Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2017
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Take a wild swing

Scotland's remote northern isles reveal golf as it was meant to be played

For those who play golf competitively (or compulsively), everything becomes a matter of beating the odds, improving a previous score or simply crushing the opposition. There are many such aficionados; I, however, am not one of them. The game was introduced to me after university, in the mid-1950s, a time when it was stressed as essential to corporate culture. I believe it still is, and let me emphasize "stress." In my case, disenchantment quickly set in.

A year ago, however, I was given the opportunity to revisit the sport, this time from a Scottish perspective, and a new appreciation emerged.

I wasn't heading to just any golf course -- I was heading to Scotland's far-flung northern isles, starting with the Shetlands, which stand as close to Norway as they do to the UK.

I chose to step onto First ScotRail's classy service between London's Euston Station and Edinburgh, and later aboard NorthLink's improved overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands; I was not once disappointed.

I had read somewhere that two features distinguish the golf played up here from elsewhere. Firstly, the game is open to all -- the young and the old, the novice alongside the accomplished, those who mind their pennies as much as those who go upper-class.

Accessibility is partly the secret, hence courses are commonly situated adjacent to the towns, and in some cases directly in the town centre. Rarely are they so distant that private transportation is the sole means of getting there. Illustrating this point is the Old Course at St. Andrews (tel: 011-44-1334-466-666; www.standrews.org.uk), where the first tee and 18th green are overlooked from the town's main street.

Raise your sights ever so slightly at St. Andrews and the adjacent North Sea reveals the second characteristic that puts the game here in a category all its own: much of Scotland's myriad isles are coastal landscapes whose outstanding features are sea and dunes.

Here, the courses known as "links" provide many of the most popular, indeed famous, places to play the game. A links course, by definition, is one that has been fashioned from land recovered from the sea. The terrain is invariably rugged and hard. And then there's the wind, blowing hardest precisely when you're lining up your longest shots and most difficult angles.

Scotland's courses have hosted some of the greatest international competitions year after year. Their names have entered history: Carnoustie, Royal Dornoch, Muirfield, Royal Troon and a host of others including Edinburgh's Royal Musselburgh, where Mary Queen of Scots enjoyed the occasional round.

Birdie Watcher's Paradise
The isolation imposed by Scotland's geography and its matchless wilderness is the kind of solitude that is intrinsic to golf at its best. On Whalsay, a fisherman's island 20 minutes by ferry from Shetland's mainland, I was told that it was possible to golf north of here. But you'd have to go to Iceland to find it. Looking out to sea at this epic panorama beyond the first green and the adjacent headland, the nearest coast is far over the horizon.

In judging the lie of your ball out here, you might at any moment be distracted by the whales, porpoises and seals surfacing close by. Should you fancy birds, there will be ample opportunity to identify the many species that dine along the shore. During my visit, I ran into four young birdwatchers who had travelled hundreds of miles because they'd heard that a Bonelli's warbler had been sighted. Presumably lost during the seasonal migration, the rare bird was rumoured to have landed precisely where we stood, at these islands' northernmost point.

What, these bird fanciers asked, was I doing here? Golf, I exclaimed -- and realized instantly the apparent absurdity. In this part of the world? We looked around us, shrugging shoulders in tacit agreement that this must be the last place anyone would logically come to play the game.

 

But it is typical of the mordant humour found throughout these parts that we seemed instinctively to understand each other. I am drawn by the challenge of driving a ball into an offshore wind fierce enough to blow it straight back to the tee, man against stark nature. And I am clearly not alone. The club at Whalsay (tel: 011-44-1806-566-705; www.whal saygolfclub.com) welcomes players from across the country and even well beyond.

Historic Diversions
So it was time to head south. The distances on Shetland's mainland are moderate, but there would be much to enjoy along the way. Remains of prehistoric and Viking settlements -- safe havens for sailors, fishermen and military expeditions -- divert visitors from the main road.

Before stopping at the fine 18-hole course at the Shetland Golf Club (tel: 011-44-1595-840-369; www.shetlandgolfclub.co.uk) on the northern fringe of Lerwick, I followed the signpost to Lunna House. This was the remote habitation where, in World War II, the Norwegian operation known as the "Shetland Bus" was established. A few vulnerable fishing boats ferried personnel and supplies, as well as refugees from German occupation, back and forth across hundreds of miles of open sea.

Now a Spartan tourist accommodation, the house that agents had used between missions stands alone at the top of a barren rise overlooking the bay. A stone church and cemetery testify to those who helped turn the tide of war.

My next stop was the Orkney Islands. Of the area's four courses, I was able to enjoy two. The narrow main road through Stromness takes you directly to what is arguably the best course on all Scotland's islands. For the past 25 years, a major competition has been held at the Stromness Golf Club (tel: 011-44-1856-850-772; www.stromnessgc.co.uk), attracting entries from across the UK, even from Kenya, Canada, South Africa and Australia. With open water on all sides, and superb views out across the historic Scapa Flow, anything less than a decent shot may find trouble. Interestingly, the town of Stromness is where the Hudson's Bay Company ships customarily took on water before heading out to the Atlantic (the pump is still there). The remarkable thing about these places is their informality and the fact that most courses are open year-round.

View From The Edge
The Orkney Golf Club (tel: 011-44-1856-872-457; www.orkneygolfclub.co.uk) in Kirkwall is no exception. It's the archetypal friendly Scottish environment, not too expensive and boasting a course that, as one local put it, "you wish you could play every day for the rest of your life."

Over at the two-tee, nine-hole course at Durness (tel: 011-44-1971-511-364; www.durnessgolfclub.org), members hail from as far away as Austria, Germany and Holland. Overlooking the Loch, "the sixth, at par 5, is a popular hole," secretary Lucy Mackay told me, and it's easy to see why. Lying on the north coast, in the county of Sutherland's magnificent Cape Wrath wilderness, the landscape has echoes of Sir Walter Scott.

You can get a taste of that windswept isolation further south as well. If you're on the Isle of Skye, it's just a hop across to the Isle of Harris where, outside Scarista, you'll find the Isle of Harris Golf Club (www.harris golf.com/scarista.htm). There, spray from the Atlantic surf showers the unprotected fairways and a sandy beach stretches wide and gleaming into the distance. The club boasts 600 lifetime members -- a surprising number, given its isolation. It comes down to the fact that "this is golf as it was originally meant to be played."

Willie Fulton, the club's captain-cum-painter of considerable reputation, spoke to me in the comfort of the clubhouse, a gaily liberated shipping container. "We have guys who fly in here on their private jets," he told me, and went on to drop into the conversation one of modern golfing's great names.

Every bend in the road from Durness to Harris and then back to the Scottish mainland reveals impressive vistas -- an array of pastoral sweeps and isolated glens. In the end, nature's bounty is just one more excellent reason for signing on to a Scottish golfing experience.

 

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