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Seaplaning in Scotland

MacDonald had flown tourists over Niagara Falls; he'd piloted seaplanes in Hawaii and an old De Havilland Beaver in and out of the Canadian bush. "But this is my dream job," he told me. I put on my Ray-Bans and the loch's elongated outline sharpened up, glistening mirrorlike against the haze of the Highlands; the undulating dark green and brown forests of the Trossachs and Ben Lomond made for a classic Scottish backdrop. I turned to MacDonald, smiled and offered him a thumbs-up; at fifteen hundred feet, I could sense where his dream had come from.

The little Cessna passed high over the River Clyde's Erskine Bridge and then over the towns of Dumbarton and Alexandria. Flying toward Loch Lomond, passing the Maid of the Loch paddle steamer berthed at Balloch, I could see the work in progress that will become the Carrick course (due to open in June at the Cameron House Hotel). But my eyes were already looking north along the scenic banks for more familiar landmarks: the hint of a peninsula at Rossdhu Bay; the eighteenth-century sandstone manor of the Colquhoun clan, known as Rossdhu House; and the golf course that now weaves its way through the 660-acre estate.

Great architects have long said you don't build a golf course, you find it. When the seaplane first approached the peninsula, I began to identify old friends, such as the fifth, sixth and seventh holes of the exclusive Loch Lomond Golf Club, all of which run along the loch. Mentally playing the tee shot over the water at eighteen as if it were a child's dot-to-dot puzzle, I began sensing how Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish must have felt when they first laid eyes on this magical place sheltered by Douglas firs, Scotch pines and old oaks. It all fits beautifully. The perspective of a few flyovers—and maybe too many moments of misplaced mysticism—left me believing the course was somehow divinely inspired.

David West, Who is also A member at Loch Lomond, had come out to greet us, his slight silhouette waving up from the lochside. MacDonald swung the aircraft around and prepared to splash down. I expected it to be a bumpy landing—that we'd bounce along the waves and grind to a halt—but there was only a gentle hiss as the seaplane's two large pontoons hit the water. With a bit of spray, what looked like an ugly duckling at the airport had turned into a swan landing on cotton wool.

We taxied to a small jetty near the eighteenth green. Was there was a better way of arriving at a prestigious golf club?I doubted it. The same thought arose again as I walked off the green later that day after my round. One of the club's stewards was looking for my "official" bag tag. "You should have a tag, sir," he said. "We always put a tag on your bag when you come in the gates. I mean, how did you get in—fly?Or did you come over the wall?"

They should be used to members "dropping in" at Loch Lomond. For two years, the club has operated a twin-engine five-seat Augusta 109 helicopter. At roughly $2,300 an hour, the helicopter is more expensive than a seaplane, which charters at just less than $1,000 an hour for the Cessna 206 and a little more than $2,000 an hour for the Cessna 208. As one would expect, West is quick to point out what he considers the benefits of seaplanes over helicopters. "We're faster—ten to twenty knots faster—more comfortable and much cheaper," he said. "And we don't charge for waiting time."

If you include golf clubs and overnight bags, the Cessna 206 can hold a threesome of golfers. That was enough for our odyssey: I was accompanied by a photographer and his assistant, and the only baggage we had were my clubs and carry-on plus the photographer's equipment. To be sure, it's not first-class travel: There's no in-flight gourmet meal or drinks trolley. But the views are rather good—everyone gets a window seat.

My round at Loch Lomond involved the company of Ed Loudon, a retired wine merchant from New Mexico who enjoyed decent White House connections, a fondness for Augusta National and the finer courses of Scotland, and a putting streak that you could lose a lot of money playing against. Did I regret that there was no room for Ed and his hot blade aboard the seaplane?I couldn't possibly comment on that.


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