Following in the footsteps of Old Tom PART 2…

[Stephen pictured at Dunbar Golf Club with the founder of ‘Learn from their Legacy’ Programme, William Lumsden]

Stephen Proctor, a golf storyteller and author, recently began his journey along the Old Tom Morris Trail in the footsteps of one of golf’s most influential characters, Old Tom Morris. After studying his work for many years, Stephen got the chance to experience the work of the legendary man himself by taking on the Old Tom Morris Trail, 18 beautiful courses across Scotland. 

As part of this blog post series, we continued chatting with Stephen about his overall experience of the trail, how Old Tom’s influence is felt on the courses, and his favourite pub to grab a pint! 

Discover Part 1 here

How much influence do you think Old Tom Morris had on the courses and did you learn anything new?

“I’m not an expert on golf architecture so for me his trip was an exploration of Old Tom Morris, the ‘father’ of golf and designer of many great holes. What I took away from this experience was that Old Tom was a designer who loved drama as demonstrated from the first hole at Machrihanish. Even the names of his holes such as ‘Hells  Bunker, and the Alps, all include a hint of drama. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic shot than trying to carry the Alps and the giant sarahan bunker in front of that 17th green at Prestwick.

“I also took away what a genius Old Tom was at finding a way through a natural dune scape, for example, Cruden Bay is filled with giant lofty sand hills. It’s incredible to think that Old Tom would spend a day or two wandering the landscape carefully considering places to put greens or ideal spots to tee off from, always having spectacular views and vantage points. 

“I was struck by the way most greens and tees had spectacular views of the seashore or whatever the most beautiful scenery was on that course. When you turn for home at the 10th hole at Montrose you are greeted with an almost framed view of the steeple that they use as their logo. There are just so many places along the trail where you could see he had framed the hole to capture a specific view and one that really enhances your experience as a golfer playing that course. 

“In the age of Old Tom, there was little technological or machinery, it was either you found the hole or you didn’t. He really had a great gift for finding holes in a natural landscape and seeing it over and over again – 18 times in a row reinforces that. Courses have changed and the original architecture Old Tom designed varies from place to place but almost anywhere you went, you could see the impact that he made.

“Cruden Bay for example has been redone by Tom Simpson who made a lot of changes. Despite this you knew that the greens you were playing on were selected by Old Tom because they had these wild natural undulations as he left them exactly as he found them. I really appreciated his creative genius after playing these 18 courses – more than I ever had before.”

[Stephen pictured at the 9th tee, Cruden Bay]

What do you think makes links golf in Scotland so appealing to either fellow Americans or other people travelling in Scotland?

“Links golf is a completely different game than the game played in the United States (US). For example, in the US, golf is an aerial game in which you hit from target to target while in Scotland the game is mostly played along the ground and is much more fun, particularly for a person like me who’s a mid handicap player in Scotland.

“When my ball lands it will run, if the links are in the condition that they ought to be, in brown and fiery, it might run forever. That could mean that I’ll get a longer drive than I’ll ever have in the US, it could also mean that my ball can run into some dastardly trouble. Part of the fun of links golf is the unexpected surprise, very often an unpleasant one. 

“The other thing about links golf is it’s much more of a man against the elements game in Scotland than it is in the US. Despite playing by the ocean in Florida, the wind in Scotland does not compare. During my time on the trail I experienced some of the most intense and windy conditions that I have ever played, it was sometimes even difficult to stand up and swing. However, I believe that it’s all part of the challenge and fun that appeals to me about golf and why I love links golf so much – reminding me of the infamous John Henry Taylor, one of the best bad weather players there was.”

[L-R Stuart French, Gary Wilkinson, Dave Kerr and Stephen Proctor – pictured at Muirfield]

What would you recommend to someone taking on the trail?

“I would say a couple things. The first one is don’t try to do all 18 courses at once. It’s a trail that you have to be really fit for. I trained for this and played a lot of walking golf to get myself prepared for it and I’m very glad that I did. You can’t really enjoy it the same way if you’re taking a buggy as you need to be prepared to walk to savour the full experience.” 

“Another recommendation would be that you come and do the trail a few times and don’t focus exclusively on the championship courses. I love playing championship courses like the Old Course at St Andrews and Royal Dornoch but if you really want to understand Scottish golf you have to go and play some small places like Tain, Cullen or Crail

“I was deeply impressed with the smaller courses. Make sure when you come to Scotland that you don’t just play all the big courses and check off your trophies one at a time. Go play real Scottish golf at a small place, you can camp out some places like East Lothian and play 3 or 4 courses on the trail and pick up some other smaller courses along the way. Definitely visit somewhere you can stay a few days and get to know the area and the courses around it.

You travelled around the trail in various ways  – how was this experience?

“Yes I loved the ferries, they’re magic, especially if you get good weather. We made a side trip, which I recommend, where we took the ferry to Arran and we played the 12 hole course at Shiskine. I also played with hickories and it was great fun. 

“Taking the ferry to the islands is part of the true Scottish experience, as you get to fully appreciate the beauty of the country and its people.There was not one course that I played throughout my trip, that I didn’t come off smiling – a true testament to Scotland and its golf.” 

Any food or drink that you’d never had or just blew you away? 

“I’ve been to Scotland many times before. Myself and my wife came back in 2019 and were both surprised at the incredible leap forward Scottish cuisine had made. There were some really lovely restaurants that made fabulous dishes including Jahangir in St Andrews which served a lovely curry. 

“As similar to many other Americians, I was not overjoyed at the thought of trying haggis. However, at Scotts at Troon they served the dish in the form that resembled a cupcake with haggis at the bottom, mashed potatoes and a sprinkle of crispy onion on top – it was presented beautifully and tasted amazing.

“The fresh seafood in Scotland is also hard to beat! I had delicious lobster at Askernish and  Machrihanish and I know that my friend Lee who accompanied me loved the Cullen skink. There were a lot of wonderful culinary surprises and I feel like the food in Scotland has really taken a step forward as I was deeply impressed by a lot of the food here.”

If you’re interested in following in Old Toms footsteps, find out more about the trail via our website.

You can also re-watch Stephen Proctor’s trail dispatches.

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