A GOLF EXPEDITION ON THE HIGH SEAS

A GOLF EXPEDITION ON THE HIGH SEAS

By Michael Mastarciyan

Photos courtesy Boomer Jerritt/One Ocean Expeditions

 

Zipping across the brisk waters of the North Atlantic toward Scotland’s craggy Kintyre peninsula on a sleek, black Zodiac, I breathe in the fresh morning air and wipe the salty spray off my brow. Glancing at my wristwatch I notice the date, June 6th, and suddenly I’m overcome with solemn emotion. Today is the 75th anniversary of the

D-Day landings on the beaches of not so far away Normandy, France where so many young soldiers perished for the future security of free peoples everywhere on June 6th,  1944.

Unlike the heroes of the Allied Expeditionary Force, who made the ultimate sacrifice to safeguard the liberty many of us take for granted today, I’m seeking leisure in the form of a golf expedition trip, on a luxurious expedition ship. I’m a lucky person, I know it, but on this day, I’m eternally grateful for the freedom and ability to pursue happiness gifted to me by those brave young souls so many years ago.

Like the seafarers of yesteryear, I’ve decided to tell this tale of golf on the high seas in daily log form – a seven day journey around Ireland and Scotland, to play some of the most spectacular and remote courses in existence aboard One Ocean Expeditions’ flagship RCGS Resolute on her maiden North Atlantic golf voyage.

Golf Expedition Log Day 1 – Dublin, Ireland

After two days of Guinness hunting, tasting as much of the fine Black Stuff as possible at some of the oldest and most revered drinking establishments the Irish capital has to offer, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no better place on earth to drink this dark elixir than Dublin, where it’s creamier and sweeter than any place on earth thanks to the fact that it’s not pasteurized when consumed within, as U2 would say, “these city walls.”

At the behest of my good friend and city guide, the legendary “Disco” Dave Kelly, one of Dublin’s most well known bon vivants who writes books about 18th century Irish pirates when he’s not spearheading advertising campaigns for some of the world’s most famous brands, I’ve also paid a visit to one of the most venerated libraries on the planet, Trinity College Dublin’s magnificent Long Room. A stroll through the ancient stacks one floor above one of the most famous illuminated bibles in creation (The Book of Kells) is like walking through Hogwarts Library, a Harry Potteresque experience that is highly recommended.

The Long Room Trinity College Dublin Ireland
The Long Room Trinity College Dublin Ireland

With a backpack full of tourist memorabilia from The Guinness Storehouse (also a must-do when visiting Dublin), I board a One Ocean Expeditions shuttle bus. Minutes later I find myself standing in front of my home on the high seas for the next seven days, the robust RCGS Resolute, which has transformed herself from a 5-star polar tourist exploration ship into a giant floating golf cart.

Walking up the Resolute’s gangway I’m hypnotized by the siren call of a Celtic trio playing traditional Irish and Scottish songs, and led into a large, windowed dining hall with jaw-dropping views, for cocktails and an introduction to the ship, the crew and my fellow golf aficionados. After a few wee drams of Irish and Scottish whiskey and some general mingling, I take a quick tour the of the ship as we cast off and set sail along the rugged coast of Ireland on our way to Campbeltown, Scotland, the first destination of our grand golfing ocean tour.

Put quite simply, the RCGS Resolute is a dream for people who love to cruise but don’t enjoy massive crowds. Built like a pimped out version of Jacques Cousteau’s famed Calypso, the 400 ft Resolute is the Ritz-Carlton of high-tech ocean exploration travel vessels. Expeditions on this ship never have more than 150 guests, which makes for a truly intimate ocean adventure vacation experience.

I’m shocked and awed as I enter my cabin for the first time, immediately overcome by the sheer size and scale of the room. A large rectangular port window, a spacious double bed, more closet space than any human should have, a writing desk and television, a fully stocked mini-bar chock-full of beverages & treats (many of them complimentary), and a luxurious bathroom and shower en suite of elephantine proportions.

After a delicious 5-course gourmet dinner highlighted by a mouth-watering Tasmanian Salmon entrée, a walk on the deck for some fresh sea air, and a nightcap gazing at the stars and moonlit waves from the Resolute’s elegant, wood-paneled panoramic bar at the bow of the vessel, I snuggle into bed and drift off to the gentle motions of the ship, with visions of holes-in-one dancing in my head.

 

Golf Expedition Log Day 2 – Machrihanish Golf Club, Campbeltown, Scotland

 

The sheer excitement and anticipation of a day on the links at one of Scotland’s most remote, hidden golf jewels, the storied Machrihanish Golf Club on the southern tip of the verdant Mull of Kintyre (yes the same one part-time local resident Paul McCartney wrote a song about in 1977) has me up with the sea birds.

 

Zodiac-Boats-
Zodiac-Boats-

 

As the Resolute makes its way into sleepy Campbeltown, I take in my first Scottish sunrise, counting sheep on the shoreline as we sail past a colossal weatherbeaten lighthouse just as rosy-fingered dawn lifts the veil of night from this pastoral peninsula.

 

After a hearty breakfast buffet spying out a window as the Resolute’s crane lowers the ship’s fleet of black Zodiac inflatable boats into the deep blue sea, I head down to the ship’s mudroom. After putting on a pair of black rubber boots, I batten down the hatches of my bright red waterproof jacket and bib pants (also provided to guests) and scurry down a short port-side gangway onto one of the awaiting Zodiacs.

 

Once my first splashy, ship to shore thrill-ride is done, I’m sure of one thing, I LOVE ZODIACS, and quickly realize riding these little black rubber devils may outshine any 300-yard drive I’ll be lucky enough to hit on this trip!

 

As my Zodiac euphoria wears off, my golfer’s glee kicks in as our shuttle van pulls into the seaside parking lot of the magnificent Machrihanish Golf Club, which Golf Digest ranked the 39th best golf course in the world outside of the United States in 2005. The club itself dates back to 1876 and was redesigned and expanded by the godfather of modern golf himself, Old Tom Morris in 1879.

A vision of loveliness painted on a canvas of sand and sea, with long undulating fairways flanked by wispy, sun-bleached beachgrass mounds, at 6226-yards from the tips, Machrihanish is an oceanside gem. The otherworldly landscape of the area and the serpentine coastal road that leads out of Campbeltown into the highlands is so breathtaking that it was the inspiration of the Beatles song “The Long and Winding Road” which Paul McCartney wrote while visiting his nearby property High Park Farm in 1968.

After checking in and shaking hands with my caddie Keith Crawford, I notice a huge stone marker on the first tee deck with the words “BEST OPENING HOLE IN THE WORLD OF GOLF” proudly emblazoned under the club’s logo, a reference to a comment attributed to the great Jack Nicklaus himself.

A cracker of an opening hole, this 424-yard dogleg left par-4 challenges golfers to hit their first shot over the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The foreboding grey skies overhead foretell the fate of my first shot from the back tees, straight into the deep, dark, depths of Davy Jones’ Locker! With a “breakfast ball” reload, I hit it onto the fairway and away we go.

Standout holes at Machrihanish for me were No. 5, a sketchy 388-yard par-4 (the first blind shot at this course) which requires two brilliant shots and a death-match battle with a diabolical punchbowl green for a chance at a birdie, and No. 10 (the first of two par-5’s on the back nine) a 502-yard dogleg left through a narrow gully, both real skill-testers!

Machrihanish-First
Machrihanish-First

No. 3 however may be Machrihanish’s best hole, one that Crawford describes to me as a bit of a mystery from the tee.

“This hole is also the first hole where the lush green rough of holes 1 and 2 gives way to the masterful marram grass of the traditional Scottish links…a sweeping undulating fairway with pot bunkers that will gobble up the drives of the big hitters, but allow the majority to walk toward their ball taking in the magnificent view unburdened with thoughts of how to get the ball out of the bunker and on the green. The green itself is 50 yards long with a valley through the middle and ridges of various slopes on either side. Links golf imagination is required to find, and stay on the green, and once there it becomes a challenge of how to best use the slopes to get the ball to the cup,” Crawford explains as we walk away from the green and I begrudgingly mark a triple bogey 8 onto my scorecard.

The day ends with a visit to one of Campbeltown’s most beloved “19th Holes” the world famous Springbank single malt Scotch distillery. I force myself to join in against my will fearing rejection from my golfing peers. Surprisingly it seems every golfer on this trip is a big fan of Scottish alcoholic beverages. It should also be noted that the mood on the Zodiacs back to the Resolute seem disproportionately cheerful and rowdy given some of the scorecards I’ve seen, my own especially (97). I am shocked to my core, but I’m sure I’ll get over it.

 

Golf Expedition Log Day 3 – Ballyliffin Golf Links, Ballyliffin, Ireland

It’s the morning of June 7th, and after a night of westward sailing on calm seas, we’re back on the Emerald Isle, this time in picturesque Donegal, one of Ireland’s most scenic coastal counties, to play at one of the country’s most exquisite links golf complexes, the 36-hole Ballyliffin Golf Club.

 

Ballyliffin, located on the Inishowen peninsula at the very tippy-tippy-top of Ireland, is one of those magical places in the world of golf we often see in our dreams after we leave it. Just off on the horizon I spy the rugged cliffs of Malin Head rising over the pounding waves of the wild Atlantic, this is Ireland’s most northern point and an incredible site to see while holding a golf club in one’s hand. Closer to shore, I spot a stone behemoth rising out of the sea, my caddie tells me it’s called Glashedy Rock, the namesake of the course we’re about to play.

At first glance I can see why the monster 7462-yard Glashedy Links course, which zigs and zags its way in and around Ballyliffin’s original course (The Old Links) was chosen to host of the European Tour’s 2018 Irish Open – every grain of sand and blade of grass on this beautiful beast seem to be polished and manicured to perfection. Designed by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock, Glashedy Links is a new course with and old soul, and has been wowing golfers since it first opened in 1995. Unlike the neighboring Old Links and its rollercoaster fairways, Glashedy is flatter but considerably longer, with tougher greens and bunkers you’ll think the devil himself dug out to torment those daring enough to play here.

Ballyliffin-Sunset-
Courtesy: Ballyliffin Golf Course

Wind can be challenging on links courses, but on this day it’s fairly calm, and we are thankful for that given Glashedy boasts eleven soul crushing 400-yard plus par-4s. The distant murmur of crashing waves and the bleating of sheep on a neighboring farm are the soundtrack of our round as we swing our clubs and chase our shots up long, meandering fairways tucked in the middle of an ocean of wild, grass-covered sand dunes. The splendor of No. 13, a 571-yard majestic, uphill par-5 floors me and I’m immediately transported back to the grand boulevards of Paris. This hole is the Champs Elysées of the Irish golf world, and alone is worth the price of admission at Ballyliffin. I mark a bogey 6 on my card, but still feel like a hero having battled this massive green Colossus.

Dazzling views of the turbulent Atlantic, and the gentle mountains and hills flanking Ballyliffin are plentiful, but nowhere more so than on No. 7 and No. 14, both challenging par-3s. No. 7  at 178-yards from the tips, is especially gorgeous, highlighted by an elevated tee deck towering over a kidney-shaped green guarded by bunkers on all sides and large blue pond on the right. Judging wind and distance is critical on this hole as the water hazard you’re facing here is golf ball graveyard you don’t want to mess with.

At twilight time, we walk off the 18th green as Ballyliffin lights up to the warm glow of the setting sun. The magic of the hour, and this mesmerizing course has left my spirits high, unfortunately so is my score (104). As our van pulls away from this masterpiece of sea, sand and grass, I can only think one thought, Ballyliffin has utterly bewitched me and I can’t wait to return.

 

Golf Expedition Log Day 4 – Askernish Golf Club, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

 

While we slept in our warm cabins last night, the Resolute pointed herself north and crossed an ocean of time, weighing anchor this morning off the prehistoric coast of one of the world’s loneliest island chains, Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Most of this ancient archipelago of barren rock and sand has remained unchanged for eons, and it has an impressive collection of mummies and Mesolithic standing stone circles to prove it.

The people who live on the island of South Uist, where we landed this morning, trace their roots back to Viking settlers and early Gaelic-speaking Scots. The locals who run the golf club seem genuinely astonished by the merry band of sporting invaders who’ve come to plunder the buried treasure of the golfing world, the legendary “Lost Course” of Askernish.

Built in 1891by Old Tom Morris at the behest of wealthy landowner and 19th century links junkie Lady Cathcart, the Askernish Golf Club was a hub of golfing activity until the First World War. Unfortunately time and tide took their toll on this Hebridean jewel as it fell victim to disuse and disrepair, and consequently lay dormant for almost a century. Then in 2005 it was reborn thanks to the efforts of a group of local golf lovers and some big names like Scottish football legend Sir Kenny Dalglish who is the club’s honorary president.

As we prepare to tee off on the first hole I’m greeted by two of my partners for the day, a charming father & son duo from St. Louis, Missouri who are both named Tom. I think you know where this story is going at this point, right? Over the next few holes I can’t resist the temptation of calling them Old Tom and Young Tom, especially since they are highly talented golfers much like the legendary Morris’ who also went by the same name.

“This is one of the most naturally beautiful courses I’ve ever played, and it really feels like we’re walking in the footsteps of Old Tom Morris,” Young Tom whispers to me as he watches his father hit the cover off the ball on spellbinding No. 6, the first hole on the course where land and sea collide.

Holes six through seventeen wind through majestic dunes and grassy pastures where cows and sheep quietly graze, with heavenly views of the Atlantic Ocean I will never forget. My favorite hole, No. 16, is an absolutely delightful 363-yard par-4 dogleg right called “Old Tom’s Pulpit” which the course yardage book says, “portrays the romantic notion that ‘Old’ Tom Morris could be up there overseeing the course.”

With my two Toms, and the ghost of the original Old Tom watching over my swing, I flub my drive leaving myself an obscured 180-yard approach not onto, but into, a cauldron-shaped raised green. My approach shot makes what I think is a safe landing, but alas, I find it sitting at the mouth of a large, dark, rabbit hole. My playing partners giggle as I beg them for a free foot-wedge so that I don’t disturb the front porch of the poor wee bunny’s home I’m parked in front of.  After marking a very liberal bogey on my scorecard, a chill rolls up my spine as I imagine the phantom of Old Tom glaring down at me from the highest point of the green bellowing, “Next time, play it as it lies boy!” in a heavy Scottish brogue!

As we make our way through a thicket of bright purple Hebridean thistle onto No. 17’s tee deck, I realize as golf courses go, this place is a time machine, a metaphysical 18-hole wormhole that transports players back to the end of the 19th century to play the game on a seaside links course that’s barely been touched by the hand of man. The charm of Askernish is its rawness, nothing is manicured here because nothing needs to be manicured. Mother Nature is the chief greenskeeper at Askernish, and every long blade of beach grass, rabbit hole, and cow patty on this transcendent track are exactly where they should be.

Golf Expedition Log Day 5 – Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland

No golf today as I decided to take a day off before playing two of the world’s most famous golf courses, Royal Dornoch (No. 2 on Golf Digest’s World Rankings) and Cruden Bay (No. 56 on Golf Digest’s World Rankings) on the last leg of our journey.

What a fantastic decision as this beautiful chain of islands off the northern coast of Scotland has a never-ending inventory of fascinating sites to explore.

The day begins with a scenic drive along Scapa Flow, the sheltered body of water the United Kingdom used as its main naval base during World War I & World War II. Next up, what many describe as the Pompeii or Scotland, Skara Brae, an incredibly well-preserved 5000-year-old Neolithic village and its stately neighbor Skaill House, which is “the most complete 17th century mansion” on the island according to Scottish historians.

Ring-of-Brodgar-
Ring-of-Brodgar-

After visiting Orkney’s famed “Italian Chapel,” an intricately decorated place of worship built by Italian POWs during the second World War, we play Indiana Jones at the mysterious Ring of Brodgar, a 4000-year-old Neolithic stone circle overlooking the Lochs of Stenness and Harray. Standing next to these towering stone giants (27 of them) is an unforgettable, up-close and personal history lesson unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

Later in the afternoon we spend a few hours in the charming Kirkwall, Orkney’s largest town. A visit to Kirkwall’s stunning 12th century, red sandstone St. Magnus Cathedral is a must, but the highlight for me is a visit to the Highland Park Single Malt Whisky distillery for a little shopping and a little whisky tasting.

Golf Expedition Log Day 6 – Royal Dornoch Golf Club, Dornoch, Scotland

The good folks at One Ocean Expeditions clearly saved the best Zodiac trip for last as this morning’s 20-minute ride from the Resolute to Inverness, on our way to Dornoch, includes passage under the gargantuan Kessock Bridge…wow, what a way to roll into the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

As our shuttle winds its way through the highlands into historic Dornoch, one of the most beautiful coastal resorts in Scotland, with a towering 16th century castle and 12th century cathedral right in the centre of town, my heart begins to pound at the thought of playing one of the most ancient golf courses on the planet…for a second time.

Yes, full disclosure, I played here in 2018 after hearing Tom Watson tell the world Royal Dornoch was, “The most fun I ever had playing golf,” during a press conference at the 2017 US Senior Open (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXQkRebuZ3Y).

Royal-Dornoch-Golf
Royal-Dornoch-Golf

With its roots going back as far as 1616, Royal Dornoch is the third oldest golf course in the world (after St. Andrews and Leith) according to historians, and the current club itself was founded in 1886 by Old Tom Morris and a group of avid local golfers.

Ranked No. 2 on Golf Digest’s World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses list, the 6748-yard Championship Course is a timeless links masterpiece, with a classic 9-holes out, 9-holes in layout along the unspoiled shores of the Dornoch Firth. The views from almost every hole here are stunning, but it’s the wildness of this course, the rock-hard rolling fairways, the untamed dunes, the cavernous pot bunkers, and the sunburst yellow gorse bushes ready to gobble up wayward shots that penetrate the soul of every golfer lucky enough to tee it up here.

My two favorite holes skirt an L-shaped corner of the course right along the windswept coastline. Par-4 360-yard No. 15 is considered the easiest hole on the Championship Course, but a plateau green with some tricky sloping at the front and back do not make for an easy par…especially when you’re mesmerized by the incredible beachside backdrop behind the pin.

No. 16 (aka High Hole…which I think should be renamed “Higher Ground”) is a long par-4 that begins at sea-level before shooting up a big hill toward a massive green. The score you put on your card is an afterthought as soon as you walk off the green toward a bench facing the beach. Park yourself here for a few seconds and take in the coastal panorama, it’s a religious experience that will make you recognize Dornoch as one of the holiest sites in the world of golf and a necessary place of pilgrimage for those who truly love the game.

Golf Expedition Log Day 7 – Cruden Bay Golf Club, Scotland

The view from my cabin window this morning is something I haven’t seen for nearly seven days on the high seas, city life and the bustling port of Aberdeen, Scotland’s third-largest city.

Our golf destination du jour, Cruden Bay, is a course I’ve never heard of before, and on the advice of the starter, a friendly local named Hamish McNaughton, I make my way into the clubhouse for a peek at the course through the lens of the club’s 180-degree panoramic dining room window.

To say I’m smitten is an understatement, and cliché or not, this is truly a ‘love at first sight” moment. Designed by Old Tom Morris in 1899, the beauty of this course cannot be overstated, if Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down and Royal Portrush (Numbers one and seven on Golf Digest’s “World” rankings list, and both also Old Tom Morris designs) had a baby, it would be Cruden Bay.

The first jewel in Cruden Bay’s crown is No. 4,  an enchanting 196-yard par-3 with views of the sleepy fishing village of Port Erroll to the left. The elevated green on this hole sits like a pearl set in a shell of wild beach dunes. Putting on this hole is a dream, made even more real by the par I mark on my card as I walk away grinning.

No. 8 is another beauty, a risk-reward, very drivable 250-yard par-4. Accuracy is key here, as I discover watching two of my partners lose their shots into the deadly deeps of the lush, side-walls of the dunes surrounding this green. I manage to hit the green with my drive and three-putt my way to a par, my affection for Cruden Bay growing by the minute.

Cruden-Bay- Golf
Cruden-Bay- Golf

No. 9 is the highest point on the course, with a jaw-dropping 360-degree vista which includes a view of nearby Slains Castle, said to be the inspiration for the setting of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula in 1897. A blistering 300-yard drive down the pipe with my trusty 3-wood (yes you get a lot of bounce and roll on links courses) has me sitting pretty on this 462-yard par-4…until tragedy strikes when the most beautiful, crescent-shaped, pink-sand beach I’ve ever seen comes into view.

Overcome by the sheer, naked beauty of Cruden Bay’s luscious coastline, I fumble with my phone and scramble to capture the glory of nature before me for the shameless sake of personal, digital posterity and what I think will be a mind-blowing Instagram post. With my eye off the ball, literally and figuratively, I make a dog’s breakfast out of this magnificent hole and card a double-bogey six. Fortunately, I get back on the “Par Train” on No. 10, a 392-yard downhill par-4 with more incredible views of Cruden Bay’s gorgeous beach.

The scenery from this point on is to-die-for, an otherworldly amalgam of majestic seaside cliffs, gentle rolling beach dunes, long, wide fairways, perfectly manicured greens, a diabolically delicious serpentine burn (a stream-like water hazard) that snakes its way around a few holes, and in-your-face beach views unlike any you’ve ever seen before.

In the humble opinion of this golf writer, Cruden Bay is the Aphrodite of the golf world, the most beautiful course I’ve ever played and will definitely play again.

Golf Expedition Log Day 8 – Disembarkation Day – Edinburgh, Scotland

A golf junkie friend emailed me last night to ask me what a “golf expedition” on a polar exploration ship was really like? My answer was simple: this trip has been the most spectacular travel experience I’ve every had in my life, a true adventure unlike any other I’ve ever embarked on before, and I’ve been traveling the world as a journalist for almost 3 decades. Everything was 5-star, the food, the ship, the staff, and most of all the golf.

As I made my way down the gangway off the RCGS Resolute for the last time this morning after docking in Edinburgh, I couldn’t help but think this wouldn’t be our last journey together. One Ocean Expeditions regularly takes adventure-seeking travelers to some of the most remote places on earth, and as a lover of snow and ice, I know visits to the North and South Poles on this magnificent ship are definitely in the cards for me.

 

 

 

WHEN YOU GO:

 

One Ocean Expeditions adventures include expeditions to Antarctica, The Canadian Arctic & Greenland, The Islands of the North Atlantic, Spitsbergen, Canada’s East Coast, as well as South & Central America. Expeditions can be booked directly on their website at www.oneoceanexpeditions.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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