The Holy Crail: My 18-year quest has a happy ending at this Old Tom gem

The Holy Crail: My 18-year quest has a happy ending at this Old Tom gem

General Dreariness -- Though not exactly the local tourist board's dream day, Crail (here from the tee of the par 3 14th hole) still exudes an authentic and unadorned links appeal.

General Dreariness -- Though not exactly the local tourist board's dream day, Crail (here from the tee of the par 3 14th hole) still exudes an authentic and unadorned links appeal.

Greetings faithful readers (God bless you!) after yet another too-long stretch of radio silence. I could plead day job. And, with just a modicum of tortured logic, I could almost justify it. After all, I’m writing this while deep in the heart of Texas—the north Dallas suburb of Plano to be precise—in pursuit of the legal tender to fund my little Scottish adventure. One does what one must do. As these things go, I can’t complain.

But I do. Even if I really shouldn’t.

Case in point: While the Scottish Borders is being lashed with wild and wooly winter storms, I am moving about this all-American sprawl under clear skies, along open freeways and with little more than a sweater to ward off the evening chill. To put it another way, people are playing golf here, just as they still are in Scotland. It’s just that, over here, there’s no need to defend your sanity if you do. More on that in a later post.

The salient point is that, of all the places on this tumultuous planet I could be at the moment, Dallas ain’t all bad. And if I had a set of golf clubs here, it would actually be pretty darn fantastic. Rest assured, progress on that front has begun…in earnest.

Meanwhile, I can still tap into my memory banks and replay a round of golf I managed to squeeze in before being forced to return stateside. That ought to help tide me over until I return to Kelso after the holidays.

Rollicking Start -- Here's the view from the 1st green looking back toward the clubhouse and across a chilly (but definitely not chill) North Sea.

Rollicking Start -- Here's the view from the 1st green looking back toward the clubhouse and across a chilly (but definitely not chill) North Sea.

London Heathrow Strikes Again

And this is no ordinary round. Well, the quality of my play might have been, at best, pedestrian. But the lead up to it was more than 18 years in the making. In my book, that’s kind of special.

This story begins in the summer of 1997 when, along with three of my oldest and dearest friends, I made my first trip to Scotland to play golf. As they say in the current millennium, I was stoked! More than 20 years after first setting foot on a real golf course, I was making my pilgrimage to the game’s birthplace with rounds booked at the Old Course and the New in St. Andrews, Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Moray, Cruden Bay, Carnoustie, Gullane and North Berwick. Yowser!

To get things off to a jaunty start, one of my friends—who’d lived for five years in London and knew the lay of the land—suggested, as our plane taxied to the gate at Edinburgh Airport, that we could squeeze in a “jet lag prevention” round at a links not on our official itinerary. The name of this place, he said, was Crail…which sounded just magical to me. And it was designed by none other than Old Tom Morris, adding to the charm.

Did I mention I was stoked!?

There was just one problem. We arrived safely. But my clubs did not. Apparently there was some sort of snafu at London’s Heathrow Airport (which I’ve since learned is standard operating procedure for that manmade monstrosity) and my sticks didn’t get loaded onto the plane. They came later, much later as it turned out. Too late to play a bonus round at the mythical Crail.

That initial stumble aside, we went on to have a fabulous trip. But that didn’t stop me from wondering what might have been. When it became clear that the 1997 trip was not a one-off, that I would have the very good fortune to return to Scotland—again and again—I was determined to pay Crail a visit and erase that question mark, once and for all.

Turning Point -- If the players on the right survive the 5th (aka Hell's Hole) they'll get to begin their journey back to civilization on the 172-yard par 3 6th on the left.

Turning Point -- If the players on the right survive the 5th (aka Hell's Hole) they'll get to begin their journey back to civilization on the 172-yard par 3 6th on the left.

Stars Finally Align

Unfortunately, the stars refused to align until a generic Monday just a few weeks ago, when: 1) my wife was out of town on business; 2) the weather was iffy but acceptable; and 3) the day job could wait, especially given that the UK is several time zones ahead of the US.

A wrong needed to be righted. Why the heck not now?

So I planned ahead, got an early start and made the two-hour journey (or so) from Kelso to Crail, situated roughly 15 miles south of St. Andrews along the the North Sea. The sky, overcast at the start, became increasingly drippy as I followed my Volvo’s sat-nav around Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth and into the Kingdom of Fife. But I was a man on a mission, so I pressed on.

Predictably, the club’s car park was sparsely populated. But, proving that misery loves company, I spotted at least a handful of other brave souls out on the links and a few more in the clubhouse, where I had initially sought refuge. The starter, though, held court in the pro shop—back across the car park. So, after dodging a few more raindrops, I met a delightful young chap there who collected my green fee, handed me a scorecard and pointed me in the direction of the first tee as an unaccompanied single. No turning back now.

Crail’s 18-hole track, which stretches to just 5,861 yards from the back tees, starts high up on a bluff. As such, much of this ancient golfing ground (the club, the seventh oldest in the world, was founded in 1786) appeared before me as I attempted to limber up amid the chill. The view was thrilling, even cloaked in the gloom. Bathed in sunshine, it must be absolutely spectacular. That thought led to another: Even before I’d fired my first shot, I knew I’d return in hopes of catching Crail on just such a day.

A Boy and His Dog -- I played as a single. This gentleman? He brought along his best friend. Though, by the look on his furry face, I'm not sure the latter is particularly happy with this decision.

A Boy and His Dog -- I played as a single. This gentleman? He brought along his best friend. Though, by the look on his furry face, I'm not sure the latter is particularly happy with this decision.

Roller Coaster Ride

The opening hole, a downhill 313-yard par 4, is a bit of a gimme, which suits me just fine. My increasingly creaky body usually needs a few swings to get up to speed. But the gloves came off on the 2nd, a 451-yard so-called two-shotter with OB and the beach running along its entire right side. So I followed my regulation par on the 1st with a who-knows-what on the 2nd.

Nae bother. I soldiered on. The next two holes, admittedly, aren’t much to write home about. But the 5th, appropriately named Hell’s Hole, qualifies as another ball buster…as in that’s what you’ve got to do to your golf ball to have any hope of reaching this 439-yard par 4 in two. In addition to its length, HH also challenges you with terrain (a dogleg right a with sharply raked flow from tee down to the intended landing area), hazard (that irrepressible North Sea) and—on this particular day—blustery weather. It did not go well.

I progressed a bit more efficiently after turning back toward the clubhouse at the 172-yard par 3 6th hole, followed by three two-shooters, two of which measure less than 300 yards. But what little momentum I was able to muster over that stretch came to a screeching halt over the 11th through the 13th which includes a 427-yard uphill par 4, a 517-yard (though downhill) par 5 and a 207-yard and exceedingly uphill par 3.

In many ways, Crail hits its highest note at the 13th, both literally and figuratively. I smacked a solid drive, easily my best swing of the round, and my ball barely made it to the top shelf within chipping distance of the green. This task master offers no bail out, left or right. And if you come up short, there’s a good chance your ball will find an unplayable lie—assuming you can find it—thus necessitating another go. And perhaps another. And another. This is where many promising rounds meet a disastrous end, I have no doubt.

Fans of the novel Golf in the Kingdom claim this brute of a par 3 was the real-life inspiration for a fictitious hole the protagonist attempts to tame—under cover of darkness no less. As far as I know, author Michael Murphy has neither confirmed nor denied those suspicions. But I do know this: Real or imagined, the 13th is a handful.

From that lofty perch, Crail’s final five holes are a bit of a denouement. The downhill 14th is a scenic and sensible par 3 compared to the beast that precedes it. Then you take a wee hike along the coastline,  past Constantine’s Cave, to get to the 15th through 18th which, to me, seemed tacked on and of a different and less satisfying character than the rest of the course. Far more intriguing was the cave which, according to the sign at its entrance, was the spot where King Constantine I was killed in battle with the invading Danes (aka Vikings) in 874. Oddly reassuring that, no matter how poorly you get on at Crail, there’s at least one person over the centuries who had it worse.

Hey, at Least It's Dry! -- Historians says this is where King Constantine I met his doom at the hands of Viking invaders in 874. You'll find it along an extended walk from the 14th's green to the 15th's tee.

Hey, at Least It's Dry! -- Historians says this is where King Constantine I met his doom at the hands of Viking invaders in 874. You'll find it along an extended walk from the 14th's green to the 15th's tee.

Sockless but Satisfied

After potting my final putt, I scaled the steep hill from the 18th green up to the car park, stashed my clubs and trolley in the back of my Volvo and then paid the pro shop a repeat visit. In part, it was to offer my thanks for the round. But, truth be told, I was hoping they stocked men’s socks. The one’s I’d worn that day were soaked as I’d foolishly brought along the wrong pair of golf shoes. Alas, my prayer went unanswered so I passed the rest of the day “unsocked.”

On the plus side, the clubhouse kitchen was still serving food. So I ordered and summarily devoured a bowl of their delightful seafood chowder, chasing it with a pot of piping hot tea. Both helped restore a sense of equilibrium before I attempted the drive back to reality and the ever-present day job.

Even without the liquid lunch, though, I was feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. I’d settled a personal score, left hanging for 18 long years. Even better? I knew that nowhere near another 18 years would pass before I’d return.

Crail, you see, had closed the sale. It brought home the mail. It delivered an authentic links experience, without fail.

All hail ye olde Crail!

Science Says: Sharing free time with others on a golf course is a good thing

Science Says: Sharing free time with others on a golf course is a good thing

Inside Track: Work on rerouting my golf swing shows promise, but it’s early

Inside Track: Work on rerouting my golf swing shows promise, but it’s early