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Seaplaning in Scotland

I began to mentally map my own seaplane safari. Golf at Machrihanish in the morning followed by the Machrie on Islay in the afternoon. On to Arisaig and the nine seaside holes of the Traigh course perched on the dunes and headland that overlook the isles of Skye, Eigg, Rum and Muck. North once more to Gairloch; nothing of championship quality here, no legends to be found, but I could imagine "Lima, Lima, Sierra" landing in the sea lochs near deserted beaches. I'd bring my high-waisted fishing waders, jump from the seaplane's pontoons with my golf bag and wade to the first tee like a "special forces" golfer. Then maybe I'd swing east to Tain and Brora, near Royal Dornoch, and from there fly south toward the snowy Cairngorm peaks, Loch Inch and the heather and silver pines at Boat of Garten in Speyside. Just for the hell of it, I'd finish with a lobster lunch at the Crinan Hotel in Lochgilphead village.

But I should have reserved such contemplation for a visually quieter period. The Cessna was cruising at 138 miles per hour and flying straight as a crow toward Turnberry. Through the headset I heard West say, "There's a lot of sailing involved in flying this machine." I knew what he meant. When it gets bumpy and you've been flying for an hour or so, the difference between sea- and seaplane-sickness can't be much. But throughout three days of flying, and despite the occasional temptation, none of us—not our photographer, his assistant nor I—ever reached for the small paper bag in front of us.

We were now flying down the Ayrshire coast over my favorite childhood course at West Kilbride and on past the linksland torture chambers of Prestwick and Royal Troon. The Turnberry lighthouse and the Ailsa championship course would soon be in sight.

As at Gleneagles, the railway era of the early twentieth century brought golf to Turnberry, and the game thrived. But in 1939 the fun officially ended. Turnberry's fairways and bunkers were flattened and filled in to serve as an airfield for a military hospital during the Second World War. Why here?Hell knows. Strange decisions are made during wartime, even today. Two years after the conflict ended, golf was almost extinct at Turnberry. As we flew over and looked down on one of the greatest layouts in golf, I tried to imagine the vision that it must have taken to rip up the old runways, dig out the concrete and believe—really believe—that great golf could be brought back here. Turnberry hired architect Philip Mackenzie Ross, who did more than just restore the course: He essentially created a new world-class links.

As West flew us around Turnberry's iconic lighthouse and over the fourth through eleventh holes along the coast-hugging cliffside, the scope of Ross's accomplishment struck me anew. The Scottish Professionals Championship arrived in 1954, three years after the Ailsa course reopened. The Open Championship arrived in 1977, when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson famously dueled over the final two rounds, with Watson winning by a stroke. Did Ross know that his remake of the Ailsa would be so worth waiting for?Before West brought the Cessna down safely onto the remaining strip of bumpy wartime runway, my thoughts retreated to an imaginary meeting of Nicklaus, Watson and old man Ross. I could see them pat each other on the back because, as at Loch Lomond and Gleneagles, the privilege of an aerial view had shown me again that it all so perfectly fits together. Ross rediscovered Turnberry where it always was: right here. He couldn't have found it any other place.

When we got out on the course, I deliberately went to the ninth hole's championship tee, which grows right up out of the sea. The famous hole is known as Bruce's Castle, named for the former home of a fourteenth-century Scottish king that once dominated the landscape. A thin railing on the edge of a sheer drop is accompanied by a sign that essentially says, "Closed. Go away. Gods only here." I ignored the warning, prepared my lost-reading-glasses excuse and took my TaylorMade three-wood down into the forbidden zone. I teed up my ball, and when I swung, it flew straight off the clubface, over the waves and the cliffs, landing safely in the middle of the fairway. Later that day, after we got back in the seaplane and headed eastward, I replayed the shot in my mind and savored it again—this time from an aerial view.


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