Golf is to the Scots what wine is to the French and being an aficionado of both I hasten to note that it seems as though Scotland has almost as many golf courses as France has vineyards. There are hundreds, ranging from links to parkland, ancient to new, spectacular to wholly ordinary, exclusive to public. The casual golf traveler could never play all the Scottish courses in a lifetime. Playing just the Scottish courses ranked in the world’s top 100 would require a stay of more than two weeks and a considerable amount of driving in country. With so many alluring courses and so little time, how does one plan the typical weeklong Scottish golf vacation?
Our advice is to divide and conquer. Think of Scotland as a collection of six different clusters of golf courses (i.e. locations where you can play several different courses from only one accommodation). Recognize that, even if you limit your play to the crème de la crème courses, you can only play two or three clusters in a week. Choose the clusters which are most appealing to you and save the others for your next expedition.
Here are the six clusters and a synopsis of what Major Haversham and his minions find to be the most attractive golf and good life attributes of each.
St. Andrews Old Course on the east coast in the Kingdom of Fife is truly incomparable. There is no excitement in golf like driving brilliantly away on the first tee in front of the R&A clubhouse (here’s a peek inside), or challenging the famous Road Hole whose boundary markers are the grounds of the Old Course Hotel, or walking up eighteen, trying to appear nonchalant as one is studied (or so it seems) by the press of perpetual spectators lounging about the green. St. Andrews, the “Auld Grey Toon” to the Scots, is also one of the country’s most historic and interesting towns. (Here’s Baker’s Blog on the Best of St. Andrews Good Life.)
There are enough fine links courses within a short drive that one could spend an entire week here. Internationally renowned Kingsbarns and Carnoustie are must plays for any golfer who visits St. Andrews. Then there are several really good courses which are Off the Beaten Path, as well as legendary Gleneagles which is like a cluster all to itself.
There is no better experience for the dedicated golfer than a day at Muirfield in East Lothian near Scotland’s captivating capital, Edinburgh. Muirfield is the home course for The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the world’s oldest golf club, home to the original 13 rules of golf and a bastion of golfing tradition and history. The subtle design of the course, the clubhouse adorned with centuries-old trophies and original paintings (whose copies hang in other clubhouses throughout the world), the best lunch in Scotland, consumed in jacket and tie under the watchful gaze of past club captains staring forth from their pictures on the dining room walls, the afternoon foursomes where the alternate shot format permits 18 holes of play in well less than three hours. All of this is unique, truly unique, but it’s not just about playing golf. To explain, here’s Sam’s Best Day at Muirfield.
There is much more to golf in East Lothian, however, than just historic Muirfield. Close by you’ll find Gullane Golf Club, host of the 2015 Scottish Open. So close, in fact, that the best view of Muirfield is actually found on the 7th tee of the #1 course at Gullane. And then there is the famed West Links at North Berwick. A course for which no number of superlatives could ever do it justice, with a closing stretch of holes among the best in the game.
The West Coast & Kintyre
The world famous resort at Turnberry on the west coast of Scotland boasts two fine courses in a breathtaking seaside setting. Its Ailsa Course is by far the most beautiful course on the Open Rota and recent alterations to the links are set to make it even more spectacular. There are few more memorable experiences than playing Ailsa’s last few holes in the late afternoon while the strains of a bagpipe drift over the links, then afterwards enjoying a traditional Scottish banquet begun with the recitation by the wee piper himself of a few lines of poetry by the great Robert Burns.
Of course, it was the land of Ayrshire and the links at Prestwick which gave birth to the Open Championship. The course fashioned by Old Tom Morris hosted The Open some 24 times and it remains to this day a delightful stroll through history. Meanwhile, the Old Course at Royal Troon and its famed Postage Stamp hole stands ready to host its 9th Open in 2016. And finally, the links at Western Gailes is a fine addition to any itinerary on the west coast. For more on these courses, see the pages below or Baker’s Blog on golf along The Glasgow & Southwestern Railway.
Kintyre is a place where you can experience a golfing holiday much in the way you would have in the days of hickory shafts, spoons, niblicks and gutta percha balls. At Machrihanish, we find a course mostly unchanged since it was laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1876. It’s here that we’re also treated to the finest opening tee shot in golf, launched across the shores of Machrihanish Bay. Nearby, on the Isle of Arran, are the enigmatic courses at Machrie and Shiskine. The former known for its assortment of blind shots, the latter it’s unique 12-hole layout. Rounding out the golf in the region is a new kid on the block: Machrihanish Dunes. Designed by Bandon Dunes architect David McLay Kidd, this is arguably the most natural course in the world with all of the holes having been “found” rather than created.
The Highlands, the most beautiful part of Scotland, are noted for snow-capped mountains, rushing trout streams, Loch Ness and its resident monster, bracken-filled glens, superb malt whisky, cheerful inhabitants and a plethora of peerless links courses. The best of these is Royal Dornoch Golf Club, which celebrates some 400 years of golf in 2016. It was here that Donald Ross learned his craft as Keeper of the Green, and a string of top-10 rankings in the world have made this once far-flung destination a mainstay of Scotland golf itineraries. Just to the south, Castle Stuart was named the best new course in the world when it premiered in 2009, and will host the Scottish Open for the 4th time in 2016. It also happens to be situated in one of the most beautiful settings for golf anywhere on the planet.
In addition to Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart, there are several other courses in The Highlands that shouldn’t be missed. Perhaps the best putting surfaces in Scotland are found on the links at Nairn, host of the 1999 Walker Cup. Meanwhile, squeezed onto the tiny Chononry Peninsula is Fortrose & Rosemarkie; a delightful James Braid course that is as fun to play as it is visually stunning. Keep an eye out for the dolphins that call the waters off the peninsula home. For both golf at its finest and life at its best, it’s difficult to do better than the Highlands.
Aberdeen is arguably Scotland’s most under-rated golf cluster. And yet it was here, on what was known as the “Queen’s Links,” where the first recorded mention of a golf hole was made. That area went on to become the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, the 6th oldest club in the world and host of the 2014 Scottish Open. Just down the way we find Trump International, one of Scotland’s newest courses that weaves its way through some of the most magnificent dunes in the country.
The highlight of any trip to Aberdeen, however, is the magnificent Cruden Bay. A truly magical place to play the game, Cruden Bay transcends any preconceived notions of what makes a great golf course. It pairs just the right amount of quirkiness with a handful of views that no golfer will ever forget. Most notably, the view from the 9th tee, where the panorama toward Slains Castle is sure to inspire. But if all of that isn’t enough, here’s Baker’s Blog with 5 More Reasons to Visit Aberdeen.
Major Basil Haversham, OBE
Your guide to the greatest golf holidays in Scotland.