Golfing the greats // The Crime Traveller

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Ed spends an epic four days playing the storied links of Scotland

By Edward Prutschi

On Wednesday June 26th, 2013

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Thirty pence seems like a reasonable price to pay to vomit in peace.

I’m standing in a cramped stall of a public toilet in Scotland. Having paid my pittance, the female attendant slides a paper ticket to me across the counter without looking up from her magazine and I now find myself dry-heaving over the porcelain bowl of a washroom a mere hundred yards from the oldest tee box in all of golf.

***

When I began planning an epic bucket-list golf adventure to Scotland, I knew that a round on the storied Old Course links at St. Andrews would be the crowning achievement of the trip. I had enlisted the aid of the experts at scotlandgolftours.com to help me construct the ultimate four-day experience. Nothing had been left to chance, with every course carefully selected for its pride of place in the regular British Open rotation. Accommodations were first-rate with stunning views of the Firth of Clyde from my room at the Turnberry Resort in Ayrshire and the magic of staring at the 18th fairway from my room at the Rusacks Hotel in St. Andrews.

Meals and activities — including whirlwind visits to Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, and the Wallace Monument — were all meticulously arranged around a laser-precise schedule to maximize our time on the undulating fairways of Scotland’s national pastime. Ample lubrication was provided courtesy of regular drams of whisky commencing before 10 a.m. with what our guide at the Auchentoshan distillery pleasantly referred to as “a breakfast malt.”

Not wanting any of my party to have need of my local colleagues in the criminal bar, arrangements were also made to hire a van and driver for the duration of our visit. As it turned out, Roy proved to be more of a celebrity tour guide who just happened to also possess a driver’s license. There isn’t a bar, restaurant or clubhouse in Scotland where Roy’s presence didn’t immediately pay dividends as we were ushered to the best table in the house. At one stop, staff literally prostrated themselves and bowed upon his entering the pro shop. There’s travelling. Then there’s travelling with Roy.

Despite the reputation of our infamous driver, once we stepped onto the tee it was strictly golfer versus golf course. Take a 20 handicapper and fly him across the ocean to experience four of golf’s greatest shrines, and it’s natural to expect a few pre-round jitters. Standing at the first tee of our first course — Turnberry’s Ailsa — I tried to break the ice with some humour, checking all the pockets of my bag to ensure that I had “packed my mulligans.” The starter levelled me with a stare almost as icy as the brisk wind blowing in off the Firth of Clyde and said, without a trace of smile, “Mulligans are for Irishmen. Here we call it three off the tee.” All right then.

After a shaky drive that still managed to find the fairway, I put my approach on #2 into the dreaded “gorse” over the back of the green. North American golfers may be unfamiliar with this waist-high Scottish shrubbery whose ferociously dense thorns prompted my caddy to declare in his thick Scottish brogue, “I’ll search the fescue and wade into the sea to retrieve an errant ball but I’ll not be sticking me hands into any gorse.” Thankfully, the nerves settled down after that and by the time we made the turn, I was feeling confident enough to enjoy the spectacular ocean views and the surreal experience of playing a round in the shadow of Turnberry’s iconic lighthouse while hitting irons mere yards from the ruins of Robert the Bruce’s childhood castle.

The next day at Royal Troon’s Old Course, my opening approach shot found the cavernous greenside pot bunker. Looking up from the depths of the earth I turned to my caddie for sage words of advice. “Put on your sunglasses and keep your mouth closed, laddie.” Aye. Sage advice indeed. Several holes later, as my seemingly perfect tee shot caromed off the concave glass of the “postage stamp” green into yet another bunker, I didn’t even turn to my caddie. Sunglasses on. Mouth closed. My routine had been well-established.

Carnoustie’s Championship course upped the difficulty level considerably with sand traps that made Tatooine’s Sarlac Pit look like a Caribbean beach resort. Steering clear of the sand was only half the battle as I picked my way across the course, narrowly avoiding the ribbons of water channeled strategically across the fairways and in front of the greens. After 16 exhausting holes, I felt a certain respectful resignation well up inside me as I stepped up to the 225 yard Par 3 at #17. At #18 I paused by the rocky burn where Jean van de Velde etched his name in the stone after his epic triple bogey collapse to lose the 1999 British Open. My own bogey seemed like a parade-worthy triumph to close off the round.

***

Back at St. Andrews, I’ve confirmed the emptiness in the pit of my stomach and forced my wobbly knees to the first tee box of the Old Course. The clubhouse for the oldest golf club in the world — The Royal and Ancient — looms over my back and I can hear the constant click of camera shutters from the dozens of tourists who are lining the white picket fence just behind me. I initially feel a wave of embarrassment for experiencing a greater bout of nerves facing a casual round of golf than I did prior to writing my Bar exams. Upon further reflection, that embarrassment morphs into smug justification. I was never truly worried I’d fail the Bar exam. This test at St. Andrews holds a far higher probability of shameful public failure.

I’m too terrified to run through any pre-shot routine or even take a practice swing. I just want this over with. I chop at the ball making good contact but pulling it hard left. Fortunately for me, the 18th fairway provides plenty of open space to hit back to the first green. Par. I’ve made par on the first hole at St. Andrews. I hand my putter as casually as I can to my caddy hoping he doesn’t detect the nervous shake in my hand and stroll on to #2 brimming with new-found confidence.

Four hours later I’m standing on the green at #17 after successfully clearing the low roof of the hotel that bizarrely obstructs the view from the tee box. I look down at my partner and see his ball has come to rest on the pebbled path that gives this hole its name — the Road Hole. He stops to snap a picture of the ball with his phone before chipping away from the ancient stone wall. We then walk together over the 700-year-old Swilcan Bridge as a smattering of tourists break into polite applause acknowledging our approach shots.

It is absolutely magical.

Honesty can be humbling when it states the obvious: I will never be a professional athlete. I will never play in a British Open. I will probably never even have the opportunity to watch a golf Major in-person. But today, I was there in every sense of the word. There with the thousands of golfers and fans extending back for centuries. There with the legends of golf and British Open champions: Bobby Jones (1927), Jack Nicklaus (1970 and 1978), John Daly (1995), Tiger Woods (2005) and so many others. To play the Old Course is to experience something far beyond a round of golf. It is to actively live a piece of history in the present day. My story is barely a single letter in the encyclopedia of the Old Course’s storied history, but it is my letter and the chance to have scratched my mark into the sport’s history book is the dream that St. Andrews brings to those lucky enough to have enjoy a fabled round on its greens.


Edward Prutschi is a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer. Follow Ed’s criminal law commentary (@prutschi) and The Crime Traveller’s adventures (@crimetraveller) on Twitter, read his Crime Traveller blog, or email [email protected].

Travel support and assistance provided by ScotlandGolfTours.com, Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle.