Observations from a Golf Trip to Scotland

Last week, I made my 4th visit to Scotland for another great golf adventure with three of my favorite golf partners.  Since I am lucky to be a member at Royal Dornoch Golf Club, we focused our trip on the Scottish Highlands with 3 days at Dornoch, 1 at Golspie and 1 each at Mar Hall, Royal Troon and Machrihanish.

Links golf is different in from the parkland style courses we mostly play in the US with firm (usually brown) turf and focus on the “ground game”, playing “bump and run” shots and using the natural contours to move the ball where you want.  This is cool, but I’m always fascinated by the culture of golf in Scotland.  One very upscale club in Scotland we learned about costs no more than the equivalent of $2,500 per year to belong, even for regular, local members.  It’s typical for clubs to be most welcoming to outside, public play and not at all unusual to see dogs walking the course with their masters and trolleys of both the push and battery powered varieties all over the golf course.  Clubhouses are rarely ornate and only at a very few will gentlemen wear jackets.  In Scotland, golf is an “every man’s” game and the pretense often experienced at the best American clubs is nowhere to be found.  A round of 18 holes rarely takes as much as 4 hours.

In the US, the top clubs in many markets have annual dues exceeding $10,000, sometimes with large entrance fees and eschew public play.  Many have very restrictive dress codes, both inside the clubhouse and on the course and only recently are some of the more prestigious clubs beginning to allow trolleys (push carts) on the course. I am unaware of ANY top American clubs that allow dogs to accompany golfers.

Golf in the US has long been associated with status and wealth and considered by many as an elitist activity.  At many American clubs it seems as though members and guests are walking around on egg shells and looking over their shoulders.  In Scotland there is no such pretense and the list of rules at many clubs is short and sensible.  Golf in Scotland is of much broader appeal.

A visitor to a Scottish golf club is treated like a member, if only for the day.  The members seem genuinely interested in you and are happy you’re there.  While most Scottish clubs have a visitor information page on their websites, there are no forms to fill out and one never gets the feeling that the guy at the next table is looking down his nose thinking “who’s that?”.

Links golf is also different from the typical style of parkland golf we play in the US in that it is much more conducive to match play than medal play.  Shooting a score is both more difficult and less important than what we’re used to.  It’s not at all uncommon to play a round with 15 solid holes and a couple of dreaded “others”.  The scorecard doesn’t look so good but it feels like you’ve played well.  If you’ve prevailed on your opponent, that’s what matters.  Most play in Scotland is of the match play variety.

Weather, both current and past plays a big role in links golf.  This year, Scotland has experienced a warm and generally dry summer.  Fairways are firm and sometimes “spotty” and greens firm, but not as fast as we’re used to.  The all fescue surfaces are great to play from but don’t often provide the emerald green color demanded at most American courses.  Maintenance cost is greatly reduced when compared to many American courses.  I’m always intrigued by the need for perfect, emerald green courses in the US, when the leaders of those same clubs often spend thousands of dollars to travel to Scotland and play the firm, brown layouts where unpredictable bounces and severe hazards are often in play.  We were lucky with weather experiencing appreciable rain only once (at Royal Troon), and it was pretty nasty for a good bit of the round.  Our hosts seemed unaffected by the elements in strong winds and horizontal rain, conditions that would’ve likely brought a stoppage of play in an American club championship round.  Even so, we played this and all other rounds in less than 4 hours.

Links golf does take some getting used to.  My first time I was frustrated.  When I took my sons across the pond for their first links experience they too struggled a bit.  This time, my long time (50+ years) golfing partner took several days to embrace the conditions, the bad bounces, slower greens and style of play.  But it seems as though they all come around to embrace and appreciate links golf.  It’s not as pristine or as precise as Americans are accustomed to, but in most instances, golf in Scotland is at the same time a part of the national culture and more of what it should be in America – a game.