For the last quarter century, I've been carrying on a love affair with the British Isles. The relationship started when Europe called to me as a professional proving ground, but it has moved far past that as the islands have become home to some of my most important business interests as well as a favorite destination for my family.
Of course, there's nothing like a couple of Open Championships to make you love a place.
My road to the U.K. began after my first professional victory, at the 1976 West Lakes Classic in Australia. In the wake of that win I put in motion a plan to succeed on golf's global stage, first by winning my home circuit's big events, then by moving on to Europe and from there to the United States.
To my enduring satisfaction, the plan worked pretty well, but I had plenty of help along the way—perhaps the biggest kick-start coming when the Australian Golf Writers Association voted me the outstanding young player of the year following my 1976 success. With that acknowledgment came a one-way plane ticket to London donated by McCallum's whisky, so in early 1977 I embarked on the European leg of my journey.
I played well from the start, winning the second tournament I entered—the Martini International in Scotland—and the rest, as they say, is history. England, Ireland and Scotland proved to be happy hunting grounds for me, and the time I invested there really helped me develop as a player. I had to study and learn all the different facets of the game necessary to play both classic links and parkland courses, and honing these skills helped me become a consistent winner on all kinds of layouts around the world. Even after I began playing the U.S. PGA Tour full-time in 1984, I would plan my summer schedule around a trip to the British Isles, usually traveling to Scotland or Ireland at the beginning of July, in the weeks before the Open Championship, with my family and some old friends. It's a trip we all still make every year.
Partly, I was following the lead of Tom Watson. He would go over early to prepare for the Open, to get adjusted to the time difference, the scruffy turf, the erratic bounces, the gusty wind and the heavier atmosphere, which can have a dramatic effect on shots. While I was very familiar with the courses, I knew Tom was right—you can't be too prepared for golf's oldest major championship. But there were so many other reasons why it made sense, not the least of which was that it was a welcome respite in the middle of a demanding yearlong schedule. Yes, I was working on my game, but at the same time my family and I got to see Ireland's and Scotland's most famous retreats.
And the hospitality of the Scots and the Irish has kept me coming back. They have always welcomed us with open arms, especially in the evenings, when we usually make it a point to gather at the pub and trade stories with the locals.
Frequently, our gang has started the trip up in the Scottish Highlands, with a visit to the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle, which was brought back to life by Peter de Savary in 1995. It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting for a golf course than Skibo. "Heaven on earth" was how Andrew Carnegie described the glorious castle that is home to the Carnegie Club. He acquired the property in 1898 and spent a fortune rebuilding the castle, using it as a base for social activity and his philanthropic endeavors. Today I am a proud member of the club.
The course itself offers incredibly firm and fast links golf. It winds through exceptionally rare and environmentally sensitive wildlife habitats that have been carefully protected over the years. The layout is challenging and has panoramic views of Struie Hill and Skibo Castle. Often, early in the morning or late in the evening, I will grab some balls and go out to a remote corner of the course to practice with my caddie and friend, Tony Navarro. It's a serene setting, and most of the time there's no one else in sight. I find these sessions to be extremely productive.
At 6,671 yards from the back tees, Skibo is not long by modern standards, but in a wind it will test the best. I played Fred Couples at Skibo in a 1996 Shell's Wonderful World of Golf telecast—a match I remember all too well. The wind was whipping off Dornoch Firth, and we both struggled. Freddie won with a seventy-six, and I finished with a seventy-eight. Believe me, under the conditions, those scores weren't all that bad.
Whenever we visit Skibo we also make time for Royal Dornoch, only ten minutes down the road. Watson, too, is fond of Dornoch. He first visited in 1981, one year after winning the third of his five Open Championships. He arrived intending to play eighteen and move on, and after three rounds he was still there, calling it the most fun he ever had on a golf course.
Dornoch is considered the finest northern course in the world, and when you're on the grounds you know why. It sits on a beautiful and natural piece of land two hundred miles north of Edinburgh, far from any major population base. Consistently rated one of the top twenty courses in the world, it is unique among the great links of Scotland in that it has never hosted the Open. I presume this is a reflection of its remote location—otherwise it would be a fine Open venue.
As my son, Gregory, got older, he started joining us on these trips, and we began making Ireland part of the itinerary. We spent a lot of time on the southwest coast playing Ballybunion and Lahinch. The more we played those great old Irish links, the more enamored of them I became.