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Adventures in Scotland: How to Make the Most of Your Trip

Kiel ChristiansonBy Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND -- One week ago, after arriving very early in the morning in Glasgow, I was informed by the dour crew at the Alamo rental car desk that I could not receive the mini-van reserved for me without a pre-pay voucher. Problem was, the voucher was 2,500 miles away in the possession of my brother-in-law, whom, along with two other in-laws, I was to pick up the following day in Edinburgh to begin our "Golf Trip of a Lifetime."

Dialing with a ferocity born of frustration, hunger, and a red-eye flight from Toronto, I reached the voice mail of Jeremy Findlay of Tayleur Mayde Golf Tours. Mr. Findlay had helped my brother-in-law (who had never before set foot outside of the U.S.) plan this dream golf extravaganza, and I sincerely hoped that he could set the Alamo drones straight.

Within a short while, Mr. Findlay phoned me to say that he had indeed settled the issue, having had to withdraw himself from a golf competition and return to his office to do so. I drove away from the Alamo car lot not only wondering what sort of moron names a company after an infamous military defeat, but also grateful that my brother-in-law had arranged our trip through a Scottish tour company that was always within reach, just in case further snags arose.

Fortunately for us, none did. Now, sitting over a pint in a cozy Glaswegian pub, I find myself emitting one long sigh of contentment after another. Just this morning, I saw my father-in-law and two brothers-in-laws off at the Glasgow airport, and in so doing, marked the official end of our once-in-a-lifetime golf trip to the birthplace of the game.

So how does a group of golf buddies - in-laws, no less! - plan and execute a dream vacation to Scotland? Where does one start? Who does one call? How do you reach the point where you find yourself contentedly sipping a pint and recalling all of the things that didn't go wrong?

What follows is a "How To" for planning a golf trip to Scotland, from the point of view of a golf tourist who sweats the details, not a golf journalist who gets ferried from course to course on a cushy press trip.

Start planning EARLY!

Whether you decide to employ a tour company to help arrange your trip, or decide to go solo, it is utterly critical than you begin planning EARLY. According to Mr. Findlay of Tayleur Mayde Golf Tours, not doing so is the single most frequent mistake golfers from abroad make when planning a trip to Scotland.

"People often simply don't believe us when we say that if they want to secure a confirmed tee time on The Old Course, they must begin the process at least a year in advance," laments Findlay. "In fact, if you were planning a trip in 2004, it is a good time to begin right now. 2003 tee times at the Old Course are already filling up."

However, it is also a common mistake to believe that one can never get on the major courses without advanced planning. According to Carolyne Nurse, Communications Director for the St. Andrews Links Trust, single players - perhaps in town on business or as part of a non-golfing tour - believe that they won't ever get on The Old Course. They are unfamiliar with the ballot system and walk-on possibilities available to singles and twosomes.

"They're also unaware that here at St. Andrews, there are five 18-hole courses and one 9-hole course," Nurse continues. "So golfers should always bring their clubs, even if they haven't made advanced tee times. And be sure to bring a current handicap card as well, if you want to play The Old Course."

Research the courses

Findlay echoes Nurse's point: "I would like to stress to people coming from abroad that The Old Course is not the be-all and end-all to Scottish golf. There are so many hidden gems that golf tourists have never heard of. A tour operator who has played all the courses can help point these out."

For example, Findlay points out that golf did not, in fact, begin at St. Andrews. "Golf was first played at a place called Old Musselburgh outside of St. Andrews. It's a 9-hole course inside an old horseracing track. And you can still go there today and play it with hickory-shafted clubs and featheries."

There are, in fact, a dizzying number of golf courses in Scotland. Just in the St. Andrews area alone are enough to play 36 holes a day for over two weeks. According to Nurse, one of the typical mistakes golf tourists make is trying to play too many courses spread out over the entire nation. "You can' t plan to play The Old Course in the morning and then drive north to Royal Dornoch for an afternoon round," she warns. "On the map, it doesn't look so far, but it takes a long time to drive through the countryside."

In choosing courses for us to play (ten in five days!), my brother-in-law used two criteria: (1) The course had to have either hosted the British Open or have hosted a qualifying round for the Open. (2) The course had to be highly recommended by Jeremy Findlay, whose taste in courses turned out to be impeccable. These criteria served us well; we were disappointed with none of them. (And most will be reviewed here in future issues.)

Pace yourself, and hire caddies

Another common error in judgment golfers make is planning too much golf, for example ten rounds in five days. Golf in Scotland is a different game than in the states: There are no motorized carts ("buggies"), and walking 36 holes into the teeth of the wind and rain blowing off the North Sea can wear out even the fittest golfer. There are other things to do in Scotland (to be enumerated in a future article), so at least consider playing 36 holes only every other day. And whether you golf all day every day or see some sights, be sure to pack a quality rain suit, as the weather changes more quickly and more often than a teenage girl before a big date.

One way to ease the physical strain is to hire a caddie where available. Some courses, such as The Old Course, practically require a caddie the first time you play, simply by virtue of the number of hidden bunkers you need to avoid. Others, such as Kingsbarns, simply incorporate so many elevation changes that a caddie pays off later in the day, when you still feel fresh on the last hole of your afternoon round. Caddies cost between 30-40 British pounds (approx. $40-50), plus tip (usually 10-15 pounds).

Tour company or solo?

The biggest decision you'll need to make is whether you want to go through a tour company or plan the entire trip by yourself. Americans are especially prone to want to go it alone, but there are distinct advantages to working with a tour company, aside from getting advice about which courses to schedule.

Jeremy Findlay of Tayleur Mayde Golf Tours (www.tayleurmayde.com) elaborates: "First of all, there are certain complications with some golf clubs. For example, some only allow public play certain days of the week, or before certain times. We know these things. Second, the time required to put a trip together is more than most people are willing or able to spend. And finally, tour operators receive lower rates on hotel rooms and rental cars than individuals do."

Furthermore, when going through a tour operator, it is best to deal with one in Scotland. A perfect reason is the difficulty I experienced with Alamo; if I had made arrangements with a tour operator in California, they would have been asleep when I needed them.

Findlay has been operating (primarily) golf tours for nearly a decade, and Tayleur Mayde has been around for over four years. According to Findlay, there is one very large Scottish tour company, and some half-dozen others the same size as Tayleur Mayde, which provides whole-ground service (from landing to take-off) for 400-500 golfers per year. Tayleur Mayde will also customize service, supplying only hotel or tee times, for example, but usually for a small additional fee.

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) recommended last year that golfers who plan to use a tour operator should choose one who belongs to the Scottish Destination Management Association (SDMA, www.scotland-sdma.org.uk), as Tayleur Mayde does. Findlay cautions, "You don 't want to pin your hopes on a one-man-band, operating from his kitchen table. [Planning golf tours] is not as easy as it looks."

Where to stay

As mentioned, golfers should not try to travel too much. Choose a region-St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen - and play the courses in that area. And when it comes to the type of accommodation, Americans in general (and wealthy ones in particular) should realize that modestly priced B&B's and guesthouses offer quaint rooms, personal attention, and huge breakfasts that would all be the envy of most larger, MUCH more expensive hotels.

"For some reason," chuckles Findlay, "Some Americans tend to think of Scotland as a Third World nation. I had groups last year asking if the 5-star Gleneagles Hotel had hot running water."

Although it's true some older or smaller B&B's might not have bathrooms in every guest room, the ones who routinely cater to Americans know many Yanks are borderline obsessive about their ablutions, so rooms with bathrooms are available. So if you simply cannot walk down the hall to pee, there are plenty of options besides blowing the kids' college fund on a luxury suite.

How to get there

Tour operators and guesthouses can be so reasonable that you may find your biggest expense is the flight to Scotland. Remember that June-September constitutes the peak season for Northern European tourism; travel before or after these months, and flights can be much cheaper. Also check with charter carriers or smaller airlines and consider alternate airports, such as Air Transat, out of Canada. I found a peak-season ticket from Toronto to Glasgow for less than $400 U.S.

One word of caution, however: Some airlines (including Air Transat) require passengers to sign a waiver releasing them from liability of your golf clubs if they are damaged by some ham-fisted baggage handler (gasp!). Invest in a sturdy hard-sided case and use extra golf socks to pad the clubheads, and you can rest easier during your flight.

In sum, although planning a "Golf Trip of a Lifetime" to the birthplace of the game requires time, thought, and money, no hurdle is high enough as to prevent even the least worldly Yankee duffer from making the pilgrimage. If my in-laws were able to pull off this trip without pulling off each other's heads or driving our mini-van into the sea, than anyone can do it.

Now, I think I'll have one more pint....

Scotland Golf Resources:

Tayleur Mayde Golf Tours
21 Castle Street, Edinburgh, EH2 3DN, Scotland
email: info@tayleurmayde.com
USA toll-free: 1 800 847 8064
Telephone: +44 (0) 131 225 9114
Web: www.tayleurmayde.com

St. Andrews Links Trust
Pilmour House, St Andrews
Fife, KY16 9SF, Scotland
Tel: +44 (0) 1334 466666
Fax: +44 (0) 1334 479555
Web: www.standrews.org.uk
Booking information: www.golfagent.com

Scottish Destination Management Association (SDMA)
Web: www.scotland-sdma.org.uk

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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