Links to the Past

  • Castle Stuart is relatively new—it opened in 2009—but it has all the characteristics of a classic Scottish links course.
  • Cruden Bay
  • Royal Scotsman
<< Back to Robb Report, March 2015
  • Shaun Tolson

The Belmond Royal Scotsman’s Scottish Golf tour offers the types of experiences golfers enjoyed a century ago. 

The Belmond Royal Scotsman speeds north along the rails toward Tain, a small coastal village in the Scottish Highlands, where the train eventually will stop for the night while the passengers sleep in their marquetry-lined cabins. But before that, having enjoyed a dinner of salmon tartare, roasted guinea fowl, and strawberry-and-vanilla crème brûlée, the passengers adjourn to the observation car. In the evenings, the car’s curtains are drawn and it transforms into a performance space. Tonight, the first night of the Royal Scotsman’s Scottish Golf Tour, a guitar-and-fiddle duo are playing Scottish folk songs.

Near the end of their set, the musicians break from traditional melodies and perform a rendition of “Wagon Wheel,” a song cowritten by Bob Dylan and made famous more recently by the Nashville string band Old Crow Medicine Show. With an afternoon round at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club scheduled for the next day, it seems fitting to serenade the passengers with a song that references a train and the wind and the rain, and expounds on the virtues of the North Carolina landscape. Royal Dornoch has been known to torment golfers with rain and blustery, unpredictable winds, and it was there that Donald Ross learned from Thomas Morris—better known as Old Tom Morris—the trade of course design. Ross went on to create more than 400 golf courses throughout the United States, including Pinehurst No. 2, his masterpiece in the sand hills of North Carolina. 

Following the performance, conversation with the musicians turns to golf. The guitarist bemoans the rounds he plays with a member of his home course. The player is too careful, the guitarist says. On par 4s, he typically uses a 7-iron off the tee, hits another 7-iron approach, and, with a wedge, pitches onto the green to a distance that leaves a makeable putt for par. “Where’s the fun in that?” the guitarist asks. “There’s no excitement in that.”

He prefers to grip it and rip it, seeking to hit a memorable shot worthy of reliving over a pint after the round. This style of aggressive play has come to define the game in most parts of the world. But in Scotland, especially on traditional, treeless links courses—so called because of their coastal settings that link the land to the sea—a shot need not look impressive to be effective. The winds coming off the water can wreak havoc with an airborne drive or approach shot; instead of trying to hit the ball high and long, better to strike it low and hard and rely on good bounces on the firm fairways, and long rolls. In this respect, Scotland’s links, where the modern game was invented, have preserved the way golf was originally played. This is especially true of the Highlands courses on the Royal Scotsman tour, which offers golfers an additional sense of history by transporting them aboard a luxury train—the same way many affluent golfers visited the seaside clubs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

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