From Turnberry to Royal Troon, Scotland's famed golf courses are charming challenges, writes Jamie Lafferty.
Standing in a deep green-side bunker on Fin Me Oot (Find Me Out), the fifth hole of Turnberry's championship Ailsa course, I take another swipe and the ball ricochets so hard off the face of the trap it jumps out to my left, rolls down a small slope and into another bunker. One more hack and two putts later, the ball drops in the hole and I write an ugly 9 - a quintuple bogey - on my scorecard.
I've no excuse for not being a better golfer. I grew up less than 20 kilometres from this course, in the seaside town of Ayr, itself close to several of the world's oldest, most revered courses: Turnberry, host of some of the most dramatic Open championships in the tournament's 152-year history; and Old Prestwick, the site of the first Open, is just seven kilometres from my house. Colin Montgomerie, perhaps Scotland's greatest golfer of the past century, grew up in Troon, just 15 kilometres from Ayr. It's not as though I'm short of inspiration.
I can't use the sport's exclusivity as an excuse, either. People of all ages and backgrounds in Scotland are encouraged to play. Most of the country's 550 courses are public, and some council-run courses cost from as little as £10 ($15) a round.
Given the relentlessly inclement weather, Scotland strikes me as an illogical home for the sport. Ice hockey is big in Canada because they have lots of ice, for example, but our dreich (miserable) days outnumber the good and it takes a minimum of three hours to chase a wee white ball around. Still, we've been teeing off for hundreds of years and Scotland likes to claim ownership of the sport.
The first official record of golf in Scotland dates to the 15th century when King James II tried to ban it, fearing its impact on essential skills such as archery. His descendants, James III and James IV, tried to do the same, before the latter realised he couldn't beat the golfers, and in 1502, would join them. His first set of clubs were fashioned by a bow-maker.
Traditionalists insist the country's greatest courses are its oldest, although no courses survive from the game's beginnings. But it's a dynamic sport: Old Prestwick, which opened in 1851, isn't used for serious competition any more because, at 5983 metres, it's not long enough for today's professionals, who use graphite-shafted, titanium-compounded drivers.
The longer Carrick Course at Cameron House (6475 metres) was designed to challenge modern golfers and make the most of the staggering scenery around Loch Lomond. Completed in 2007, some say Carrick hasn't matured properly, that it's prone to water-logging and that, at £100 a round, is overpriced. People say a lot of things.
Carrick's preposterous par-three 14th Tappit Doon (Tap It Down — many holes have indulgent Scots names), has a 20-metre drop to the green and faces the spectacular panorama of the Trossachs mountains and banks of Loch Lomond.
Many visitors come for the links golf on coastal courses such as Turnberry and Royal Troon, built on hard, undulating land shaped by sand dunes. But in many ways, the Carrick is a better representation of Scotland's beautifully rugged character.
The same is true of Gleneagles, in the heart of Perthshire, where three courses start from the grand Gleneagles Hotel, including the Jack Nicklaus-designed Centenary course, which will host the 2014 edition of the biennial Europe-versus-US grudge match, the Ryder Cup.
But work is being done on Centenary when I visit, so Billy Murray, a six-handicapper and Gleneagles' marketing manager takes me on the James Braid-designed Kings Course.
It's a windy day and after five holes it starts to rain, then hail. As icy pebbles bounce off my face, I foolishly try to take a shot. The club slips slightly and the ball scurries away, landing in more rough just 50 metres away. From here my entire round disintegrates.
"This is the eighth - the wind is what makes the hole here," Murray says a while later, pointing to a line of trees that look as though they've been shocked by God's stereo. "It changes all the time, so the hole never plays the same." Overhead, sunlight haemorrhages through leaden cloud, while birds are buffeted by the raucous wind. Briefly the sky looks like a Renaissance painting, then clouds over again as the rain returns. I feel like Ahab on the deck of the Pequod - mad, railing against the elements, shaking my fist at the blasted heavens.
By the time the round is finished, I'm exhausted. The day before at Loch Lomond, I had felt strong and confident, but at no stage at Gleneagles do I feel in control: I'm not even sure I manage a par.
We retire to the old hotel, trudging past Andrew Fairlie's eponymous fine-dining restaurant. This is Scotland's only two-Michelin-star restaurant (there are none with three). Of the few stars bestowed on Scottish eateries, many have a proximity to golf courses. Perhaps that's not surprising given the number of visitors who come to play on historic courses.
Take the one-star Peat Inn, for example; its tables are packed with those who flock to nearby St Andrews, home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (which sets the rules of international golf for everyone outside the US and Mexico) and Scotland's oldest university. Between the golfers, parents and tutors, head chef Geoffrey Smeddle is a busy man.
It's a curious place, St Andrews - simultaneously the most and least Scottish town in the country. Half of it is painted tartan and there is a disproportionate number of kilt-wearers and whisky-swillers. Yet if you listen to their conversations, few people are local.
Just as common are students drawn from around the world, in greater numbers than ever, perhaps, since Prince William met Kate Middleton while studying here. Yet they're outnumbered by golfers who make a pilgrimage to the fabled Old Course, the most famous of the seven courses found in and around the town.
Accurate weather forecasting matters in Scotland, and there are few better spots to seek refuge from poor weather than at the Old Course Hotel. Built on the edge of the 17th hole, it provides spectacular vantage points.
Holes-in-one are more common than tee-times for the Old Course, however, so I head to the 2008-built Castle Course, the newest in St Andrews. Building the Castle required transforming flat, clifftop farmland into a dramatic links course. The result is unforgiving, rugged and unpredictable.
When things go wrong here, they go very wrong: balls off cliffs, lost in gorse, lost on slopes. The greens are often small but undulate more than any I've played - get it wrong and a single short putt can turn into several more. But the Castle is a staggeringly ambitious course, and as my game finally clicks into place I throw my best at it, notching several pars and a rare birdie.
Braes, the course's signature hole, is a 160-metre par three that runs along the clifftop with the howling North Sea to the right. Everything between the tee and green has fallen away to form a craggy bay. The shot here, then, must carry about 150 metres or fall to the abyss; anything to the right will be in the sea; anything to the left will most likely land in a gorse bush. Miraculously, my ball lands about four metres from the hole, and I offer a small, faux-casual wave in response to a ripple of applause behind me. I two-putt to make par and swagger off to the next tee.
On the final hole, still high on adrenalin, I promptly smash a drive into a big bunker that I know will take a good deal of digging to escape. I'm not a tourist, but the course martial's quip at the beginning of my round rings truer than ever: "The real problem is that people come here thinking they're better golfers than they actually are."
Jamie Lafferty travelled courtesy of Visit Scotland.
Emirates has a fare to Glasgow from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2263 low-season return including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Glasgow (8hr); see emirates.com.
The Gleneagles Hotel has a grand exterior, art deco interior and has been welcoming guests since 1924. Rooms cost from £225 ($350) a night. See gleneagles.com.
In St Andrews, if you can't get into the Old Course Hotel, more affordable lodgings are available at the Scores Hotel, a lob-wedge from the 18th green of the Old Course. Rooms from $125 a night. See www.bw-scoreshotel.co.uk.
For outstanding cuisine, the Peat Inn, just outside St Andrews (and about an hour's drive from Edinburgh) should be on your itinerary. See thepeatinn.co.uk.
10 OF THE BEST
Turnberry The Ailsa is the pick of its three courses, all of which have spectacular views of the Firth of Clyde and the volcanic island of Ailsa Craig. See turnberry.co.uk.
Royal Troon Founded in 1878, this course has been on regular rotation on the Open circuit for decades. Rumour has it that the great championship will return here in 2016, which has been enough to prompt a sell-out of rooms at its on-site hotel. See www.royaltroon.co.uk.
Western Gailes A splendid example of links golf in its own right. A real challenge when the wind is blowing. See westerngailes.com.
Loch Lomond One of the few that is playable by invitation only. Not so at the nearby Carrick course, which is full of wildlife, creative holes and lovely scenery. See devere-hotels.co.uk/cameron-house.
St Andrews Seven courses in and around town and more in the surrounding area. While getting on the Old Course is difficult, the others are more accessible. Try the Castle or the Duke's. See standrews.org.uk.
Muirfield Home of the world's oldest club, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield is on the Open rotation and will host the event next year. Past winners include Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. See www.muirfield.org.uk.
Carnoustie Notoriously inhospitable weather here just adds to the challenge. See carnoustiegolflinks.co.uk.
Gleneagles At the foot of the Highlands, Gleneagles has three courses, each presenting diverse challenges. It hosts the Ryder Cup in 2014. See gleneagles.com.
Elie and Fife For lower green fees and fewer crowds, explore the region around Fife. There are dozens of links courses along its coast, the pick of which is Elie, which is deceptively challenging but short. See golfhouseclub.co.uk.
Dornoch and the Highlands Donald Trump's controversial Highlands golf course opens this year, but until then, the Tom Morris-designed Royal Dornoch is the place to be. See royaldornoch.com.