This is the time of year when I most miss trying to play golf … the week of the British Open. That’s because in 2002, after covering the Open at Muirfield, I stuck around for three days to play 90 holes with radio partner Joe Soucheray and his son Andy.
We walked five village courses and were always well under 4 hours, due to the minimal number of steps between a green and the next tee box.I broke out the Confirmed Hacker to write about our exploits, and these were the details from the three most-enjoyable and interesting courses:
Dunbar, the West Links and Luffness New.
Dunbar gets the top spot on that list, because I consider it the most-enjoyable 18 holes of my life.
The full piece ran in the Star Tribune on Aug. 2, 2002.
LAST SUMMER, THE CONFIRMED HACKER traveled east of Minnesota for the first time in his annual search for golf happiness. That journey took him to Luck, Wis., and the shores of Big Butternut Lake.
This stirred in the Hacker quite an adventurous spirit. Last month, he found himself somewhat farther east, in the golf kingdom of Scotland, and cozied up to a considerably larger body of water - the Firth of Forth.
Edinburgh sits on the southwest side of this arm of the North Sea. The region to the east is East Lothian, and nearly all the villages bordering the Firth have one, two or more seaside links.
The concept when these courses were laid out in the 1800s was to put the first tee on the edge of the village, walk nine holes toward or along the sea, then walk nine holes back.
Muirfield is the only British Open course on this side of Firth. The keepers of Muirfield wanted nothing to do with the Confirmed Hacker playing their golf course, although he was allowed to stand behind the ropes during the Open, as long as he promised not to be a real American and shout "In the hole" every couple of minutes.
The Muirfield folks couldn't keep the Hacker off the neighboring courses that were used as the sites for final qualifying for the 131st British Open. Luffness New, Gullane No. 1 and North Berwick Golf Club are within four miles of Muirfield. Dunbar Golf Club is a 15-mile drive.
His companions for this international challenge were the mayor of a small Minnesota town known for its logical thought, and a slender London youth (henceforth known as SLY).
Monday, 3:15 p.m.
DUNBAR G.C., founded 1856
The first three holes and then No. 18 at Dunbar are on the land side of a seawall. After the third, you step through a door in the seawall and see 14 holes stretched out majestically across the horizon.
The wind was whipping, the sun shining and waves were smashing in from the Firth. It was a view that immediately put Dunbar into the Hacker's all-time top five courses played.
The Hacker played his best possible golf through nine holes – 49 after starting 7-7. By No. 17, a hole called Fluke Dub, the Hacker was walking his 35th hole of day. Suddenly, he realized this beat his previous high for the 2002 season by 35.
He wound up in a small, steep bunker adjacent to the left side of the green. "I'm not sure my ample rear end will fit into that pot, much less allow me to hack it out of there," the Hacker said.
The Mayor peered at his partner's predicament and said: "May ye be blessed by a Scottish miracle."
The Hacker took a deep and sandy blast. The ball smacked into the face of the bunker, popped up, caught the ledge, hopped over and onto the green, then took a little right-hand turn, tapped the pin and dropped for a par 4.
The Mayor is not only a logical man. He is a spiritual man.
Tuesday, 10 a.m.
LUFFNESS NEW, founded 1894
Luffness New was a private club, in contrast to the semi-private town courses. The Mayor booked a tee time with Donald Leckie, the Luffness New secretary, several weeks earlier.
Leckie said there were three things to know about Luffness New: It had the finest greens in East Lothian, the deepest rough and prepared the finest gin-and-tonic.
This was an occasion when the Hacker - considering the appreciation he displayed for Tanqueray, Boodles and Bombay prior to April 27, 1981 - could dismiss knee-high rough as the least of his challenges.
The threesome did not get off to the best of starts with Sec. Leckie. As he greeted the Mayor, the secretary noticed both the Hacker and SLY 50 yards away, changing their shoes out of the trunk.
"We frown on changing shoes in the car park," Leckie told the Mayor.
Golf actually was played on this site dating to the 1850s. It was in 1894 that some senior members went across the way to Kilspindie, while retaining the name Luffness Golf Club. The remaining members simply changed the name of their club to Luffness New.
This was another wonderful layout, with fairways defined by rough almost as thick as Tiger Woods encountered at Muirfield. Throw in a hard rain, high winds and low 50s in temperature, and the Hacker was worried more about pneumonia than success.
Not the Mayor. The more it rained, the better he played, staying in double digits in these wretched conditions.
Inside the clubhouse, the members were in suits and ties and pouring down the Boodles before their afternoon matches. Sec. Leckie said, "The dining room and bar are for members only,
although you are welcome to have a drink in the Dirty Bar."
It's true the Hacker lost nine balls in this fine crop of rough, but he did manage to overcome the No. 1 hazard that Luffness New had to offer. He walked right past the Dirty Bar and the finest
gin-and-tonic in East Lothian.
Tuesday, 3:30 p.m.
WEST LINKS at North Berwick, founded 1832
The wind was howling. The clouds were thick and gray and churning across the Firth. There was a wide expanse of green in front of the first tee, then a hill. On the other side of that hill, you could catch a glimpse of a flapping flag that seemed to be almost in the sea.
"That's where you're going," shouted the starter, trying to be heard over the wind. "All we have here is what God gave us. If God had come down to play golf, he would've played the same course you are playing."
God received some help from ancient stone masons. There's a 3-foot-high stone wall running through the West Links that you play over several times, including on the famed 13th, the hole called The Pit. The small green sits directly behind the wall in a hollow. The Hacker lobbed a wedge over the wall to within 6 feet of the hole. He missed the par putt, of course.
The 13th is the start of an amazing five-hole stretch of notorious holes, particularly No. 15. This is the Redan hole, a longish par-3 to a narrow, multi-shelved green. It has been among the world's most-copied holes for course designers.
You play past the aged and imposing Marine Hotel, taking a 2 1/2-mile hike out to sea, and then you return. You take this incredibly wild tour of unforgettable holes, and you come to the 18th - a boring, 274-yard par-4, with no rough and no pot bunkers.
And then you walk off the green and are back in the village, which is where logic told the cotsmen a golfer should finish his walk when they formed the North Berwick Golf Club 170 years ago.