Golf has been a religion in Scotland since King James II banned it in 1457. The reason? His subjects preferred it to archery practice, which made it a threat to national security.
Half a century later, it received royal patronage from James IV, who paid 14 shillings to a Perth merchant for a set of clubs, only to lose three times that amount in a match with the Earl of Bothwell.
The game came of age on the windy grasslands at St Andrews, home of the Royal and Ancient GolfClub (the sport’s ruling body outside North America) since its foundation in 1754. Modern courses evolved over the centuries out of natural coastal features where the pioneers saw their balls swallowed up by rabbit holes. Today’s more pampered players aim for flagged cups set in manicured greens. Errant balls that once strayed into sea and dunes now disappear into bunkers or water hazards.
As the cradle of the game, Scotland is still the number one must-play-at destination for students of golfing history around the world. And no tour is complete without a visit to Gleneagles, its massive bulk dominating the rolling hills on the fringes of the Highlands just an hour’s drive from Edinburgh and Glasgow. In the evenings, kilted pipers fill the air with the mournful sounds that once inspired the Highland regiments to confront the hated English in bitter territorial battles.
As befits a former railway hotel, I travelled to Gleneagles by train, arriving at midnight to find its massive bulk illuminated by a million stars. They shine brightly over this part of Perthshire, an upland area that is much less densely populated than you might expect within an hour’s drive of the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The next day I woke to explore a hotel of palatial proportions surrounded by rolling acres inspired, as such layouts invariably are, by 18th-century landscaper Capability Brown. Built on a no-expense-spared basis by the former Caledonian Railway Company, Gleneagles opened its doors in 1924, earning such bizarre plaudits as “a Riviera in the Highlands” and “the eighth wonder of the world”.
Inside the hotel, it is easy to imagine 1920s socialites walking down corridors that are still unchanged over the decades. Bedrooms that started out chintzy have been refurbished by the current owners in the contemporary Gentleman’s Club manner, with neo Victorian bathrooms offering the state-of-the-art facilities expected in a five-star hotel. The dining options are comprehensive, with the formal Strathearn balanced by the child-friendly Club, overlooking the swimming pool and spa, and the gastro intimacy of Andrew Fairlie’s Michelin-starred restaurant.
Although Gleneagles has widened its appeal in recent years with an impressive range of attractions that include off-road driving, equestrianism and falconry, golf is still the lure that pulls in the crowds. King’s and Queen’s, the two core courses designed by five times Open champion James Braid, were unveiled in 1922. They are laid out in tandem, with adjacent 18th greens and a shared clubhouse. Jack Nicklaus’ PGA Centenary course, designated for the Ryder Cup, opened as the Monarch’s in 1993, but changed its name in 2001, prior to hosting the Scottish Open the following year.
Faced with this cornucopia, I hedged my bets with an introductory lesson at the Golf Academy. As is customary in such facilities, a video analysis machine lurked in the shadows, ready to detect and dissect. Initial verdict: set up more or less okay, but what about the ball? The professional was patient and encouraging, the covered range well protected from savage spurts of spring weather. Indoors we were joined by Tiger Woods, twisting his body effortlessly on one side of the split video screen while I laboured on the other. Ah well, some of us are born to be golfing gods, while others …
Starting out on the Queen’s, the prevailing wind whipped my face for the first six holes. By the time the course changed direction, my card was in ruins, a victim both of the relentless barrage and James Braid’s passion for bunkers.
The turn for home marked a change in fortune, with sheltered holes around a lake that adds another dimension to the already spectacular scenery. The final stretch is golf at its best, with interesting gradients, culminating in a carry over water at the last. Not a bad day’s work, I decided, rewarding myself with a beer in the Dormy Club house