hit my first shot straight into an old Scottish man’s kilted bollocks, complete with comical bagpipe noise.)
For the other city and mid-range courses, we booked some a few weeks ahead; for others, we walked on that day. With some planning we had no problems getting June tee times at these non-championship courses.
St. Andrews is a whole different animal entirely, with bookings more than a year in advance in some cases. The good news is, you can play St. Andrews with some proper planning. Here are your options:
If you’re planning your trip more than a year in advance, you can usually get a tee time. Advance reservations for the following year are taken from the first Wednesday in September. Or you can purchase a guaranteed time from a handling agent through the St. Andrews website. For most golfers, the latter is the best option.
St. Andrews draws names from a lottery each day for a round two days later (there is no Friday drawing as the course is closed on Sundays). You can put your name on the ballot either in person or online.
If you’re a single golfer, you can get in a line at the pro shop before the doors open at 6 a.m. and be placed within a foursome based on your place in line. As an example, the day we arrived, about 50 individual players had opted for the single-player waiting list (the first person in line arrived at midnight the night before) and most of them were already on the course by mid-afternoon.
I had tried to book the fabled Old Course several months ahead of our trip with no luck - it was booked through the next year. But we knew we could walk onto the course and enter a lottery for a tee time, so we tentatively planned to play the course as it would be at the end of our trip.
Scottish Courses — Something for Everyone, Unless You’re Thirsty
I was giddy with anticipation when saw at least four golf courses just from my airplane window as my plane descended toward Glasgow. This was a hint to my first lesson about golf in Scotland — it isn’t just about St. Andrews. While the Scots proudly revere the Old Course, they love the game because they play the game locally — at hundreds of courses nestled outside towns and villages throughout the country. These courses are as varied as the Scottish landscape into which they are hewn. It is surprising that in a country smaller than the state of South Carolina, you can find courses that are both challenging and approachable, expensive and economical, stodgy and carefree, squeezed into woody hillsides and unfurled onto wide-open flatlands — there is a place to play here for everyone who loves this game.
Just make sure you quench your thirst before you arrive at the first tee. While the clubhouse bars in Scotland were well-stocked and well-used, I didn’t see a beer cart on any of the six courses I played, and most Scottish courses didn’t have water stations. In America, most city courses and even top-tier courses will have a stocked drink and snack cart for players. In Scotland, both the nicer courses and the municipal and city courses didn’t have beverage carts, or even water jugs on the course. In addition, most Scottish courses are laid out in such a way that they don’t round the turn back at the clubhouse, so don’t expect to get a chance to stop after the ninth hole for a bite, a beer or a bathroom break. In Scotland, bring your own water, and if you’ll need a nip of whisky during your play, put that flask in your bag as well.
We rarely saw golf carts during our trip, and on the rare occasion we did see them they were being used by older players with mobility issues. If you’re accustomed to driving the course, you’ll want to prepare for your trip to Scotland by walking a few rounds. Walking the course seems to be a source of pride in Scotland. I walked all six rounds I played in Scotland over nine days. The vistas were gorgeous, the settings were serene, but by the end my feet were as worn out as a one-armed bagpiper at the Highland Games.
When you’re on the fairway in Scotland (I was never there, but they looked nice from the roughs where I was playing) you won’t find the usual distance-to-the-green markers you’d find in the States. Distance markers on the fairways varied widely on the courses we played — a few courses had proper 100-, 150- and 200-yard markers, and some just had one distance marker, while others had no markers at all. On some courses the markers measure to the center of the green, while at other courses they measure to the front of the green. Make sure you ask the starter before the round, as not knowing where they’re measuring from could cost you several strokes in missed approach shots.
As they say in Scotland: “There's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.” If you’re playing 18 holes in Scotland, I learned that you should be prepared for about 18 types of weather. I was astounded to play a round with cliche-levels of Scottish weather variations — cloudy on the first tee box, a misting on the second hole, sideways rain on the third, a sunny sprinkle on the fourth, a golf-ball-swatting gale wind on the fifth, and so on. Wear layers and pack your waterproof gear. Also, to help stay warm and fit in with the local Scots, I’d advise the gentlemen to do as I did, and grow a beard before arriving.
Playing with Scots
No matter where you play, the Scots take the game and its rules seriously here. We had the good fortune to play a foursome with two Scots from Aberdeen. Out-of-bounds and unplayable lie rules were correctly enforced, unlike my rounds in the States where we just play what we can play and take a drop and a stroke when it’s more expedient for pace-of-play. If you’re relatively new to the game, you’ll need to freshen up your understanding of the rules before you land. Or just ask the locals you’re playing with, as they’ve invariably known the rule book since they were a lad or lassie.
If you have the opportunity to play with Scots, definitely take it, as it improves the round immensely, and it will help you truly understand the connection that the people of Scotland have with their game. The Scottish golfers I played with were extremely friendly and quick-witted, and were able to provide great insights in how best to play the course. Make sure you have a few pounds in your pocket as well, in case you’re game for a wee wager.
The best advice I can give for a golf trip to Scotland is to be prepared, but don’t be intimidated. This may be the storied home of golf, but it’s also the home of the Scottish people, a friendly lot with plenty of patience, even for an uninitiated American.
Disclaimer: GolfGearHire provided a complimentary club rental in exchange for a review of my experiences with their services. But I’d recommend them regardless — they provided excellent service and top-quality equipment.
Let me know your golf tour questions and experiences — where is the best course you’ve ever golfed? What makes a golf travel great? What other tips would you give to travelers? Let me hear from you in the comments below.