The recent British Open, known in the U.K. as “The Open” – served as a reminder of the many good times I played golf in Scotland, especially of the time Judge Neal Biggers and I took a memorable golfing trip.
When I spent a year doing research in Edinburgh, Scotland, Judge Neal Biggers came over to visit and play some golf. He and I have returned several times since, and we had many pleasant memories of playing golf on courses in Berwick, Edinburgh, St. Andrews and Perthshire, but none of our memories had been put on paper. On one return visit I had planned a trip that would take us to the beautiful golf courses of St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Cruden Bay, Nairn, Royal Dornoch and Crieff. On this trip I took a tape recorder hoping to make permanent the impressions Neal and I had of Scottish golf courses.
On a rare, beautifully sunny Scotland day we left Edinburgh and headed north in our rental car, crossed over the beautiful Firth of Forth Bridge and then headed east along the Firth coastline into Fife through Bruntsfield and Leven. Another turn to the north took us to out first planned stop, St. Andrews. Neal and I agreed that St. Andrews was our favorite Scotland town, other than Edinburgh. When Neal visited me in 1989, we were fortunate to obtain a tee-time at the Old Course with no advanced reservation. We were not as fortunate this time since all tee-times were booked. Although our disappointment was obvious, we had a nice lunch at the Dunvegan Hotel and a quick tour of the St. Andrews Abbey and headed north toward Carnoustie.
The drive from St. Andrews took us through Leuchars, across the Firth of Tay Bridge to Dundee, then east through Broughty Ferry, Monifieth, Barry and finally reaching Carnoustie before dark. Since we had not made advanced plans we had no idea where to spend the night. After driving around for a few minutes and becoming acquainted with the Carnoustie golf course, we came across a hotel – the Station Hotel – situated alongside the main railway that ran along the entire length of the Carnoustie Golf Course. After checking in, we planned to meet in the lounge. I arrived first and struck up a conversation with the hotel owner and told him of our plans to play Carnoustie the next day, then head north to play Cruden Bay the following day. When we were eating, I mentioned to Neal that no one knew where we were – an odd feeling.
The next morning, we headed for the course, one of the oldest in the world. Supposedly golf has been played at Carnoustie since the 16th century. It used to be part of The Open group of courses. But in 1975 Carnoustie lost this status because of restricted housing and travel accommodations. It has since regained its place as an Open venue and hosted the Open again in 1999. Neal and I had been looking forward to playing Carnoustie because of its rich history, especially hosting the 1953 Open won by Ben Hogan, “The Wee Ice Mon.”
When we got to Hole No. 6, a 565 yard par 5, we paused to contemplate “Hogan’s Alley” –– the narrow area between the bunker in the middle of the fairway and the out of bounds fence on the left. Hogan knew he could hit the green in two shots if he could thread a drive into a narrow haven of brown grass between the fence bordering the practice ground and a sod-faced bunker deep enough to hide a cow. He went for it and made it in all four rounds winning the tournament by four strokes. He never returned to Scotland.
Other memorable holes comprising perhaps one of the toughest home stretches in championship golf included No. 15, “Luckyslap,” a 470-yard par 4 with its blind second shot, then the 250-yard par 3 No. 16, “Barry Burn.” Hole No. 17 is called the “Island” because the Barry Burn loops around the fairway creating an island fairway. The finishing hole, a 500-yard par 4, is now famous as the Jean Van de Velde nightmare.
We finished the round in good shape, packed our clubs and continued our northward journey on A90 through Arbroath, Montrose, Stonehaven, around Aberdeen, and through Newburgh, finally arriving at Cruden Bay. The course has been described as the best kept secret in Scotland. When we arrived in Cruden Bay to check out the course from the parking lot, you could look down on the clubhouse and see all 18 holes of the course spread out below bordering the North Sea. What a spectacular view! We dined at the Utney House Hotel near Newburgh and had one of the best meals we ever had in Scotland.
The next morning we had a 10 o’clock tee-time and signed in a little early. A sign in the clubhouse indicated that the course opened in 1899 and was designed by Old Tom Morris of St. Andrews. As we waited on the first tee for our tee time, the assistant pro came out of the clubhouse and shouted, “Mr. Borne! Mr. Borne! You have a long distance telephone call.” I was stunned because no one in my family or friends back in Edinburgh knew where I was. It was the owner of the Station Hotel in Carnoustie. He said he found a folder I had left behind and he was concerned because an airline ticket for the return flight to the States was in the folder! I had no folder but Neal did. I asked the owner if he could mail the folder to the Earl of Marchmont and he did. If I had not mentioned our plans to the owner the night of our arrival in Carnoustie Neal’s tickets would have been lost.
The course was the most beautiful golf course I have ever played –– one breath-taking hole after the other. Neal commented later that it was the most natural-kept course that he had ever seen. Neal was impressed with the turf, commenting on its firmness, “the ball hits and bounces and rolls a pretty good long way but has a spongy, springy effect when you walk on it. When you hit a ball off of it, and the ball reacts from the turf onto the club real well.” Amazingly, at least for me, we both hit drives of more than 300 yards on No. 10. Of course, we had a strong wind to our backs. We both played decently then drove to Nairn hoping to play that course then go on to play Royal Dornoch.
But when we got to Nairn and called Dornoch for a tee time we learned that there was a tournament scheduled and the course was not open for general play. Discouraged, we decided to forget about playing Nairn and headed to Crieff located south of Pitlochry. Somewhere north of Pitlochry we had a scare.
Thinking it would be a good idea to get our impressions of the Carnoustie and Cruden Bay on tape, I interviewed Neal as he was driving and taped the conversation. This was not a good idea, as it turned out, because the roads in Scotland constantly switch from a two-track road to a four lane carriageway and then back again. Full concentration on driving was essential – especially since Brits drive on the left hand side of the road rather than our American right. The following is a portion of the taped interview just after we switched from a four-lane dual carriageway back to a two lane road:
RB – Well right now we are coming through the edge of the Highlands – on to Crieff. This is pretty dramatic country. Stark rock, green and grey mountains. Neal is about to pass a guy up, and I don’t think he’s going to make it. Neal! You’re not going to make it! Neal, you’re not going to make it! Hold it! We’re going to have to take a time out.
Then silence as we caught our breath. We both finally started laughing.
RB – That sounded like something we made up, but we had been traveling on four lane roads and talking into this tape recorder and we got onto a double track road, and Neal was passing this truck up, thinking we were still on a four-lane road and I could see that this car was coming at us…
NB – I’m going to concentrate more on the driving and let you talk into that tape recorder from now on. Because when you said, “Neal is about to pass someone but he’s not going to make it” I thought you were joking because I thought this was for tape recorder purposes. But you were being honest about it. I’ll say one thing, you were very calm to be sitting there – you talked in a very calm voice, as we were about to be involved in a head-on crash. So that’s why I didn’t take you seriously. But I’ll pay more attention to the road, and you just pay more attention to the tape recorder, and I’ll take the road. I’ll just say something occasionally into the tape recorder.
What a scare! We were doing 65 mph and a car was coming straight at us at 65 mph or more. Neal said this little black tape recorder could have been the equivalent of the “black box” of an airline crash. If we had crashed we would have had our famous last words on this recorder. Since we gave no one our travel plans it would probably have taken about a week to figure out what to do with us. Friends back in Edinburgh would never have known what happened to us. Family back in the States would have received our corporal remains but people in the Earl of Marchmont would have wondered forever whatever happened to us unless they found the little black box. Then they would know what happened. We passed a van and we didn’t make it!
Just a word of caution – don’t drive around Scotland and talk into a tape recorder at the same time! Just concentrate on the road.
A New Orleans native, Ron Borne is a medicinal chemist by experience, and an amateur writer by avocation. He served Ole Miss and the School of Pharmacy as a teacher, researcher and administrator for more than 40 years and is now “retired” and living in his center of the universe. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org