Book Review: “Golfing the British Isles” by Peter Gray

On the back sleeve of Peter Gray’s Golfing the British Isles, it says that, although he is a middle-handicapper, the author, “has played many of the world’s top 100 courses.”

It’s an interesting statement to make because while a majority of golfers (including LINKS readers) will know that’s perfectly possible, many will wonder how an inexpert golfer is able to play them. A lot will assume that because a golf club is private and they aren’t a member, or that they themselves aren’t particularly good at the game, they will be neither welcome nor good enough to get around.

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While the main objective of this beautiful book is to highlight some of Britain and Ireland’s very best courses, it also strives to make it clear that, no matter how good (or bad) you are at golf, they are perfectly accessible to non-members able to simply book a tee-time online. Indeed, Gray makes no secret of the fact he isn’t a professional, often referring to himself as a “weekend warrior.” (The full title of the book is Golfing the British Isles: The Weekend Warrior’s Companion.)

What he most definitely is, though, is an unabashed lover of links golf and the way the game is played in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland to which he travels regularly, both as a rater for Golfweek and as a private citizen who just can’t get enough links golf (five of London’s superb heathland courses are also included).

Golfing the British Isles is the quintessential coffee-table book, as much about professional golf photographer Gary Lisbon’s amazing images as it is Gray’s words. Coffee-table books can be all about the visuals and, while there’s obviously a market for that, it’s great to combine exceptional photography with prose that goes beyond grandiose proclamations. There is a fair amount of those here: “One of the greatest holes/views/greens/routings in all of Scotland/Ireland/England/Wales/golf/etc.,” but Gray supplies more than enough amusing anecdotes and useful insights, collected on his many trips, to give the book color and hold the reader’s interest. In that sense, it works just as well on your nightstand as it does on show in your lounge. It’s a little too big to be an easy nighttime read, perhaps, but you will want to spend time reading it as well as glancing at it for a few brief moments to coo at the photos.

One of the more memorable stories comes from Ireland where Gray had an unhappy start to a five-day trip when shanking several shots during his opening round at Tralee. Fearful of further carnage and grooving his “shank-swing,” Gray yielded to his group’s suggestion that he drink an entire bottle of Jameson 18 Years Irish whiskey. After passing out on the floor of his hotel bar, he slept soundly and managed to play Ballybunion the following day without hitting the club’s hosel once.

A slightly more wholesome, tell-the-kids story is told in the Introduction, where we become acquainted with Gray’s friend Scott Weitz, a fellow-member at Lakewood Country Club in Rockville, Md. Gray explains he would often try to persuade his friend to join him on a trip to Britain or Ireland to which Weitz would reply it was too far, too expensive, and too much of a hassle. “Besides,” Weitz adds, “Lakewood is great.” Gray would then insist the first three reasons were misguided as he had a passport, a long weekend in Ireland would actually cost less than a few days at Pebble Beach, and that Dublin, Edinburgh, London, or Cardiff weren’t much further away than the west coast of the U.S. And playing a residential course in Maryland, he says, was also like a different sport compared to playing the world’s best links courses. Weitz relented and flew to Edinburgh with Gray and their sons on a Thursday night, played the Old Course, Kingsbarns, Carnoustie, Turnberry, and Royal Troon, and was back in Maryland the following Wednesday. Needless to say, he was smitten and now has a hand-painted picture of the view from the Old Course’s 18th tee looking toward the clubhouse hanging on his office wall.

In all, Gray profiles 34 courses and devotes separate chapters to the 26 he regards as must-plays. His criteria for what makes a course truly special hinges on four factors—strategic options, beauty, character, and fun, and though his selection obviously has a lot in common with the major publications’ course rankings, Gray insists he doesn’t feel obligated to reproduce them. He is refreshingly honest, in fact, conceding that he doesn’t include Royal Lytham & St. Annes because, like philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s take on life itself, it is, “nasty, brutish, and short;” Royal Aberdeen is a better golf course than Cruden Bay, (though he loves both); and that, contrary to what most raters believe, Royal Portrush is superior to Royal County Down and, indeed, every other course in Britain and Ireland as he names it his No. 1.

At the end of the book, after listing his top-10 must-plays in Britain and Ireland, Gray provides a Q&A that people considering a trip to either will find very useful. There’s good advice on when and where to go, what to take, the desired speed of play, how to refer to the Briti Open Championship, etc. (One of the 11 questions refers to the term “British Isles” and, while Gray explains his perfectly understandable use of it, it’s best avoided in the Republic of Ireland.)

Golfing the British Isles is a very worthy addition to the golfer’s library and, for anyone still undecided on a trip across the Atlantic, will surely provide sufficient incentive to finally book that flight.

You can order your copy of Golfing the British Isles using this link.

Have you played golf in the British Isles? Tell us about your experience in the comment section.