Taking a trip around Scotland golf history
GULLANE, Scotland -- A detour to the Home of Golf provided unusual sunshine and warmth as well as a prophetic introduction on the first tee of the old course: Stewart Morris would be the caddie on this day, and it doesn't get any better than being in St. Andrews and having a Morris on your bag.
That name resonates through the town, as it was Tom Morris Sr. -- better known as Old Tom -- who was the "keeper of the green'' for years, who shaped and molded the world's most famous golf course and combined with his son -- Young Tom -- to win eight Open Championships back when leather balls and hickory shafts were in vogue.
Stewart Morris, a 60-ish looking man with a gray beard and long hair, has been caddying on the various St. Andrews courses for years. "I get asked all the time 'Are you related to Tom Morris?' All I know is my granny told us years ago that we had a very famous name in the town,'' he said. "She said we had a name to uphold, that we were a descendent of the golfers. That is what I tell people, I just can't prove it.''
Hey, good enough.
Walking the fairways of the famous links with a guy who's been around the area forever was a pleasure in itself. The golf, as difficult as it may have been, was simply a bonus.
St. Andrews, of course, is known as golf's Mecca. But the area that is hosting this week's Open Championship -- East Lothian -- would have a friendly disagreement with that assessment. Or maybe not so friendly.
Muirfield, which will stage the Open for the 16th time, is about 80 miles from St. Andrews on the other side of the Firth of Forth. The area boasts some of the finest links golf on record, including two gems we managed to sample in the name of research.
So why the diversion to St. Andrews? Well, why not? In 1953, when Ben Hogan made his one and only trip to the Open, winning at Carnoustie, he famously passed on a chance to visit St. Andrews, which was less than an hour away, and never set foot on the hallowed ground or in the historic town. All these years later, that remains hard to believe.
Colleague Scott Michaux of the Augusta Chronicle had floated the idea months ago of taking a side trip to play the New Course, Old Course and Crail, an amazing links 20 minutes away. Old Tom had a hand in all of them, the "New'' Course opened in 1895 due to the growing demand for golf in the town.
Now there are seven courses in St. Andrews that fall under the "Links Trust'' banner, which means any local resident can pay an annual fee of £200 (about $360) for the right to play any of the courses. When you consider that visitors pay £170 for one round on the Old Course, you can see the beauty of that resident deal.
Getting on the Old Course can present some challenges, and those who plan trips well in advance can get times secured if they are willing to pay dearly for them. The easiest and most common way to get on the course is through the daily ballot, which allows you to sign up two days prior with a drawing of names conducted each day.
After playing the New Course, the Old Course was on the schedule for the next morning, and you could not have asked for a more glorious day. We slapped it around the links in a fashion befitting our limited skills, but nobody really cared. Playing the Old Course does that to you.
After a short break, it was on to Crail, where we were joined by ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski. At major championships, part of the deal is to cheerfully serve as his personal driver/valet/fact-checker. So it would only make sense that Mr. Woj had three rounds of golf set up for him as well. (He will be reminded of that often this week.)
Crail is a quirky, fun links on the Firth of Forth first laid out by -- you guessed it -- Old Tom in 1895. It barely measures 6,000 yards but it is a gem.
The town of St. Andrews is gearing up for the Women's British Open in two weeks (where Inbee Park will attempt to win a fourth consecutive major championship) and will also host the 2015 Open.
It was then on to this week's Open site, driving back toward Edinburgh and around the Firth of Forth to set up and our hotel in Aberlady, which is 3.5 miles from the Muirfield parking lot.
This is when the temperature changed and the golf became a lot more challenging. Gullane No. 1 is as good of a links as any around, a stern test in calm conditions, a brute in the wind. And that's what we had. A steady, consistent, strong wind in chilly late-afternoon conditions that made that tall grass on either side of the fairways look all the more menacing.
Geoff Shackelford, who writes a blog and also for Golf Digest, managed to shoot 80, which would have been impressive without the wind, even more so with it. Proof again that those magazine guys get plenty of time to work on their games.
Gullane has not one but three courses and the road runs through them on the way to Muirfield. Also in close proximity are Kilspindie and Craigielaw and there simply is no poor option. A few miles away is another famous links, Dunbar.
Last but not least we teed it up at North Berwick, which is about as much fun as it gets in golf. Eight holes straight out into the wind, the ninth in a cross wind and then nine holes coming back down wind, with an 18th that very much resembles the home hole at St. Andrews. A few holes behind us was Bubba Watson and a small entourage, enjoying the surroundings but also getting used to the shots and strategy of playing a links.
The term "links'' is often misused and is not a description of any course. A links typically requires a seaside location with a sandy base that drains easily and has hard, firm fairways that are usually watered by nature.
That is what you will witness this week at Muirfield, with its numerous pot bunkers and a firm, fast layout that Tiger Woods already described as "fiery.''
The challenge is extreme for the best players in the world, but even for us chops links golf offers a lot of fun. You can land shots short of greens and see them run on; there are few forced carries over water hazards. Down wind, the ball goes for miles.
And in this part of the world, with all the golf on offer, you never run out of options.