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Scotland

March 06, 1994|Robert M. Rauner | Rauner is a Bethesda, Md.-based free-lance writer and lifelong golfer. and

LASGOW, Scotland — As I stood over the putt, my caddie said: "There's a little bump just before the hole. And, oh, by the way, don't take too long. I'm wet, my feet hurt and I'm starving."

Needless to say, this wasn't a regular caddie with lots of experience. She was (is) my wife.

Also, this wasn't my annual round at one of the Pinehurst, N.C. courses. Rather, it was at the Machrihanish Golf Club, at the southern end of Scotland's Kintyre Peninsula.

I'd ended up over that putt, watched by my wife, because I had convinced her it would be rewarding to spend a week in the Argyll and Isles region of the Western Highlands. Why the Argyll and Isles? Partly because the area is so accessible from Glasgow, and my wife had just finished a conference there; partly because of the area's scenic beauty, and partly because I reckoned it would be a modest-cost trip. Oh, and partly because it just happens to have 30 golf courses.

My intention was to construct an alternative to the high-priced guided tours of the great names in Scottish courses, such as St. Andrews and Troon.

These excursions obviously have a place in a serious golfer's experiences. But, they are hardly the way ordinary Scots, in their small towns, take their beloved game.

So, instead of an excursion, I wanted to golf the way the locals do: with frugality, easy access and a willingness to fit the game to what the terrain and local resources afford. I picked clubs that were accessible to the public. There would be no expansion clubhouses, no umbrella'd verandas, no constricting golf carts and cart paths. No, it would simply be: walk the round, carry the bag to the ball, pick a club and hit away. Just as the inventors of the game intended.

The focus of our journey would be the Machrihanish Club, near Campbeltown. I had heard about this course during an earlier business trip to Scotland and vowed that I would play there.

Getting to Machrihanish and back in a week meant it was possible to play five or six other courses, several of them modest nine-hole designs that are known to fit imaginatively into their available terrain. Among those are Tarbert Golf Club, Lochgilphead Golf Club, and Inellan Golf Club, near Dunoon. Their pars range in the low 30s, but none are pushovers. In fact, at Lochgilphead Golf Club the course record for 18 holes is only two under its par 64. In this slice of Scotland, modest doesn't mean easy.

These small village courses have one endearing feature: the honor system. There is no pro shop, no caddiemaster or starter. The visitor is simply directed to place the green fee (usually $7.50-$10.50) in a designated box with a slot in the top.

So, our week-long tour would take us in a 400-mile loop from Glasgow, across the Firth of Clyde to the Island of Arran, thence to the Kintyre Peninsula. Next, a drive north would take us around the top of Loch Fyne, Scotland's largest lake, and down to Dunoon, on the Cowal Peninsula. Then, our route would go further south to the Isle of Bute, after which we'd close the loop by recrossing the Firth of Clyde back to Glasgow.

I picked up our rental car, an English Rover compact sedan, last August in Glasgow. With our gear loaded, we consulted our map and set out on Route A73 for the ferry terminal at Ardrossan, about 35 miles southwest of Glasgow.

At Ardrossan our boarding of the ferry that makes the hour run to Brodick, on the Island of Arran, was a close call. We'd neglected to make a "booking," and the waiting area was full of cars whose owners had had more foresight. So, we had to queue in the somewhat forlorn "wait list" line. We got on the one or two spaces to spare. The ferry holds about 80 cars and 800 passengers and has a snack bar and lounge. Beyond us drivers, we observed lots of backpackers and bicyclists on board. Most were fitted with some kind of rainwear. A clue that they knew something we didn't?

Arran has been described as Scotland in miniature. In an area about 12 miles long and eight miles wide it has all the features of the mainland: mountains, rocky coastlines, valleys and glens, lakes, farms and small villages. It also produces some of the finest wool sweaters in the world, which is why sheep are everywhere: in the fields, alongside the roads. Road-kill natural selection evidently works. The unfenced survivors either grazed or reclined within inches of the road edges, blinking benignly as cars and trucks whizzed by.

*

We stayed in Brodick, the largest of several resort villages on the island, with a picturesque bay to the east. Across the bay is a clear view of 2,800-foot Goat Fell, the island's tallest mountain and frequent destination of climbers. A clear view, that is, when it isn't raining.

The weather in mid-August proved highly changeable; one minute clear skies, then dark clouds, then a misty rain, then clear again. This variability didn't seem to trouble the locals, so we decided it wouldn't trouble us either.

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