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Forewarned and Forearmed

On the golf and whisky trail
By Hans Offringa
Golf appears throughout the whisky world time and again, creating a special niche in collecting. The best of both worlds, joined at the hip flask, so to speak.

I confess straightaway I don't play golf, simply because I haven't allowed myself the time. I have managed to do a few clinics and even won one of them, earning myself a nice single malt. My younger brother, who is an excellent amateur golfer and loves his whisky, keeps telling me I should start taking lessons; however, with all the travelling I do, it is virtually impossible to maintain a strict schedule let alone practice.

My interest in golf was rekindled on the Irish Whiskey Trail, which led us to various golf courses that are not only well-known for beautiful surroundings and excellent hotels, but also for their large whiskey collections in the bar. That's when I began to pick up golf balls with whisky brand names on them, which led me further into finding tins depicting golf courses, whiskies especially bottled for specific golf courses and old ads combining the two. Since that moment it has become a collection within a collection.

Although whiskey is supposedly an Irish invention, golf is not. As a matter of fact the Dutch and Scots still argue about its source and both claim to be the cradle of the sport with the clubs and the little white ball. Is that justified? The number of countries from where a sport using stick and ball originated is large. Every one of them, be it China or the ancient Romans who already played paganica, Belgium with chole or the Netherlands with kolf (played as early as 1297 at Castle Kronenburg near Utrecht), could claim the title 'father of golf'. No written or visible proof exists, apart from a few 17th century paintings by Dutchman Hendrick Averkamp. A closer look at his paintings reveals a kind of sport more similar to modern ice hockey. Colf still exists in the Netherlands, but today it more closely resembles a mixture of cricket, lacrosse and field hockey.

However, the Scots can play the strongest card with stating that golf, or an earlier variety thereof, originated in Scotland. This is not based on the legend of Scottish shepherds hitting stones into rabbit holes on the links - a piece of land directly along the coast, unsuitable for sheep to graze on - since AD 1100. To make this story even more interesting, that would have been the place where St Andrews golf club was erected many centuries later. That's a tall tale, although the word links - currently synonymous with golf courses along the coast - does stem from it. Still the Scots make a strong claim, albeit that we have to travel in time three centuries further. An official document of the Scottish government, dated 1457, mentions the word 'golfe'. A mere 42 years later, in 1494, the first written reference to whisky in Scotland was made in a Royal document. Since the Irish were supposed to have introduced whiskey to the Scots they might have picked up golf in exchange, who knows?

These thoughts crossed my mind when we were sitting in the bar of the Killenard Hotel and Spa golf resort, which has an interesting collection of whiskey and whisky. It wasn't the only golf hotel we visited during that Irish trip. Another one that sticks in my mind is the Castlemartyr Resort. This is a five star hotel situated on a 220 acre estate, only 10 minutes from Midleton Distillery in Cork. Near the entrance stand the ruins of the castle itself, but the manor house has been converted into an excellent place to stay with an indoor pool and a clubhouse for the surrounding 18-hole course. The Knight's Bar in the former ballroom has a beautifully ornate rococo ceiling, dating from the 18th century. When the house later functioned as a Carmelite college, the ballroom became the oratory. It is a charming place to sit by the fire with a dram, enjoying the view. This bar is well stocked with whiskeys and we got acquainted with a very special blend, Celtic Nations. It comes in an attractively labelled bottle and is, as far as we know, the only blend of Irish and Scottish whiskeys in the world.

Anyway, the Irish and the Scots are good at blending things, like golf and whiskey. Various whisky brands like to connect themselves to the heritage of golf. Jameson, for instance, supplies golf balls with its logo, as do numerous other distilleries. St Andrews connects a golf course with a golf ball filled with whisky under the same 'brand name.'

McGibbons Scotch whisky comes in ceramic golf bags. Johnnie Walker is known for sponsoring golf tournaments and with a bit of imagination you could say that two of their blends, Green and Swing, bring golf to mind. Gleneagles Hotel and Golf Course, owned by Diageo and considered by many the cradle of golf and whisky, hosted the famous Ryder Cup last year. Many 19th holes have been played at the Johnnie Walker Blue Bar in the adjacent clubhouse.

Islay malt Bruichladdich produced a series called Links. They come in collectable tins depicting famous Scottish golf courses. The Glenlivet did a similar thing a decade ago. And last but not least our Dutch pride, Millstone Single Malt made by Zuidam distillers in Baarle-Nassau, presents a special gift set of whisky and a leather-encased flask that holds a set of tees on its front.

This brings us on to prices. Golf club shaped decanters with whisky can be found from £25. Old St Andrews Golf Balls with whisky come in different sizes, priced between £8 and £30. Golf decanters are not limited to Irish or Scotch. Ezra Brooks has a fine 1972 Greater Greensboro Open Golf Tournament Decanter, recently on offer on eBay for around £20. So has Jim Beam, from the 1971 5th Kaiser International Open Golf in Napa Valley, CA. If you are fast, you can pick them up on eBay for around £30. I expect these artefacts will increase in value in a foreseeable future. Bruichladdich Links (St Andrews) is currently worth around £250. The Glenlivet tins with full bottle may be obtained for between £30 and £60, which is actually a good deal. Springbank has a rare bottling for the local Machrihanish Golf Club that is difficult to find and will probably set the new owner back £500 or more.

Luckily you can easily pick up a whisky branded golf ball at £5 and start from there!