Archive for October, 2013

SCOTLAND AND ME—Bucket List Item #3

October 5, 2013

SCOTLAND AND ME—Bucket List Item #3

Those of you who have read my previous blogs may recall that I had accomplished the first two items on my Bucket List, the five day Nile River trip addressing my long-simmering desire to see the treasures of ancient Egypt, and the brief stopover in England on my way home, to visit Stonehenge on a sunny May afternoon.

Actually, the latter played a major role in accomplishing #3; I believe I related how I had met an extremely pleasant gentleman while I was resting on a park bench in St. James Park in London, and over the next three hours enjoyed a conversation highlighted by the fact that he is a Scotsman from Troon on the west coast, and that his father is friends with a number of members of the Royal Troon Golf Club, one of the courses used in rotation for the British Open Golf Tournament. It was suggested that if I ever would visit Troon, arrangements could be made for me to at least visit, and possibly even play, that famous venue.

Now for you non-golfers, you need to know that Scotland, and in particular St. Andrews, is where the type of golf we play got its start, back in the 1400’s. The facts that St. Andrews was at one time the religious center of Scotland, was the capital, and has the first and oldest university, all pale when compared to the importance of the role of golf in modern society. When I was visiting the St. Andrews University Museum, I even suggested to the docent that their claim that the university was initiated through a charter from the king, is incorrect; my sources tell me that it was started so that there would be a sponsor for the collegiate golf team. Other universities sprang up somewhat later, and no doubt provided a competitive atmosphere academically as well as athletically as their own teams ventured out over the coastal landscapes throughout the nation.

Before I get into some of the details of my touring, let me first say that of all the various peoples I have known throughout my travels around the globe, the Scots are by far the most cheerful, happiest, and companionable of any I have met. This, in spite of the continuing daily shots of rain, constant overcast, and chilly breezes forming the backdrop around which all activities need to accommodate.

During my three days in Glasgow, walking an average of six miles daily either in the civic center area or to and fro to some of the museums, or on public transportation such as buses and trains, everyone treated others with good humor and respect, and generally would go “out of the way” to be helpful. I sensed a genuine Pride in being Scottish, and a real atmosphere of sharing. I couldn’t help contrasting that attitude with our present nasty level of polarization, ill-temper, and lntolerance in this country. Personally, as a left-leaning Independent I am disgusted with the current dysfunctionality in Congress and especially with the Republican Party’s mean-spirited cadre in creating this mess.

Some other comments—The buses and trains were all almost exactly on time, were frequent, and reasonably-priced. I discovered too late that one can purchase an inexpensive ticket that allows unlimited use of the buses for varying lengths of time; the only major difficulty is learning which buses go where. Most of my walking in Glasgow was along a major thoroughfare lined with small shops of the “mom and pop” kind, although I suspect that there were more Abdullahs and Sahibs as owners. Lots of second hand stores like Salvation Army, betting parlors for sports, and the crowning glory of Poundland, the Scottish equivalent of Family Dollar. This was important, as they sold my favorite large Cadbury chocolate bars for one pound ($1.40)

Accommodations I found on the Internet, and I stayed in guest houses or Bed and Breakfast places 8 of the 10 nights I was in Scotland. I can heartily recommend the Manor Park Hotel in Glasgow, the Braeside House in St. Andrews, and the SandHill House in Troon. The latter was on a working small farm, complete with alpacas, llamas, horses, and strange looking chickens. All (the guest houses, not the chickens) provided exceptional personal service, good breakfasts, clean and comfortable rooms, and were in reasonably-accessible locations. The one hotel I stayed in, allegedly a four star, did not come close to the services of the guest houses.

I took a one-day, 350-mile, 12-hour bus tour to the Highlands, and was fortunate to have a driver/guide who pleasantly and effectively narrated the history of each area through which we passed. He emphasized that most of the Mel Gibson Braveheart story was highly inaccurate, and gave us “the real scoop” as we sallied forth from glen to glen. I learned many things including the story of the Campbell massacre of the MacDonald’s, and that the term “inver” means “at the mouth of”, such as Inver-ness on the Ness River. I’m saving that one in case I ever get on Jeopardy.

And there are golf courses everywhere, the people playing year around in all kinds of weather. I passed through one small town while on the train, and counted seven golf courses, one after another, along the right-of-way. There are over a thousand golf courses in Scotland, most of them quite inexpensive to play. On my next trip, I’ll go in the warm weather and take my clubs!

As I huddle in my downstairs work area, hiding from the impending second snow storm within a week, I harken back to the fact that my present weather is quite similar to what it was in Scotland, although here it’s about 10 degrees colder. There, daily highs were generally overcast, rainy, and in the mid-50’s; locals told me that the weather is usually a lot nicer during September than during my visit. I reflect on the fact that last week, only the two Colorado Blue Spruce among our 21 trees were unaffected by the wet, heavy snow, providing me with many happy days and hours lopping, sawing, and hauling. I suspect that those two conifers are secretly gloating over the fate of their deciduous cousins, and hoping for more of the same. The deer which roam our neighborhoods are delighted with all the new “snack bars” being provided for their daily culinary enjoyment; we have a doe, three fawns, and a four point buck who have become permanent fixtures in our large yard in spite of our unsuccessful efforts to initiate another of those recent Republican proposals, self-deportation.

Now for the golf. Let me start out by saying that I did not, repeat, did not play golf while I was in Scotland. I had arranged my trip around Sunday, September 15, after discovering that The Old Course at St. Andrews is closed to golf on Sundays except during tournaments, to allow townsfolk to stroll on the premises. For a golfer, this is like shutting down the Kaaba in Mecca to pilgrims, denying a believer the opportunity to attain the ultimate profession of faith.

I knew how difficult it would be to actually play on the Old Course; most tee times are reserved a year ahead of time and primarily through those golf tour companies. A small number are held back and available through a daily lottery. A third opportunity is to show up around 3 a.m. and wait to see if someone who has a tee time doesn’t show up. I was not willing to do either of these and, for those who know me, was a bit reluctant to fork over $200 although I might consider it as it’s one of those “once in a life time” experiences.

I was content to start my walk from the 18th green, going in reverse order around the course. The area near the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, the ruling authority of golf, was graced with lots of tourists; their tour buses parked in large numbers nearby and no doubt taking advantage as did I of the closure of the course to allow walking. My first stop was at the stone bridge over the “burn” (small creek) where Jack Nicklaus had his picture taken in farewell on his last round of the British Open. I tried to strike a similar pose, but succeeded in looking very un-Nicklaus like.

I then walked to the 17th tee, to see the view up the fairway. On that hole, the professionals try to hit over the corner of a hotel in order to shorten the distance to the green for their next shot as the fairway curves around a corner. I noted that those players with whom I play (i.e., bad) could hit our drives out to the left and be safe, but a long distance from the green.

The Old Course is one of seven courses managed by the Town of St. Andrews Golf Trust, and is the most famous course in the world. Local members tell me that The New Course, built in 1895 to take pressure off the Old Course, is in their opinion actually a better golf course but doesn’t enjoy the notoriety. Residents of the town may pay an annual fee of 180 pounds, about $250, and play all of the courses ( it costs $475 annually in Thermopolis; they play year around in St. Andrews but we only get 7 months). The green fees at the other venues are far less than for the Old Course, ranging from around $20 to $100 at The New Course.

After leaving the 17th tee, I only saw five other people as I went to the far end. The course is laid out so that a player does nine holes out and nine back; in fact, as the fairways out and back parallel each other most of the time, holes share five of the greens. Those greens of course are very large; one of them appeared to be about as big as half of a football field. The sprinkler heads on some holes had two numbers painted on them, one white and one red. I thought they were for the distance to the front and back of the green; I was told, “no, the white is for the player going on the front nine to a green, and the red for going the other way on the back nine”.

Only The Old Course is closed for walking. For much of the walk, I was totally alone although if I tried, I could see players far off, playing either the Eden Course or the New Course, hopefully enjoying the 30 mph steady winds with gusts to 40, and cold. I thought I was back at Rochelle Ranch, in Rawlins, Wyoming. But in contrast to Rawlins, here I was having something akin to a religious experience as a surge of exultation ran through my veins, and the presence of the creeping neuropathy in my legs and feet was forgotten as I strode happily on, adrelalin no doubt having its effect. And at least the rain had stopped.

I did say hello to a couple walking their dog, and to an Aussie headed in the other direction. He and I chatted a bit about the fact that a). the bunkers are often so deep that there is no way we could hit the ball out, b) most of them are hidden until you’re right on top of them and find your ball in them, c) there are hardly any flat places on either the fairways or greens, d) the greens have so many undulations that I was reminded of the first time I tried to ski the  moguls at Meadowlark Ski Area in Wyoming,  e) the fairways are cut almost as short as the greens so that it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins, and f) one doesn’t want to hit into the thorny gorse or tall grasses along the fairways. Another thought was my memory of having played our famous Pebble Beach course from the back tees, when I was a young 53. The Old Course appears much more difficult; Pebble’s fairways were generally level, the bunkers announced their presence even from a distance, and the greens, although fast, did not have the severe ups and downs of The Old Course.

I concluded my walk and my day with visiting several of the many golf shops nearby, choosing a few items to purchase on the following day as souvenirs of achieving Bucket List #3, A Visit to The Old Course. What I had come to realize, however, was that is only one jewel in the crown that is Scotland; my real #3 was the totality of my visit and that there were other events of equal value waiting in store for me. Troon lay ahead.

My second day in St. Andrews only superficially touched on golf. St. Andrews is not very large and is easily walkable; I walked down two of the commercial streets in the University area, threading my way through throngs of students recently returned for the fall term. All of them were aglow, talking rapidly with broad smiles and raucous laughter in small groups along the street, darting in and out of the restaurants, clothing, computer, and specialty stores along the way. A few of the buildings at the university were built in the 1500’s and are still in use, but most appear modern and up-to-date. They are not “on a campus” but have town streets, alleys and passageways weaving among them along with the stores and other town buildings.

At the end of the street, I saw some tall, old looking structures that deserved investigation; I discovered that they were the ruins of a cathedral built way back, by the Catholics when St. Andrews was the religious capital of Scotland. Then the Protestants took over around, I think, the time of James the VI of Scotland (James I of England) and destroyed the cathedral. Or something like that. Anyway, I roamed through the ruins and noted that in the graveyard, the grave of Old Tom Morris was located. He was the first winner of the British Open Tournament back in the 1800’s, and is one of the Fathers of Modern Golf.

From the cathedral, I walked a few hundred yards and came to the ruins of the St. Andrews Castle, its foundations clinging to the side of cliffs above a small bay invading from the ocean. Entering through a museum, I was entertained by more of the history of conflict and change throughout the ages, much of it through inhuman stake-burnings, dungeons, and torture. There was, however, no mention of waterboarding.

My walk took me a bit further along the coast road to the University Museum, and I spent some time admiring displays about famous Scots who had studied there. Finally, I arrived at one of the major destinations of my trip, the Golf Museum which had artifacts and displays dating back to the beginnings of the game in Scotland in the 1400’s. It evidently was not too much different back them; James the 2nd outlawed the game for a number of years  because he thought men were spending too much time at it rather than practicing their archery for defense. Some of our chief politicians have had that criticism lately. Mary, Queen of Scots, was also a golfer.

My host, the owner of the Braeside Guest House and a golfer, took me to his club, The New Course Club, and showed me around the dark wood-paneled walls, lounge areas, and meeting rooms. It looked like a room out of one of those British movie dramas. Another welcome perk was that the owner’s cable vision included NFL football, so I was able to view my favorite Broncos roll over another opponent. The game finished well after midnight and, although I went to bed happy, the jet lag and late hours worked their evils on me and I suffered from fatigue for several more days.

The next day, I left early for my trip all the way across the country to the west coast, to Troon. Huh! Only 3 ½ hours, by bus to the train station, by train to Edinburgh and another train to Troon. Hardly anything by Wyoming standards. One bonus along the way, I stopped outside of Glasgow to have lunch with a friend from my Peace Corps days 51 years ago in Ghana, and whom I hadn’t seen since we left. She had met her Scottish husband in Ghana, and had established their home in Scotland although they lived in numerous countries around the world as required by his career in the oil industry. We had a good chat and promised to remain in touch; she was leaving the next day for a Danube River cruise to Budapest.

After the lunch, I returned to the train station and continued on to Troon, where I took a taxi to the SandHill Guest House., a small working farm separated from the Royal Troon and Portland golf complex by the rail tracks heading toward Ayr. I was greeted by perky Elaine,  who owns SandHill House with her husband and caters especially to the golfing community due to the facility’s close proximity to the golf courses coupled with very reasonable rates and good food. My room was spacious and, as so many guest houses and hotels do, included inconsistent WiFi access, a must for my peace of mind.

As it was still afternoon, I took off on a walk along a lighted bicycle path paralleling the railroad and lined with lush growths of many varieties of plants, including the ubiquitous ferns which I saw in abundance everywhere in Scotland. A pedestrian crossover led me to the Portland Golf Course, and a sign that warned the casual stroller that “you are entering a golf course, be careful you don’t get hit by a golf ball”. I saw similar signs at other courses; they evidently aren’t too concerned about people mingling with the golfers. As I began a walk toward the clubhouse area, a lone golfer appeared and I handed him a ball I had discovered in the high grass along the fairway he was playing. I accompanied him for his final four holes, tending the flag while learning a bit about local golf.

I had intended to walk the additional two miles into town, to find a restaurant, and he offered to drive me there. I had him drop me near an ATM where I withdrew a modest amount for local expenses; I found a nice restaurant with acceptable menu and prices, and had a good rest before heading back three miles to the guest house. I tucked myself in to the spacious bed and, after playing a few moves of Words With Friends over the spotty internet, went to sleep.

Morning appeared along with Norman, the father of that gent I had met in London, and immediately I knew that this guy was going to be a terrific guide and partner as we explored the region. Highly personable, humorous and intelligent, he truly sparkled throughout our essays into the countryside and coast.

Our first stop was several miles to the southwest, following twisty roads past fallen castles and among heavy traffic until we reached Turnberry, another British Open rotation golf course and the one where Tom Watson disappointed golfers everywhere by losing the tournament at age 63, on the final hole. We walked through a steady drizzle out to the lighthouse, the identifying feature usually seen on any pictures of the course, and reached after crossing several fairways where golfers were suffering (one muttered to me as he passed by, “I’ve lost too damn many balls”), and a WWII landing strip used by RAF reconnaissance planes. Alongside the lighthouse was a tumbling ruin of a castle formerly inhabited by the mother of Robert the Bruce, the Scottish hero along with Mel Gibson (William Wallace) during the uprisings. Some historians say that Robert was born in this castle, but not as a certainty. Norman also told me that there are lots of places that are referred to as castles, but in reality most of them were probably merely big houses of the era.

Norman also pointed out what appeared to be an island, rising hump-backed out of the sea. He explained that it is a granite extrusion, the material so unique that it is the source of all the stones used in the world, for the sport of curling.

We of course had to visit the pro shop, where I learned that they eagerly rented a set of clubs for $85. I managed to purchase only a ball marker or two, and got a free scorecard.

We continued along the coastal road and at one point, Norman presented me with the optical illusion where it appeared we were going uphill but the car continued to coast without motor power. Interesting. Eventually, we arrived back in the Troon area, and headed for poet Robert Burns Museum and visitor center. For those of you unfamiliar with the gentleman, he lived in the 1700’s and penned his works in a combination of English and “Scottish”, producing sometimes puzzling works such as the familiar words sung at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve—“Auld Lang Syne”. Another somewhat familiar phrase, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley”, which I believe is an early version of Murphy’s Law.

We concluded our rainy day with dinner at the same restaurant I had used before, and Norman invited me to stay at his place for the night, our having discovered that my “best laid plans” had certainly gone agley, relative to my reservations. It seems that I was a day later than I had reserved two  months earlier, was being charged $113 for the pleasure, and had no reservation for the second night. Hence, my stay at Norman’s. As you recall, I had stayed at the Sandhill House, thinking I was actually arriving a day earlier than my hotel reservations. Anyway, I had the best night’s sleep of the whole trip, downed some sugar frosted flakes, and off we went to the day that was to be another major highlight—The Royal Troon Golf Course.

Norman had been an inveterate golfer for years, but arthritis, an affliction I unfortunately share, had greatly limited the use of his hands in swinging the club, so he no longer plays. However, one of his best friends is Roy, a member of the club and who normally plays three times a week, in all kinds of weather. He had offered to arrange for me to play either a nine or eighteen hole round on that day, but I had waffled back and forth about whether to play or not play, given the consistent rain, wind, and cold, that we had reached the point where I would not play. We had experienced a steady rain all  morning, ending just before lunchtime, which we passed in the club’s grill room. At some point, the sun appeared briefly and I was sorely tempted to once again waffle, but Roy wasn’t too enthusiastic to pursue a whole round given our combination of age, infirmity, and the lingering weather.

But he came up with a real gem—“What if I got a couple of clubs from the pro, we go out to a warm up activity at the driving range, then I take you out to play our Signature Hole, the famous Postage Stamp?” Wow! That hole is so-named due to the green being quite small and difficult to hit with a tee shot; the difficulty is enhanced by the fact that it is facing into breezes transposing into winds coming off the bay. Once again, I felt the surge of adrenalin and off we went. After a few shots at the driving range, we drove farther away from the clubhouse, parked, and walked across fairways until we reached the 8th tee, “The Postage Stamp”. On the way, I sneered at the deep bunkers that looked like ones at St. Andrews; I scoffed at the rolling terrain of the fairways as I headed for this Nirvana.

We each would hit two shots using 7 irons into the 25 mph wind on the 123 yd. hole. Roy hit first and, as his eyesight is not really terrific, asked me where his shot had gone. The green was about 50 feet lower than our teeing ground, the intervening landscape a mixture of gorse, heather, and other nastiness. His ball had cleared all that and disappeared over a small mound just in front of the green. Now it was my turn—after a few practice swings, I hit, and it felt like I had made a good shot but I didn’t see where the ball went, the wind in my face causing some tearing moisture. Norman, down by the green, waved his arms but I didn’t know what that meant.

Roy hit his second, it went a bit to the right. My turn again, this time I thought I would be clever and allow for the slight cross wind. I picked a bunker to the left of the green as my target, and the wind would waft the sphere gently onto the putting surface. I must mention that the green was surrounded by bunkers, so errant shots would probably find one of them. Anyway, I started that shot directly at that bunker and—that’s where it ended up. The wind did nothing. We picked up our tees and headed down the path to the green where Norman pointed at a ball a mere 7’ from  the hole! “Your first shot!” I looked at the ball and said, “At home that would be a gimme”, and since I don’t putt well with a 7-iron, I’ll just take my 2 and we can leave.” Roy turned to me and said, “Nice shot. Don’t come back”. We drove back to the club, thanked Roy for his hospitality, and arranged for me to host a dinner at the hotel where I was finally to spend a night.

The hotel was a lot more impersonal than the guest houses; the only really interesting thing was briefly watching a wedding party, the men dressed in military kilts and having rows of ribbons across their chests. That was the only time I saw kilts being worn, a formal occasion. The hotel room was small, the bathroom was small, the headroom under the roof was small, and the cost was high. I guess I’m just a guest house kind of guy.

After a decent salmon meal, Norman and I said our goodbyes and promised to remain in touch. The next morning I headed back to the Manor Park Hotel in Glasgow, spent the afternoon back at the Kelvingrove Museum, and packed to fly home the next day.

And that’s my Bucket List #3. What’s next? Well, if I can get dive certified, I want to SCUBA some of the great reefs of the world. And I have enough Frequent Flyer miles to go to Australia or New Zealand. Maybe I can tie the two together at the Great Barrier Reef.

Next February, I head again to South Korea, for a school evaluative visit. Perhaps I can work something else in, if I really think about it. BON VOYAGE!

Always Be Happy    To Our Youth

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