Heaven, hell and home: Lessons from my first European golf vacation
I hope you haven’t killed me by the time you’re reading this, but if you have, I can’t say I’m surprised. Actually, I think I support the decision.
It’s just about dinnertime where you are right now. Or at least I think it is. Sometime earlier this afternoon, I left the wifi bubble at Edinburgh Airport with the promise I’d let you know as soon as I landed in Amsterdam, the connecting stop on my trip home to New York. Now it is several hours later, and my spectacular European adventure has been replaced by a torrent of disaster.
As I write this, I’m jammed into the unreasonably narrow “window” seat of a wide-bodied KLM plane that, for some reason, has no window. My left shoulder is plastered against the plastic cabin siding, but it’s no use — my body is still too large for this seat. With each keystroke, my right elbow pokes into the ribcage of a poor mother from Washington, D.C. whose only fault in this ordeal is finding herself in the middle seat next to my own. Three gate agents have assured me that in roughly 10 hours, this plane will land at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, some 900 miles from my intended destination. As of this moment, I know concerningly little else. I do not have a return flight booked to New York. The clock on my phone and the one on my computer read two different times. The plane wifi — which I have paid $45 for the privilege of figuring out the rest of my way home — is currently disconnected. Will it turn back on in time to coerce Delta into a seat on this evening’s final flight to New York? The closest I’ve come to an answer is a very polite Dutch shrug from my flight attendant. If that weren’t enough, the luggage containing, conservatively, 85 percent of my earthly belongings is more lost than I am, perhaps likely never to be seen again.
And you? You haven’t a clue about any of this. The last you heard of me, I was scheduled to be sharing war stories about my first Scottish golf jaunt just after dinnertime. Now I’m credibly wondering whether customs agents will be waiting in the jetway to arrest me in Atlanta for the strongarm effort that got me on this flight in the first place. Assuming Atlanta is, in fact, where this plane is headed.
Anyway, I’ll have to delay our efforts to get back in touch by a few more minutes — the flight attendant has just passed me a plate of curry “chicken” that may well turn back into a gym class dodgeball if I don’t move quickly.
Talk very soon (I hope!),
“Can you believe this?!”
My phone buzzed again.
It was April, and I had just received a text message from Jamie, an editor at Travel + Leisure and my longtime girlfriend. She had just been invited on a trip to Priorat, Spain with an explorer’s club called “The Vines,” and they had just delivered her a second piece of good news: she was offered a plus-one, so long as the other person paid for their travel.
The invitation was like a billboard from the universe. The two of us had been trying (and failing) to plan a European vacation for months. Now an opportunity had dropped in our laps on dates that worked with our schedules and overlapped with my 25th birthday.
That night, as we hammered out the details, we hit a roadblock. I wanted to extend our vacation beyond our time with The Vines, while Jamie wanted to conserve her PTO. Then an idea hit me. Not more than a week earlier, I’d learned that my coworker, Sean Zak, was spending the summer in St. Andrews. Maybe he was looking for a visitor. I texted him.
“If I were to theoretically extend a trip and come visit you in Scotland at the end of June, would you be interested in playing golf with me?” I asked.
He responded a few seconds later.
I keyed in the dates and found that flights were considerably cheaper to fly home from Edinburgh, even when factoring for the connecting flight from Spain. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Go to Europe, see two distinct countries, and play some of the best golf on the planet … for less money? Sure, and maybe I could ride my unicorn to the airport. But it was real, and a few minutes later, it was official. I was headed to Europe at the end of June.
2. Precious cargo
It’s easy to get to Europe. The hard part is packing for it.
Days after finalizing my plans, I realized I had a prior engagement for the week before my European vacation: the U.S. Open at Brookline. Between Boston, Europe, and some of 4th of July family time after I returned, I quickly realized I’d be away from my Manhattan apartment for 23 consecutive days, or long enough for my roommates to reasonably forget about my existence. The real problem, though, was finding a way to bring everything I needed in a bag that could double as a carry-on.
I soon learned that Europe’s baggage handlers shared my penchant for haphazardness. As I waited for my golf bag to emerge from the oversized area in Barcelona, I struck up a conversation with a fellow golfer, who offered a word of warning.
“I almost brought my backup set of clubs with me,” he said. “They’ve lost my golf bag the last three times I’ve flown in here.”
He was relieved, he said, because he had stuck an AirTag in his golf bag, which told him the bag had made it to Spain with him.
“I wouldn’t get on another international flight without one,” he warned me. “You’ll live to regret it.”
3. Lost in the Vines
There are only a few places in the world vibrant enough to slice through the haze of a redeye hangover. Spain is one of them. I’d only been in the country for a few hours by the time we arrived in Priorat, but I was already several shots of espresso deep and head over heels. No wonder Hemingway spent the better portion of his life here.
It didn’t hurt that the non-golf portion of the trip was hilariously luxurious. I’m what the airlines would call an “economy class” traveler, far more comfortable with salt of the earth tourists back in steerage than the rubes and dignitaries sampling caviar in business class. (When your life often revolves around travel, it’s important to know which corners you can cut, and which ones will leave you sleeping with a flip-flop on the nightstand to fend off the roaches.)
With The Vines, the accommodations were astonishing. Every detail was curated to ensure maximum enjoyment. The rooms at the hotel — a five-star outfit perched on a mountainside adjacent a vineyard — were three times the size of my Manhattan apartment. Sleek buses took us from location to location, where we found expert locals practically falling over themselves to teach us about the region, feed us delicious food, and serve us their finest wine.
Of course, most of the folks who were on the trip had paid a very pretty penny for this privilege. The Vines is something of a country club for wine and travel enthusiasts. There is an application process to join the club, which attracts members from all over the world and the upper stratospheres of many industries. Once accepted, members pay an entrance fee and annual dues for the right to vint their own wine at a club-owned resort in Argentina, interact with other wine lovers, and travel the world on trips like these. In turn, the club handles all of the dirty work — scouting locations, booking arrangements, scheduling meals and wine tastings.
On our first evening, we showed up at the hotel restaurant for a “quick” dinner before bed. It was already 8 p.m., and we were eager to sleep off the jetlag. Dinner lasted four hours, at least eight courses, and at least four bottles of wine. “Trust me when I say this is only an appetizer of what’s to come,” one of the members told me. He was right. The next night, we donned all-white to celebrate the feast of St. John (a Spanish holiday the locals call “Nit De San Joan”) and ate a delicate but unrelenting feast of tapas as fireworks and bonfires burned around us. When the sun rose the next morning, we hiked to the top of a mountain for a picnic overlooking the vineyard below.
“It’s probably just the wine talking,” I said to Jamie as we took in the expanse before us. “But each of the last three days I’ve thought I had the best meal of my life, and every time the next meal proved me wrong.”
“I don’t think it’s the wine,” Jamie replied. (It wasn’t.)
I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that a large chunk of Vines members were also golf diehards. Golf is, after all, a country club sport — and we were traveling with A-list country clubbers, even if they were decidedly more Al Czervik than Judge Smails. Before long, I found myself trading war stories with the members, most of whom seemed more excited for me to get to Scotland than I was.
“This is incredible,” one member told me. “But where you’re going is even better.”
“I’m quite happy to be here now,” I contested.
“Yeah, but that’s because you haven’t been there yet,” they replied. “You’ll see.”
Finally, the sun set on our final day in Spain, which just so happened to be my 25th birthday. Jamie and I celebrated in Barcelona by taking a quick trip to the Apple store, where I heeded my baggage claim buddy’s advice and bought an AirTag for my golf bag.
It’d been a whirlwind few days, but Barcelona was the perfect place to end the first part of the trip (and celebrate a milestone birthday). In the summer, the days seem to linger on forever, which is a good thing when you aren’t quite ready to leave.
When night finally came, we sat down for paella at a hole in the wall a few blocks from the beach. As we walked in, the restaurant speakers blared Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” — fitting, I laughed, given that I no longer felt it.
4. Letters from Heaven
There’s good fortune, really good fortune, and then, at the very end of the spectrum, there is what happened to me on the afternoon of my arrival in Scotland. That would qualify as divine intervention.
It was not long after 3 p.m. when the first bag appeared on the carousel at Edinburgh Airport, but I nearly missed it. My eyes were buried in my phone. Naturally, the airport wifi wasn’t working in Edinburgh, meaning my golf bag still showed that it was somewhere in Barcelona. Around me, the carousel area was like a graveyard. Hundreds of bags were scattered along the linoleum, lost remnants of flights past.
One by one, more bags began to appear on the conveyer belt, and the crowd around me grew thinner. Soon, there were only a dozen or so people left. Uh oh.
I’m not the Godly type, but I’ll admit I made a petition as the final luggage cart from my flight pulled up to the conveyer belt. Please, PLEASE let me find this bag, I pleaded, I don’t care if it gets lost on the way home, just let me have my clubs for the next few days. Ten more bags came through the conveyer. None were mine.
I paced nervously around the airport trying to reconnect my phone. No dice. Now the last of the stragglers from my flight had left, and the first arrivals were beginning to trickle through from the next flight. It was over. My bag was lost.
I tried to connect to the wifi one last time, and to my surprise, it worked. I pulled open the “Find My” app, zoomed in, and laughed out loud. I was standing 10 feet from my golf bag, which had been diligently circling the carousel for the last five minutes. Somehow, I’d missed it.
With belongings in tow, I made it to Sean’s flat, where the two of us changed for dinner. As a surprise thank you, I’d managed to snag us a reservation at 18, the chic new rooftop bar at the Rusacks Hotel overlooking the closing stretch at the Old Course. Before dinner, we took a short walk through St. Andrews, where Sean introduced me to the town for the first time.
St. Andrews, for the uninitiated, is fundamentally disorienting. No place as charming, historic and beloved has any right being as undisturbed, quaint and unpretentious. Cobblestone roads and 500-year-old buildings are not a feature of town, they are the town. Walking around, I found myself searching for the cropping of super-luxe condos and modern mansions that served as a playground for the mega-rich — the kind you see at every other similarly dazzling place in the U.S. I never found it.
Sean was deep in a history lesson as he ducked a quick left down a familiar street and emerged on the first tee box at the Old Course, which meant he missed my eyes nearly bulge out of my head.
“Oh yeah,” he said, chuckling. “You’ve probably never seen this before.”
The course was closed for the Open, which would be played in a little more than two weeks’ time, but the grounds remained open to the people of the town, like they always are. It’s true what everyone says about the Old Course, you just have to see it to understand it — the nuances, the sightlines, the bunkers, the history (!). In a town that already feels stolen from a bygone era, the Old Course brings you screeching into the past like a plutonium-powered DeLorean. I found myself turning awestruck circles, as if by staring long enough at the grass I could somehow bring it home with me. We walked “the loop” — holes 1, 2, 17 and 18 — stopping for a quick photo on Swilcan Bridge as we returned to the Rusacks for dinner.
We ordered rare steaks and cold beers as we chatted through our itinerary for the following few days. Sean had called in a few favors, he said, and we would be playing a pair of rounds over the next three days at two of the best courses in the country (and, by extension, the world): North Berwick and Cruden Bay. Soon the food arrived, and it was a proper feast — thick slabs of homemade sourdough, tender Aberdeen ribeyes slathered in bearnaise, snappy fries with a zap of salt and vinegar, crisp garden vegetables — enough to quiet our trash-talking for at least the next few hours.
The man couldn’t have been younger than 60.
With a stout build and a tuft of white hair, he lurched over the starter’s shack at North Berwick with an attentive (if wary) eye on passersby. Storms had just blown through the area, but now the sun glistened on the wet pavement in front of the clubhouse. It was shaping into a gorgeous day: blue skies, 70 degrees and a playful breeze.
Soon the man stepped outside to take a short lap around clubhouse patio, greeting members as they passed. Our eyes met as I walked, clubs slung over my shoulder, toward the front door.
“How are yeh?” He asked in a thick Scottish brogue.
“Not sure I could be doing much better,” I answered.
“Oh yeah?” The man wondered.
“The sun is shining, the birds are chirping,” I said. “And I’m about to play my first round of Scottish golf.”
“Yer first?!” He asked, a smile spreading across his face.
He paused, glancing up at the sky and then out to the golf course behind me.
“Well,” he said. “I have bad news.”
The man turned back to me now, looking me straight in the eye.
“You’ll be spoil’t rotten for the rest of it.”
There are harder courses in the world than the West Links at North Berwick (particularly on a calm, sunny day), more pristine ones, and almost every course I’ve played is longer than the 6,500-yard back tees. But are there more beautiful courses? Are there better ones? I’m still not convinced.
The opening stretch at the West Links brings you out along the ocean. There’s a handshake opener across a country mile-wide fairway to an elevated green, a pair of beefy par-4s into a prevailing wind, and a tiny par-3 that scythes back inland across the property. In theory, the beach plays only a supporting role in the action, but the steps leading to the sand indicate the sightlines are more deceiving than they seem.
I was grateful the wind was down, because I could hardly feel the grip in my hands as we walked through the opening stretch. I was floating from tee to green, drinking in as much of the scenery as I could, and not quite believing my eyes even then. Good sense had, for the moment, been thrown out the window.
“I’m really sorry,” I found myself telling our host Simon, a lifelong member at North Berwick, as he watched me take my 700th video of the day on our way up the 5th fairway. “I’m not often this distracted. This might be the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”
“You know,” he said, flashing me a sheepish grin. “The back nine is even better.”
You’ll be spoil’t rotten for the rest of it.
Simon, it turned out, had undersold it. Not only was the back nine at North Berwick better than the front — it was the best nine I’d ever played in my life. There was the tap-in birdie on the par-5 12th, the heroic par save on the Biarritz 16th, in which I inadvertently landed my approach on a patch of green the size of a dinner plate. And who could forget the par on “Pit,” in which the green is guarded perfectly by the stone wall intersecting the course? After blowing my second shot into the hill left of the green, I turned the centuries-old Parish boundary into a backboard. At Simon’s direction, I played my chip into the wall, watching as my ball popped up in the air, rolled back toward the flagstick, and stopped two feet from the flag.
“Just how I drew it up!” I yelled, taking the tap-in for par.
That’s the way things are at North Berwick, which may well be golf’s most playful course. No track better marries enjoyment with challenge (it’s no wonder so many famed architects have fallen in love with the place). Indeed, my only regret from our day came in the clubhouse bar after our round.
“I’ll have a Caledonia’s,” I blurted out confidently, having spotted the logo of the Scottish beer on a tap nearby.
“I’m sorry?” The bartender responded quizzically.
“He means he’ll have a Best,” Simon quickly corrected me.
I turned a bright shade of red as I pictured a Scotsman ordering a “Budweiser Light” at a pub back home. If the golf hadn’t humbled me yet, that was okay — it seemed I did a fine job of that on my own.
I’ve never had a hole-in-one, never sniffed an albatross, and I can probably count on one hand my lifetime number of eagles. But that’s okay, because I have something just as good. I have a birdie on No. 4 at Cruden Bay.
Go ahead, scroll down to the photo below of the 4th hole and doubt me. Sure, it’s a pretty par-3, you’ll say, but it’s not special. Maybe you’ll take it a step further and google the scorecard. What’s this hack talking about? 196 yards from the tips? *I* could make a birdie here!
Here, dear reader, is where you are wrong. I have played many golf holes in my life, and as a mid-handicap with a penchant for masochism, I have played many hard golf holes in my life. But I have never, ever played anything like the 4th hole at Cruden Bay.
On the day we stumbled into town, Sean and I were greeted by two new friends. The first was Ru, our host for the day and owner of Dunes Cruden Bay, a stately five-bedroom rental overlooking the golf course where we would be spending the night. The second was the Scottish weather, which appeared after its two-day hiatus with winds at speeds close to 50 mph (or 40 knots) and dumped rain that hurt when it struck you. The previous day’s 70-degree sunshine had been replaced by a wind chill in the 40s. After strolling around North Berwick in polos and pants, Sean and I stopped in the pro shop before our round at Cruden Bay to purchase knit hats, which quickly proved necessary.
“Are these conditions … normal?” Sean wondered a few seconds after I muscled a 6-iron on the practice range that traveled 100 yards.
“Depends on what you mean by normal,” Ru replied. “This is pretty tough, even for me.”
The good news, Ru explained, was that the wind wouldn’t be quite as punishing as it seemed. Large stretches of the course are protected from gusts by massive, sloping dunes, and many of the unprotected holes actually play downwind. There were only a few holes to worry about, and only one that would play fully into the brunt of the weather. That hole, a par-3, was better to treat as a par-4 anyway, Ru said, since nobody ever really hit the green off the tee.
“You’ll see it when we get there,” he said. “But the 4th is a beast.”
What is the proper play for a 200-yard shot dead into a 40 mph wind? Is it something low and piercing? Something high, hard and spinning? The correct strategy, it turns out, is simple:
Step 1: Pick something long.
Step 2: Pray.
“I’m only hitting one club off the tee here,” Ru instructed us. “And it starts with a ‘D’.”
His drive was good, rolling to the back of the putting surface. (“About as good as you could ever hope to do,” Ru said.) Sean went second. His 3-wood was dead on arrival, skittering low and left off the heel of the club, close to the water. Finally, it was my turn. I placed my tee in the ground and pulled driver, deciding that I’d rather be long and dead than short and dead. The wind was wailing so hard that I could feel resistance against the clubface when I swung. When I finally made contact, I was surprised to see the ball on the exact line I’d hoped it would be. Even more shocking, the shot seemed to be tracking toward the flagstick. Soon it was descending, growing closer to the flag with each millisecond.
“Did that hit the hole?!?!”
The ball had landed inches from the flagstick and stopped just feet from the hole. I’d almost dunked my tee shot on a 200-yard par-3 … with a driver. Before I could place a marker down, Ru stopped me.
“You’re going to want a photo with that, trust me,” he said.
It would be a fool’s errand to describe the rest of our round at Cruden, which is by all accounts as pure and scenic a course as exists in the world. Just know that after our bludgeoning ended, Sean and I turned around and played the property’s third nine — the St. Olaf’s Course — and its putting course, too. Hell, we would have played all 18 holes again, had daylight allowed.
Instead, we closed the day — and my first foray into Scottish golf — by catching the sunset from Ru’s rental, where the mix of sun and gray cast a rainbow descending from the clouds to the sea.
I went to bed that night convinced that heaven is real. Or at least a heaven. In Scotland, sometimes it’s not even beyond the clouds.
5. Letters from Hell
Hi! Me again.
Good news! Against very long odds, I’m going to make it home to New York tonight. Bad news! My bags are not.
You should see how I look right now: drenched in sweat, severely winded, my hair disheveled, sweatshirt tied around my waist like a father of four at Disney World. The selfie I took in the customs line at Atlanta-Hartsfield bears a striking resemblance to Ted Kaczynski, and even that probably undersells the look on my face right now.
For the second time today, I’ve taken a half-mile sprint through an airport to make a flight. For the first time today (in three tries!), my flight left its destination at its scheduled time — naturally, considering a 15-minute delay would’ve been helpful. Somehow, I did better than my luggage, which my phone tells me is still somewhere in the Amsterdam airport. Some of the folks on my flight are saying the airlines are taking weeks to recover their bags. I think I’ll worry about that later. (While we’re on the topic: do you know of any places open after midnight that sell men’s underwear?)
After the delay in Edinburgh; the missed connection in Amsterdam; the frantic begging to get on a flight — any flight — bound for the U.S.; and a healthy dose of bartering with Delta to land a seat on the final flight to New York, here I am. Headed home. Finally. (“I don’t think you’ll make it,” the Delta customer service agent had told me. Sucker.)
Truth is, he was right. It’s a miracle I’m here right now, the collective result of about a million simultaneously fortunate and unfortune breaks. Travel is like life in that way — often out of our control and almost always not how we planned. Sometimes it’s powerful, perspective-changing, life-altering even. Sometimes it’s just hell.
Look hard enough and maybe you’ll find some meaning in the absurdity. Look for a while and you’ll find something even better: home. With an extra layover.