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Golf in Scotland Is a Lesson in the Art of Imperfection

Enchanting courses in the birthplace of the game make a believer out of a skeptic


spinner image A lone golfer stands on the green of a golf course in the rain with an umbrella and a golf bag.
Illustration by Chris Lyons

Wind slaps my cheeks and a light rain blurs my vision as I walk to the back tee of the par-three 10th hole at the Ardfin Estate golf course on Jura, a remote island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Perched on a dramatic bluff jutting out above the ocean’s crashing waves, this cliff-to-cliff hero shot spans nearly 180 yards. I step up to the shot and am overtaken with the same sense of butterflies-in-my-stomach anticipation and nerves I experience when I go heli-skiing or surfing in big waves. However, unlike those extreme sports, the repercussions of a miscalculation have consequences only for the ball, not my body. And today I watch as the howling winds suck my ball straight down to be swallowed by the turbulent sea.

Golf is incredibly difficult, and as a type-A perfectionist, I typically avoid things I’m bad at. But someone once suggested I embrace activities that don’t come naturally to me. If I weren’t so focused on winning or performing well, I might have more fun, the friend rationalized. And if you start at the bottom, you can only improve, which means every attempt feels like a small achievement. I’ve discovered much truth in this sage advice, and have also come to realize it really is never too late to learn a new skill. Thus, when an opportunity arose to join a golf trip in Scotland, I said yes, even though I was a genuine novice. I’d played only Putt-Putt golf growing up on the New Jersey Shore and, as an adult, had played only once on a real course, in Hawaii — and didn’t even finish the round. But travel has sparked many of my passions (kitesurfing, road cycling), so I thought a new setting just might turn me on to this “gentleman’s game.”

I knew I risked offending an entire country by showing up to the home of golf without lessons and a basic understanding of golf etiquette. So two months ahead of the trip, I started meeting with an instructor one morning a week, then devoting weeknights to practicing alone the skills he’d taught me at a public driving range. The uniform-like golf outfits and resolute looks on the other golfers’ faces initially intimidated me. But every so often I’d catch glimpses of even the most professional-looking guys whiffing (swinging and missing the ball). Slowly I started to realize that proficiency at the sport takes practice and patience. Even lifelong golfers hit bad shots, so I told myself I shouldn’t be deterred.

 

Discovering linksland

Scotland is not a large country, but some of its greatest golf courses are on far-flung islands and isolated corners of craggy coastline, requiring hours of travel to reach. Given I only had one week’s time, I joined a trip with the logistics whizzes at Bravo Whisky Golf, which uses seaplanes and helicopters to efficiently whisk golf fans to otherwise hard-to-reach courses. A routine trip to Jura from Edinburgh, for example, would have required a full day of travel, including a ferry crossing. Via seaplane, we arrive in under one hour’s time, and our flight doubles as a stunning aerial tour of Scotland’s fissured coast, complete with castle and stag sightings.

Rule No. 1 of golf in Scotland: There’s no such thing as bad weather. I wake my first morning at Ardfin, an 18th-century estate turned modern hotel, to something the Scots call mizzle, a mix of mist and drizzle. The wind is wild. The air is cool and damp. There’s no chance we’ll golf in these conditions, I think. However, just as I light my fireplace and start to pull out a book, I hear a bang at my door. When I open it, I see the trip host smiling widely and holding a brolly (a Scotticism for umbrella) and rain gear. Turns out that most true Scotsmen play rain or shine.

The brolly is my first clue as to Rule No. 2 of golf in Scotland: You walk. Carts are frowned upon, even disallowed on many courses. I worry I might get sick, thinking this rule will prolong our time on the course, knowing that golf in the U.S. is about perfection, which means 18 holes can easily take five-plus hours. But I quickly learn that the Scottish embrace a very different pace of play. You don’t take a half dozen practice swings or overanalyze shots like you’re on the PGA tour. You keep things moving and wrap up 18 holes in less than four hours.

Ardfin’s off-the-beaten path location means we’re the only players on the dramatic clifftop course. And what a course. The scenery is distractingly wild and beautiful — the antithesis of the well-groomed courses back home — with sheep and stag roaming in the distance. I lose a half dozen balls in thick carpets of heather and patches of oversized bracken, and then there’s that shot from the 10th that leaves my ball at the bottom of the sea. The hours I dedicated to mastering those long-distance shots back home at the driving range don’t do me much good here. My childhood Putt-Putt skills are surprisingly more useful, as most shots, with the rare exception of that 10th hole, aren’t designed to be sky shots, where the ball soars through the air.

Scotland is linksland, with old-style golf courses located by the sea and characterized by undulating hills of sand. This style of course must be attacked from the ground, not from the air like the parkland courses of the States, with their lush grass and man-made features, like dug bunkers. The awkward bumps and slopes, weather and wilderness of a links course force a more creative style of play that, in my opinion, is far more fun.

 

Learning to let go

The following day we take a five-minute ferry across to the neighboring Isle of Islay to play one of Scotland’s most iconic links courses, the Machrie. This dazzling oceanfront course is sculpted into some of the country’s wildest duneland, edged by untamed, windswept marram grass.

Recently redesigned, the course is as challenging as ever. The holes play through the course’s valleys more than over the dunes, forcing you to play the ball along and across the course, not just over it. The Machrie demands strategy and challenges all levels. By now, I’d come to not just anticipate but also appreciate Scotland’s unpredictable weather. Another day of mizzle and gray skies adds a moody romance to the coastal backdrop, and I know a glass of Scotland’s signature drink — whisky — will warm me up just after the 18th hole.

The crashing waves on the wide beach just beyond the Machrie course no longer feel like a distraction but rather a soothing soundtrack that helps me focus as we play. Hole No. 5, aptly named Perfection, may be one of the toughest driving holes on the Machrie. Hit even a hair right, your approach will be blind and a ridge running through the middle of the large green on the second shot could leave you putting from the wrong side. My golf mate nails the drive, and I giggle as I catch him doing a celebration dance, something that would surely be frowned upon back home.

I didn’t fare as well on the hole, yet as we walk toward the back nine, I notice how calm I feel. I haven’t glanced at a phone screen in hours. I’m walking in nature. Back home, those sessions at the driving range felt meditative, but this feels more like forest bathing, a Japanese form of ecotherapy. My game is far from par, but I don’t feel frustrated or discouraged. I’ve let go of my perfectionist tendencies and don’t focus on my score. Instead, I relax and revel in the magnificent natural setting.

Not obsessing over my game also allows me to fully embrace other Scottish traditions, like après-golf. Whisky is even more celebrated than golf on Islay. The sleepy island is home to nine distilleries, including such historic operations as Bruichladdich and Dalmore. We could do a tasting room tour, but we opt for the bar at the Machrie hotel that overlooks the 18th hole and stocks bottles from all nine island distilleries, plus Scotland’s other famous producers. As we raise a glass and toast the day, I surprise myself by beginning to plot the courses I’ll play on my next golf trip to Scotland.

 

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