CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – This is Open week and you better not mess up the grand old championship by adding the word “British,” although many do, mostly Americans. It is, after all, the first Open golf championship in the history of the sport dating back to 1860 at St. Andrews which is 24 miles east of here across the Firth of Tay.
I’ve been coming to this championship since 1978 when Jack Nicklaus won at the Old Course, and as much as the event turns heads with its signature traditions and colorful history, the people and the lifestyles are worthy of a large investment of your time.
The countryside, with meadows and sheep, waving grain and meandering burns make you regret you are not an artist. The aged buildings and homes clustered quaintly are likely to reveal a pub in their midst where laughter dominates and life has no complexity.
Things seem laid back and simpler though government, taxes, corrupt politicians and the cost of living get the conversational back of the hand as it does in Athens, Waycross and Watkinsville.
There is more to do than focus on fluid golf shots than dance across undulating greens and nestle up to the hole of golf courses which were built when Victoria and Albert were ordering furniture for Buckingham Palace.
It is the countryside which overwhelms. Scotland in summer is without stress or complication. If you are of a mind to do so, you can enjoy an unhurried dinner and then stroll 18 holes on your favorite golf course before you turn in. “That is the sort of thing that makes our lifestyle extraordinary,” said a Scottish friend years ago. But don’t remind them in winter sunrises come at 9:30 a.m. and sunsets at 3:30 p.m.
After many trips to the United Kingdom, especially when Scotland is in the mix, there has never been a bad experience. You can find your way here by a number of options, but my favorite is the train.
Take the “Flying Scotsman” out of London’s Kings Cross to Waverly station in Edinburg, then on to Leuchars (of World War II fame) just outside St. Andrews. You are smitten by the landscape and the scenic countryside. Someday I hope my great-grandchildren will be able to ride a train from Athens to Atlanta. Looks like that much time will have had to elapse before sensible rail gets priority in our thinking. You can dial up Uber, if you like, or hire a taxi, but I prefer Britt Rail. Transportation is costly. Hire a car and you blink at the rate. Hire a taxi and you may have to skip dinner. Book Uber and you choke. Do as the Scots do. Walk.
Recalling the past, you remember when you could book bed and breakfast with a family for eight pounds a night, which was about $12.00. The beds, with their eiderdowns, brought about the most comforting sleep. Unless you asked to be “knocked-up” before daylight, your hostess was always up and stirring and greeting you with coffee.
Continental breakfast is pretty much standard, but in the early days of B&B, you got a “cooked” breakfast which meant that you were welcomed by poached eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage and toast. Seconds were generously offered.
More often than not, classic adventure awaited you at the golf course where freshening winds coming in off the sea make shot making an eternal challenge. No heat and humidity—always sweater weather. Or more.
Carnoustie went off the championship rota for years—not enough accommodations for players and officials along with inadequate roads and infrastructure were among the reasons. Not enough parking, but the city fathers convened with a can-do commitment and Carnoustie is not only back, it is, perhaps, the most challenging layout in Scotland.
Gary Player has called it the toughest golf course in the world. Of course, the South African, has been given to overstatement a few times in his career. “When the wind is blowing, it is probably the toughest golf course in Britain, and when it is not blowing, it is still the toughest,” says Michael Bonallack, a British Amateur champion and secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club for years.
During the time that the course was dormant for competition, it still attracted serious golfers who came to Scotland for a golfing vacation, especially when the championship was played at the Old Course across the Tay.
Furman Bisher, who began “coming across” in 1977 for the epic dual Between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry, loved the Open Championship. No matter the elements, he bundled up and followed the golfers. Often we would play golf in the morning and follow the championship in the afternoon. This event is as good as it gets when it comes to big-time golf.
You have missed something most majors don’t offer when you miss the British championship: stiffening winds on the sunniest of days, pothole bunkers, women pedaling groceries home on their bicycles, a dog idling in a bar while his master knocks down a pint or two of a lager, the town going to sleep an hour before midnight and awakening at 4:00 a.m.
The golf is played at a high level, but the experience connects with your soul and stimulates an unquenchable appreciation for those frugal Scots who are as much of the scene as the Claret Jug which goes to the winner.