[By ALISTAIR TAIT
TROON, Scotland – The evening of July 19, 1989 is cemented in my mind. I was here to cover the 118th Open Championship, which was to begin the next day at this town’s famous, and famously elitist, namesake club.
That night I came across an enterprising lad of about 8 years old and his wee terrier dog on Troon’s Lochgreen course, one of the town’s three municipal courses. The boy was wearing a pair of track pants tucked into long soccer socks. Stuffed down each leg were about 30 golf balls of different makes. He asked us whether we wanted to buy any balls.
“Did you find all these tonight?” I asked.
“Aye, well Skip did,” he said pointing to the dog.
“Aye, he’s the best ball finder in Troon. Watch this.”
The boy pointed to a dense gorse bush and shouted an order. “Get the ball, Skip, get the ball!”
The dog went belting into the gorse and frantically rooted around. Thirty seconds later he came out with a golf ball in his mouth and plonked it in front of the boy.
“See, Skip usually comes out with at least one ball,” the lad said. “Want to buy some balls – £1 for three?”
Of course I splurged the £1 and made my editor and two colleagues do the same. We watched as the youngster toddled off to another gorse bush, ordered the dog into it and was rewarded with another ball.
The other memory I have of that evening is of two local men we later met in the clubhouse bar. They invited us to join them, and we took turns ordering rounds of “a hauf an a hauf” – a small measure of whisky and a half-pint of lager. Suffice it to say, it was a merry evening.
Our rental house was a short walk from Lochgreen, but I was worried that our new friends might jump in a car and drive off. They didn’t. They had arrived by train from Irvine, about 10 miles away, and that night they staggered to the station immediately behind the clubhouse serving the Troon muni courses, and boarded the train for home. How civilized, I thought.
Many years later I traveled from Prestwick to Glasgow on a Saturday afternoon and wasn’t surprised to see passengers piling aboard with their golf bags. It was a throwback to the days when train tracks dictated where courses were built.
Scotland’s Ayrshire Coast is famous for its great links, for Turnberry (site of the 2009 Open), Prestwick and Royal Troon. Thousands of visitors flock here every year to sample some of the crown jewels of Scottish golf. They check these courses off their must-play lists, then race eastward toward St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Muirfield and the Gullane courses.
And so they miss courses such as Southerness, Kilmarnock Barassie, Irvine Bogside, Western Gailes, Glasgow Gailes, Prestwick St. Nicholas, St. Cuthbert and the Troon Municipal courses. It’s a bit like going to a five-star restaurant and only eating the main course.
One of the most appealing aspects of many of these lesser-known courses is their sheer minimalism. They tend to be packed into tight plots of land – not uncommon in Scotland. Yet the layouts are so intricate as to make you feel you are playing in endless links land.
Take, for example, Western Gailes, where the holes play in a sort of loop, so that the wind is never in the same direction. Play the first with its rippling and rolling fairway and green partially hidden in a small dell and you’ll think you’re playing Prestwick.
Next door at Kilmarnock Barassie, there is challenge in the simplicity of many of the holes. When Open Championship qualifying has been held there or at Glasgow Gailes, few have burned it up.
The wind and the courses’ quirks provide ample defense. At Irving Bogside, James Braid’s small greens, which often seem to be angled away, put a premium on accuracy.
Bring a short game.
Such courses obviously are less expensive than those in the Open rota. But they have another virtue that one won’t necessarily find at Royal Troon’s snooty front door: a genuine Scottish golf environment. Make the lovely drive down to Southerness or visit one of the Troon munis, and you’re more likely to run into real Scots rather than tourist groups.
Who knows, a wee boy and his wee dog might entertain you, too.
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Alistair Tait is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him e-mail [email protected]
£50 weekdays, £60 weekends
£45 weekdays, £55 weekends
Prestwick St. Cuthbert
Prestwick St. Nicholas
£55 weekdays, £60 Sundays
£45 weekdays, £55 weekends
Troon Municipal courses
Lochgreen – £26 weekdays, £32 weekends
Darley – £21 weekdays, £26 weekends
Fullarton – £15 weekdays, £18 weekends
£115 weekdays, £125 Sundays.