whim & fancy scotland golf elie

Whim & Fancy

Even an unplanned Scottish golf excursion is one worth taking

Near the end of World War II, the Royal Navy captured a peculiar German U-boat. Unlike most submarines of its time, U-1407 was powered by high-test peroxide (HTP), a highly concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide that, when it decomposes, releases what can be described only as a biblical amount of steam and heat. In 1947, fascinated by this novel propulsion method, the Royal Navy commissioned two experimental submarines to test HTP turbines for themselves. The boats were named the HMS Explorer and the HMS Excalibur. These vessels were quite fast and, thanks to the volatile nature of the hydrogen peroxide, exceedingly dangerous; one description of the sub I came across casually notes that the propellant was prone to “explode unexpectedly.” In large part due to this spontaneous combustion, the submarines received unfortunate nicknames from their crews: the HMS Exploder and the HMS Excruciator. In the late 1960s, the Royal Navy scrapped the Excalibur, and its parts were scattered across the United Kingdom. ¶ Roughly 55 years later, off the east coast of Scotland, I wrapped my sweaty palms around the worn handles of the Excalibur’s periscope and pressed my eyes to its lens, just as countless heroic men of the sea before me had. Unlike those men, I was not searching for enemy combatants, nor was I at sea (though I had recently finished a piping bowl of chowder). My task was of a different, yet still distinguished, order: I was checking to see if the first fairway was clear.

whim & fancy scotland golf elie

A golf trip to Scotland is a sacred pilgrimage—one spoken of by grown men either in hushed, reverent tones or with the irrational exuberance of a child on the night before a visit to Disneyland. Mention you’re playing golf in Scotland to anyone, even those who can’t tell a wedge from a driver, and you’ll get at least a knowing nod as they picture you roaming the dunes in a tweed hat and knickers. These trips are a big deal, planned months, if not years, in advance. Golf sickos save up cash, bank vacation time and gin up goodwill with spouses to make it all work. Itineraries are hotly debated, refined and refined again. Then comes the hardest part: the waiting. Put simply, a links expedition in Scotland—especially for one’s first time—is not something you haphazardly throw together in 48 hours. Unless, of course, you’re an idiot like me.

A last-minute work trip to London and an already planned vacation in Europe left me with a narrow and unexpected window of free time in the United Kingdom. Here, for posterity, were the facts before me: I did not have my golf clubs, rain gear or golf shoes; I was 466 miles away from the home of golf; it was mid-November, which meant approximately seven hours of sunlight per day; a weather phenomenon known as an “atmospheric river” was headed directly for Fife, where I wanted to play; and most courses I checked, if they had any availability at all, didn’t have times until after noon, suggesting a race against the sun to squeeze in 18. Grim as they were, these details offered me little choice. I would drop everything, find the first train out of King’s Cross and try to play as much golf as possible.

Perhaps you’re picturing an intrepid traveler—the kind who thrives on adventure and who can move effortlessly where the wind blows. Disabuse yourself of such notions. Instead, imagine an anxious man in his late 30s—the kind for whom the mere suggestion of driving through the Scottish countryside on the left side of winding one-and-a-half-lane roads causes his sphincter to clench unpleasantly. What may sound to you like a dream opportunity—an unexpected gift handed down from the golf gods—I am ashamed to say felt like a heavy burden. I worried I’d get too lost, too wet or, far worse, pick the wrong courses. Or that, in my rush to pull it all together, I’d piss off every proud Scot who considers themself a steward of the game and its local legacy. You only get one first time; what if, by blundering into an impromptu trip, I somehow ended up spoiling for myself one of golf’s purest destinations?

On the train up to Edinburgh, I fretted over where to play, drafting multiple breathless emails to starters and deleting them. The train crept closer to the Scottish border. It was noon and the sun was already low in the sky when a flash of green caught my eye. There, out my left window, in the distance, was a nondescript green, hanging not 100 feet from the crashing waves of the North Sea. I still don’t know which course it was, but it was small and gorgeous, with rippling fairways broken up by waving strands of fescue. Set against the gunmetal sky, dozens of people meandered about, pushing trollies. There was no way to see their faces, but they all appeared Zen-like, perfectly at peace, strolling along the sea. In that moment, I realized that there was only one way to squander this gift, and that was to do exactly what I was doing. So, I stopped worrying myself out of the moment and dove into my phone to recover a text from a friend and fellow golf sicko who has played all over the world. If you can play in Scotland, he said, then you must play Elie. “It’s prob top 5 all time for me,” the message read.

whim & fancy scotland golf elie

If you’re like me and ever in the seaside town of Elie and Earlsferry, you’ll nervously wind your way onto the main drag, questioning whether or not that last right turn was actually a roundabout you’ve just plowed through. You will make another tight right turn past a large stone wall and only slightly ease your white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel when you see an unassuming white clubhouse. A quick look to your left and you’ll spot a white octagonal outbuilding, sporting pointy metallic headgear. At first glance, the starter hut at Elie looks like a shed-turned-radio-tower or some kind of early lunar module. To get to the hut, you’ll park the car, then walk past the undulating 18th green and around the first tee box, where you will quickly notice that your first shot of the day will need to clear a formidable bluff of perfect turf—one of many blind shots at Elie.

You will then walk into the hut, where you’ll take your turn at the periscope’s helm and the reality of the next four hours will hit you. Past the first green you’ll see the craggy highlands and dramatic, sloping cliff faces of the Fife countryside. Move the periscope gently to your left and the course will unfold before your eyes—gently canted and rolling dunes dotted with pot bunkers, framed on the left by the town with its watchtower and gabled dormers. To the south, the course extends like an infinity pool, dropping off sharply and giving way to the emerald waters of the Firth of Forth. You’ll realize you’re looking out over a playground with centuries of history.

Inside the starter hut, I met Ollie, the photographer found hastily to document this adventure. When I heard I’d be going out as a single, I demanded that Ollie join me. He grinned wide. “Ah, mate, I reckon I can handle that,” he said. His sticks were in the trunk of his car, because of course they were. “You got a lovely one today,” our starter said, gesturing to the bright 55-degree day with hardly a breath of wind just outside the windows. “Place is yours, fellas.”

The beauty of a perfect day is that you can’t know when one will appear. They are exceedingly rare; you can plan for them, yet a truly singular day requires forces beyond your control to conspire. The real all-timers—the ones that hardwire themselves into your temporal lobe for eternity—tend to be half over before you even realize you’re living through them.

Of course, none of that was in my frazzled brain on the first tee. Rental clubs. Bare-soled running shoes. Fresh off a two-hour, gritted-teeth car ride. Blind tee shot. An unfamiliar partner. Scotland. I did my usual thing and rattled this off as an ego-saving laundry list of excuses. “Nah, mate. We’re gonna have a day,” Ollie replied. I put a peg in the ground. Flush. The ball soared down the mouth of the first hole into the Scottish sky and disappeared over the hill. Forces. Conspiring. Strolling down the first fairway, Ollie told me about his golf adventures, including a washed-out New Year’s Day on the Old Course and an unforgettable round at Muirfield. It was his first time at Elie, and he had a two-word instant review: “Pure, mate.”

Like its periscope, Elie might seem quirky, even gimmicky, on paper. It tips out at just over 6,200 yards. It has no par 5s and two par 3s. But it makes such good use of its modest plot of land that the layout feels, when you’re on the grounds, like a Gordian knot. There’s a gentle, controlled chaos to the routing. More than once, Ollie and I found ourselves not only on the wrong tee box, but also nearly about to fire drivers the wrong way on the wrong hole. Walking paths from town cut through a couple of areas of the course, giving you ample opportunity to pet a wandering border collie or chat up a genial septuagenarian out on an afternoon stroll. But Elie’s quirks are its camouflage, tricks designed to lull the bomb-and-gouger into a false sense of complacency.

Elie, you see, is the genuine article. The course seems to defy physics and, like a ship in a bottle, somehow contains all elements of a big ballpark in a tight little package. The first few holes march you quietly out toward the sea, a slow reveal that seems like it might be underwhelming, until you reach the sixth hole. Here, you find yourself with a blind tee shot that will force you to trust your gut and pray there’s fairway beyond. On the second shot, you hit a pitching wedge onto a blind green 20 yards below your feet—a shot that tricks your mind into thinking you’re lining up to dunk your ball in the ocean. Such angles aren’t gimmicks, they’re gifts—chances to hit a singular golf shot.

On the fourth, Ollie chipped in for birdie from 20 yards out, and I was somehow still even par. The low winter sun was working overtime, weaving in and out of white pillow-top clouds, lighting up the North Sea behind us. I caught myself not quite walking or running to the fifth tee box, but almost skipping. My tee shot was blocked right, soaring just off the fairway—ugly, but perfectly findable just over some terrifying bunkers. Ollie sent a ball screaming down the middle. As I pushed my trolley down the fairway, I wasn’t sure if I was deliriously happy or dangerously lightheaded. Or both.

I want to tell you about the 10th hole—a short par 4 with a blind uphill tee shot that quickly careens downhill to a seaside green framed by a stony cliff face that looms over your putts. Or No. 13—a dramatic 380-yard hole at the edge of the property that narrows to an elevated green tucked up against steep cliffs. I want to tell you about clanging a driver off a goat fence and miraculously saving par, and how it felt when Ollie chipped in again for birdie on 18 after I magically bladed a 6-iron to 7 feet. But really, all you need to know is how I felt at 12:09 p.m. on Nov. 12, 2023, walking to the seventh tee and talking to Ollie about something, nothing and everything.

It was a bluebird Sunday afternoon. Almost everyone in the world I knew and loved was a continent away and had yet to wake up. I had no work responsibilities and 11 holes of golf to play. I wasn’t even supposed to be here. This was stolen time. I pulled a driver out and banged the clubhead on the turf, which was, despite a terrific rainfall the evening before, firm and thumpy. In the distance, the waves crashed. I watched a foursome on the back nine amble up a fairway with a regal dog in tow. I was here, in a place I’d dreamed about for years, and it was somehow incalculably more enjoyable than I’d imagined. Time was passing quickly, but not too fast. The salty air was starting to whip, but it wasn’t cold. I was playing well, yet score didn’t matter. I felt not just at peace, but a kind of equilibrium that my all-too-ruminating brain usually eschews for cold, hard neuroses. Call it flow state, exuberance or nirvana, but if I had to place the feeling, it might just have been one of those rare moments when you notice you’re alive and, for a few fleeting minutes, perfectly free.

I gave Ollie an awkward hug as we walked off 18. “That deserves a pint,” he remarked before changing directions. “Actually, I have a better idea.” Twenty minutes later we were in St. Andrews, standing on the 18th green of the Old Course. The sun was setting behind the Royal & Ancient Clubhouse, and kids and dogs were running around the first tee box. We walked down the 18th fairway, over the Swilcan Bridge and down by the Road Hole. “I figured this would be the right place,” Ollie said, gesturing toward the unmistakable white siding of the Jigger Inn. Inside, we shared a few Guinnesses and talked through the round, me only half listening as I watched the sun set over the 17th green. The next day, I woke up to a genuine rainout—gale-force winds and an inch of driving rain. 

A phrase I hear from time to time, usually from people looking back on their lives, is “take the trip.” It is a plea from people who have learned by experience the value of turning off the parts of our brains that juggle logistics and rationality in favor of doing the damn thing. This advice, annoying as it often is, is always right. You would be crazy to go on an unplanned golf trip to Scotland and travel for two days for the opportunity to put a club to a ball 86 times. Traipsing around some dunes with a stranger for three hours and 45 minutes is far from the traditional Scottish golf experience. | Some may call it madness—perhaps even disrespectful to the home of golf, which rightfully demands full immersion. But here’s the thing: None of that matters. Nobody cares how long you go or which bag tags you bring back. Because there is only one wrong way to travel, and that is to assume that there is a right way. If you allow yourself to switch on to the adventure, you just may find yourself unexpectedly staring through the looking glass of an antique periscope. Yes, my Scottish golf trip was a one-day affair.

It was perfect.

whim & fancy scotland golf elie