Category: Chad Conine Scotland Blog

August 02, 2010

Auld Grey Toon still fresh and colorful

Posted at 5:35 PM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18. This is the last post in his series.

This Auld Grey Toon is certainly old and full of tradition and history, but it's also new.

Every week, golfers from around the world, but mostly from the United States it seems, arrive in Saint Andrews, Scotland. They play golf on The Old Course, they take pictures on the Swilcan Bridge, they eat and drink in the pubs and stay in the hotels and guest houses and B&Bs. They fill out their golfing schedules with rounds at The New Course or Kingsbarns or Carnoustie or The Castle — usually a combination of any or all of those with a few other fine possibilities thrown in. Then they go home having been converted from people who say "I want to play golf in Scotland once in my life" to people who vow "I'll be back here." Bucket-listers become regulars.

I am one of the latter. I came to Scotland with my dad for a week in 2004, and then I came back with both parents for two weeks in 2007. And then I packed up my life and brought it to Saint Andrews almost 18 weeks ago.

I like to say that it started one morning in 2007 when I sat on the curb, waiting for my parents to get ready to drive up the coast to Carnoustie for the third round of the British Open. I ate a muffin and sipped on coffee and thought maybe I could live here, maybe in 2010 when The Open came back. It was a pipe dream, but now it's been a dream realized. I thought that I could play a heck of a lot of golf while sinking my teeth into this town to learn all about what makes it so special.

What I've learned is that four months wasn't long enough to unpack all that is Saint Andrews. But as I sit here, having earned at least a little street cred as a semi-local, I feel I've absorbed some of Saint Andrews' ethos. It seems that new and old form something of yin and yang here.

Saint Andrews University, for example, is old. In three years it will celebrate it's 600th birthday. But Saint Andrews University keeps the town of Saint Andrews young as the streets bustle with students both day and night. It's an old town in history, but it's a young town in motion.

Golf is old here. It's not the birthplace of golf, not necessarily, but it's where the heart of golf began to beat and still beats. The history of the game envelops every golfer the first time he or she puts a peg in the ground at the first tee in the shadow of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse. But golf is new here as well. That foreign golfers flock here to play The Old Course is a relatively new trend, one that doesn't seem to have reached its peak. The Saint Andrews Links Trust, the body that runs The Old Course and its family of links, recently added a course — The Castle — in an effort to give those visiting golfers one more loop to battle. Even in the pub where I spend most of my nights, The Dunvegan, it's easy to see how new the game of golf is here in this town. Nightly, I sit on my stool beside golfers — who, by the way, rehash their round with their caddies or chat with R&A members and fourth-generation Saint Andreans — and listen to stories of discovery. Each one of them, it seems, believes he's discovered this place. You would think Jim Bob from Tallahassee and Arnold Palmer are the only two people ever to cross the Swilcan Bridge. I admit that it annoys me sometimes. But, as I look back now, I suppose it's endearing proof of how this place is old and new, the old holes stir the imagination on a daily basis.

Old Tom Morris's name implies longevity. Old Tom went from the post of apprentice golf ball maker to grand old man of the game here, outliving his family and most of his peers here. But Old Tom ushered the game through waves of modernization. My friend David Joy, the local expert on Old Tom who dons makeup and costume to become the reincarnation of the man, delivers a stirring performance. In it, the character of Old Tom chuckles softly and deeply reflects on how the game changed from the mid-19th to the early-20th centuries.

Those pilgrims who trek out to the cemetery to visit Old Tom's grave find another case of young-and-old symmetry. Old Tom's grave is simple and understated. Next to it, though, the life of Young Tom Morris, four-time Open champion and eternal holder of the championship belt, is celebrated by a tombstone that retells the accomplishments and character of the former champion, who died at the age of 24.

The British Open brought out the old and new as well. John Daly gave golf fans a thrill in the first round as the lovable anti-hero went low with a 6-under-par 66. Then 50-year-old Mark Calcavecchia climbed the leaderboard on Friday, moving to 7-under for the tournament. But Daly and Calcavecchia faded and a new star, 27-year-old Louis Oosthuizen, smiled in the spotlight.

As for my golf, it's not worth writing about. I'm not that good. But I was lucky enough to play with golfers from all over the world like Boris Balkarov and Liza Nikulina from Russia; Magnus Jepson, Kjetil Nilsen Kaland and Anders Hvoslef from Norway; and David Moe from Illinois. I was even luckier to have usual golfing buddies. Jamie Moore from Northern Ireland and Jon Muir from Nottingham, both Saint Andrews University students, kept me laughing during our regular rounds. Meanwhile the group of retired gentlemen from Saint Andrews Baptist Church took me in like I was one of them during their Friday game.

This town is full of good people who have been here for years and even some whose families have lived here for generations. It's also full of good people who just got here.

Old is new every day in Saint Andrews. And so, as I head back to my native Texas, I'm thankful for my new home away from home — The Auld Grey Toon.

(Photo courtesy of Chad Conine.)

July 27, 2010

Seniors provide a much-needed post-British Open thrill

Posted at 10:24 AM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.

The week after the British Open hit St. Andrews with a latently depressing thud.

An event that everyone around here anticipated with ever-growing enthusiasm through May, June and July had suddenly come and gone and left town with a South African guy called Louis Oosthuizen, whose name no one is really sure how to pronounce even now, waltzing away with the Claret Jug under his arm. By Wednesday, golf fans were replaced by non-golfing Fifers walking slowly down South Street as they shopped and generally got in my way. My bar-tending buddy Lindsay Allan, who has the bar-tending gift of being able to look directly into my soul, asked me what was wrong, and I had no other answer than to say it felt like it was almost time to go home to Texas.

When my caddie friend Bruce Sorley handed me a four-day ticket to the British Senior Open at Carnoustie, I thanked him with appropriate enthusiasm, but inwardly gave only a half-hearted commitment to use it. My friend Kevin McKenna and I had discussed the possibility of making it up to Carnoustie for the event, so we made further tentative plans to go up on Friday.

We both had our reservations. As it turned out, though, it taught me another valuable lesson about the golf season that is summer in Scotland. Sure, the British Open is massive and world-renowned and sort of electric in its own way. When it comes to bang-for-buck, though, the Senior Open is great as well. McKenna and I arrived at the golf course to find only a smattering of patrons, then realized we could leap-frog around the course and sit close enough to reach out and touch golf stars Tom Watson, Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman, Craig Stadler, Fred Funk and Sandy Lyle.

The Old Course is special, but for watching golf its layout keeps spectators at a distance for most of if not all of the loop. Carnoustie is more accessible, especially with the limited amount of grandstands to get in the way. Of the maybe 2,000 golf fans present on Friday afternoon, the majority followed Watson around the course. That was few enough that when Watson hit his approach shot short of the second green, directly beneath the ropes on the left side of the fairway, McKenna and I moved a few steps in that direction to get an up-close-and-personal view of a legend hitting his chip shot. Watson walked up and briefly teased a 12-year-old kid in shorts and a T-shirt, asking why the lad was out of breath. "I rushed up hear to see you," the boy said with endearing honesty.

To make matters even better, the sunny day and blue skies at Carnoustie meant it was better weather for golf than we had a week earlier at The Old Course. An hour into our adventure, McKenna texted his girlfriend, a sweet waitress called Catherine Farrell from our favorite watering hole, The Dunvegan, that the golf was "Actually amazing!" That pretty much hit it exactly. In fact, the loudest cheer this old sportswriter let loose in two weeks came when Fred Funk drained a 35-foot birdie putt at No. 2.

I think we would've been satisfied with a great day of golf, but then we heard word on the street, or fairway so to speak, that Lehman and Funk had booked a table at The Dunvegan restaurant. Not missing a beat, McKenna and I booked a table there too.

Instead of bugging the pros sitting a few feet away, McKenna and I talked about American football and only casually overheard the guys talking about their rounds, which was still quite a thrill. Lehman and Funk were each gracious enough to carry on a short conversation with us before handshakes were exchanged and they left to get ready for the third round. McKenna and I headed back into the pub where we celebrated a fantastic day.

So I think I can manage to stick around Scotland for a couple more weeks.

July 21, 2010

Nairn provides canvas for vintage Scottish golf

Posted at 2:36 PM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.

NAIRN, Scotland — When my dad and I walked onto the first tee at Nairn Golf Club, we had a former Walker Cup course in front of us with a light wind at our backs.

It was merely a nice Scottish summer afternoon, but it was also the beginning of the type of Scottish day when three seasons sweep across the links.Nairn

Like most of the great links here in the home of golf, Nairn goes straight out along the sea, reaching its farthest point from the clubhouse on the ninth green. During that stretch we played our usual match with the wind at our backs, making it a good game. In the back of my mind, though, I knew it could get tough coming back against the wind. Still, I assumed it would remain a modest breeze. 

I was mistaken.

Almost immediately after we turned back toward the clubhouse, the wind kicked up to about 20 mph. The battle was on.

By the time we finished, I was trying to punch the ball low, beneath the wind that had cranked up to about a 40 mph gail, and complete the round. After putting out on 18, we shook hands with our caddies and went into the clubhouse for a bite of lunch before driving south.

Just before going into the dining room, we took in the Walker Cup photos from 1999 when a Great Britain and Ireland team led by Luke Donald and Paul Casey defeated the American team, which included Matt Kuchar and Bryce Molder. A few minutes later, as we were ordering lunch, the flags just outside the clubhouse went limp. The weather was changing costumes again. Within minutes, as storm clouds neared the golf course, the wind was blowing back toward the first tee having made a 180-degree turn.

So that's classic Scottish weather on a classic Scottish links course.

Maybe my best effort coming in against the wind was a bogey on the 412-yard uphill par-4 No. 13. The fairway starts up the hillside before it rises rapidly to a green with bunkers protecting both sides of the front of it.

My caddie, Neil, who was in his early 50s, grew up playing Nairn. As we were walking toward my tee shot, he told me a story that both challenged and comforted me on the courses' No.1 handicap hole. Some days when he was growing up playing the course Neil would come in for the day and his father would ask him how he had played. "Oh, not too well dad. I struggled a bit," he would answer on many days. His father came back with another question "How did you get on at 13?" When he said he had made a 4 on the daunting par-4, his dad would light up, "Ahh, that's a good score!"

So having made a bogey, I looked back down the hill toward the sea with some degree of satisfaction. Another awesome Scottish course to add to the list and another great memory.

(Photo: The 13th at Nairn climbs the hill away from the sea, offering the steepest challenge on this classic links course, which hosted the 1999 Walker Cup.)

July 13, 2010

Old and new in the Scottish Highlands

Posted at 3:47 PM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.

DORNOCH, Scotland — This week the sports world will watch today's top golfers tackle a course that dates back to the 16th century as the British Open returns to The Old Course.

In general, Scotland excels at making an easy blend of the ancient and the ultra-modern. For example, on Friday my parents made a short trip from Gleneagles to Stirling Castle, an austere structure with history that goes back to the 12th century. Meanwhile, just a 2-iron shot from the grounds of the resort, Eminem, The Black Eyed Peas, Mumford and Sons and others rocked the T In The Park festival. Castlestuart

On Sunday, my parents and I headed north from Gleneagles for another such example of old and new. We journeyed to Inverness and stopped to play Castle Stuart Golf Links, a Mark Parsinen-designed course that celebrates its first birthday on Tuesday. After the round of golf, we continued toward the arctic circle to Dornoch, where we checked into a hotel that is inside a converted castle. Then on Monday, we played Royal Dornoch, which can trace its roots to 1616. In six short years, Royal Dornoch will celebrate its 400th birthday.

Nonetheless, Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch have a symbiotic relationship inasmuch as the rising population of new and outstanding golf courses in the more southern parts of Scotland threaten to make golf in northern Scotland a little bit obsolete. But if golfers can make it up to the Highlands, it's worth it to play rounds at Castle Stuart and Nairn — both just outside of Inverness — and about an hour's drive farther north at Royal Dornoch. My caddie even told me that the owning partners of Castle Stuart have invested in the Royal Golf Hotel in Dornoch, which sits just beside the first tee of the golf course, in order to amp up the quality of accommodations in the region.

So is it worth it to trek north? I have to admit, I've had one eye back on my new home of St. Andrews the past few days as the biggest names in golf arrive and begin playing practice rounds. But, while we drove up the A9 on Sunday, it was easy to forget about that for the moment as we snaked between mountains and passed majestic valleys and waterfall-striped hills. And even though we played in near-50-mph wind on Sunday, I could see why I'd heard so many good things about Castle Stuart in the past few months.

Parsinen seems to have used the same philosophy in building Castle Stuart as he so successfully employed as the designer of Kingsbarns — a) both courses make the most of beautiful coastline while b) remaining fair to average golfers. The 341-yard par-4 10th hole at Castle Stuart is a good example of both. The tee is elevated about 50 feet over a fairway that curls slightly left to right along the hillside with the sea just off the left side of a narrow fairway. The 11th and 12th continue eastward along the sea, making this stretch of holes the highlight of a spectacularly scenic course. The final fantastic view comes down the 18th fairway, headed toward the sea with the 10th hole directly below off the right side of the 18th fairway.

Castle Stuart is brand new, but the word-of-mouth campaign is starting to take hold in Scotland. In a short time, it will be one of the must-play courses in golf's home country, especially since the customer service there is excellent.

Royal Dornoch already has that must-play designation and has had it for a long time. It's a classic links course that just happens to be way farther north than most of its links-golf siblings and it doesn't need further accolades here. At the end of the day, there's not much difference between ancient and new greatness.

(Photo: The par-4 10th at Castle Stuart begins a brilliant stretch of sea-side links holes.)

July 10, 2010

Getting away to Gleneagles

Posted at 3:13 PM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.

AUCHTERARDER, Scotland — With trucks clogging the few narrow streets of St. Andrews, as shops and pubs stock up for the British Open, it was a good time to get out of town.

Perfect then that my dad and mom, John and Shana Conine of Granbury, Texas, arrived for a week of exploring the Scottish highlands before The Open starts on The Old Course. And even better that after I met them in Edinburgh, we headed straight for Gleneagles, which might be the finest getaway resort in the country, though Turnberry would also have a say. Conine

Of course, three days at Gleneagles translated to three days of golf for my dad and I, and we played those 54 holes up against just-about-everything weather. On Thursday it was breezy — like flagsticks-bending-under-the-weight type of wind — followed by rain on Friday and Saturday.

Really though, it wasn't that bad. It was like the type of weather William Wallace (or Mel Gibson, depending on how you look at it) called fine Scottish weather in "Braveheart." The rain came straight down, only slightly from the side.

When my dad and I first played the Gleaneagles King's Course in 2004, I remember being absolutely awed by the scenery here in the heart of Scotland — west of St. Andrews, north of Edinburgh and Glasgow and just at the foothills of the highlands. In fact, at the time I went so far as to call it the most beautiful place I'd ever visited. That day was sunny, with deep blue skies, white puffy clouds and the gorse bushes in full yellow bloom all over the hills that surround the golf course.

But on this trip, those hills were pretty much invisible as heavy clouds produced drizzly rain for most of Friday and Saturday. It didn't do much to dampen our spirits though. The Gleneages courses are magnificent even if you can't see the green hills that surround them.

The Gleneagles Centenary PGA Course will host the Ryder Cup in 2014. The 6,315-yard par-72 layout offers one good hole after another. The par-5 9th, a 505-yard hole with a bunker running parallel to the fairway for the final 155 yards and a three-tier green is pretty typical. This will be an excellent Ryder Cup venue, however — and this probably says more for the Gleneagles courses than anything else could — the PGA course is generally regarded as the third most popular of the three tracks here.

The first hole at the King's course tells you all you need to know about the King's and Queen's Courses, both of which wind through the rolling hills. No. 1 at King's is a 362-yard par-4 that features a deep and wide bunker in the middle of the fairway just before the hole elevates dramatically for the final 50 yards to the green.

Following our round in 2004, my dad remarked to our caddies that it was a beautiful course, to which my caddie replied, "We would'nae know about the course, we spent all our time in the ornamental fixtures." Indeed, this is a place to avoid bunkers at all costs, not that that's anything new in Scotland. But most of the bunkers here make Hell bunker at The Old Course seem more like a walk on the beach.

In fact, my score on Saturday ended up buried in a green-side bunker on the 11th hole, but even though I was drenched by the end of the round, I was still satisfied having birdied two of the final six holes. See, even though Gleneagles puts up a hell of a fight, it gives you a fair chance at times.

My parents seem to have fully recuperated from the taxing transatlantic flight earlier this week, so on Sunday we're headed north for a round on the acclaimed new Castle Stuart course in Inverness, then on to Dornoch.

All the while we're counting down the days. Five more until the pros tee off in The Open.

(Photo: John Conine tees off on the first hole at Gleneagles King's Course)

July 08, 2010

St. Andrews buzzing as Open approaches

Posted at 3:05 PM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.

After his practice round on The Old Course on Friday, Camilo Villegas sat in The Dunvegan pub while he watched the Brazil-Holland World Cup semifinal, though not necessarily with the same intensity which he employs to read putts. 

It was supposedly Villegas's first-ever round on The Old Course, but I didn't ask him. We were both there to watch soccer, not conduct an interview. I did, however, mention that it seemed like the golf course was going to play awfully hard and fast when The Open Championship begins in just a few days. Villegas agreed.Standrews

But that forecast doesn't seem as likely as it did 10 days ago. Alec Howie, a St. Andrews resident who served as Villegas' course guide, said rain on Friday morning softened the course a tad. Then downpours swept through St. Andrews with a stiff breeze on three separate occasions on Sunday afternoon. When I played The New Course at the end of June — about as close an indicator as a non-pro like me can get these days — the weather had been warm and dry for most of the last two weeks, so any ball that wasn't in the middle of the fairway was in danger of running into knee-high cat-tail grass in the rough. Anymore rain like we had on Sunday and The Old Course might be more golfer-friendly. Still, considering the fact that I counted nine tractors on the 17th fairway today, it's probably still going to be a pretty darn fast track.

Everything in St. Andrews this week — from the nervous bar managers awaiting a jam-packed week to the guys adding a coat of paint to a building near the pro's practice tee — screams that The Open is only days away. For one weekend at least, you were more likely to have a pint with a tour caddie than Jim Bob from Tallahassee.

While my friends and I hacked around The New Course on a fiercely windy Saturday afternoon last weekend, a helicopter meticulously flew over each hole of The Old Course shooting fly-overs to be used during the television broadcast.

And the frantic preparations as The Open draws within view come with a rising anticipation that something special is about to happen. St. Andrews is a place where golf's great champions and huge personalities (See: Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, John Daly, Tiger Woods) rise to the challenge. So there's little doubt around here that it will continue during the 150th anniversary of the first professional golf tournament that Old Tom Morris organized in Prestwick in 1860. Now that I think of it, I'm not sure the spirit of Old Tom isn't controlling the weather. Consider this: I've been here 14 Sundays now and I believe it's rained on 10 of them; and Old Tom always insisted that the golf course be closed on Sundays.

My friend McHugh, a St. Andrews resident and caddie on the European PGA Tour, was pumped on Sunday night when he told me he'd acquired a bag for The Open. He walked the course earlier in the day and specifically mentioned the high rough on the 13th hole. Mostly, though, he just seemed excited to be a part of the tournament.

That goes for all of us here in The Auld Grey Toon.

June 26, 2010

Over to the Emerald Isle for golf at The K Club and a band from the Emerald City

Posted at 10:24 PM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.

The Irish Independent newspaper included a front-page refer and full spread inside on Graeme McDowell's U.S. Open victory on Tuesday, two days after McDowell tapped in for par on the 18th green and raised his arms skyward at Pebble Beach.

I read most of it while riding in a cab from the Dublin airport to a city centre hotel where I would be staying for two nights. I'd like to say that I spontaneously hopped on a plane on Tuesday, set on arriving in Ireland to help celebrate the ongoing Golden Age of Irish Golf. July20_harringtroph_600x399

And by the way, maybe that's what we're seeing at the moment. Padraig Harrington claimed the second major championship for a golfer from the Emerald Isle (the first since Fred Daly, of Northern Ireland, won the 1947 Open Championship) when Harrington won the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie. Then he won two of the next four including a PGA Championship and a second-consecutive Open. With McDowell's victory at the U.S. Open, golfers from either Ireland or Northern Ireland have now won four of the last 12 majors and it's logical to expect that between McDowell, Harrington and rising star Rory McIlroy, there are several more to come in the near future.

However, that's not what brought me to Ireland. My agenda upon embarking on temporary residence in St. Andrews, Scotland, included a potential trip to the neighboring isle. When I finally booked it, a Pearl Jam concert in Dublin, not golf, proved to be the catalyst.

But I brought my sticks and chose Dublin over Belfast because it offered the opportunity to play The K Club Palmer Course, host of the 2006 Ryder Cup.

Playing The K Club, designed by Arnold Palmer and founded in 1991, as my first experience of Irish golf was sort of like learning to drive behind the wheel of a Bentley — it's fantastic but hard to use as the starting point for any comparisons.

Anyway, if lush, rolling fairways and greens are on your list, which I have to assume they are, you'll love The K Club. But be warned, the course isn't tricky but it's still extremely challenging. For example, the par-4 11th is the No. 10 handicap hole — at 415 yards from the back tees, it's not super long but it's a dogleg left, so it requires a right-to-left shot off the tee to a fairway that rises for 250 yards, then feeds downhill to the green, where a pond waits for errant shots on the left side. That's an average hole.

But The K Club Palmer Course still manages to be great fun, even as it kicks your butt. And it's distinctly Palmer-esque, a thought I had even before reading this in the course guide:

"If ever a golf course reflected the personality of its architect it is surely the course that Arnold Palmer designed at The K Club at Straffan, near Dublin. It may seem odd to describe a golf course as charismatic and cavalier but from the instant you arrive at the first tee you are enveloped by a unique atmosphere."

Actually, for some reason I can't really identify. The K Club reminded me of golf courses I'd seen in movies from the 1960's. Maybe it was the clubhouse's laid-back, old-school comfort. Also, if I hadn't been watching the England vs. Slovenia World Cup match with vested interest in the bar, I could've spent hours perusing the picture board from the 2006 Ryder Cup, a mural that stretches for 20 yards between the pro shop and guest locker room.

So, having returned to Scotland on Thursday, The K Club is all I know of Irish golf at the moment. Naturally, I'm impressed and I'll go back at some stage. Also, Pearl Jam rocked.

(Photo: John Biever/SI)

June 23, 2010

St. Andrews quiet as town prepares for British Open roar

Posted at 11:58 AM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.

When I walked out of The Dunvegan at 2:30 Monday morning, the sky over North Street in St. Andrews was already beginning to turn light blue with a hint that sunrise wasn't far off.

It doesn't stay dark for long here in Scotland these days — the sun is up for about 18 hours, though it never really dips too deep below the horizon — and with the spotlight of The Open Championship set to shine on this small town in just a few weeks, I'm wondering if I'll forget what darkness looks like.Standrews

Nevertheless, it is starting to go a bit quiet at the moment. 

Two months ago, The Dunvegan was packed and cheers went up all over the pub at key moments as we watched The Masters come down the stretch on Sunday afternoon. And while enough locals came through the pub to fill it up briefly around midnight this past Sunday, by the time Graeme McDowell tapped in for his victory at about 2 a.m. here, my friends Lindsay Allan and Luke Fotheringham — the bartenders who stayed late upon my request — a couple of other buddies and maybe half a dozen others sleepily looked on as the year's second major ended. (Of course, the contrast is partially due to The Masters finishing a little past 11 p.m. here, whereas the U.S. Open didn't exactly finish early even for Americans watching in the Central and East Coast time zones. Did it?)

So the sun came up almost before I went to bed, but I persevered and slept until mid-morning. When I finally crawled out of bed and headed for my usual coffee shop, the streets of St. Andrews definitely had a work-day feel. Everybody seemed to be diligently going about a normal Monday. With The Old Course closed for Open preparations, the flow of golf tourists has slowed to a trickle, thus taking away the town's usual holiday feel. My caddie friends are scarce too. Several of them hail from Ireland and told me last week they were headed home for a few days before they return for The Open.

This left me in an awkward position because I'm not sure what a work day for me is supposed to feel like these days. Pretty much all I do is play golf, hang out at the pub and talk to golfers and/or watch golf or football (meaning soccer) on the television.

But it was a sunny and warm day, so I played nine holes at Strathtyrum, then walked The Old Course, shooting video of key spots on the course. After watching the constant struggle that is U.S. Open golf, I have to say, I see easier days ahead in the next major. Compared to Pebble Beach, The Old Course didn't seem to bear menacingly sharp teeth. But then, The Old Lady never seems scary. But she manages to defend herself pretty well, especially if the wind blows off the North Sea.

It's been unusually warm at times the last several days and it hasn't rained much in the last couple of weeks. If those weather conditions hold up from now until mid-July, I'm guessing the fairways and greens will be hard and fast, but the rough won't be too dense. But when do prevailing weather conditions in Scotland ever last more than half an hour?

Either way, we're in full-scale get ready mode here in The Auld Grey Toon.

British Amateur road trip ends with friend's victory

Posted at 11:36 AM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.

My friend Jamie Moore casually chatted with his old buddy as they walked down a sun-splashed fairway on Thursday afternoon.

It was a normal feeling encounter, but this was not an ordinary place or an ordinary moment. Moore's buddy was Paul Cutler, who at the time was stalking the fairway in his Round 4 match against Japan's Yuki Usami in the British Amateur at Muirfield. Moore and Cutler, both from Portstewart, Northern Ireland, grew up playing with and against each other in junior competitions. Moore said he recognized from an early age that Cutler had the talent to be a great golfer and that was spot on as Cutler is currently ranked No. 39 in the R&A World Amateur Golf Ranking — and he's sure to rise after making the quarterfinals of the British Amateur.

Meanwhile, I marveled briefly at my good fortune. When planning my trip to Scotland, I put "Watch some of the British Amateur at Muirfield" on my to-do list. As it turned out, I played The Old Course in early April when I met and joined up with Moore, a St. Andrews University student who had a 12:40 p.m. tee time that day. Since then, Moore has been a consistent golf buddy and friend. As events unfolded, after Moore finished work at noon on Thursday, we hustled from St. Andrews, through Musselburgh and Gullane to Muirfield with a vested interest in watching the British Amateur.

We calculated that we could catch Cutler as he made the turn in his round-of-16 match, which proved correct. Cutler finished on the 9th green and walked over to Moore for a quick hello on the way to the 10th tee. Cutler held a 1-up lead through nine holes, though his easy-going walk from 9 to 10 hardly forecast that the match was drawing close to its key moment.

On the par-4 11th, it appeared as if Usami would make things all square as he had a six-foot putt for par, while Cutler had mis-hit his third shot from behind the green, sending it 80 feet away from the cup just on the fringe on the front of the green. But Cutler came through with the shot of the match by ramming his putt from off the green, sending it cruising through the middle of the putting surface and smacking into the flagstick. It dropped into the hole, leaving Usami deflated.

The Japanese player missed the par putt and went 2-down. Cutler would remain at least 2-up for the remainder of the match. Usami lost another hole on the 13th when his second shot settled in a horrible lie at the back of a bunker behind the green. Usami went down on his left knee outside the bunker with his right foot perched on the edge, then advanced the ball just a few feet in the bunker. He hit a nice shot from there to about 8 feet. However, Cuter drained a 10-foot par putt to take the hole and move to 3-up. After the players traded holes on the 14th and 15th. Cutler earned a half on the 16th to win the match.

Moore and I looked on, perhaps chuckling a little inside, as Cutler gave a post-match interview, employing dead-pan answers that Moore knew to be his friend's standard in such cases. It went something like this:

"What a thrill it must be to be playing on a brilliant afternoon here at Muifield in such a prestigious event as the British Amateur," the television journalist began. "How much would it mean to you and your family for you to win this event and put your name on the trophy and claim an entry into the Open Championship and all of the fantastic things that go along with a victory here."

"Yes, it's a prestigious tournament," Cutler replied. "It would be great to win it."

Moore introduced me to Cutler and I wasted no time, immediately ribbing him about the interview. He could have at least mentioned the shot that felled Usami on the 11th hole.

Cutler was traveling with the Irish team, so he had team matters to attend to. Moore and I headed back for St. Andrews. We stopped in Musselburgh for burgers and ice cream, planning our next couple of days as we hoped to follow Cutler on through the final.

However, Cutler's outstanding week ended on Friday morning when Jin Jeong of South Korea won their quarterfinal match, 3 and 2. Still, Cutler, who won Lytham Trophy in May, made another good showing for himself and gave Moore and I quite a thrill.

June 16, 2010

Crail Balcomie: Is this the home of Shivas and a King's ghost?

Posted at 3:29 PM by Chad Conine

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.

Depending on who you ask, or where on the Internet you search, Balcomie Golf Links in Crail could possibly be the inspiration for the golf literary classic "Golf In The Kingdom" by Michael Murphy.

It's more likely that the mythical Burningbush, the golf course Murphy describes, is a combination of many if not all of the courses in The Kingdom of Fife. But having played most of them now, Balcomie definitely is the most mysterious, and perhaps mystical. Crail

Nowhere is that feeling more palpable than in "The Cave."

Standing inside the cave, which is tucked in sort of under the 13th green and on the trail from the 14th green to the 15th tee, I wanted to take a photo from way back in the depths of it, in order to get the most dramatic shot. But dang if that thing isn't spooky. I clicked and ran.

According to the sign at the entrance of the cave, King Constantine I, King of Scotland, might have been killed in the cave by Danish Vikings in 874. I couldn't get a second source on this, but it's a cool story for the imagination, you know?

About a month ago, a golfing buddy of mine who calls himself Gregory McGregor — a self-imposed nickname — told me I had to go play Crail where Shivas Irons, a principle character in "Golf In The Kingdom," lived. Playing Crail was already on my to do list, so when I finally made the 20-minute drive from St. Andrews to Crail, I asked golf pro Graeme Lennie about Shivas Irons and the cave.

"Oh, yes, you'll see it when you come off the 14th green to the 15th tee," Lennie said. Apparently he'd answered the Shivas Irons question many times since he came to Balcomie in 1987.

Lennie himself is a golf literature enthusiast. He told me his favorite golf book is the biography of the great 19th-century amateur Freddie Tait, titled "F.G. Tait: A Record" by John Laing Low. That's the kind of esotericism I can appreciate.

That's sort of why I tag Balcomie as relentlessly cool.

For starters, just getting there involves a lengthy drive down a one-track road that makes you think, "I must've missed it." But then you crest the final hill before you get to the sea and there sit golf holes right on the sea shore.

Somehow, Balcomie combines the history of The Old Course — the Crail Golfing Society is the seventh oldest golf club in the world — along with the seaside brilliance of Kingsbarns, the quirkiness of Prestwick and still manages to be delightfully unassuming. Parts of the course felt like Kingarrock Golf and Thistle, a sort of museum/golf course 20 minutes from St. Andrews that strictly adheres to early 20th century style of golf and golf course maintenance.

According to the Crail Golfing Society Web site, Tom Morris set up the Balcomie Links in 1895, using the coastline as much as possible. Indeed, my friend Ray Kelly and I played as the tide was coming in and waves consistently crashed against the rocky shore just near us. I only wish I could've played my ball off of the beach on the fifth hole as that might have shaved a stroke off of my final score. Interestingly, my first five holes went like this — double-bogey, quadruple-bogey, birdie, birdie, quadruple-bogey. I am going to attribute this to an unusual golf course rather than wildly inconsistent play.

But it's a fun course all the way around. What's more, the challenge and the views from the 14th hole through the finish can't be beat. And the clubhouse, like every Fife clubhouse I've visited, is elegant with a view you can stare at for hours. On this particular afternoon, I watched white birds, arctic terns I'm told, dive for fish just on the other side of the 15th tee.

Definitely cool, whether Shivas Irons or King Constantine I ever walked across this place or not.

(Photo: The mysterious and famous cave at Crail's Balcomie Golf Links sits near the 14th green -- foreground -- and second fairway -- background.)

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