North Berwick’s West Links: 17 years later, it’s still the same. Thankfully, I’m not.
Please allow me to digress for a moment with a wee bit of personal history. I made my first trip to Scotland in 1997 with the other three members of the so-called “Dream Foursome.” That self-driving golf tour started at Dornoch in the Highlands than worked its way south and east through Nairn, Moray, Cruden Bay, St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Gullane and North Berwick. Other than Cruden Bay, I hadn’t revisited any of those fine links. Until yesterday, that is, when I pulled into the tony town of North Berwick, 25 miles east of Edinburgh and just shy of 50 miles northeast of our home away from home in Ancrum.
That’s a 17-year gap, for those of you scoring at home. But as I parked the Fiat along the 18th hole, it appeared as if nothing had changed. Time warp city!
Perhaps that’s because, from North Berwick’s perspective, 17 years is a mere heartbeat. Golf of some form has been played on this linksland since at least the early 17th century. The official start dates back to 1832 with the formation of the North Berwick Golf Club. It was on these ancient grounds—along with those at St. Andrews, Musselburgh and Prestwick—that the game as we know it took root and flourished.
Today’s club trades on that history as well as the simple fact that they possess a world-class links and maintain it to a very high standard. So when I waltzed into the starter’s hut unannounced and was informed that the green fee was 90 quid, I didn’t bat an eye. I knew in my gut the experience would be worth far more than that.
As it turned out, my snap value assessment missed the mark on the low end. By a wide margin.
A Minor Miracle Occurs
Initially, though, the starter was not particularly encouraging. I couldn’t help but notice, as I made my way from the car park, that the joint was overrun with Americans. As such, there wasn't a gap in the tee sheet for at least two hours.
But then a minor miracle occurred! Just minutes before I presented myself hat in hand, another single had done the same. And the starter said that if we were willing to put up with one another, we could head to the first tee in just 30 minutes—filling a spot that had opened up because its owner was having car trouble. I turned and greeted this mystery man who, at first glance, appeared to have spent the past few nights sleeping in his car. “Disheveled,” was the first word that came to mind. His face was obscured by at least a three-day’s growth of beard. And he was wearing jeans. God help me! But then he shook my hand and said, “Hi! My name is Brad.” And I responded, “One of my best friends is named Brad.” Suddenly, I had a feeling all would be well in this fescue-covered world.
Brad assured the gatekeeper that, after a quick trip to his car, he would return properly attired.
“That would do,” said the starter. “Fortunately, we don’t have rules regarding facial hair!”
Against the Wind
I filled the in-between time by hiring a trolley—impressed that North Berwick’s are of the latest three-wheeled push-forward variety—and getting a feel for the pace of the putting surfaces with a few goes on the practice green. By the time Brad and I reassembled at the first tee, he had indeed transformed himself into a new man—now perfectly suited for this top-drawer venue.
So off we went, directly into the teeth of at least a 20 mph wind. The West Links’ first eight holes play due west from the clubhouse. The 9th and 10th negotiate a counterclockwise turn. And then the next seven holes play due east, turning slightly to the right at the short 18th. As such, much of the first half of our round was a slog. Case in point: On the 444-yard 3rd (aka Trap), I hit driver, 3-wood and 8-iron and was still short of the dance floor.
On the way home, however, the wind was mostly at our backs. As an added bonus, the clouds parted and we were drenched in brilliant sunshine. The net effect: Our persistence was rewarded with pleasantness.
A 17-year Time Warp
Playing behind a four ball, Brad and I had ample opportunity to chat. The South African native said he now makes his home near Brighton along England's south coast with his wife and two young sons. At least at the moment. My playing partner let on that he’d escaped to Scotland for a week or so to sort out his future, both professionally and personally. His life, it seemed, had run off the rails and he wasn’t quite sure how he was going to get it back on.
This is where it gets a little trippy. When I last played at North Berwick 17 years ago, my life was in a similarly muddled state. I was making my first pilgrimage to Scotland and, by all rights, should have been in heaven. Externally, I was—not that I always noticed. But internally? I was trapped in my own personal hell. Like Brad, my marriage was imploding. And my work was headed in the wrong direction. I’d always made my living as a writer. But when I became a father in 1988, a switch flipped inside and I was convinced I’d need to be something more than that—to build a legitimate income-producing business like a real adult. Or something. So I changed course. By 1997, I was floundering—and my golf reflected it.
I remember being at North Berwick. But all I could recall from that day was the struggle to somehow put the club on the ball. I was so consumed by the inner torment that I barely noticed the outer beauty.
In the Flow
Not so this time around. I’m now happily remarried. My three adult daughters are finding their way in the world. I’m once again making a living doing what I love. Even my game seems to be rounding into shape.
And what an amazing course upon which to play it! You have the Firth of Forth on one side, a row of stately mansions on the other and a string of first-rate golf holes in between. The latter wind their way amid the dunes in a natural, almost mesmerizing, flow. How did I not see and feel all of this 17 years ago? Though I didn’t play my best, it really didn’t matter. I was just so grateful to have the opportunity to return and fully appreciate what I’d missed the first time around.
A few highlights worth a mention: an up-and-down for par 4 on the 7th (stroke index 3); a rather exceptional bunker shot that led to a par 5 on the 11th; a 4-hybrid to six feet (shot of the day!) on the 15th, better known as the Redan and arguably the most copied par 3 in the world; and a 270-yard drive (no kidding!) on the downwind 17th (please don’t ask me what happened next). Brad, as well, had his shining moments.
As we continued to talk, it turned out we shared yet another connecting point. He said his first love was kite surfing—as competitor, teacher and rental agent to tourists in Cape Town. Now, he was contemplating writing a book about his experiences. That’s when I informed him that I’d just completed the manuscript on my first book (aiming for publication in January). So we conversed on that topic as well for a hole or two.
‘You Give Me Hope!’
As we walked toward our tee shots that nearly trundled onto the green at the anticlimactic 269-yard par 4 finishing hole, neither Brad nor I could keep the gratitude from gushing out of us. Great links, fabulous weather and—more importantly—life-affirming company. All hail serendipity!
“You give me hope!” said the reincarnation of myself 17 years ago.
“Absolutely,” replied my current self. “Like our inward nine downwind after the outward nine into it, life does get better. Just hang in there. And trust your heart.”
I have. And look where it’s taken me!