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Bucket list, part II

Sportsphoto 960x
Scotland golf excursion again proves special

By TOM FENTON | Staff writer

I had landed about 24 hours ago when it truly hit me: Was I really just in Scotland playing some of the world’s best and most famous golf courses with friends new and old? The scorecards and yardage books I recently unpacked and placed on a basement desk with other cherished golf memorabilia provided evidence it indeed happened, yet it was hard to believe.
Reality somehow takes a while to set in upon returning from a trip that can only be described as magical.

For a non-golf lover, that may sound a bit contrived or even a bit corny. The golfer who truly loves and appreciates the game and its history, however, completely gets it.

When it comes to experiencing links golf in its truest form, there is no place like Scotland – St. Andrews, to be specific.
St. Andrews is labeled “The Home of Golf” because it was where the game was invented. Its rolling hillsides, views of The Firth of Forth and small streets of a town full of charm is an experience in itself.

Throw in 11 guys with the same passion as me with an itinerary of famous links courses, an up-and-coming new course along the Firth, and what you have is a trip of a lifetime. Fortunately for me, a combination of fortunate circumstances provided the opportunity to experience this trip for a second time.

Two years ago, I fulfilled a longtime dream of making the trip across the pond to experience the game in the manner it was invented. True links golf involves firm fairways that are heavily mounded, rapidly changing and sometimes wet weather, treacherous pot bunkers, prickly gorse bushes and fescue rough – the three latter of which are to be avoided.
That may not sound like fun. But to this group, it is why we traveled nearly 4,000 miles.

It also usually involves fish and chips with a couple pints in charming pubs, along with the pleasure of golfing with a caddie. That not only helps the game but also comes with hilarious anecdotes spoken in heavy Scottish accents.

When the caddie talks to American visitors, you can understand about 50% of the conversation. When they talk to each other, I’m lucky to make out a single word.
My first trip obliterated already sky-high expectations and included rounds at Carnoustie, The Old Course at St. Andrews in addition to 18 at Kingsbarns – a 20-year-old wonder of a course with jaw-dropping views of the North Sea on every hole.
Other than Chris Foley, my friend who owns and operates a golf school at Cragun’s Resort near Brainerd and organizes excursions such as this annually, I knew no one. That fact only added to the unique nature of the trip.

This time was different. I recruited a few friends whom I knew would appreciate such a trip, and it was a pretty easy sell having experienced it 24 months prior.
The gang of 12 included Foley, who rarely is able to play golf during the Minnesota season when he’s teaching, a father and son from St. Cloud, a father and son-in-law from Sartell, one of my best friends from Sauk Rapids, a fellow Blackberry Ridge golfer and friend and two of his college buddies, and two “young bucks” in their mid-30s who grew up working for Foley in Brainerd.

A delayed plane out of Minneapolis led to an all-out sprint through the Amsterdam airport that also required proof of a negative COVID-19 test and an extensive passenger locator form. (Sidenote: Each traveler required a negative test before departure and two more negative tests before returning home. After spending hours in cramped vans and restaurants, none of us tested positive. Not coincidentally, we are all fully vaccinated).

While we made the connection for the short jaunt to Edinburgh, Scotland, our luggage did not. Considering this was a golf trip, that meant potential disaster.
Foley has learned that nothing is certain when it comes to international travel, and he was quickly on the phone with staff at our first course arranging for rental clubs, shoes, tees, gloves and golf balls. Somehow he pulled it off and our first round on the St. Andrews Eden Course, which wraps around the more famous Old Course.

He also arranged for the transportation company that shuttled our group around the Scottish countryside to head back to Edinburgh to retrieve our luggage. That, my friends, is service.

Day 2 featured a two-hour road trip to Cruden Bay, a perennial Top 100 course in the world that more than lived up to its billing. It is simply stunning visually and made me wonder why it is not better known.

A round on the St. Andrews Jubilee Course, which opened in 1897 and runs alongside its more famous sister course, was next. Sunday provided the opportunity to play Dumbarnie, which has only been open since May 2019 and looks like it has been there 100 years. Again – absolutely spectacular and slightly more forgiving than some of the older courses.
Little did we know, this was simply the appetizer to what turned into the equivalent of a five-star meal.

Getting on The Old Course, which is the site of the 150th Open Championship next July, is more involved than picking up the phone and requesting a tee time. Visitors need to enter a ballot system and hope your group is drawn to reserve a time, and Foley has the knack to make sure his guests get the chance to play the most historic course in the world.

The experience was no less surreal than my initial visit. The first tee is a nerve-wracking experience with anywhere from 30-50 members of the public stopping to watch the lucky few who get a tee time.

A few deep breaths later, my driver made contact with the ball in a manner that sent it down the middle, drawing applause from an observer that actually seemed sincere. I simply smiled, exhaled, waved and our group was off.

Fortunately, my game was on that day, and I had a chance for a respectable score until the dreaded 17th. It’s called the “Road Hole” and the tee shot requires a forced carry over an old storage shed connected to the Old Course Hotel.

After a good drive, a disgustingly bad swing left me in one of the bunkers. Three shots later, I was out but over the green next to the road. Yet, the real life “Tin Cup” moment somehow made the round more memorable.

This trip was not about sleep, though you try to get it in when you can.
So, when we had the chance to play Muirfield, an incredibly exclusive club and the site of Phil Mickelson’s 2013 Open
Championship victory, we loaded the vans a little before 6 a.m. for a two-hour drive.
This experience is tough to describe. The golf course itself is beyond words, especially the second nine. It’s incredibly gorgeous but also difficult. The rough is long and brutal.

After 18 holes, our group donned required sport coats and ties to join the members for a carved meat lunch. It was here I was scolded by the chef to never take a salad plate and the main course at the same time and that, over there, a popover is called Yorkshire pudding. Who knew?
I also learned that it had been so long since I had worn a tie that I had to dig deep into my memory bank to remember how to tie it. It was far from the perfect knot.

Yes, it is a bit of an over-the-top experience and a look into the lifestyle of those with way too much money.
But was it part of my sequel trip of a lifetime?