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Scottish Golf
by Dale Leatherman

At Christmas, a dear friend came to our mountaintop home in the dark, in a snowstorm, on cross-country skis. Reaching inside her jacket, she carefully pulled out a bottle of Oban, a 14-year-old single malt whisky from a tiny distillery on the west coast of Scotland.

It was a delightful, thoughtful gift, because one sip unlocked memories of my last visit to Scotland, a delightful ramble which included some of the country's best golf courses and much whisky-tasting.

The term whisky (only the Scots spell it without the "e") derives from the Gaelic phrase, uisge beatha, meaning "water of life," and it is treated as such throughout this windswept island. It is never, ever sullied with water or ice. In the old days, Scots believed that tea-drinking was sinful and bad for your health. They started the day properly, with a dram of whisky known as a "skalach."

I discovered Oban Scotch Whisky at the end of our first day in Scotland. Just hours off the plane after an overnight flight, we played our first round of golf at Gleneagles Resort, an opulent Edwardian palace set in exquisite gardens and surrounded by sporting venues. Within the 830-acre estate are three impressive golf courses—the King's and Queen's, designed by five-time British Open winner James Braid; and the Jack Nicklaus-designed Monarch's Course. All three parkland courses display the beauty of the Scottish inland, with mature trees, colorful heather, lochans (little lochs) of water, and panoramas of sheep on high mountain pastures.

We played the King's Course first, and found that it beguiles even as it surreptitiously adds strokes to your score. There's a great sense of harmony, a blending of course and countryside, with deep hollows, great patches of gorse and heather, mature trees, and mountain views from the many elevated greens and tees. We were first off the tee one morning, and left a trail of footprints in the dew on our way to the green of "Dun Whinny," which means bushy hill. On the green, men were using birchwood brooms to sweep sand from the surface and bamboo switches to clear away the moisture.

The 362-yard par four has a wide fairway, but at the base of a very elevated and forward-pitched green squats two 12-foot-deep bunkers. Pondering that approach, we began to appreciate our caddies. They clubbed us right on that shot, and on every hole thereafter. They also revealed the only method for finding balls in the low but dense first rough—mark the spot, then stomp around until you feel a lump underfoot. They were fun, too, with just the right mixture of professionalism and friendliness. Being called "m'lady" and treated like the athletes we are wasn't what we'd expected in a country where a few courses still bar women from playing.

We took a special liking to the fifteenth hole, a par four for men, par five for women. "Howe o'Hope" (valley of hope) plays 459 yards for men, 431 yards for women. The fairway tumbles downhill, with three grass bunkers in the drive landing area and two central pot bunkers to threaten your second shot. The green is tiered, with the back lower, and also slopes from left to right. There are five sand wedge opportunities, two to a side and one in the rear.

When we left home, the East Coast was in the grip of a stifling heat wave, so Scotland in July was a shock—blustery and rainy, with temperatures in the 60's and 70's. Consequently, we were chilled and exhausted when we sat down to dinner that evening in the comfortable elegance of the golf club's Dormy Grill.

The bartender, upon hearing that I wanted to sample as many single malts as possible during my visit, presented me with a cut crystal glass of Oban. The first sip sent ripples of warmth through my tired muscles and put a grin on my face. The taste came through, rich and mellow, hinting of smoke and peat and character. Oban is distilled in the fishing town of the same name, a place settled in 5,000 B.C. The coast there is hammered by wind, sea and rain—as are the people—and they make a scotch as bracing as sea air.

We had the Oban with haggis, served and consumed with the ceremony due a national dish. Haggis, a sort of mega-sausage of mutton, onions, spices and God-knows-what, is served hot, and looking as if it just exploded. It's eaten with mashed potatoes and turnips ("bashed 'neeps and champit tatties") and drams of straight whisky. I've forgotten the rest of the meal, but the pleasant memory of the haggis and Oban lingers.

The next day we played the Queen's Course, another gem which threads through high ridges, with lochans (little lochs) and ditches as water hazards. The Queen's is a bit narrower than the King's, making the innocent-looking first rough even more of a hazard. Stray a bit farther and your ball burrows under foot-high gorse or even perches atop it.

It is the eighteenth hole, the "Queen's Hame" (Queen's home) that leaves the most lasting impression of Gleneagles' beauty. The tee of the 412-yard par four looks down on a lochan spanned by a wooden bridge. Ahead is the clubhouse, with the eighteenth fairway of the King's on the right. From the elevated tee you drive over the water, then hit to a large two-step green.

Given as many years as the King's and Queen's, Nicklaus' lavishly landscaped Monarch's Course will be stunning. The second hole already is, with its view across the green toward yellow hills dipping into a valley. Many holes afford views of the Ochil Hills and the purple Grampian Mountains in the distance. But this course, at 7,081 yards, was built for carts, a rarity in a country where the first golfers walked carrying two or three clubs in their hands.

Nicklaus uses terrain and natural vegetation masterfully, particularly on the par-four fifth hole, "Crookit Cratur," rated hardest on the course for men (ninth for women). The 461-yard fairway writhes its way through trees and heavy brush to a narrow opening into a generous green. The hole starts with a blind drive uphill. The second shot must avoid a marsh on the right and a 10-foot deep bunker on the left to breech the green.

Before dinner I tried the mild, honey-tasting Dalwhinnie, product of the central highlands near Gleneagles, then a peppery dram of Talisker, a 10-year-old, invigorating, in-your-face whisky from the only distillery on the Isle of Skye. Dinner started with an appetizer of heavenly fresh salmon caught in the nearby tay and sliced paper-thin tableside in the courtly Strathearn dining room. A thick Angus steak, sublimely fresh and tender, followed. Gleneagles' five restaurants are served by a squadron of 70 chefs and the fare is traditionally, wonderfully Scottish—game, fish, lamb, beef and vegetables from the local glens and lochs.

Gleneagles has excellent facilities for the traditional sports — golf, tennis, squash, swimming—as well as the world-famous Jackie Stewart Shooting School, a "sporting clays" layout where the paths of the clays simulate the flight of various game birds.

Before our visit ended, I prowled the hotel shops until I found the Still Room, and ordered a bottle of Oban sent home. Dapper Charles McEwen, the resident expert on Scottish spirits, recommended that I try Royal Lochnagar, but for the first time I said no to a scotch. Distilled on Royal Deeside by a crew of only eight people, it is the world's most exclusive whisky and, at more than $20 a shot, probably the most expensive. It was a taste I could scarcely afford to try for fear I would like it too much.

We made our pilgrimage, as all golfers should, to the east coast town of St. Andrews. The first tee of the Old Course at St. Andrews is, in every respect, a stage. The air is charged with the electricity of a debut, an experience to remember a lifetime. Lying before the tee is a stretch of sandy linksland where golf has been played for 500 years. While most modern golf courses have facelifts every decade or so, nothing on the Old Course has changed since 1914, when one bunker was filled. The snarl of a bulldozer has never been heard here, and probably never will. Nature carved the mounds and swales and planted the gorse and weedy shrubs. Sheep looking for shelter burrowed out the bunkers. Yet this simple track is the most hallowed ground in the history of the game.

Crossing the first fairway is Granny Clark's Wynd, a path connecting the town and the beach. The course belongs to the townsfolk, as evidenced by the parade of people, bicycles, dogs and donkeys occupying the right of way. Just beyond it flows Swilcan Burn, with the landmark stone bridge familiar to golfers worldwide.

The wind sweeping in from the sea is an everpresent, if unseen, hazard. Many shots are blind carries over shaggy shrubs and stubborn gorse to fairways pocked with bunkers. A ball hit short is usually lost, despite the skills of eagle-eyed caddies. When the fairway isn't visible, they pointed out a distant tree or steeple to target.

Even if you reach the fairway, only luck can keep your ball from finding a bunker. The fifth hole, a 564-yard par five, earns its number one ranking with a minefield of small, deep pot bunkers scattered blindly among the mounds. It's impossible to see them, much less avoid them, so you must hit a good ball in the direction your caddy points, and pray. The pot bunkers are just big enough, the caddies say, "for an angry man and his niblick."

The greens, most of which serve two holes, are huge, undulating and fast. You're fortunate to finish with a two-putt, and on one green you could be putting 100 yards.

Fronting the seventh green is Cockle, a sand bunker large enough to swallow two double-decker buses. Even if you dodge it the first time, it appears again, when the eleventh hole tees off over the seventh fairway. The sixteenth hole has a double bunker called the "Principal's Nose" which is more than six feet deep on the forward side. The only escape is to hit back toward the tee, a maneuver I immediately christened a "sneeze shot." Number seventeen is the famous "Road Hole," a 461-yard par five. The Old Course Hotel sign blocks the view from tee to green, and the shortest route is over the word "Old," carrying the hotel's glass-roofed conservatory along the way.

From the green and the next tee, the view is dominated by the R&A Clubhouse, a grey stone fortress blending into a perpetually grey sky, with the stone bridge over Swilcan Burn in the foreground. It is not only a revered gentlemen's club (no women allowed), but also an international purveyor of rules for all countries but the few which are U.S. Golf Association jurisdiction.

It still seemed like a dream after our round, when we sat in the bar of the posh Old Course Hotel overlooking the Road Hole. The whisky list ran to 60 or more. I chose Glenkinchie, from the southeast lowlands where the country's best barley is grown. The liquid was pale, soft and slightly sweet, a luxurious malt befitting the surroundings.

The Old Course Hotel is like a Scottish estate home, with sumptuous suites overlooking the course, two exceptional restaurants, a complete spa and a zealous staff. French doors in our suite opened onto a balcony overlooking the course and the sea; the bathroom was marble, with thick towels on heated racks.

We attended the Highland Games in St. Andrews, a panoply of cycling, running, dancing, bag-piping and weight-tossing, in which brawny, kilted Scots tossed everything from massive hammers to a telephone pole called a caber. The scene was a blur of plaids, representing a goodly portion of the 118 Scottish clans.

We were still humming bagpipe tunes when we heard the real thing again, at Turnberry Hotel, Golf Courses and Spa, a luxury resort in Ayr, on the southwest coast near the home of poet Robert Browning. It was getting on toward sunset, and the white, red-roofed hotel was cast in warm amber. The long building commands a hilltop overlooking the famous Ailsa Course, its sister course Arran, and the white-capped sea.

A kilted bagpiper strode the flowered walk in front of the hotel, his music drifting up to our open window. It was cocktail time, but our room was too comfortable and the bagpipe too compelling to leave. Cracking the seal on a bottle of Cragganmore, I sampled a malt little-known abroad but highly respected in-country, and watched the sun set between rain squalls on the Firth of Clyde. A misty island, once the world's main source of granite for curling balls, appeared and disappeared. The locals say if you can see Ailsa Craig, it's about to rain; if you can't see it, it's raining. The Cragganmore matched the weather—a complex scotch, hard to figure, but invigorating.

It rained fitfully and gusted without mercy both times we played the Ailsa Course, but we lingered each time on the championship tee of the ninth hole, a scrap of green on a promontory 50 feet above thrashing waves. The drive from here must carry 454 yards of rocky coastline and thick gorse. Near the green is the remains of the early fourteenth-century castle of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

Turnberry is much lauded for its food, its elegant rooms, its service, and its spa—all deserved. The best way to recover from a chilling day of golf is with a hydrotherapy massage and a swim in the indoor pool, where classical music is piped underwater. Sublime.

We wandered up the coast to Cameron House, a restored castle overlooking the bonny banks of Loch Lomond, Britain's largest inland waterway. The glacier-formed loch is more than 600 feet deep in spots, and a prime destination for fishing, boating and hiking. Cameron House is a paradox, part castle (there's a dungeon, they say) and part family resort, complete with indoor water park and slide. It's a pleasant place to stay and the views of the loch are spectacular.

But the area's principal charm for us was the Loch Lomond Golf Club, designed by Tom Weiskopf on an ancient walled estate, complete with castle ruins and a 1773 manor house. The course dances through great stands of mature trees and along the shores of the loch. Amoeba-shaped white sand bunkers are strategically placed throughout the course, liberally placed provide.

Hole thirteen is one of the most striking in a collection of very striking holes. The 515-yard par five challenges you to go for the green in two, but you have to avoid overhanging oaks and marshland to the front right of the green, and Loch Lomond on the left.

The eighteenth hole, "the Ruin," doglegs slightly to a green with castle remains above and behind it. The hole has a view of Rossdhu Bay and, in the distance, the peak of Ben Lomond.

At Blair Athol Distillery in Perthshire we stopped to tour the facility and sample the 12-year-old whisky that is the base for Bell's blended whiskey, Britain's most popular blended Scotch. Blair Athol single malt whiskey, sold only at the distillery, bursts on the tongue with a firey but pleasant intensity, taking its character from the sherry casks in which it is aged.

At The Glenturret Distillery, also in Perthshire, I tasted my way from the eight-year-old whisky through the 25-year-old, each stronger and more golden, but still smooth and mellow. The whitewashed stone Glenturret distillery is the country's oldest, established in 1775, and the workings have changed very little. Why meddle with success?

Scotland is not all golf and whisky, though both qualify as national obsessions. It's also castles, about 2,000 of them, many of which are open to visitors. As we drove through the countryside, turrets peeked over the treetops. I wanted to explore every one, but I couldn't, anymore than I could play every golf course or taste every single malt in one trip. There's plenty to draw me back. Meanwhile, I have my bottle of Oban and a few special friends to share it and the memories.


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