EAST LOTHIAN, Scotland -- So your golf group has finally decided it's time to take the plunge and book that grand Scotland golf vacation.
Now comes the hard part -- varying opinions on must-play golf courses, costs, who drives, hotels, dates ...
It'll take a little time and a few roundtable meetings to sort it all out, but here are five standard-bearers that are pretty universal to any golf group. It should to help you get started on that dream vacation.
Don't try and see all of Scotland on one visit
Scotland may look small on the map, but look closer. Roadways are seldom straight lines, especially when you're navigating the lochs around the coastline. Not only are fuel costs about three-to-four times more expensive than in the U.S., but also it's better to smell and touch rather than view the country from your car window four hours a day.
Rather than try and see everything from Ayshire to Dornoch, build a trip itinerary that makes sense and keeps you out of the car. Some of the richer regions for golf are Fife and East Lothian. Or, you can set up shop in Ayrshire for a few days, where you can play Prestwick Golf Club, Royal Troon Golf Club and Turnberry Resort, among others, before moving to a new region.
Some of the best links for your group aren't Open Championship courses
It's natural for anyone to want to play the golf courses of The Open. But don't stick to them exclusively or else you'll miss out on some courses you'd probably enjoy more.
For starters, don't think these clubs will have the championship tees set up (most courses have daily play sets around 6,200-6,500 yards and only put up sets farther back for club competitions).
Scores of links clubs were established in the 19th century. So you can only imagine how many can't handle the logistics of a major tournament more than 100 years later.
But just because a links can't park a few thousand cars, move around 40,000 fans and isn't near a major airport doesn't mean your group of hacks should pass it up.
If you stick solely to Open Championship venues, you'll tend to pay nearly double for each round compared to some other lesser-known -- but equally, if not greater -- links courses.
Traditional Scotland golf clubs: Play by their rules
The traditional golf clubs of Scotland are a lot like many of the exclusive, more old-school clubs of the U.S. in terms of etiquette. The big difference is that in Scotland they almost always allow public tee times.
But you need to play by their rules. Carry a handicap certificate (at St. Andrews, showing them my GHIN handicap on my smartphone sufficed for the starter, but keep one in your bag and just in case). Don't change your shoes in the car park (use the locker room) and always take off your hat in the clubhouse and be respectful of members. Some clubs have members-only spike bars or dining rooms that you should only go into if invited.
And while members often tee off before visitors at many clubs, if you find yourself holding up a group behind you, let them go through.
It's also discouraged at many of the clubs to walk in unannounced and ask to go out and play. Even if you're trying to get a tee time for tomorrow, or later that afternoon, call ahead and book your group through the secretary. More and more clubs are also offering online tee times. When i covered the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie, I was blown away how easy it was to find online tee times at nearby courses like Monifieth, Montrose and Downfield. (Read more about my value-laden trip to Carnoustie Country).
Try and set up a game with a local club
You don't necessarily have to keep the competition on the course within your group.
If you're heading to Scotland with a group of 8-12 people or so, consider trying to set up a Ryder Cup-style match with a local club. Write some club secretaries a few months in advance and include your group's handicaps. It will certainly help your cause if your group has a club affiliation of some kind.
Other golf clubs have open competitions where they invite anyone to compete. In some cases, these events sell out fast (such as Royal Dornoch's famous Carnegie Shield event). But the value is tremendous, and the experience of competing with the locals is one of a kind.
If you're comparing tour operators to book your trip through, suggest a competition is something you'd like to do. They'll probably be willing to help set you up through their contacts at certain clubs in Scotland.
Decide if a guaranteed tee time on the Old Course is worth it
If it's your first trip to Scotland, you're probably going to want to spend some time in St. Andrews -- and with good reason. It's the best golf town in the world.
While the cost of a walk-on green fee for the Old Course at St. Andrews is actually pretty affordable (under $300 USD with the current exchange rate) compared to Kingsbarns, Trump Turnberry and Castle Stuart (or US peers like Pebble Beach), a guaranteed tee time through a golf packager can come with a surcharge that could double or even triple that rate.
As a general rule, if you think this is going to be the only time you visit Scotland, shell out for the guaranteed tee time, because the Old Course is special.
If you think you'll be back or simply don't have that kind of cash, stay in St. Andrews a couple days without booking any tee times. Book the 3-day Links Trust ticket that is a great deal and provides access to the six other courses in town, but enter the Old Course Lottery each day (48 hours in advance) you're there and cross your fingers.
If you don't, play another nearby links that has walk-on access such as the New Course or Jubilee course. Or you could always try and gut it out by hanging around the first tee in hopes of a no-show on the Old Course. It can happen.