One year I traveled to New Zealand with 10 clubs and a Sunday bag jammed into a piece of six-inch plastic pipe. It drove the airport security people nuts with its bazooka look but worked perfectly for me, the lone player in a group of four travelers.
I didn’t dominate the trunk of our rental car or interfere with sightseeing or shopping. I just had my friends drop me off at the local course where the experience, not the quality of the layout or where it was on somebody’s world’s best list, was all I was looking for.
There are companies that will sweep you off to Europe — or Arizona or Myrtle Beach, for that matter — for 10 days of world-class golf. They pick out courses and hotels, negotiate the tight roads of Ireland, ferry your clubs as well as you. They’ll do it all.
No need to know the local language.
Or the people. Or the culture.
One group I knew spent more than a week in Ireland and never saw the inside of a pub. Theirs, unfortunately, was a steady diet of five-star hotel bars and dining rooms.
I’ve played some of the world’s great courses, from Merion and Cypress Point to Royal County Down and Ballybunion. But as I reflect on nearly 60 years of golf, I realize it isn’t how many great courses you’ve played, but how many great experiences you’ve had.
I’ve learned a few things along the way:
Don’t be afraid to walk onto a golf course unannounced.
Don’t be afraid to play as a single; or better yet, to play with those you’ve never met. Especially if they are locals.
Travel light and go where most Americans don’t or won’t or have never thought about.
Once, without clubs, I found my way to a mountainside course in the Swiss Alps even though I didn’t speak French and had no rental car. I literally followed the tinkling of bell cows under an idle ski lift to the clubhouse.
I had been in Europe for couple of weeks covering sporting events. Our teenage son was with me. Since our last stop was Lausanne, he wanted to summer-ski a glacier up the mountain from Montreux.
I don’t ski, so I asked about golf, of course. They told me of a course and how to get a bus that would take me near it. The bus was prompt the next morning. The driver knew little English but did understand where I wanted to go after I announced golf in my best French. Upon reaching the top of the pass, he stopped the bus and said golf.
I walked for half a mile until I saw the first tell-tale signs of the game I know. The guy in the pro shop at historic Villars said, yes, they could rent me clubs, but, so sorry, they were having a tournament that day.
After I told him my story — fortunately he spoke some English — he sent me out on the back nine first. I usually enjoy the company of others playing golf, but the solitude and jaw-dropping scenery were truly memorable.
But no more so than the bus ride and its driver who was there to pick me up atop the pass at our scheduled meeting time.
On a recent trip to Northern Ireland, I enjoyed a round at Ardglass — with the world’s oldest clubhouse and the treacherous first few holes along the Irish Sea — more than I did Royal Portrush, where I was completely overmatched.
I would advise people not to be disappointed when they can’t play Carnoustie, but instead be elated by the chance to play Elie, where there is a submarine periscope to view the first hole and a pub on the back nine that is almost in play.
One year, I played a course in Scotland with three male nurses, not one of whom I could understand. We had a great time.
The opening of Kingsbarns came during the 2000 British Open at nearby St. Andrews. There were no tee times available that weekend, but I asked to be put on the singles list and would be having breakfast in the bar while I waited. The starter came out 30 minutes later and put me with a threesome that included Herb Kohler, the toilet czar and the man behind Whistling Straits and The American Club. We had a wonderful conversation about golf. He told me his two favorite out-of-the-way courses in the United Kingdom were Cruden Bay in Scotland and Carne in Ireland. I listened.
The landscape everywhere is dotted with special places for golf, places where the chili or the burger after the round might be better than the round itself. Often, it is the people you play with that you remember more than the courses you’ve played.
I drove to North Berwick in Scotland with hopes of playing the famed West course. Instead, where I could get on was the Glen course, still hard by the sea and a splendid links layout. The beauty of that round was being asked if I wanted to play with the seniors that day, to be accorded the special guest rate — five pounds — and to ante a pound to enter the competition.
I played with a retired constable and a retired lawyer. We chatted the entire way, but did take time to hit some good shots and ended up winning the day’s competition. Afterwards, I ended up buying a round that sopped up the day’s winnings and then some, but it was surely a day I’ll never forget.
All that to say this: If you feel as though you have to play Carnoustie, then play Carnoustie. But there might be more fun and better value just down the road.
Waiting one morning for a frost delay at Bandon Dunes, I was drawn into a conversation over breakfast about the best places to play in Scotland. There were a couple of guys from San Francisco who were off the next month to Edinburgh.
“No reservations,” one of them said, “for accommodations or golf.” They would start somewhere near Edinburgh and follow a trail of local recommendations.
That’s an itinerary I would relish.
The differences in golf cultures are delightful, not daunting. In Sweden, the locals all walk and play fast enough to take a few minutes at the turn for their beloved fika, a cup of coffee and a pastry.
For all the great golf in Bend, Oregon, my favorite place is Tokatee, over the mountains toward Eugene. For all the great courses around Lake Tahoe, I like Whitehawk Ranch, north of Truckee on the edge of civilization in many ways.
I like to believe these are places where they’d understand a guy with 10 clubs and a piece of plastic drainpipe.