In 2003 I went to Scotland for the first time — the tour consisted of rounds at Stonehaven (while my wife was traveling with me), Belleisle, Turnberry’s two courses, Kingsbarns, The Old Course, The New Course, Murcar, Cruden Bay, Dornoch, Brora and finally the King’s Course at Gleneagles. When I returned I wrote a cover story for the RCGA’s Golf Canada. I remember someone writing a letter to the editor saying the trip sounded like hard work, after all, we played 36 holes every day but one. Maybe that was the case — aside from golfing and sleeping, we didn’t do much — but it never felt like work. It also instilled the bug in me, and the following year I returned to see Muirfield, North Berwick, Kingsbarns, the Old Course, Montrose, the Dukes Course, and Crail.
Anyway, here’s the story that appeared in Golf Canada, in honor of Open Week, and the fact that someone told me today they wanted to do a tour of Open Championship venues:
8 Days in Scotland
by Robert Thompson
The plan sounded easy. Put two sets of brothers together and make a pilgrimage to Scotland, the home of golf. Along the way, tackle the best the country had to offer while also visiting some out-of-the-way gems that rarely get played by North Americans.
Of course there were two catches. Firstly, given the scarcity of golf carts, our itinerary meant we would play 36 holes for five consecutive days. That amounts to walking more than 20 km per day. Secondly, we planned to cover courses from Turnberry on the western Scottish coast to Royal Dornoch in the most northern area of the country. Oh, it is also worth noting that we hoped to accomplish our ambitious golf itinerary, which consisted of 13 rounds, in eight days.
Given our short time frame, golf was foremost in mind as soon as our jet hit the runway in Glasgow. That means though we were scheduled to play Turnberry, home of Tom Watson’s famed victory in the British Open in 1977, on our second day in Scotland, a warm-up round was necessary.
Despite the jetlag of our red-eye flight, we were on the road heading south towards Ayr as soon as we picked up our van. An hour and a half later we were at Belleisle Golf Club, one of Scotland’s best municipal golf courses. Regarded as one of James Braid’s best inland courses, Belleisle offers players a good opportunity to tune up their game before teeing it up at one of the area’s better-known (and more expensive) courses, like Royal Troon, Western Gailles or Prestwick. A traditional parkland layout, Braid offers a mix of holes, from driveable par fours to lengthy par threes.
One of the things our group noticed immediately about Scottish golf is that the green fees paid by North Americans often rival yearly dues for course members. Despite these fees, which at a course like Belleisle were only £19.50, visitors are often relegated to “yellow” tee blocks, many of which vary by several hundred yards from the member blocks. You can ask to play the member tees, but more often than not, you’re going to be turned down. Visitors to some Scottish courses can often feel like second-class citizens, despite supporting the clubs with their pocket books.
It is first-class all the way at Turnberry, from the five-star resort to the breathtaking golf course, which held the British Open in 1977 and again in 1994. While it has been said that one must stay at the resort at Turnberry to play the course (rooms rates range from £175 to £320 per night, with golf at the Ailsa course costing upwards of £130), that’s not always the case. Call the starter two weeks in advance and often a time can be arranged.
We head out with four caddies in tow, including two of the assistant caddie masters. You’ll often hear that caddies are an essential part of the Scottish golf experience, and that is generally true. But they don’t come cheap – expect to pay between £35 and £50, including tip.
While it starts out as a prototypical Scottish links, Turnberry soon becomes dramatic, with the final holes on the front nine swooping dramatically towards the ocean. Depending on the wind, Turnberry can move from fair to nearly impossible, with the heavy breeze making even the easiest shots open to all sorts of possibilities. It is also a course where its history, including Tom Watson’s famous battle with Jack Nicklaus in 1977, is always present. Many of the course’s caddies actually worked either the 1977 or 1994 Opens, and will be more than pleased to regale you with tales from those championships. I guarantee you’ll leave Turnberry impressed.
Don’t miss the Kintyre, the so-called “relief” course at Turnberry. Reworked by Donald Steel, the Kintyre also features several terrific holes – including the eighth, a short par four with a green perched in a rocky outcropping near the raging sea, and the following hole, a remarkable par five that plays alongside the ocean. Great golf indeed.
By 6 a.m. we are in our van and driving across Scotland in search of the best new golf course in the country. Four hours and one traffic jam later, we arrive at Kingsbarns Golf Links.
Few new golf courses have been as well received as Kingsbarns. Part of that is because of its location. Just eight miles away from St. Andrews, Kingsbarns is located on one of the most dramatic pieces of land imaginable.
Situated directly alongside the raging ocean, designer Kyle Phillips moved huge amounts of land to create massive dunes that look positively natural.
From the first hole, a tricky downhill par four, golfers will realize that Phillips has created a course for the ages, one you’ll want to play time and again. Ocean views abound and the best holes, like the 566-yard par five 12th and the par three 15th, at which players hit tee balls over a rocky inlet.
Though Kingsbarns is expensive at £135 per round, it is also one of the more flexible golf courses in Scotland. Manage to score a round at the nearby Old Course only to find it conflicts with your round at Kingsbarns? Notify the club and they’ll find another time to get your group out. Kingsbarns was regarded as one of the top two courses we played by all four golfers on my trip and everyone agreed they’d like to play it again.
Following our round at Kingsbarns, we stop at St. Andews and walked the fairways of the Old Course. We then proceed to the Carnoustie Links Hotel, which sits directly across the street from Carnoustie, the legendary links that was responsible for Jean Van de Velde’s meltdown in 1999.
While Carnoustie doesn’t have the picturesque nature of Kingsbarns or the sheer quirkiness of the Old Course, it makes up for these failings by being a supreme test of golf. It is simply hard, even when the rough isn’t a foot high and the fairways aren’t as narrow as they were at the last Open Championship the course held.
The final stretch of holes, including Barry Burn, the 235-yard par three 16th, through to Home, the scene of Van de Velde’s demise, are as difficult as anything you’ll ever play. Have your picture taken in the burn at the 18th, where Van de Velde chipped his ball after unsuccessfully dealing with the rough, and take a deep breath when you finally reach the 18th green.
You’ll have earned it.
Carnoustie offers a day-ticket which allows you to play both the championship and the secondary Burnside course. While not nearly as strong as Turnberry’s Kintyre track, the Burnside can offer an inexpensive distraction after playing the big course at Carnoustie.
The Old Course. Just the name is enough to evoke memories of the history of the game of golf. Our foursome had managed to score a tee time through the daily ballot, a system whereby players could submit their names the day before their round. Some are picked and given a coveted tee time – others are left standing by the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient, watching the lucky few play one of the best golf courses in the world.
At £105 pounds, plus another £35 for a caddie, the Old Course is not cheap. It is also one of the most convoluted golf experiences of my life. Fairways, which are invisible from the tee, seemingly appear in the middle of flowering gorse. Nasty bunkers emerge from the center of the short grass. Massive greens with unfair undulations are found everywhere. In other words, the Old Course will elicit a kind of frustration and excitement not found anywhere else in the world of golf.
And there simply is no experience like hitting a ball towards the 18th green, with its gallery of tourists watching approach shots from players who dream they’re playing in the Open Championship.
After our morning round at the Old Course, we hit the links of the badly named New Course. Built by Old Tom Morris in 1895, the New Course is much more immediately accessible, both in format and in availability, than the Old Course. It also contains some tremendous golf holes – but don’t let anyone get away with saying it is actually better than its older neighbor. That’s just sacreligious and patently untrue.
While some have said Scottish golf courses can be less than friendly to visitors, that’s certainly not the case at Murcar Golf Club, located just north of Aberdeen on Scotland’s east coast. The course, which is located right next to the more famous Royal Aberdeen, is a terrific test of golf and a great value at £50. Look up the term “hidden gem,” and you’ll see a picture of Murcar – it is that good.
What’s more, visitors are allowed to play whatever tees they feel like. In our case, we headed to the back tees and found Murcar to be a fair and enjoyable challenge.
If it weren’t for the final hole, a rather bland par four that heads back to the clubhouse, Murcar would be among the best courses in all of Scotland.
But even with the slight finishing flaw, playing Murcar was among the most fun I had in Scotland. The course winds through huge dunes alongside the ocean and for much of the front nine, players feel like they are perpetually hitting from elevated tees. The back nine throws in a few quirky holes with blind shots, but I doubt anyone who visits Murcar leaves unsatisfied.
Following Murcar, our foursome jumped in the van and drove half an hour up the coast to Cruden Bay Golf Club. Ranked in among the best courses in the world, Cruden Bay is often considered too far removed from the hub of St. Andrews to be visited by golfers making the pilgrimage to Scotland.
In reality Cruden Bay is only three hours from St. Andrews and would be worth playing even if the drive were twice as long. Designer Pete Dye has said Cruden Bay is among his favourite courses anywhere in the world and by the time you see “Port Erroll,” the 193-yard par three third hole that plays directly alongside an ocean inlet, it is easy to see why. Like Murcar, Cruden Bay plays through huge coastal dunes.
On the final holes of the front nine, Cruden Bay heads uphill, building to a crescendo on the 10th, a par four which features one of the most spectacular ocean views in all of golf. Hovering 100 feet over the fairway, golfers are able to see much of the back nine while the ocean looms in the background. I’ll never forget my round at Cruden Bay and there are few courses in Scotland that can rival it for memorability.
We awake at early in Dornoch to tackle one of the most famous golf courses in the world. By this time we’re used to showing up 15 minutes before our tee time and, without a warm-up, tackling some of the most penal golf courses in the world. Practice facilities, after all, are rare in Scotland, so take advantage of the ranges that can be found at the likes of Turnberry or in St. Andrews.
At the start, Royal Dornoch Golf Club looks a lot like some of its famous Scottish cousins. During our trip, flowering gorse framed the fairways, and subtle elevations shifts are witnessed during the opening holes. But by the time the course hits its stride, particularly on the eighth, a terrific par four, and the ninth, a 496-yard par five that plays directly alongside the ocean, it will become clear that Royal Dornoch is among the most spectacular and challenging golf courses in the world.
We wanted to play Dornoch a second time, but since the course doesn’t offer a day ticket, coupled with the fact that winds were blowing small cars over, we decided to head to the eccentric Brora Golf Club, 15 minutes north.
Built on ancient grazing pasture, Brora is famous for the fact that sheep graze on its fairways and small electrified wires keep those animals off its greens. A true out-and-back links, you could easily find yourself playing a ball off the beach at Brora.
While its par-69 yardage does not sound particularly difficult, Brora only contains one par five. Not one golfer in our party managed to break 80 in the howling wind, but everyone left knowing they’d played one of the most unique courses in the world.
It takes approximately four hours to drive from Dornoch to Glasgow, where our flight awaits the following morning. Somewhere along the drive a member of our group decides we should tackle the King’s Course at Gleneagles. A parkland course, Gleneagles is the home of three courses, including a Jack Nicklaus design. However, it is the King’s Course, designed by James Braid, that is the best known.
After playing seaside links, the first hole at Gleneagles seems positively North American. A wide fairways cuts across the landscape and the green sits perched high on a hill. If you survive this one, you’ll find more of the same throughout the course, including treacherous par fours with lengths of up to 459 yards. Given its knee-high rough, some holes, like the tremendously difficult 15th, Howe o’ Hope, can leave you feeling beaten. It is worth noting that Gleneagles offers a twilight rate on its courses –in our case £70.
Getting on our flight, which will take seven hours to get us back to Toronto, our party of siblings has time to reflect on the massive amount of golf we’ve played in such a short period of time.
Of course the question turns to which was the best course. Dornoch with its amazing ocean views and equally stunning golf holes? Kingsbarns where traditional links meets the modern game? Cruden Bay with its blind shots and dramatic dunes? The Old Course with its history, the Swilcan Bridge and quirky hidden fairways?
The reality is that we couldn’t decide. However, we did come to two determinations. First, golf in Scotland, with its three-hour rounds and rock-hard fairways, is superior to its North American counterpart. And secondly, we can’t wait for a return visit.