Blasted Heaths and Blessed Greens: A Golfer's Pilgrimage to the Courses of Scotland

Blasted Heaths and Blessed Greens: A Golfer's Pilgrimage to the Courses of Scotland

by James W. Finegan

Hardcover

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684800981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 03/11/1996
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.52(w) x 7.88(h) x 0.98(d)

First Chapter

Chapter 1

Edinburgh and Points East

It was a morning in August, the sun was fighting a losing battle with the thick cumulus clouds above the city, and I was playing alone. I had examined the line of my putt on the first green with some care -- after all, how many 12-footers for birdie can I reasonably expect to have these days? -- and now took my stance at the ball, striving to avoid a death grip on the putter. Just as I was about to draw the club back, a second ball crept silently into my peripheral vision. Startled, I straightened up and walked toward the offending sphere. Then I stopped. There was no one in sight as I looked back up the fairway. Of course there wasn't. I smiled at the realization that someone had just driven the green on this blind 325-yard opening hole, where the last 150 yards are steeply downhill and likely to be as fast as an Olympic bobsled chute.

I missed my putt and proceeded to the second tee, the sting of the blown birdie opportunity assuaged by the knowledge that the happiest golfer in Edinburgh was playing right behind me. He would be starting his day with a shot at an eagle. Golf at Braid Hills is nothing if not exhilarating.

This is city golf (green fee less than $15, call ahead for a starting time), on the south side of town and all of 10 minutes from Princes Street, the sparkling main thoroughfare of the capital, with its monuments and sunken gardens on one side and its engaging hodgepodge of shops, banks, clubs, and hotels on the other. Play began here on September 5, 1889, two years before the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers first tested its links at Muirfield. In fact, the Honourable Company was given the opportunityto acquire the land at Braid Hills for its new course and politely declined. The rest of the world must be eternally grateful, for the city then stepped in and promptly built its first municipal course, Braids No. 1. Thirty years later, Braids No. 2 opened for play.

A quick scan of the scorecard for Braids No. 1 may prove disappointing. How, you ask, can anyone take seriously a course that, from the back of the tees, measures all of 5,731 yards against a par of 70; where four of the two-shotters are under 300 yards and five more are between 300 and 350 yards; and where, as we have seen, the opening hole -- the blind fairway beyond the crest is among the world's widest -- is ludicrously easy? But the 2nd, 134 yards, climbs almost vertically to a vast level green with a steep falloff on its left flank. And now the game is on: narrow plateau fairways to be hit and held; gorse-covered hillsides (like those at Royal Dornoch, a blaze of gold in spring) to be given a wide berth; frequent rock outcroppings topped with gorse or long grasses or both; even more frequent humps and hillocks and hollows; doglegs both sharp, as on the 8th, and gentle, as on the long sweeping downhill 11th; tees high and cruelly exposed to the winds (this is the "breezy Braids"); greens on perilous ledges or in lovely dell-like settings. And all of it roams across this splendid hillside, with its distractingly gorgeous views -- which explain the presence of strollers, hikers, and joggers with whom we must share this common ground. To say nothing of the schoolboys, whose cries of success can be heard from time to time as they uncover yet another lost ball in the impenetrable gorse. They will soon be along to offer a bargain buy. It is all part of the rough and tumble of the game here.

Admittedly, there are four or five pedestrian holes. But there are many more that range from good to great. The memorable 202-yard 13th, for instance, rises gently on a lofty ridge, over broken ground to a tightly bunkered green where nothing less than a perfectly struck wood -- often a driver -- will suffice. Then we must be prepared to repeat that perfect driver swing immediately, for the 378-yard 14th calls for a long forced-carry from an elevated tee across a gorse-covered slope to the safety of a hidden landing area in the valley far below. That accomplished, we are now left with a medium iron over another expanse of the fearsome gorse to the haven of the green.

A word about the last hole. It is a par four of 261 yards. From a knob, we drive across a deep swale into a steep hillside pocked with mounds. If our drive is long, it is also blind, cresting the hill and disappearing. If our drive is short, then our second shot is blind. In either case, we arrive at the green to drink in one of the three or four most intoxicating panoramas in all of golf: Arthur's Seat; the city of Edinburgh, including the Castle on its crag; the Firth of Forth, with Fife on the far shore, Gullane and North Berwick and Bass Rock a bit nearer out the East Lothian coast; the Pentland Hills and the Lammemuir Hills. It is the summation of all the splendid views that have accompanied us on our delightful round.

It is common in Scotland for golf clubs to grow up around municipal courses. The town -- as, for instance, is the case with St. Andrews, Carnoustie, and Montrose, as well as Edinburgh -- owns the courses, while the club owns only its clubhouse. Here at the Braids there are five golf clubs: Braids United, the Harrison, Edinburgh Western, Edinburgh Thistle, and Allermuir.

The first time I played Braids No. 1 it was in the company of Norman "Norrie" Robertson, Secretary of the Braids United Golf Club. An RAF pilot in World War II, he had received his flight training at Pensacola. He was 65 years old when we met and playing to an 8. He had been scratch in his prime.

"You may know that Tommy Armour developed his game here," he said. "He won the championship of Edinburgh Western. That was in 1919. And James Braid -- no, no, Braid Hills is not named after him -- was champion of the Thistle, Edinburgh Thistle, in 1892, which would not have been long after the course opened. Yes, they both played here when they were young men and it did their game no harm."

I asked Norrie whether he had ever won the championship of Braids United.

"As a matter of fact," he said, "I have -- four times running, '59, '60, '61, '62. But I must confess," he laughed, "there is no name like Armour or Braid sharing the champions' plaque with me. I will tell you, however, that Ben Crenshaw is an honorary member of Braids United."

A little later he said that his brothers had also won the club championship. "Ed's name is up for '46 and '47, Albert's for '37, '41, and '42. They were both much older than I."

When we reached the 9th, a superb one-shotter of 175 yards where the green, on a knob, is slightly above the tee and there is a falloff front and left and gorse on the right, Norrie said, "Albert once hit the most remarkable shot on this hole. It was in the early forties. You cannot imagine how fast, how fiery fast, this course once played, the way the links courses all used to play in high summer -- yes, I know this is not a links, but it is very like one, isn't it? Well, on this particular day a powerful wind was blowing, and Albert was playing right into the very teeth of it here on the 9th. Any ordinary shot would have gotten up in the air, then blown right back in his face. But the ground was like a motorway, so he took out his putter -- Albert was very strong -- and cracked his tee shot right onto the green, a 175-yard putt that never left the ground, just skimmed along on that burnt-out, frictionless surface and wound up traveling the full distance. They still talk about it."

Norrie also spoke of the No. 2 course, cocking his head back and looking heavenward. I followed his gaze and, to my astonishment, could make out golfers silhouetted against the sky. If Braids No.1 is on the heights, then Braids No. 2 is on the peaks. The notion of even climbing to that altitude, let alone playing golf shots on those vertiginous slopes, was beyond my grasp.

"It's much shorter," Norrie said,

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