Monday, Dec 11, 2023

A Scotland golf trip in the harsh depths of winter? It has its benefits

Winter golf is Scotland requires rigor but is not without its charms.

Hayes Jackson

When you’re on a pre-dawn train bound for St. Andrews hoping to get lucky and play the Old Course, anxious thoughts pop into your head. How do I get from the station to the course? Will there be any tee times left when I arrive? Was starting the day with a triple espresso after eating Indian last night a tragic mistake?

It’s an early-winter Tuesday morning, and I’m in the middle of a grand experiment designed to answer a simple question: Is it worth trying to play winter golf in Scotland?

The joys of summer Scottish golf have been documented ad nauseam. But it’s getting harder and harder to actually take that version of the bucket-list trip. The game’s growing global popularity and the post-lockdown travel boom have made it seriously challenging to get on Scotland’s most famous courses.

The Scots still welcome foreign visitors and are always eager to share their world-class tracks. But these days, demand far outstrips supply. In January 2022, Royal Dornoch announced that the club would stop accepting visitor bookings for the rest of the year.

If you’re lucky enough to land a tee time on one of Scotland’s epic courses, the greens fees aren’t as reasonable as they used to be. The current high season rate on the Old Course is £295 (roughly $365). Far less than Pebble Beach’s $595 fee, but not exactly a weekday round at your local muni, either.

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So when I found out I’d be traveling to Edinburgh earlier this winter, my golf-addled brain immediately began trying to calculate if it was worth bringing my clubs.

The potential pros of winter golf in Scotland were easy to figure:

• Offseason rates on airfare, rental cars and hotel rooms
• Availability of tee times
• Increased buying power thanks to the weak British pound
• Fewer tourists
• A truly authentic Scottish golfing experience

The con list was shorter but potentially joy-killing:

• Fewer daylight hours to play
• Winter course conditions
• Nasty weather

That last item was my biggest concern. It would be great to cross a few more legendary tracks off my list, but how good would that feel if I was slogging through conditions more suited to the Iditarod?

Then again, Scotland’s weather is always unpredictable. I once played a brutal, bone-chilling round there in horizontal rain and gale force winds, a truly fugly afternoon that left me wondering, “Is walking hypothermia a thing?” And that was in June.

That was also more than 25 years ago, and the planet is getting warmer. Thanks to climate change, it was at least possible that a winter golf trip to Scotland wasn’t a completely insane idea. And if I could get on a few celebrated courses at nearly 50 percent off? Only a fool would pass that up.

At least that’s the rationalization I sold myself as I paid the airline fee to check my golf bag.

Once committed, I set my sights on the Home of Golf. The St. Andrews Links Trust offers winter packages, and golfers can always try entering the daily ballot to play the Old Course. But those options are only available for two or more players. As a single, my only option was to show up early at the Old Course on the day I wanted to play and hope to score a tee time.

(Pro tip: The Old Course closes every Sunday and occasionally for scheduled events and winter maintenance, so make sure it’s open on the day you want to play. You can check the calendar here.)

In the high season, hopeful singles typically wait in line all night at the starter’s Old Pavilion. But I was guessing that in winter the line would be much shorter. If I could get to St. Andrews by 6 a.m., maybe I’d have a shot at getting on the course.

If that didn’t work, I could always play one of the other quality tracks in town. But who wants to schlep all the way to the birthplace of the game and settle for the Jubilee Course? I’m sure it’s great, but have you ever heard anyone bragging they played it?

The streets were empty when I left my Edinburgh flat at 4:30 a.m. The crow circling overhead felt like a bad omen, and when I got to Waverly Station, none of the cafes were open. Then my train was delayed by a signal issue. Hot start!

Things started to turn once I arrived at Leuchars, the closest train stop to St. Andrews. Turns out, you can hail a taxi there before dawn. From there, St. Andrews is less than 15 minutes away. If that drive doesn’t get your blood flowing, tell the cabbie to head straight to the town cemetery and start digging you a new home.

It was still dark when my taxi passed the R&A Clubhouse, but the lights outside the Old Pavilion were on. As we rounded the bend, my heart skipped — there were just a handful of people in line.

On paper, at least, I had a shot.

A Scotland golf trip in the harsh depths of winter? It has its benefits
Bright(ish) and early at the Old Course. Hayes Jackson

Trying to get on the Old Course was a no-brainer. The bigger problem I had in planning the trip was deciding which of the hundred or so other great courses in Scotland I wanted to experience.

I had four days to play and a cheap rental car for three of them (£50 a day for a good-sized automatic, roughly a third of what you’d pay in the high season). But the short days and significant distances between Scotland’s best courses meant that I had to be selective.

Since I was starting the driving portion of my trip in Edinburgh, I set my sights on the famous courses in East Lothian, less than an hour to the east. Muirfield was my number one pick there, but outside play is booked months — if not years — in advance there. Cult favorite North Berwick wasn’t taking visitors, either. So I happily settled for its less famous but still excellent next door neighbor, Gullane No. 1 (No. 49 on GOLF’s Top 100 Courses in the UK and Ireland list).

A true championship test, Gullane No. 1 has hosted professional tournaments, elite amateur events and final qualifiers for the Open Championship. Despite the course’s lofty pedigree, scoring a tee time was easy. After a quick internet search and a £113 credit card charge, I was in. A great deal for the course where Rickie Fowler won the 2015 Scottish Open.   

I had just one one concern — the club’s website clearly states that greens fees aren’t refundable unless the course is closed for bad weather. Bad weather happens all the time in Scotland, but actual course closings don’t. Unless there was a hurricane, I wasn’t getting my money back.

The drive to Gullane along Scotland’s Golf Coast is one of the most stirring in the game. But as I pulled into the club, my excitement turned to worry. Thick, dark clouds filled the sky, and the wind was blowing hard even by local standards. I started thinking this off-season boondoggle was ill-conceived.

A Scotland golf trip in the harsh depths of winter? It has its benefits
Gullane is a former Scottish Open site. Hayes Jackson

But as soon as I teed off, the sky began to clear. I never saw a drop of rain or felt more than a two-club wind, and the temperature stayed in the comfortable mid 50s. In Scotland, that’s not a bad summer day.

Overnight rain made the course play long, but it was exceedingly fair. East Lothian is said to have the finest golf turf in the world, and the course argued that convincingly. There was no need for winter rules or hitting off fairway mats. Over the last six holes, the scenic track glowed under in the dramatic low winter sunlight. It was like playing in a Rembrandt landscape.

I took it all in with two young Irishmen, also first-timers on the course. A delightful threesome, and we finished in less than four hours. New friends, spectacular lighting and a fun, fast round on a world-class course. That day alone made schlepping my sticks to Scotland worthwhile.

The drive north from Gullane did not inspire hope for the two rounds I’d planned on the coast near Aberdeen. Rain started falling as I crossed into Fife, and by the time I arrived at the St. Olaf Hotel (£132 for two nights), the storm was howling.

I was staying in the shadow of Slains Castle, the gnarled ruins that inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula. The wind that slammed against my window all night made it impossible to sleep, far more annoying than any vampire.

But just as the sun came up, the sky started to clear. One of the great things about links courses is that they drain almost as quickly as the weather changes. Any concerns I had about playability were put to rest when I pulled into Fraserburgh Golf Club (No. 97 on GOLF’s list) for my 9:30 a.m. tee time.

Fraserburgh hadn’t been on my radar until a golf-nerd pal recommend it. No one I know has actually been there — including my friend — but it’s the world’s seventh oldest course. Golf has been played at Fraserburgh since at least 1777. The club has started marketing itself more, so the rest of the world is finally discovering it — and with good reason.

The course does not excel at first impressions. From the clubhouse, all you can see are the 1st and 18th holes, a pair of flat, boilerplate par-4s as lifeless as Dracula’s victims.

But those two holes are the only problem with Fraserburgh. The other 16 holes are pure ecstasy.

The fun starts at the 2nd, a challenging par-4 that climbs to the top of Corbie Hill. From there, the brilliant next 15 holes spread out before you, winding through majestic dunes like the ones you play in your dreams.

Tom Doak says Fraserburgh’s four par-3s are as good as any in golf, and the par-4 13th inspired the 9th hole on Gil Hanse’s Rio Olympic course. And talk about a killer a killer back nine… well, eight. If golf courses were 16 holes long, the world would be beating down Fraserburgh’s door.

I played alone in three and half hours but spent at least 20 minutes of that taking pictures. Hitting off a fairway mat didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the course one bit, and the club itself is warm and welcoming.

At the bar afterward, I met a local fisherman who plays to a three. He told me Fraserburgh is as good as Cruden Bay, its world-famous neighbor 30 minutes south. There’s a lot of members’ bias there, but if you’re hiking to this staggeringly beautiful corner of the world to play Cruden Bay, you’d be a fool not to add Fraserburgh to your list.

And if you catch the course on a day like I did — low 50s, light wind, plenty of sun — you’ll start thinking that for the winter rate of £43, Fraserburgh could be the best bargain in golf. Their cheese toastie is pretty damn good, too.

For the winter rate of £43, Fraserburgh could be the best bargain in golf.

A Scotland golf trip in the harsh depths of winter? It has its benefits

After Gullane and Fraserburgh, I figured my good weather karma was due to run out. But when I woke up the next morning, the sky was clear and windless. For a moment I wondered if I was still in Scotland.

My hotel room overlooked Cruden Bay’s famous links. With the sun rising over the towering dunes and waves crashing in the distance, it was entirely reasonable for a middle-age man to think, “I will never need Viagra.”

Cruden Bay’s brilliant, quirky routing (No. 20 on GOLF’s UK list; No. 63 on GOLF’s World list) became famous outside Scotland in the 1990s and quickly became a must-visit. It’s a favorite of Doak, Pete Dye and just about everyone else who has sampled its eccentric charms. A golf buddy who has played more great designs than anyone I know calls Cruden Bay “a perfect golf course.” Just looking at it, I knew he was right.

Despite the course’s enduring popularity, getting on couldn’t have been easier. I fired off an inquiry email, and the club wrote back with a tee time right away. Seventy-five pounds was a small price to pay to play one of the best links on the planet, and just in case the weather was dicey, they wouldn’t charge me until the day of play.

After a quick warm-up, I teed off alone under a brilliant blue sky. Walking down the first fairway, I found myself doing something unfamiliar — removing layers.

The temperature quickly reached the upper 50s, and the wind stayed flat all day. A few holes in, I joined up with two members, excellent players who couldn’t have been more welcoming. They showed me around the course, kept me out of trouble, and eagerly shared stories of the club and its history.

A Scotland golf trip in the harsh depths of winter? It has its benefits
Cruden Bay might be the perfect golf course. Hayes Jackson

One of the great joys of playing in Scotland is discovering how ridiculously friendly everyone is. Playing with locals is a welcome reminder that the best part of the game is time spent with friends, both old and new.

The course was in great shape and a joy to play. Those adjectives that are used to describe it — quirky, demanding, stunning, hypnotic, awe-inspiring — Cruden Bay is all that and more. Some things in life live up to the hype.

The day’s only blemish was discovering that the 14th, a famous par-4 with a bathtub green, was closed. In its place we played a strong and scenic replacement hole. This is a hazard of winter golf in Scotland — you will occasionally find a temporary green or other seasonal course adjustment.

Then again, I was playing a world-famous course for a discount rate while the rest of the world was freezing or at work. [Cue the world’s tiniest violins.]

I arrived at Cruden Bay hoping the course would live up to its reputation. I left wondering how the hell it had been undiscovered in the first place.

My St. Andrews taxi hadn’t even stopped when I pulled out my wallet and asked to pay. Then I dove out of the cab and sprinted to get in line at the Old Pavilion. I tripped over my golf bag only once.

Queuing in the dark for a spot on the Old Course creates a glorious energy. You’re all strangers but also like-minded golf nuts, giddy at the thought of playing the nearly 500-year-old masterpiece. The combination of sleep deprivation and a lifetime of anticipation is a hell of a drug.

After all the stress and delay, there were only three golfers ahead of me. One had been waiting since 3:30 a.m., and the other two arrived at 6. The next hour passed quickly, full of friendly conversation and nervous laughter. We were grateful for the heaters under the Old Pavilion’s eaves, but the benches went unused. Everyone was too excited to sit.

The dawn that broke over the famous beach was sudden and extraordinary, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, a flurry of activity. The greenskeeping staff began setting up for the day, and an affable woman came out to take coffee and breakfast orders. Eating a bacon and sausage roll in the shadow of the R&A Club House slaps.

The staff couldn’t have been more welcoming. Everyone knows you’re trying to fulfill a dream and does their best to make that happen. I knew from the ballot results roughly how many slots were available that day and figured I’d have at least an hour to warm up. But five minutes before the course opened, a last-minute scheduling snafu landed me in the first group of the day.

It would be hard to have more fun on a golf course.

With no time for stretching or even a single practice putt, I paid my greens fee and raced to the first tee. That shot of adrenaline made me only more nervous. Was I going to be the first golfer to vomit on the steps of the R&A?

But as luck would have it, I was playing with three locals. Longtime friends with strong games, they excelled at playing fast and giving each other the needle. I was quickly welcomed into the club.

The course looked fantastic and was in great condition for that time of year. The greens were a little furry, and in a few bunkers the sand was more like dirt. But I never saw any casual water, and every one of the famous greens was in play.

My caddie was terrific and told stories of looping for John Daly. The call to come to work and carry my bag had saved him from a day of shopping with his wife, so he was almost as happy as I was to be there.

And it all cost only £135.  I was experiencing the most mythical links on the planet (No. 1 on GOLF’s UK and Ireland list; No. 3 on the World list) for the price of a cookie-cutter resort course back home.

My new friends and I played quickly and laughed constantly. The round was fast, fun and over much too soon — like losing your virginity with a soundtrack by Peter Alliss. It would be hard to have more fun on a golf course.

We never saw the sun that day, and the temperature stayed in the low 50s. Not ideal, but nothing to complain about, either. The bad weather held off until the last two holes, when we were pelted by a cold, hard rain that gave us a taste of what could have been.

Was it as perfect as playing the Old Course on a long summer day and walking up 18 in the gloaming? Of course not. Was it one of the best golfing days of my life? Absolutely. 

When I got back to Edinburgh that night, there was snow on the ground, a good reminder of how quickly the weather can change there. The next time I try to pull off four winter rounds, I doubt Mother Nature will be so cooperative. Better lucky than good, right?

But even without all that weather good fortune, I’d still argue it’s worth giving offseason golf in Scotland a shot. In many ways, it’s the most distilled version of the game. The tough conditions self-select people who truly love the sport, and since you’re always chasing daylight, you have to play quickly. That’s good for your score and your head. 

You also know that course conditions won’t be perfect. But no matter what you encounter — weird bounces, muddy lies, temporary greens, scruffy fairway mats — if the weather holds and you get in all 18, you’ll feel like you got away with something. For once in your life, you’ll be thanking the golf gods instead of cursing them.

Would I do it all again? Put it this way: My wife has always dreamed of spending the holidays in London. I’m going to try to talk her into Christmas in St. Andrews.