Don’t overlook the hidden gems

Golfers like to travel widely. But why do so many people restrict themselves to the famous courses? They’re expensive, play is usually slow and many times one feels like a commodity present only to line the coffers of the club. We might all show some imagination by playing lesser-known courses, where we’ll be welcomed, make new friends and look forward to returning.

This subject is on my mind because I’ve been making a point of playing some little-known courses in the north of Scotland. I recently played Fortrose and Rosemarkie, a gorgeous course that sits out on a narrow peninsula just north of Inverness. It’s a links course and the views out to sea are never less than superb.

I teed it up at 7:15 AM, by myself — the first golfer on the course and I didn’t see anybody for an hour. Another hour and I was in the pro shop, paying my 20 pounds sterling — about $50 CDN. Compare that with some $200 CDN at the famous Scottish courses that hold the British Open — the Old Course, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Royal Troon etc.

Famous, not always best
It’s always been bizarre to me that golfers who visit Scotland, especially for the first time — and oftenor the only time — choose to play only the famous courses. A group of fellows from the club I play in Toronto are coming across next month and have arranged to play the best. Their trip is going to cost them a fortune, and they plan to race around from course to course — without taking any time for off-course touring or meeting local people.

That might be a golf trip but it also sounds like a most boring journey. Far better for these fellows to alternate playing the ridiculously expensive famous courses with the lesser-known courses. And there are so many in this latter group.

Now, I can hear you saying this is all very well for me, because I’ve played the famous British Open courses and have visited Scotland frequently. To that I can only add that I first visited Scotland in 1972 and even then made a point of playing courses I’d never heard of.

The first I ever played in Scotland was called Kingsknowes, in Edinburgh. It’s a public course where I met local people. There wasn’t another visitor there as I can recall — they were probably off playing the Old Course or Muirfield.

That same trip I played the Braid Hills course overlooking Edinburgh. I took the train out to Dunbar in East Lothian, about an hour east of the city. It’s a superb links. In later years there were visits in East Lothian and Longniddry and Luffness New, both first-class links.

In England, meanwhile, I once spent a few days at Littlestone. There I met a member who lived in London who invited me to use his coast guard cottage while at Littlestone. He had a collection of jazz albums and books which I dipped into while in his home. It was at Littlestone also that I first learned about the pleasures of ginger wine. Mixed with whisky it was just the drink after a round at the course.

Memorable holes
Lesser-known courses are all over the U.K. In fact they’re wherever one travels for golf, even in Canada. Why line the pockets of clubs or companies who charge a small fortune when you could relax and enjoy golf at a course that isn’t so fancy or expensive?

There’s also something else that holds true wherever I travel — every golf course, no matter how little-known, has at least one or two memorable holes.

And it’s also fun to play such courses — because one generally has little or no expectations. I’d heard Fortrose and Rosemarkie was an attractive course, but had no idea it would be so enchanting. The first four holes play along the edge of the sea, toward a lighthouse. The short par-three fifth crosses the narrow peninsula. Four more holes return on the other side of the peninsula, with the Black Isles and water — water everywhere in view. A par-three crosses the peninsula again and then one plays down the middle of the peninsula-back and forth to the final green directly in front of the clubhouse.

After I played I explored the area — the historic Fortrose Cathedral, the narrow lanes of the village. I’d had a few hours of pure pleasure at a course that really is a hidden gem.

Hidden gems are everywhere in golf. If you find them they’ll still be hidden to most people, simply because most golfers stick to the tried and true and famous and expensive.

Be different. You won’t regret it. That’s a promise.