by Edward Kiersh
My rain and cold weather gear were packed. So were six dozen Titleists, for there would be a lot of traipsing through ankle-deep gorse, all sorts of bedeviling hillocks, and unplayable seaside lies.
An adventure loomed, 12 days in the Cradle—pursuing Old Tom Morris’ spirit, confronting notorious winds along with other trials and tribulations—and just hoping to savor the unique pleasures of Scottish links golf.
So the prolonged terrifying jolts of turbulence punctuating my flight over the Atlantic served as a true portent of what was lying ahead. There’d be memorable visits to fabled Royal Dornoch and North Berwick, even some taming of sharply-contoured greens after hitting “heroic”—cum—gutsy shots over treacherous dunes and beachside ravines. But these glories would also be coupled with too many struggles in yawning bunkers and ensnarling grasses.
That’s the dreich. Or the foul Scottish weather, what makes golfing Holy Grail links an Indiana Jones-like battle of perseverance, risk taking and triumph.
Not just 30 MPH winds that make you desperate for a warming whisky. But also incessant rain, pellet-sized, the horizontal variety that soaks through four layers of protective clothing and drives you into clubhouse “Drying Rooms”. Water-logged, it was easy to think Why play Royal Aberdeen or East Lothian’s famed Gullane instead of escaping to the Carolinas or sun-soaked Los Cabos.
There were other complications, or at least misgivings, like driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Courage was needed—when confronting the terrorizing 15th and 16th at Kingsbarns, the Rocky Ness and Burnside holes hugging the North Sea that demand long, precise carries over water—and certainly on small roads. The Scots drive way too fast on lanes that are as narrow as the fairways at Dunbar and Castle Stuart.
But armed with a Just Do It spirit, and forgetting my long sleepless flight, I crossed the bridge out of Edinburgh into Fife. I needed a little sustenance, an artisan-crafted, old style whisky.
I almost missed my wee tasting, what the locals call “the water of life.” The fading sign was that small, dangling precariously on a tree, barely noticeable on the road outside Cupar, not far from the must-play Leven Links and other Fife gems harking back to the Ancients.
A lot like those weather and animal sculptured courses, here at the Daftmill Distillery there were no contrived extravagances. Nothing forced into the landscape. Just a bow to tradition, a real 1000-acre working farm with old stone buildings where two copper-encased stills produce 20,000 liters of spirits annually.
“This is a one man show, production intended to stay small so I can produce the highest quality whisky,” insists Francis Cuthert, standing in a pint-sized building next to his stills.
“I like the process because it keeps me warm in the winter and I appreciate the fact that true connoisseurs like what I am producing.”
Ending any more conversation, Cuthert returns to his stills, preparing them for more future magic. Then he’ll tend to his 200 Angus cattle and allow another day to go by while that sign blows in the wind.
Equally difficult to find is the Ostlers Close Restaurant, a charming restaurant perfect for an introduction to fine Scottish food. One must somehow scoot down a tiny, hidden passage in Cupar, the stuff of cloak-n-dagger material. Chef Jimmy and wife Amanda Green will offer fragrant tender roast breast of duck, sumptuous lamb, and a divine vanilla buttermilk panacotta. This passionate foodie couple will also introduce golfers to a golfing sage, “Johnboy,” a seasoned traveler and 30-year patron of Ostlers, who is a Scottish golf encyclopedia.
“You’ll enjoy Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch, but it would be great if you could get to Tiree island (the most westerly of the Hebrides, population around 650),” he extols. “The Vaul Golf Club (a 2894-yard 9 holer) is gullies, ridges, pure serenity.”
“‘Johnboy” is a fervent golfer who has played many of Scotland’s most fabled courses.
“Cullen is another favorite (a Tom Morris design on the Moray Firth coastline in the North),” he continues. “A people’s course (a par 63, 4000-yard tract), Cullen is a bit quirky for it plays on three levels and is all about fun. But beware the wind.”
Trenchant advice that I would absolutely remember, especially at night when those gales led to my nursing an aching back.
But first I was on a roll. Just enjoying Amanda’s hospitality as she graciously brought out a third dessert, an almond praline wafer served with chocolate sorbet. A brilliant welcome to Scotland and Scottish links golf.
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