There’s no better way to begin the trip of lifetime than to stand at the Wheel of Baggage-Claim Fortune and hit bankrupt. United Airlines may fly friendly in the sky, but they’re a migraine on the ground.
More than a decade ago, I found two golfing buddies in Houston who became two of my dearest friends. About a year into our golfing “relationship” (because there is such a thing), the elder statesman of the threesome, Beau, threw out the idea that we plan a golf trip to Scotland, a.k.a. the “Home of Golf.”
That was nine years ago. Then, on March 28, 2018 – yes, I still have the email – Beau sent Mickey and I a 3-paragraph sales pitch for finally making the trip in July 2019.
A lot had changed in the nine years we had discussed this trip. Namely, I now had a wife and two sons (and a third on the way), which limits a fellow’s ability to take a 12-day excursion to some of the greatest golf courses on earth. As such, my reply to Beau went something like this:
“Beau, I think you’ve addressed this email to the wrong person. The correct addressee is a beautiful woman named Meghan. She has final say over these sorts of decisions.”
Without all the gruesome details, Meghan gave me her blessing because she knew I’d pay a year of penance for every day I spent slogging over grass-covered sand dunes chasing expensive golf balls. And on June 27, Mickey, Beau and I set off on what we knew would be the golfing trip of all trips.
We arrived at Bush Airport with golf bags under the 50-pound limit and carry-ons stuffed with socks, slacks and rain gear. Even better, we checked in for our flight more than two hours ahead of our departure time, which apparently also happens to be the exact time United Airlines began its catastrophe of operations.
Mickey and I flew from Houston to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., with a final destination of Edinburgh, Scotland. Beau, who now lives in Alabama, took a different route, but would land in Edinburgh one hour before our arrival.
As we soon learned, it wouldn’t have mattered if Mickey and I checked our bags 10 hours before our flight. Nope, as we stood at that vaunted Wheel of Baggage-Claim Fortune at our final destination and watched similar golfer after similar golfer walk away with golf bags, the baggage-claim belt came to a stop with nary a bag for Mickey nor I to claim.
If you want to know how to not start the golfing vacation of a lifetime, it’s pretty much like this: Walk to the customer care center in baggage claim, show them the bar code for your bags, and watch the Scottish agent squint his eyes and then tell you that it appears your golf clubs never left Houston.
I’ll give United the credit it deserves: They found our bags, loaded them on a plane the next day, and paid a courier to drive four hours north of Edinburgh to deliver our clubs in time for our second round of golf.
What happened over the next nine days was a mixture of utter heartache and unrivaled euphoria. The details of my actual golf game are too gruesome to share. As the father of three children under the age of six, and a lower back problem that, at times, is crippling, I probably had no business playing 180 holes of golf and walking 115 miles over 10 days.
Then again, to play golf courses opened in the 1800s, set against the North Sea and the Firth of Clyde, with 30-mph winds blowing balls into gorse and heather and sand bunkers built for wars, I didn’t much care which direction a Titleist left my 7-iron.
For the golfer-readers of the group, we played iconic courses like Muirfield, Carnoustie, Turnberry, Royal Troon and Royal Dornoch. We played coastal, more Americanized courses like Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart. And we played spectacular and quirky courses like Prestwick and North Berwick.
For the rest of the readers – the ones who will never care about golf or the names of Scottish courses – my great impression from the entire trip, and one that seems so fitting coming back to our area of Houston, was a unique quality in the small, Scottish towns where we stayed.
From Tain to Ayr to Gullane and St. Andrews, what I saw in every town was a dedication to all things local. Sure, there were brand-named stores scattered about, but more people stood in line at Bibi’s Cafe than at Starbucks. The shoppers visited boutiques because the strip centers with national brands were nowhere on a map.
And from a personal standpoint, I saw something I didn’t even know existed anymore: No matter in a pub, a coffee shop or a street corner, people in Scotland still love their newspapers. Sure, they all have phones rested neatly next to their salad forks, but they don’t scour their tiny screens relentlessly. They hold larger-than-life newspapers, scanning page-by-page, for the latest gossip of the town.
That day is likely long gone in these parts, but for a trip that was built around golf, the lasting impression I’ll take from Scotland centers more on the kindness of the people, the support for local business, and the attitude of the people who walk the streets – gruff but always kind.
Of course, I’ll also file away the risks of flying across the Atlantic with an airline that should allow passengers the right to load their own bags.
Meanwhile, I need to stop writing so I can get back to whatever my wife asks of me next. It’s not lost on me a bit: I’m one lucky man.