Last July, while the golf press feasted on Phil Mickelson and his Muirfield miracle, I got the brave idea that just once I should visit Scotland during Open Championship week and not wade through a sea of bazooka cameras to retrieve the tepid golf quote. I vowed to take the cart path less traveled.
Unfurling the familiar map -- Selcraigs hail from Lower Largo, not far from St. Andrews -- I saw a canvass of splendid golf and favorite toons. Inverness in the Highlands, along the Moray Firth, is the perfect camp for playing incomparable Royal Dornoch and the newly brilliant Castle Stuart, the best new Scottish course in decades. (Oh, Donald, we hear your wails.)
On the East Coast, beloved Cruden Bay still remains a mystery to me. County Fife offers two memorable Old Tom Morris designs defined by the North Sea, Crail and Elie, and another half-dozen starlets not named St. Andrews. Or I could have stayed so close to Muirfield that I would smell the beer tents, yet spend my golf hours at enthralling North Berwick and mighty Gullane.
That's the Scottish golf dilemma. In every direction there awaits a week of exceptional golf full of century-old links and large reputations. But I was searching for something entirely different. I wanted a week of quirky. I needed off-the-grid, honesty-box golf with lots of nine-holers and newly mown pastures.
I asked David Connor, VisitScotland's able golf manager, to recommend something that if not quite undiscovered, was at least unfamiliar to most of the golf world.
He mulled. "Would you fancy a ferry and perhaps the world's oldest 12-hole golf course?"
Ah, the man can bait a hook. Every golf trip should start with a ferry.
The Isle of Arran is a kidney-shaped and kidney-named mountainous island off the southwest coast of Scotland, 40 miles from Glasgow as the puffin flies, guarded from the full Atlantic by a famous finger of land called Kintyre. (The tip of that peninsula, the Mull of Kintyre, inspired the 1977 hit song by Paul McCartney, who owned a ranch nearby.) Arran is often called "Scotland in Miniature" because its coastline and terrain – mountains in the north, lowland forests and farms in the south – nicely mimics the mainland. There are fewer than 5,000 full-time residents on Arran, but as the fine website, GolfonArran.com, suggests, most of them play golf.
Flying in from London Heathrow, Glasgow glistened like new china. Perhaps you remember how extraordinary the weather was in Scotland during what we can, back home, call the British Open. It was like a cloudless Colorado summer morning for two straight weeks, and a London tabloid screamed, "England Driest in 247 Years."
"I've lived here all my life," a Glaswegian bartender told me, "and this is the first time I've ever actually planned a barbecue for next week. We're Scottish. We never plan anything outside for tomorrow, much less next week."
More rambunctious than studious Edinburgh, Glasgow and its stunning architecture, refurbed warehouses, pubs and music venues deserve your full attention for a weekend. But I hustled through the airport, leaped into an Arnold Clark rental and barely made the Ardrossan ferry for its hour-long trip across the icing-smooth sound to Arran. (The ferry runs five times a day; about $50 for cars.)
Even on one of Scotland's warmest summer days, the deep open water required my wool and Gore-Tex. Invigorating, yes, but all this land-loving Texan could imagine were the intrepid lifeboat rescue teams that patrol the brutal Scottish coast. You see their plastic donation boxes in restaurants all over the country. Honestly, how does anyone do their job?
We docked at Arran's tourist hub, Brodick, and were enveloped by what felt like a village-sized, open-air REI store. Blow-ins and Brodickers alike all seemed to be toting kayaks, backpacks and serious walking sticks. One guesses the mayor might be L.L. Bean. For the next several days, I learned to crest blind roads a bit slower than usual for fear I would plow into healthy Canadians trudging on the shoulder, or energetic Dutch couples cataloguing kestrels and gannets.
I got a quick seafood chowder at one of the dockside restaurants and headed out for the Brodick Golf Club just up the road. Tucked along the seaside marshlands beneath what local author Jean Glen describes in the course's centennial book as "the soaring granite peaks and graceful sweep" of the bay, Brodick GC (formed in 1897) is an unassuming but endearing course steeped in great history. Glen writes that in 1652 infamous British military hero Oliver Cromwell -- Catholics have termed him a genocidal dictator -- fought and lost a battle against Arran men on the very ground beneath the current golf course.
I was drawn immediately to the white-washed, living room-size pro shop and the very peculiar Scottish accent from behind the front desk.
"Yes, that is a South Carolina drawl," confessed the smiling Jackie Browning, wife of the redheaded pro, James.
"Hilton Head, actually," she continued. "I met James when he came to the University of South Carolina to play golf and then I just sort of married into the game. I'm the only American who lives full-time on the island."
The couple lives in a storybook cottage nearby, built in 1897, when the golf club was founded. (All seven Arran courses were built pre-1900.) Even with the snows, the floods, the force 8 gales and the social insularity of an island that can be circumnavigated in 55 miles, they do appear to be one of the happiest golf couples on earth.
"It is an incredible way of life," said Jackie. And when James walks up a moment later, he speaks glowingly of the community's welcoming volunteer spirit and the many grateful junior golfers he gets to coach. A native Edinburgher, James came to the States when he was 15 and still displays some of the game that won him a Gamecock scholarship.
The leafy parkland course costs about $40 to play in the summer and is small by any modern standards – 18 holes, 4747 yards, par 65, only two holes over 400 yards – but the par-threes and fours are so fun, and the tight greens so Loch Lomond-ish good that you quickly forget not needing to hit 300-yard drives. You'll not pry any hole-by-hole descriptions from me. The whole Arran golf experience should remain a surprise for you. Forget counting strokes and instead count the salmon and otters splashing in the Rosa burn as it wiggles through the course.
Wave to the kayakers as you loft a little wedge over their oblivious noggins, then revel in playing a beloved community course of which Jean Glen wrote: "Neither wars nor the mighty sea itself have stopped this club going forward and constantly improving."
James and I played late into the summer evening, still bright at 9, and I dragged my jet-lagged bones into the nearby Auchrannie Resort, a thoroughly-modern restored estate with luxury lodges and three stylish restaurants.
The next morning I was energized to play the island's other six courses, but unbeknownst to me, I was about to reach the pinnacle of Arran golf on the second morning, when I stumbled upon one of the world's few 12-hole golf courses, the wondrously idiosyncratic and scenic Shiskine Golf Club.
From Brodick it's a restful 25-minute drive past hills of puffy sheep and riding stables west across the island to Shiskine, in the village of Blackwaterfoot. There, in 1896, history suggests that a bunch of total golf novices – except the actual founder, a Glasgow banker – founded the club. By 9 a.m. there were 16 cars in the parking lot, young moms with baby strollers out in full force and a local tournament that was delaying my launch. Fortunately that gave me more time to admire the pro shop's exceptional photos.
"Who shot all these?" I asked the Ian Woosnam-sized fellow behind the counter.
"You're talking to him," replied Hamish Bannatyne, who managed with retail aplomb to answer the phone, talk to me, sell yardage books and send kids off to the club's adjoining tennis courts. The course was busy and especially full of Brits, who apparently have been coming to Arran since Cromwell.
"We've got about 650 members, mostly from the mainland," Bannatyne told me. "Willie Fernie from Troon designed the course. They went to 18 holes in 1913, under Willie Park's design, then lost the new six in World War I when they had to plant potatoes on them. Twelve holes was more common back then. Prestwick started as 12. But today, the only other one in Scotland is Gogarburn, near Edinburgh airport. I've also heard of one in New Zealand."
Shiskine is a 3,000-yard monument to the way golf had to be designed before Caterpillars and golf architect envy. There are warning bells and 14-foot flags to signal golfers that everything is clear, and there's a remarkable par-three whose green is totally blind from the tee box.
"We call it Crow's Nest," Bannatyne said, "and I've never seen a par-three like it in Scotland." Nor have I --anywhere. Just 128 yards from the back, you hit your ball up over a sheer wall of basalt to an uphill green and pray that your backspin catches some magic. But if you do fly off the back, you'll be thrilled to see one of the great views in Scottish golf, the Drumadoon Cliffs, guarding the ocean and your thrilling tee shot off number four to a fairway 40 feet below. They call it, nicely, The Shelf.
I had discovered quirky-but-brilliant golf in full splendor.
How many blind shots does Shiskine have?
Bannatyne stopped counting at seven. "Most every hole has something blind," he said with a grin. But here's the cool thing – you probably won't care. The website Top 100 Golf Courses describes Shiskine nicely: "[It] is golfing ground of such purity, owing only the barest influence to the hand of man, that to play here is to enjoy a unique sporting experience." Read the chorus of Shiskine hosannas from the website readers:
-- "…probably the best family golf course in the world."
-- "I was lucky enough to see a Basking shark (second largest living fish) whilst putting on the 4th."
-- "... some would say it's an unfair course owing to the numerous blind shots, but it's exciting stuff. I promise you."
Shiskine has a cozy tearoom with outdoor tables overlooking the course, an honesty box for playing after hours and a marvelous poster in the clubhouse of some 50 native Arran birds. It costs about $33 (20 pounds) to walk, and because of Shiskine's linksy sand base, it might be the best spot on the island to play after a big rain. My day at Shiskine was made all the better by joining Chris Rodda, a high school economics teacher from North Yorkshire, England, who, even with a new hip, magically birdied Crow's Nest. No matter how much you love that special foursome you're traveling with, do your best to make room for strangers.
Alas, nothing else on the island can quite compare to Shiskine. But that's OK. You're not here for the leather bag-tags. From here out, you might better keep score with dry crimson sunsets and degrees of quirk.
Traveling clockwise up the west side of Arran, you'll come to a seaside nine-holer at Machrie that plays like a long, flat driving range out in the country. The views are gorgeous, but the golf is rudimentary. Keep it in mind for kids who wouldn't care about green speeds, conditioning or pace of play.
At the extreme north end of the island is Lochranza Golf Club, a wonderful spot for beginners to hack it around all day long, cheaply, without a tee time, and have a blast learning the game on what is essentially a mown field with nine flags. Thank goodness there is a place for that on Arran.
This is unadorned golf much as it was played in the 1890s. The golf is as flat as a cotton field, but surrounded by hills. There's little contouring of the fairways, greens or bunkers. It's located in an environmentally sensitive zone, so you'll see plenty of red deer splashing through the mountain burn and maybe a golden eagle eyeing your dimpled eggs. When you finish, just across the road is the Isle of Arran Distillery.
Like all the Arran courses, nearby Corrie Golf Club is rugged, naturally beautiful and in fleeting moments as strong of a long-iron golf challenge as you would find at, say, Torrey Pines. It's short, of course, just 3,830 yards for 18 holes without any par-fives. But the views across the Firth of Clyde and onto Argyle are exceptional, and again, if you want an unhurried round where you can lose a bushel of balls and perhaps not slow down anyone without antlers, this is your course. You can walk all day for 20 pounds, but be wary of the fourth green, where – I jest you not -- there is a sign warning of snakes. That is the first of its kind I've ever seen on a British Isles golf course, and I'm still thinking it may be only one snake. And that it has a name. Like Nigel.
Coming back down the east side of Arran, past Brodick, we come to Lamlash Golf Club, another course designed by Troon greenkeeper Willie Fernie, in 1890. At just 4,640 yards over 18 holes, the lumbering Yank might think this rambling heathland course to be a glorified pitch and putt, but with six par-threes over 184 yards (two beyond 220) suddenly the day turns into a game of precision long irons, and no one's complaining about anything being a pushover.
Lamlash Golf Club offers magnificent views of Holy Isle, and on clear days you might be able to see the $500 waterproofs at Troon and Turnberry. As quirky as Shiskine, but without the true links feel, Lamlash has an assortment of funky sidehill lies and awkward approaches that constantly keep you engaged rather than give rise to whining. If you can only play three courses, add Lamash.
And just a short jog down the road, the stunning Arran golf tour ends with Whiting Bay Golf Course, another short (4,100 yards) par-18 with some demanding par-threes, wee greens and spectacular views of the Ailsa Craig.
There is an attractive Arran Golf Pass you can purchase online if you actually wanted to play all seven courses, but the far more important issue is what kind of attitude to bring to Arran. More than likely this is not a destination for four single-digit guys, unless you're training for triathlons.
I'm guessing Arran golf is best suited for families where no one is a hyper-competitive, club sweater-wearing type, and the only priority is making sure everyone has stress-free fun.
Unless you were a total novice, or cared far more about hiking and other outdoor sports, you would not likely fly to Scotland just to play Arran. However, any golfer should adore Shiskine and cherish the day there. Ditto for Brodick and the charming couple who run the place. Lamlash and Corrie can be delightful. Add to that the wonderful country inns, B&Bs and fine restaurants and you can easily justify a short holiday, but accept the golf for what it is – friendly, traditional, small-town fun that has very little to do with how many shots you take.
-- Bruce Selcraig lives in Austin, Texas, writes for The New York Times and Mother Jones, among others, and is a former staff writer with Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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