Seeking the enduring spirit of golf in Scotland, from Old Tom Morris to David McLay Kidd (and Donald Trump)
Golfers don’t simply take a trip to Scotland to play courses there. They make a pilgrimage.
That word conveys the historic nature of the game there, the bucket-list allure.
Wrote the late James W. Finegan in “Blasted Heaths and Blessed Greens”:
“There are two principal reasons for the powerful appeal of golf in Scotland: it is the birthplace of the game and thus full of history and lore; and it is the site of so many marvelous links courses.”
Starting Sept. 2, I will be fortunate enough to play some of those courses, for the first time, traveling there with three Northwest friends and colleagues in golf journalism at the invitation and intercession of David Connor of VisitScotland.
Joining me will be the same three golfers with whom I visited Ireland and Wales last year: Former Register-Guard sports editor and columnist (and then of the Seattle Times) Blaine Newnham, one of the most respected golf writers in the Pacific Northwest, author of “America’s St. Andrews” about the construction of Chambers Bay and a friend and mentor to me throughout my career; Tom Cade, director of communications for the Pacific Northwest Golf Association and editor of Pacific Northwest Golfer Magazine, and Rob Perry, the immensely gifted photographer (and golfer) who specializes in golf courses.
Our journey will take us to the west of Scotland, Machrihanish on the North Atlantic Ocean on the southern tip of the Kintyre Peninsula, back to Ayrshire courses such as Prestwick and Turnberry on the Firth of Clyde, across to the east side of Scotland, to the vicinity of St. Andrews on the North Sea. Our itinerary does not include the Old Course; that’s a pilgrimage for another time. But we will play 10 or 11 links courses, on the ocean or sea, some courses that date from the 1800s or earlier, with the imprint of Old Tom Morris, James Braid and Willie Park:
Crail (1786), North Berwick (1832), Prestwick (1851), Elie (1875), Royal Troon (1878), Machrihanish Golf Club (1879) and Western Gailes (1897), as well as the restyled course at Turnberry, which dates to 1906 but has been revised (to great reviews after its reopening this year) under its new owner, Donald Trump.
We also hope to play a few modern courses, including Machrihanish Dunes (2009), designed by Bandon Dunes architect David McLay Kidd, plus Kingsbarns (2000) and Dundonald (2003) , the latter two designed by Californian Kyle Phillips.
Four of the courses are ranked in the top 100 in the world by Golf Digest: Trump Turnberry, 22; North Berwick, 50; Kingsbarns, 69, and Machrihanish Golf Club, 91.
Golf Magazine puts Royal Troon in the mix: Trump Turnberry, 23; Royal Troon, 49; North Berwick, 63; Kingsbarns, 65, and Machrihanish Golf Club, 93.
Finegan, the iconic golf writer who passed away last year, defined links courses thusly:
“… Laid out on the sand-based soil that serves as a buffer between the sea and the fertile stretches at a remove from the salt water.
“Over tens of thousands of years this linksland evolved as the sea gradually receded, leaving behind sandy wastes which the winds fashioned into dunes, knolls, hollows and gullies. Gradually, fertilized by the droppings of gulls, grass began to grow in the hollows.
“In time, other vegetation — gorse, heather, broom — took root, now resulting in terrain that would sustain life. First the rabbits appeared, then the foxes. Then man came along with his sheep, and the animal tracks were widened into paths. These paths began to serve as a rude kind of fairway along which the shepherd might at first have propelled a stone with his crook. The closely grazed ground acted as a putting surface on which the stone, or ball, could be rolled into a hole. And those places where the sheep huddled during nasty weather became the first bunkers. The noted course designer Sir Guy Campbell summarized the development of the earliest golf links in memorable language: ‘Nature was their architect, and beast and man her contractors.'”
My research on the golf courses we’ll visit follows this introduction. Some of the courses I only know vaguely, through my reading of the history of golf and Old Tom Morris; some I’d never heard of before, and I wanted to learn all I could and share it.
During the trip, I will be posting daily (as much as feasible) updates about each course we play (at this posting, our itinerary is still being finalized, but we start at Machrihanish Golf Club on Sept. 2), with photos. There will also be the inevitable tally of my lost golf balls (40 in 12 rounds last year in Ireland and Wales) and other misadventures (such as bouncing a shot off the car of a club member at Ballybunion) and the outcome of my daily match with Newnham, for the heady stakes of a local beer or, as we will be in Scotland, perhaps a dram of single-malt. A two part series on the trip will appear in the golf section of the Eugene Register-Guard in late-September and early October.
Thank you for reading, and for sharing my excitement in this once-in-a-lifetime trip. I know how much so many golfers, far better players than myself, would cherish this experience. I hope my stories do it justice.
The tentative itinerary:
Machrihanish Golf Club: Designed in 1879 by Old Tom Morris, the pioneering professional player whose contributions to golf came also as the greenkeeper at the Old Course at St. Andrews, introducing top-dressing the turf with sand to improve the grass.
According to “True Links: An Illustrated Guide to the Glories of the World’s 246 Links Courses” by George Peper and Malcolm Campbell: “It requires something of a commitment to reach the Mull of Kintyre on Scotland’s rugged west coast to seek out the links of the Machrihanish Golf Club, but the journey never disappoints. Here we find one of the truly great treasures of Scottish links golf, a course laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1879, who said of this linksland: “The Almighty maun hae had gowf in his e’e when he made this place.”
Morris remodeled the original 10 holes and extended the course to 18 holes. He worked for 1 pound a day plus expenses. The course has stood the test of time.
The first hole is considered the finest opening hole in Scotland (and beyond), requiring a carry across the sand and the North Atlantic Ocean to the fairway.
Writing 20 years ago, in “Blasted Heaths and Blessed Greens,” Finegan wrote: “From a tee hard by the golden strand and elevated some 10 feet above it, we play this 423-yarder on the diagonal across the Atlantic’s frothing combers to a gently rolling fairway tight along the shoreline. The problem is clearly stated: how much of Machrihanish Bay — the beach is in play — dare we bite off on this, our initial stroke of the round?”
The first at Machrihanish is cited among “The 500 World’s Best Golf Holes” by George Peper and the editors of Golf Magazine, with this note:
“The sign to beachgoers reads DANGER, FIRST TEE ABOVE. PLEASE MOVE FARTHER ALONG THE BEACH. And they do so, allowing golfers the thrill of the most tantalizing opening tee shot in the game. Bite off as much of the dogleg as you dare, but remember that the beach is in bounds. A pull or hook could result in having to hit a recovery shot alongside a villager walking his Lab.”
Finegan considered the fifth through eighth holes, all par 4s, a great stretch. “It is all there in this rough-and-tumble stretch of picturesque duneland: Elevated tees with breathtaking views across high shaggy sandhills; half-glimpsed fairways pitching and tossing at every imaginable cant or dog-legging gently around sentinel dunes; now a blind green in a hollow, now an exposed green atop a breezy shelf. … This is seaside golf at its purest and most compelling.”
In “To the Linksland,” published in 1992, Michael Bamberger wrote: “If I were allowed to play only one course for the rest of my life, Machrihanish would be the place.”
In his more recent book, “Scotland: Where Golf is Great,” published in 2006, a book of striking photos, Finegan noted that Sir Guy Campbell worked on the course after World War II, though it still contains “a few reminders” of Old Tom and J.H. Taylor.
He also noted: “By whatever yardstick — novelty, artistry, fascination, test, smoothness, pace — the Machrihanish greens rank with the very best in Britain and Ireland.”
Earlier this year, in an article on GolfAdvisor.com, noted golf architect Tom Doak (Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald) had this to say about Machrihanish Golf Club:
“One of the great links golf courses in Scotland. Near the southwestern tip of the Mull of Kintyre, a few miles on past Campbeltown, the dunes of Machrihanish are set not on some sleepy Firth: here there is nothing but the Atlantic Ocean between you and Newfoundland. The front nine, set among 30-foot dunes, is one of the most exhilarating in all of golf. Everyone who has seen the 423-yard opening hole rates it the best in the world: The tee shot plays diagonally over a broad beach to a fairway running diagonally to the left, and if you play too safely to the right you will put the green out of range for your second shot.
“The approach at the second hole might be just as memorable: you play over a burn and up a hill to a wildly undulating natural green, which Alister MacKenzie himself was sure to mention in his own book about golf course design. The third green is hidden in a hollow, but left-hand hole locations are defended by a bunker in front, so that when the wind is behind you only an extremely clever approach off the dune on the right can get close. The short fourth, from dune top to dune top, is a bit like the Postage Stamp at Royal Troon, but wider and not as deep — you’ll want the wind in your face here, to increase your chances of holding the green with a pitch. In fact, every hole is excellent out to the ninth, which plays past the landing lights of the old RAF base (a key station for American pilots throughout the Cold War).
“Of course, the back nine cannot live up to this standard, as it is further removed from the sea and the bigger dunes, but you will still enjoy the V-fold at the back of the par-5 12th green, and struggle to make par on the back-to-back one-shotters at the 15th and 16th.
“The best part of Machrihanish for me is the brilliant fine turf: untainted by the demands of high-volume visitor play, it’s the only course in Scotland that still seems just as raw and natural as the first time I was there 35 years ago. They only have a skeleton maintenance crew, but golfer traffic seems to help maintain the course. The roughs thin out where a typical missed shot might land, thanks to the feet of golfers looking for their balls, while a really wild shot meets its just reward in waist-high native rough.”
Ranked No. 91 in the world by Golf Digest, No. 93 by Golf Magazine.
Greens fees are 65 British pounds for a single round ($85) or 95 pounds (about $125) for a day pass.
Machrihanish Dunes: In 2009, or 130 years after Old Tom Morris laid out Machrihanish Golf Club, a new course was opened on adjacent land, the first new course on the west of Scotland in more than a century.
The course was designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd, who created the original course at Bandon Dunes, and whose family vacationed in these dunes when he was young.
Wrote Kidd, on his DMK Golf Design web site:
“My family had a summer home here when I was a boy, and my earliest childhood memories are of running on the broad sandy beach and hiding in the steep dunes at Machrihanish. I am thrilled to have fulfilled a personal dream to create a second course in the dunes at Machrihanish, a dream I have mused over my entire career. The genesis of golf came from such landscapes, so we took a “less is more” approach in and among these precious and fragile dunes so as not to disturb the character of the place.”
The course opened a decade after Bandon Dunes, and after Kidd had designed Tetherow in Central Oregon, and before acclaimed Gamble Sands in Washington. Machrihanish Dunes is, according to “True Links,” “an authentic replica of the links of yore.”
The course was built on “a site of special scientific interest,” the most restrictive classification of the Scottish National Heritage. According to “True Links,” that meant that only seven of the 275 acres on the site could be disturbed. “Just as in Old Tom’s time, the only choice was to follow the lay of the land, starting and stopping where the hills and dells suggested.”
Greens and tees were built by hand, fairway bunkers were expanded from naturally grassless areas, maintenance is spartan — no pesticides, no watering except tees and greens. A herd of sheep grazes the course to help keep the fescue in check.
Wrote True Links: “The course is breathtaking in its raw challenge,” with five tees and six greens on the edge of the North Atlantic and plenty of blind holes.
The course web site puts it this way:
The course “flows effortlessly to, from and along the sea, inviting you to step back in time to the days when Old Tom Morris laid out the neighboring links and Willie Campbell plotted the Machrie Golf Links on the nearby island of Islay – visible from Machrihanish Dunes. The routing, as well as the positioning of its tees and greens, was dictated by the lay of the land – and the presence of several endangered species of flora and fauna. … Only the tees and greens were shaped. The fairways upon which golfers tread are just as they were found, only mown shorter.”
“We followed the lie of the land and unlike most courses around the world, we did not lay out the course and make the land change with it, we designed each hole around the natural terrain. For maintenance we will do a little mowing, but will mostly rely on the wandering sheep to keep the fescue in check – just like the old courses used to do. We are returning golf to how it should be played; no longer is it a gentle walk in a garden, it will be a full-fledged mountaineering expedition at this course.”
Wrote Doak, earlier this year:
“Just north of Machrihanish is the new Machrihanish development, which could use a bit more golfer traffic to help players find their balls. This David McLay Kidd-designed course has been the subject of much tongue-wagging since opening. The entire course was developed on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and to get permits to build it the developers had to promise only to disturb the land at each green site. So, the fairways are full of rugged little undulations and pits, and visibility is less than ideal. In the beginning, they weren’t even allowed to mow the rough — sheep were supposed to do that, but the sheep preferred the shorter grass on the fairways, and the roughs were way too thick, with lost balls common. Now that the environmental agency has backed off a bit on restrictions for maintenance, the beauty of playing over natural ground shines through. Every golfer who gets out this way should go have a crack at Machrihanish Dunes.”
Writing in the winter 2016 edition of Links Magazine, Adam Lawrence expounded on the difficulties and the ensuing issues:
“The government’s consent allowed for little to no earthmoving and put large parts of the site off limits on environmental grounds. As a result, Kidd’s design, laid out over the natural contours, included more blindness than most golfers had seen in a lifetime, wild greens and some very long walks between holes. It was beautiful, with much to recommend it, but it could not be called a comfortable round. Many of the earlier visitors left saying ‘never again.’
“Time is a great healer. The course managers and the environmentalists have forged a new, more collaborative relationship, leading to extensive changes. Kidd’s father, Jimmy, a noted greenkeeper who has a house in the area, has overseen the building of several new greens, while fairways have been widened and the rough thinned. It’s still a long walk, but the Dunes is starting to mature in a way that a course built 100 years ago would, with its faults ironed out as they are revealed.”
Greens fees are 95 British pounds for a day pass (about $125), or 75 pounds for a single round (or about $99). Caddie fees are 40 pounds per bag ($52), plus tip, which is expected.
Dundonald Links: This is a relatively new course, opened only in 2003 and designed by Kyle Phillips, who received very favorable reviews and world rankings for his design of another Scotland course, Kingsbarns, near St. Andrews. As with Kingsbarns, which opened in 2000, Phillips created a course that appears to have existed for more than 100 years.
“My intention was to create a championship Ayrshire links that felt and played as though it was an old, rediscovered course,” Phillips said.
Owned by Loch Lomond Golf Club, Dundonald Links is located in Irvine, Ayrshire, on the same historic rail line that links Royal Troon, Prestwick and Western Gailes — it is just a few miles from Royal Troon and Prestwick, and across the tracks from Western Gailes.
According to “True Links”:
“Once again bringing the earthmover into play, (Phillips) routed his holes with masterly style through low-lying dunes, while bringing a serpentine burn into play on several shots. He also created a major dune of his own to hide a neighboring paper factory.
“The par 3s are particularly strong. On the 6th, you play to a raised, rolling green with bunkers front and back and a menacing burn tight to the left. The 11th has been compared to Troon’s famed Postage Stamp hole — it’s just 125 yards but lies totally exposed to the wind, with three deep front bunkers that attract just as many balls as the putting surface.”
The course has hosted pre-qualifying for the European Tour, the 2015 Ladies Scottish Open and the Senior British Open Championship and will host the Scottish Open in 2017.
It is with an eye toward the Scottish Open and other future tournaments that the club’s owners devised plans for a structural overhaul which included the construction of a new clubhouse, scheduled for completion at the end of this year. Meanwhile, under Phillips’ direction, several of the greens have been increased in size and three of the putting surfaces have been leveled in selected areas to soften their contours, thereby providing organizers with more pin options when setting up for tournament play.
Prestwick Golf Club: Founded in 1851, laid out and cared for by Old Tom Morris, the birthplace of the Open Championship — known in the United States as the British Open — Prestwick is venerable beyond words.
Prestwick is located southwest of Glasgow, in the region called Ayrshire, across the Firth of Clyde from the Mull of Kintyre, on the same coastline as Turnberry, Western Gailes and Royal Troon.
Morris laid out the first 12 holes and, in 1882, also designed the final six, though by then Morris, after 13 years at Prestwick, was back at St. Andrews.
As recounted in “True Links”: “So proud did the Prestwickers become of their course that in 1860 they invited the best players in the land to come and compete for a prize. Thus was born the Open Championship. Prestwick went on to host the first 12 editions, and Old Tom won four of them.”
Morris’ son, Young Tom Morris, won three of his four Open championships at Prestwick, where winners included John Ball, Harry Vardon and James Braid.
Continued “True Links”: “Prestwick is one of golf’s most revered clubs, and its course is not only a monument to the earliest days of the organized game but also a remarkable links of the very purest quality. The crumpled landscape had been in use as a golf course before Old Tom Morris was lured away from St. Andrews to design the 12-hole layout and become keeper of the green. …
“The original 12-hole course over which Willie Park won the first Open was extended in 1882 to bring it in line with the new standard of 18 set by St. Andrews.”
(Prestwick hosted the Open 24 times, last in 1925, but lack of space around the course made it difficult to manage crowds, the Prestwick was dropped from the Open rotation.)
In “Blasted Heaths and Blessed Greens,” Finegan wrote: “Prestwick has it all; towering sandhills, fairways straight out of a moonscape, hidden greens cunningly defended by humps and hollows, two of the world’s most storied blind holes, one of the world’s three or four most spectacular sand bunkers, fairways and greens of true seaside turf, and, withal, a handful of golf holes that, by any standard, are superlative. … Prestwick, so little changed over more than a century, may indeed be a monument to the era of the gutta percha ball. But it is no tombstone. The golf here continued to be gloriously vital.”
At Prestwick, golfers find one of the most imposing opening holes in golf, named “Railway” because beyond the stone wall on the right side of the fairway are the tracks for the Glasgow-Ayrshire train.
In the 2000 edition of “The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes,” by George Peper and the editors of Golf Magazine, No. 1 at Prestwick is listed:
“On the scorecard, this looks to be a benign hole. But a card cannot convey the nervousness that golfers feel on this, the Railway hole. At this first shot of the round, the dire consequences of a hooked or sliced tee shot are enough to make the mouth run dry. To the left are rough-covered mounds, to the right the tracks of the Glasgow-to-Ayr rail line. On the assumption that the tee shot will land safely, the approach is played to a small green directly behind a tall bunker.”
At Prestwick, golfers soon find the Cardinal Bunker, 10 to 12 feet deep, stretching from one side of the third fairway to the other, reinforced by railroad ties, where the great James Braid took an 8 in 1908 and of which Harry Vardon said: “An ugly brute that gives a sickening feeling to the man who is off his game.” The par 5 hole is also listed among the top 500 in the world, according to Peper:
“‘The Cardinal’ hole was only 436 yards in 1887, stretched to 505 for the 1987 British Amateur but plays today at 482. They finally got it just right. With the Cardinal bunker looming in the distance, this hole does not need extra length to be a challenge. It’s no wonder that, according to the club’s records, no one has holed out for a double eagle in the long, long history of this hole.”
The fourth hole, Finegan wrote, is believed to have introduced the principle of the dogleg. The fifth, called Himalayas, is another legendary hole, a par 3 with a blind tee shot over a 25-foot sand hill. The 17th, considered the most famous hole at Prestwick, is a par 4 called “The Alps.”
Wrote Finegan, in “Scotland: Where Golf is Great,” “You have not played golf in Scotland unless you have played this great and inimitable course.”
Greens fees are 165 British pounds, or $217, for a single round, and 225 pounds, or just under $300, for a day pass.
Trump Turnberry (Turnberry Ailsa): In 2014, billionaire Donald Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, purchased the historic hotel, spa and three golf courses at Turnberry resort, including the famed Ailsa course, site of four Open Championships, including the famous Duel in the Sun in which Tom Watson bested Jack Nicklaus in 1977.
It was on the 15th hole, a 209-yard par three rated among the top 500 holes in the world, that Watson holed a 60-foot birdie putt from the light greenside rough to pull even with Nicklaus en route to the trophy.
The Ailsa course reopened in June after an extensive redesign by architect Martin Ebert as Trump sought to keep Turnberry in the rotation for the Open Championship. Trump’s youngest son, Eric, oversaw the redesign of the Ailsa course.
Early reviews suggest that the renovation of the Ailsa course is amazing.
Wrote Geoff Shackelford for Golf Digest:
“Check your politics at the door and set aside your feelings for the man. Please, please try to have an open mind about Turnberry.
“Or, as it is has been known since 2014 when the Republican nominee for president purchased Ayrshire’s legendary resort, Trump Turnberry.
“As Donald Trump has set sight on the White House, a prominent part of his life prior and during the run has been a revitalization of this historic resort. There is a reason he left the campaign trail to christen the re-opening: Turnberry has been a labor of love and a significant capital investment.
“Turnberry is a marvel in every way. The resort has become one of the world’s elite again, the stuff dreamers a century ago hoped for in putting a five-star hotel on a hill overlooking a links and majestic lighthouse. ….
“Golf architect Martin Ebert began his redesign of the Ailsa course last fall and an entirely re-imagined links opened when Trump visited June 24th (members had actually gotten on the course earlier). While always a beautiful setting thanks to the Ailsa Craig, the Firth of Clyde and the resort’s own majestic lighthouse, the old Turnberry featured several uninspired holes and — despite being home to four of the Open Championship’s most memorable finishes — a bland back nine.
“Turnberry has reopened with almost no weak moments, improved views of the Firth, restoration of ancient-looking fringed bunkering and an abundance of thrilling shot-making opportunities. Furthermore, Turnberry’s dramatically revamped 9th, 10th, and 11th holes are comparable to the best trifectas in golf: Pebble Beach (7th-8th-9th), Cypress Point (15th-16th-17th) or Augusta National (11th-12th-13th). …
“Here is what Turnberry is not: A traditional, lay of the land, or lovably quirky links. The course, which has been through many iterations in between its use as an air base in times of war, has always been fairly straightforward, a fine examination of many shots with beautiful views.
“Ebert and the Trumps set out to improve all of the holes, but their primary purpose was to take better advantage of a seaside setting that was largely missed. After the first three holes play over rolling linksland with improved aesthetics, the first ah-ha moment comes at the par-3 4th hole set beside the Firth and featuring an exposed sandy area providing much needed texture and memorability.”
The championship Ailsa course and its sister course, the Arran, both date from the early 20th century. Both courses were transformed into a Royal Naval Air station during World War II, and after the war architect Mackenzie Ross restored and remodeled the Ailsa course, so successfully that writing in 1996, Finegan rated it one of the four best in Scotland, along with the Old Course, Muirfield and Royal Dornoch.
Consider that before the Trump/Ebert makeover, Turnberry already had three holes rated among the 500 best in the world:
The par 3 No. 15; the then-par 4 No. 9, and the par 4 No. 16 ,called “Wee Burn” with steep banks leading down to the stream.
Fascinating, then, that Turnberry Ailsa has just undergone a makeover. According to the course web site:
“All 18 holes have seen changes made with huge areas of turf moved between the various holes to complete the refurbishment.
“The first hole has been lengthened at both the tee and the green and at the same time creating a wider landing area. The fourth hole enjoys a new tee located close to the sea with the green moved further on and edged towards the coastline. This hole starts an incredible eight-hole coastal stretch that will prove to be unrivaled in the golfing world.
“The fifth hole as been lengthened to become a par 5 for general play. The green has been moved back into the wonderfully natural site of the valley behind the old green, creating a great amphitheater for spectators. The sixth hole becomes a much shorter par 3 demanding accuracy played from the dune bank high above the beach to a green perched atop a natural dune.
“The ninth hole has been turned into an awe-inspiring par three playing across the bay, giving golfers the thrill of launching a tee shot across the water. The 10th hole has been transformed to become one of the world’s best par fives. The hole will arc its way around the bay posing questions to the golfer for all of the shots. The green has been taken back to the old No. 11 tee with the rocks and ocean lying immediately behind.
“The 11th hole is a tremendous new par 3 hole played across a series of rocky inlets giving it a really intimate character. The 14th is also a new hole, this time a par 5, with spectacular 180 degree sea views and the magnificent Turnberry lighthouse as a focal point. Finally, No. 18 gives the course the finish it deserves. The championship tee has been taken back to the dune ridge above the beach, producing a straight par 4 with the iconic hotel as a focus beyond the green.”
In an interview by Joe Passov in the October 2015 issue of Golf Magazine, Donald Trump said this of Turnberry:
“Turnberry is many people’s favorite course in the world. It was always one of my favorites. So you have to be gentle when you have a treasure like this. It’s had some of the best Open Championships in history. …
“The R&A loves and cherishes Turnberry. The first thing I did when I was lucky enough to buy Turnberry was to call Peter Dawson and the R&A. I said, ‘What would you like to do?’
“They’d been wanting to make changes for decades. They strongly recommended architect Martin Ebert, who’s been working with Turnberry for years. He’s terrific. Every time Gary Player would play a Championship there he would say — ‘Why isn’t the ninth hole a par 3?’ I mean, it was so obvious that it should be a par 3.”
Now it is.
Ranked No. 22 in the world by Golf Digest, No. 23 by Golf Magazine.
Greens fees are 195 British pounds ($256) Monday through Friday, and 210 pounds ($276) on weekends.
Western Gailes Golf Club: On a 12-mile stretch of Ayrshire coastline, along the Firth of Clyde, between Irvine and Prestwick, reside 14 true links golf courses, most notably Royal Troon, Trump Turnberry and Prestwick.
And also Western Gailes, founded in 1897 by four golfers from Glasgow, who leased land between the firth and the Glasgow and Southwestern Railway line. Wrote Finegan in “Scotland: Where Golf is Great”:
“For the habitual slicer its entirely possible to bend northbound drives onto the railway tracks and southbound drives onto the beach. And for all of us tackling this great and classic links, there are dunes and heather and gorse and long, spiky marram grass.”
Finegan said that the first 13 holes “are routed over what can fairly be called perfect linksland for golf: undulating, full of hillocks and hummocks and hollows, rising here, tumbling there, the greens strikingly sited, the fairways uncomfortably narrow at times but always neatly defined by the low dunes and the wild grasses and the heather.”
In “The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes,” the 562-yard par 5 No. 15 hole was listed. Wrote Peper:
“Western Gailes was laid out on a narrow stretch of dunesland squeezed between the Ayrshire railway and the sea. After the last of the seaside holes, the 14th marks the inland return to the clubhouse, with commuter trains often whizzing by to the right. Often played downwind, it provides a big temptation for big hitters, but 10 bunkers spread out through the final third of the hole’s length often encourages a more prudent play.”
Over the years, Western Gailes has hosted the Curtis Cup, the Scottish Amateur and Scottish PGA championships, the British Seniors and both the British and Scottish Boys’ Championships and has been a qualifying site for the Open Championship.
As stated in “True Links”:
“Renowned for its narrow fairways fringed with heather and gorse and for the purity of its putting surfaces, Western Gailes is a links without weakness. … the eminent Scottish golf writer Sam McKinley (described) Western Gailes as ‘full of golfing goodness.'”
Weekday greens fees are 150 British pounds ($197) for 18 holes and 195 pounds ($256) for 36.
Royal Troon Golf Club: There is pilgrimage, and there is also sacrilege, and to play this course, with my game, in the same year as the Open Championship, and that for-the-ages final-day performance by Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson, well. …
But off we go to Troon, an iconic course, part of the Open Championship rotation, which it has hosted nine times.
The club was founded in 1878, but golf had been played there since at least 1870; Prestwick’s Charles Hunter laid out the first five holes, and 1883 Open champion Willie Fernie, in 1900, lengthened the course to 18. Over the years, James Braid, Alister MacKenzie and Frank Pennick also worked on the course.
Wrote Finegan in “Scotland: Where Golf is Great”:
“Troon is as classic an example of links golf as is to be found: an out-and-back in design with rumpled fairways, grass-covered sand hills, punishing rough, gorse, and remorseless revetted bunkering.”
Ranked No. 49 in the world by Golf Magazine, Troon features one of the most famous holes in the world, a Top 500 selection, the 123-yard No. 8 hole, known as the “Postage Stamp,” guarded by the penal Coffin Bunker. As noted in the Top 500:
“With its green measuring just 25 feet in width, its small size and the invisible wind are the Postage Stamp’s strongest defenses.”
As recounted in “True Links”:
“As Henry Leach succinctly observed, (the hole is) as full of wickedness as it is of beauty.’ Among its most famous victims was the German amateur Herman Tissies, who had only one putt on his way to a 15 in the 1950 open. The poor fellow had five shots from the bunker on the left, another five from the bunker on the right, and three to escape the original bunker for a second time.”
By contrast, Gene Sarazen had a hole-in-one here in the 1973 Open.
Also cited in the Top 500 is the lengthy No. 11 hole, a long par 4 requiring a 185-yard carry over gorse and called the Railway Hole because it is so close to the tracks that the trains need reinforced glass to protect against errant shots, and where Jack Nicklaus took a 10 in the 1962 Open, and the No. 6 hole, a 577-yard par 5 where, in the 1982 Open, Bobby Clampett, leading in the third round, found the bunker short and left of the green and made a triple-bogey 8.
The Postage Stamp hole and the Railway Hole did not exist in their current form until 1909, and the former was originally called Ailsa, after the island Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde. The Coffin Bunker was installed in 1922, to prevent golfers from landing shots on the side dune and rolling them on the green.
As Royal Troon golf historian Douglas McCreath told the New York Times before this year’s Open: “It’s quite amazing that these two holes from 1909 still feature as iconic holes in the year 2016.”
All that being said, Royal Troon has its critics.
Wrote Bamberger in Sports Illustrated:
“Poor Troon, named for a wee town on the west coast of Scotland, hard by a heaving sea called the Firth of Clyde. Beyond that 8th hole, the course is just not that memorable. It is fair (few blind shots), hard (literally), windswept (most every afternoon) and penal (beware the gorse). … Over the years, Troon has barely changed.”
Finegan also voiced misgivings:
“Troon is too frequently dull. The first six holes, more or less level, march straight out. The last six holes, also more or less level, march straight in. Despite the necessary differences in length … the holes are too much of a piece. There’s a sameness about them that borders on monotony. Understand they are challenging, rigorously so more often than not. But exhilaration is hard to come by.
“As for the middle six, ah, they are another matter altogether. Here we find originality, character, drama. In a couple of instances, they are unnerving simply to look at. But even more to the point they are a delight to play.”
Colin Montgomerie, whose father was club secretary from 1987 to 1997, was quoted by Finegan as saying that “Royal Troon is more difficult than good.”
Green fees are 220 British pounds (about $290) and the course is available Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
The Golf House Club, Elie: There is much unique and quaint about this golf course, including the name. Golf, in some form, has been played on this linksland since the 1600s. The Golf House Club was established in May 1875 and takes its name from the golf house, or clubhouse, that was begun in the same year and completed in 1877, and was thus named to distinguish it from two other clubs that played on the same course, but hadn’t built the clubhouse.
The clubhouse (which has been upgraded) still pays tribute to the past, including wooden lockers and a war memorial that hangs in the clubhouse in respect of the members lost during both the First and Second World Wars.
Also quaint is the starter’s hut, which features a submarine periscope, called Excalibur, that enables the starter to see over the hill that rises in front of the first tee, to ensure that the group ahead is out of range.
More history? The course, on the coast of the Firth of Forth on the east side of Scotland, north of Edinburgh, was laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1895, with revisions by James Braid (who won the Open Championship five times and was reared in Elie) in the 1920s. The course, with a par of 70, has no par 5s, and only two par 3s.
Finegan in “Scotland: Where Golf is Great”:
“On the face of it, Elie ought to be a bore. It emphatically is not. Its 16 two-shotters range from 252 to 466 yards, they run to every point of the compass, the wind is frustratingly fickle and blind shots pop up with bewildering frequency. What’s more, the greens are full of fun, the bunkers are full of woe, and the topography overall is remarkably varied.”
Braid called the 13th hole, 386 yards with a green 190 feet wide, “the finest hole in all the country.” The hole is rated among the best in the world in “The 500 World’s Best Golf Holes” with this note:
“The hole winds its way along the shores of the Firth of Forth, with Macduff’s cave visible in a distant cliff. Though the green is large, the ever-present winds make the second shot the most difficult on the course.”
(Tradition has it that Macduff hid in the cave while escaping from Macbeth.)
Greens fees are 77 British pounds ($100) for 18-hole rounds on weekdays, or 97 pounds ($126) for a day pass; weekend rates are 88 pounds ($115) for 18 holes, and 108 pounds ($141) for a day pass.
Kingsbarns Golf Links: In a country where golf is so much a part of history, Kingsbarns, located seven miles from St. Andrews along 1.8 miles of North Sea coastline, seeks to make its own history.
In a place where courses date to the 1800s and early 1900s, Kingsbarns, like Machrihanish Dunes and Dundonald, is a newcomer, having opened in 2000, designed and built by two Californians, architect Kyle Phillips and developer Mark Parsinen, in a project that resembles what Robert Trent Jones Jr. did with an old gravel quarry at Chambers Bay. Wrote Finegan in “Scotland, Where Golf Is Great”:
“What they accomplished here is pure magic. They took 190 acres of what had been pasture and crop lands (wheat, beets, corn) along the sea and created, out of whole cloth, a magnificent and sublimely natural-looking links course. This was legerdemain on the grandest scale, with dunes of various shapes and sizes, crumpled fairways, a plethora of humps, hillocks and hollows, cunning little rough-cloaked mesas and promontories, and spirited greens that are a clear by-product of the immediately surrounding terrain. But this links is entirely manufactured. Nature had essentially no hand in it, except to provide the entrancing seaside setting with the surf surging against the rocky foreshore. Yet even the most experienced observer would swear that it is authentic, its contours surely the result of the receding seas and the persistent winds over tens of thousands of years.
“Not so. It was excavators, dumpers, bulldozers and backhoes.”
With firm and fast fairways, Finegan noted, Kingsbarns features the opportunity for run-up shot, and plays shorter than the posted distances, though “the ball is inclined to be less obedient than we might wish.” He continued:
“Kingsbarns is inordinately rich, complex, full of feature and of shot-making options. This is one of the two best courses (Loch Lomond is the other one) to open in Scotland since Turnberry was rebuilt after the Second World War. From start to finish it is a triumph of study and creativity, of artistry and daring and challenge and beauty and, yes, of money over nature. It is links golf of the highest order, deserved to be ranked among the top 15 courses in the British Isles and among the top 50 in the world. Could this breathtaking faux links be the single most extraordinary achievement in the history of golf course construction? Or should it be viewed as one of a triumvirate, the other two in this rarefied air being Pete Dye’s Whistling Straits and Tom Fazio’s Shadow Creek?”
“True Links” tells a similar story:
“Golf was played here as early as the 18th century, but more than 130 years had passed since the last shot was struck when American developer Mark Parsinen joined forces with his countryman architect Kyle Phillips to create a modern links masterpiece.
“And create is the operative word. More than any links that preceded it, Kingsbarn is man-made. … Parsinen and Phillips spent months visiting the great links courses, taking photos and making notes, and then they applied what they’d learned, transforming farmland into linksland. Where sand did not exist, they trucked it in; where the terrain was flat they used bulldozers to sculpt knolls and recesses, moving mountains to create a terraced amphitheater of a course that looks as if it’s been in place for centuries. …
“Kingsbarns proved to the world of golf that in the 21st century a genuine links can be manufactured as long as the geology, geography and climate allow.”
Kingsbarns co-hosts the annual European Tour’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship together with the Old Course at St Andrews and Carnoustie Golf Links. In 2017 The Ricoh Women’s British Open will be contested at Kingsbarns.
Ranked No. 65 in the world by Golf Magazine, No. 69 by Golf Digest.
Greens fees are 234 British pounds (about $300).
Crail Golfing Society: There are two courses at Crail, in the area known as the East Neuk: the Balcomie Links, where golf dates to the 1850s and where Old Tom Morris laid out the course in 1895, and the championship Craighead Links, which was designed by Gil Hanse (whose courses include the newly opened course for the Rio Olympics) and which opened in 1998.
The Crail Golfing Society itself was founded in 1786, making it the seventh-oldest golf club in the world. According to Finegan in “Scotland: Where Golf is Great”:
“Crail golfers made a lasting contribution to the art of greenkeeping in 1874, when its committee agreed that ‘iron cases be got for the eight holes on the links to prevent the holes from being destroyed.’ There exists no earlier record at any course of the insertion of metal cups into the holes.
“It was Old Tom Morris who laid out a proper nine-hole course at Balcomie in 1895; four years later he added a second nine. Though there have been changes over time, the Balcomie 18 today is largely the one laid out more than a century ago. Golfers come from all over the world to play Balcomie — it is almost a point of pilgrimage — for several reasons: its age, its quirky charms, and its attribution to Old Tom alone.”
Relatively short — yardage less than 6,000, with a par of 69 — the Balcomie course begins with a first tee on high ground, much of the course laid out for the golfer below. Wrote Finegan:
“Balcomie’s appeal lies principally in the surprising diversity of shots called for, many of them requiring skill at the ground game and virtually every one of them executed within sight of the sea. The very walk over the rolling, sometimes hilly, terrain is a treat, so enthralling are the views. Simply to be out on Balcomie is a cause for rejoicing.”
In fact, the course features three par 5s, 6 par 3s, and 9 par 4s, a certainly unusual combination. According to the course web site:
“Not content with a devilishly testing layout, Old Tom designed the course in such a way as to take maximum advantage of its exhilarating seaside location. Shots over rocky bays, long par threes with greens perched on top of vertical cliffs, shots to greens seemingly engulfed by gorse, curving par fours round sandy strands — daring the golfer to cut off too much, shots from cliff tops to greens and fairways invitingly laid out below: all these and more make up the Balcomie experience.
“The many memorable holes include the first, which sets the tone for the enjoyment to come with an opening drive from the cliff top to the welcoming fairway below. This is followed by a pitch over a bunker and a turf wall to a blind green with bunkers either side, and a burn beyond. The ferociously challenging fifth, a 447 yard par four, is appropriately named Hell’s hole, a name approved by Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance, who added that it was probably the hardest par four in Scotland. It provides the golfer with the classic dilemma of risk and reward: succeed in cutting off much of the out-of-bounds rocky bay on the right and the green is in reach, or play safe and accept that a third shot to the green is inevitable.
“With the wind a constant and ever-changing feature, the challenge is enhanced at many of the holes, but perhaps none more so than at the extraordinary 13th. A longish par three at 210 yards, it is played up and over a vertical cliff to an invisible, viciously sloping green and, more often than not, the wind is an added hindrance. This supremely challenging hole was made famous in Michael Murphy’s seminal book ‘Golf in the Kingdom’. It is followed by another par three which is one of Scottish golf’s most scenic holes. The 14th is played from the top of the cliff to a green far below surrounded by bunkers, with an out-of-bounds beach to the right and fronted by an enormous sleeper-faced bunker. The golfer’s difficulty at this hole is to pause long enough from admiring the view to concentrate on the demanding short iron shot that is required.”
In building Craighead Links, Finegan wrote, “in order to produce a genuinely natural course, Hanse moved little earth, accepting the gently sloping terrain as he found it. The 18 is laid out high above the sea. …”
The course, with a par of 71 and playing 5,400 yards to 6,725 yards, features windy conditions, rough and difficult green complexes; noted Finegan, “half a dozen of them … are among the least receptive greens you will ever play to.”
(According to the Crail web site: “The greenkeeping staff take regular stimpmeter readings on both Balcomie and Craighead to ensure that the greens are maintained at a speed of between 7 and 9. Any faster and they become unplayable in the high winds we regularly experience.”)
Weekday green fees are 67 British pounds (just under $90) for 18 holes, and 92 pounds (about $120) for a day pass; weekend rates are 82 pounds (about $110) for 18 holes, and 112 pounds ($145) for a day pass.
North Berwick Golf Club (West Links): This is the third-oldest golf course in the world still playing over its original links; the only two older are the Old Course at St. Andrews and Musselburgh.
As recounted in “True Links”:
“The famous West Links at North Berwick is a relic of the earliest days of golf on the east coast of Scotland. It’s the classic example of the sea receding from the land and leaving in its wake sandy wastes broken and divided by channels into which the tides ebbed and flowed and where, over the centuries, a new ecology developed. These links, on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, belong to what Sir Guy Campbell described as the ‘Primitive Age’ of golf, that period from the very beginning of the game up to the arrival of the gutta percha ball in 1848. …
“The North Berwick Golf Club was founded in 1832, making it one of the oldest, and its course remains one of the most remarkable. A classic and ancient links, it has the additional elements of blind shots, great ridges across fairways, and even walls that have to be played over.
“It is home to one of the most famous holes in golf: The 15th, known as the Redan, a long par 3 played to a plateau green set at an angle to the line of play, and guarded by a deep bunker in the front left. It is a classic one-shotter that has been copied, or used as an inspiration, many times.”
In “The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes,” No. 15 was was listed, with this note:
“Generally regarded as the most copied hole in the world, North Berwick’s Redan was perhaps the first the present a specific formula of defense against a player making par. The green is set at a 45-degree angle, with the back left angled away and set behind a deep bunker. Except for the bunker, its elements of defense are largely invisible from the tee and are obscured by a ridge about 40 yards short of the green.”
Also listed in the top 500, the par 4 No. 7 hole, listed at 354 yards:
“Though not long, the seventh is one of those holes that ends up playing much tougher than it appears when glancing at the scorecard. The snaking Eil Burn crosses the fairway just short of the green, making what should be a routine approach anything but. Take too little club and the prevailing wind will knock the ball down and into the wee stream. Overcompensate with too much club and face a tricky pitch from the high grass.”
And also in the top 500 is the par 5 No. 9 hole, listed at 510 yards:
“North Berwick is synonymous with the famous Redan hole, but the ninth actually presents the most demanding tee shot on the layout. An out-of-bounds wall bordering the left side of this dogleg-left fairway discourages trying to cut too much off the corner. Some players balk at this and other quirks in the layout, but without them the course would lose much of its charm and unpredictability.”
Wrote Finegan in “Scotland: Where Golf is Great”:
“The combination of authentic links golf, inarguably great holes and ravishing sea views — Bass Rock, the islets of Fidra, the Lamb and Craigleith, and the coast of Fife — makes the game here a joyous occasion every step of the way. …
“David Strath, a St. Andrean, accepted the greenkeeper job here in 1876. In less than three years he formalized the course, extended it from nine to 18 holes, and so thoroughly revised the 14th (Perfection) and 15th (Redan) that these holes gained worldwide renown. In years to come, first Tom Dunn and then Sir Guy Campbell would make limited revisions, but for well over a hundred years the best holes have been very little changed. Like Prestwick, the West Links is, if you will, a museum of the game, taking us back to the latter half of the 19th century.
“For pure golfing pleasure — a pleasure bred of diversity, challenge, unpredictability, proximity to the sea, and the satisfaction of true links shot-making — few courses can equal North Berwick’s West Links. Is it a candidate for the one course to play, day in and day out, for the rest of your life? Oh my, yes.”
The current head professional at North Berwick, Martyn Huish, was appointed in 2009, taking over from his father David after 20 years as assistant; David Huish held the job as head professional for 42 years, from 1967 through his retirement.
Ranked No. 60 in the world by Golf Digest, No. 63 by Golf Magazine.
Greens fees are 105 British pounds (just under $140) for 18 holes Sunday through Friday (the course is members-only on Saturdays) and 150 pounds (just under $200) for a weekday day pass.