There are times in life when you need to step back, take a breath and enjoy the moment. A recent golf trip to Scotland provided countless opportunities to do just that, but none more than the second I stepped on the first tee at The Old Course at St. Andrews.
First, a little background. About 18 months ago, I decided it was time to finally to check a massively important box on my bucket list and booked a golf trip to Scotland. For any golfer with an appreciation, passion and love for the game and its history, such a trip is a must.
The journey was arranged by Chris Foley, who owns and operates a golf school at Cragun’s Resort in Brainerd. I’ve known Foley for more than 20 years, and considering this was his 14th year in taking a group with him, there was no doubt that joining his group was the only way to go. He knows the ins-and-outs about how to get tee times on the best courses, arranges all the travel to and from courses, where to have dinner, and even provided tips on where to find special gifts to bring home for family and friends.
Leaving those details to me likely would’ve resulted in my being lucky if I got on one course, let alone six. I also probably would’ve booked a room two hours from St. Andrews instead of 500 yards from the first tee of The Old Course.
The extent of my trip planning was writing the check, showing up to the airport on time, and finding the correct flight. For a “Mr. No Attention To Detail” guy like me, this was perfect.
I tried not to anticipate the level of excitement I’d feel prior to the trip. Sure, I’d check out a website of one of the courses on our list, but as a whole, I did a fairly good job of that.
Once Labor Day hit and school started, those efforts slowly became futile. By the time the countdown reached 10 days, focusing on things other than seeing and setting foot on some of golf’s most hallowed grounds was almost impossible.
By the time departure arrived, I was a kid on Christmas morning.
Let the journey begin
My attempt to sleep on the seven-hour red-eye flight from New York to Edinburgh, Scotland, was as successful as focusing on anything else the days prior to leaving. Foley, our ever-smiling trip director, greeted me at the airport and led our group to two awaiting vans, equipped with friendly drivers ready to take us on the 75-minute trip to the town of St. Andrews.
I was in a group of 12 on the trip, and I knew exactly zero of them. I asked several friends to join on me on what I referred to then – and forever will – as the Trip of a Lifetime. None were able to pull it off, which was understandable. A trip like this isn’t exactly a spur of the moment thing.
Once I learned I would embark on this trip solo, the more excited I became. I would be meeting 11 new people, each of whom were on this journey for the same reasons. At the top of that list is a passion for golf, and I believe golf is a great way of bringing people together.
How right I was.
After quick introductions, we piled into vans, reminded each other (several times) of our names and what we do for a living. We checked into our quaint guest house in the heart of St. Andrews, and two hours later we were on the golf course.
Crail Golfing Society was our first stop. It’s a 36-hole facility and, established in 1786, is the seventh oldest golf club in the world. Located on Scotland’s eastern tip and a sand wedge away from the North Sea, the views were stunning.
The weather? Well, let’s just say it was a typical fall day in Scotland. Despite getting drenched on the back nine, the opening round was a blast. I slowly started to learn more about my new friends, only proving my point of how golf brings people together. Well-struck shots were peppered with praise from my playing partners, while a few snarky comments would be thrown at those not-so-well-struck.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s part of the fun.
The golf really starts
After a much-needed night of sleep, it was time to enter the “meat” of the trip. Round 2 was a walk at Carnoustie Golf Links — site of eight Open Championships — including the 2018 edition won by Francesco Molinari. It’s dubbed “Car-nasty” for a reason and is widely known as one of the most difficult courses on the major championship schedule.
Luckily, an all-night and morning soaking rain dissipated 10 minutes before our group headed to the first tee. At Carnoustie, I learned the pleasure of playing golf with a caddy (who helped me avoid those brutal pot bunkers) and that any course is playable and fun assuming you play from the tee box most suited to your game.
There are five courses at the historic St. Andrews site, including The Old Course that everyone who travels here longs to play. Day 3, Round 3 was a trip around the St. Andrews New Course. Considering it was established in 1895, it’s not that new. Yet, it’s still spectacular and ranks as the 64th best course in the United Kingdom.
The fourth day took us to The Jubilee Course at St. Andrews. It’s adjacent to The New Course and features many holes intertwined between sand dunes. Again, another spectacular layout with two especially memorable holes. We were dry, and the views almost distracted us from the 25-35 mph crosswind.
Post-round festivities — without which no round is complete — were at The Old Course Hotel. The hotel is owned by Herb Kohler, whose name is probably stamped on your toilet. He also owns the Whistling Straits courses on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, which is the site of the 2020 Ryder Cup. Anyone who has watched golf is familiar with this hotel, which players must hit over to reach the fairway of the 17th hole, also known as the Road Hole, on The Old Course.
The hotel offers spectacular views of the North Sea and a large chunk of The Old Course. The fourth floor bar allows golfers to watch players attempt to clear the hotel while relaxing with a beverage or two. It was there that something incredibly special happened.
To get a coveted tee time on The Old Course, non-residents usually need to go through a daily ballot system. One foursome in our group was chosen to play there Monday. None of our groups were chosen for Tuesday. While watching golfers play The Road Hole from the hotel, Foley informed us that another foursome in our group had been chosen for The Old Course on Thursday.
My name was the fourth of four names he read. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a little, but it’s not something you can outwardly celebrate as four of my new friends were not selected (luckily, they got on the next day after waking up before dawn to secure a “Dark Time,” known as a twilight round on this side of the pond).
I would be playing what is considered the oldest golf course in the world and is known as “The Home of Golf.” It’s been the site of 28 Open Championships and will host the 150th Open in 2021. Jack and Tiger each won twice there.
First things first. Foley used his magic to secure a tee time on Wednesday for four of us at Kingsbarns Golf Links. It’s a 19-year-old course that looks as though it’s been there 190 years and has stunning views of the North Sea on every hole. A week earlier, it was one of three courses used on the European Tour’s Dunhill Links event.
To call Kingbarns spectacular is not doing it justice. It’s one of those places that has to be seen to experience the full beauty. It is now my favorite course, yet the experience to come was something beyond surreal.
The Old Course
One of the cool things about staying in the heart of St. Andrews is walking from the guest house to the course with your clubs on your back. After arriving about 60 minutes early and hitting a few practice putts, it was 11 a.m. and time for us to walk to the first tee. I was about to play the most famous course in the world, where every hole is bathed in history.
We were greeted by the starter and our caddies – a must on The Old Course. The starter gave us some information about the course and soon said, “Play away, gentlemen.”
Another cool thing about the facility is that it’s also a public park. Streets and walking paths come right up to the first tee, and it’s common to have dozens of people stop to watch groups tee off. It was both intimidating and a bit frightening. Fears of topping or smother-hooking the tee shot were difficult to get rid of.
Thankfully, the first and 18th fairways run together, meaning its 190-yard width makes it tough to miss. A few deep breaths and a “slowwwwww” swing later, I was on my way to 18 holes of memories and nostalgic looks at the famous bunkers and double greens.
My caddy was splendid, personable and knowledgeable. He could warn me of what danger lied ahead on each hole with his eyes closed. After two holes, he knew how far I hit every club. I was the shortest hitter in my group (for the record, they were all 10-15 years younger), and my caddy, Alex, told me the course is playable if you can avoid the bunkers.
The best route for me, he said, was to play short of the penal bunkers. The minute I’d pull a driver or 3-wood from the bag on the tee, he’d replace it with a 5-iron. “You don’t want to be in that bunker, partner,” he said at least six times. Thankfully, I was a good listener and managed to find only one bunker that required a sideways shot to escape.
Expectedly, time flew. We were suddenly on the 17th tee facing the tee shot over the hotel. All four of us succeeded. Mine, however, found the deep rough left and led to a double bogey on a hole famous for big numbers.
The only danger on the tee shot on 18 is the road and historic buildings to the right. Like on No. 1, a fairway 190 yards wide leaves plenty of room for error. I predictably was about 75 yards left of my target but still in good shape to reach the green. Yet, my next shot was the farthest thing from my mind.
No one, and I mean no one, plays the 18th at The Old Course without posing for a picture on the Swilcan Bridge. Jack (no last name necessary) waved goodbye to his adoring fans on this spot in his last Open in 2005.
It takes about six steps to cross the Swilcan Bridge. And what a precious six steps it is. Stopping for a picture with my new friends while thinking about the history of this spot was both emotional and humbling.
My approach to the 18th found the “Valley of Sin” just short of the green. A two-putt par from there followed, and it’s by far the most memorable par I’ve ever made.
It was the perfect way to cap The Trip of a Lifetime.