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As the birthplace of golf, Scotland provides challenges to suit all players. Vic Robbie, editor of Golf & Travel, recommends the best courses
Imagine a fine summer’s day, the turf lush beneath your feet. A breeze accentuates the purity of the air. The mountains provide an impressive backdrop to the abundant purple heather and yellow gorse that peppers the course. Everything around you is steeped in history: you are walking in the footsteps of the greats who made golf the game it is today. This is Scotland, the undeniable home of golf.
Scotland is where the history of the game was written, where the first great players competed, where the equipment we use today was fashioned and, most important of all, where great golf courses were laid down by Scottish architects.
Mention Scotland and you think of links golf, golf at its most interesting and challenging. Links courses have evolved on sandy coastal strips that centuries ago were nestled in the sea beds. Here, nature is the architect, the course being fashioned out of the terrain rather than by artificial design.
Here, golf is the people’s game. And there are more than 500 courses, so everyone from the lone golfer to corporate groups, from first timers to seasoned pros, is catered for. They range from humble hidden gems to five-star golf resorts. Be it St Andrews, where you can almost see the ghosts of the past marching down the undulating fairways; Prestwick, birthplace of the Open Championship; or the great Open courses of Muirfield, Turnberry, Carnoustie and Royal Troon, Royal Dornoch, Gleneagles and Loch Lomond, there’s no finer country in which to play golf.
Fife is where it all started, and right at its heart is the ‘auld grey toon’ of St Andrews. To tread the turf of St Andrews, where shepherds played their own form of golf in the 13th century, is a marvellous experience. More than 600 years on, the simple track that evolved through the area’s whin bushes has developed into six golf courses: the world-famous Old Course and sister courses the New, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum and Balgove, all of which are run by the St Andrews Links Trust. Hazards such as The Beardies, Hell Bunker and the Valley of Sin will stretch your golfing ability.
The Old Course Hotel – on the course’s most famous hole, the 17th Road Hole – makes an ideal base for a group wanting to experience the myriad of golfing experiences the town has to offer. St Andrews offers an interesting mix of old and new. In recent years, four stunning courses have added to the variety of this golfing centre: Kingbarns, the Torrance and Devlin courses at the Fairmont St Andrews Hotel overlooking the town, as well as the Duke’s, a classic inland course.
The outstanding Kingsbarns course is a challenging links running 1.5 miles along scenic coastline and extending to 7,126 yards from the championship tees. Sir Michael Bonallack, former secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, says of it: ‘Mere words cannot convey just how extraordinary Kingsbarns is. Once seen, it will never be forgotten.’
The eastern region also boasts a course that, from the championship tees at 7,361 yards, is regarded by many as the toughest links course in the world. Carnoustie, the venue for the 2007 Open Championship, once reduced Spain’s Sergio Garcia to tears. Even from the club’s medal tees – 6,941 yards – it is still formidable.
There are a host of good alternative courses in the region, but two that are definitely worth playing are Lundin, a links with four holes more akin to parkland, and the quirky nine-hole Anstruther, which is set in a picturesque fishing village in the East Neuk of Fife, just half an hour’s drive from St Andrews.
Vibrant and cosmopolitan, Edinburgh is home to a wide range of hotels and attractions, making it a perfect destination for corporate golf groups. There are more than 20 courses in the capital and numerous outstanding courses to the south. Just 20 miles from Edinburgh in Gullane is Muirfield, which was designed in 1891 by Old Tom Morris. It is a regular Open Championship venue and regarded as one of the world’s best.
From the medal tees, the course is a demanding 6,601-yard par 70. Although the thick, rough and cavernous bunkers, of which there are 151, can make it a severe test, it is a course that evokes respect from all who have tangled with it. Henry Cotton called it ‘cruelly fair’ and Jack Nicklaus was so taken with this links that he named his golf complex in Ohio after it – the Muirfield Village.
Nearby, Gullane Golf Club offers three superb links courses that are open all year round. Course No1 is the toughest at 6,466 yards, especially when the wind gets up, but the other two are certainly no pushovers.
When in the area, visit Musselburgh Links, The Old Golf Course. To some, the course is just a 2,808-yard, nine-hole links encircled by a racecourse. But to others, it is regarded as the first proper golf course in the world and it is believed that Mary Queen of Scots herself played there in 1567.
You can find out for yourself what challenges they faced: Musselburgh, which hosted the Open Championship on six occasions between 1874 and 1889, hires out hickory-shafted clubs and gutta percha balls.
Set in more than 200 acres of parkland, The Roxburghe is a long championship course at 7,111 yards. It surrounds The Roxburghe Hotel, a Jacobean-style mansion built in 1853 that once played host to Bonnie Prince Charlie. Hilly in parts, and featuring 80 bunkers and lakes, you do not have to display an impressive handicap to play on this course. Its owner, the Duke of Roxburghe, explains: ‘Golfers are free to play from whichever set of tees they choose. I want them to enjoy themselves.’
If you’re looking for a different golfing experience, move inland, where the courses change from the traditional links. A must-see is the magnificent Gleneagles, renowned for its five-star hotel and excellent golfing centre, which will host the Ryder Cup in 2014.
Gleneagles offers three undulating, moorland championship courses – the inspiration of five times Open champion James Braid (the King’s and Queen’s courses) and Jack Nicklaus (the PGA Centenary Course). They are surrounded by the stunning Grampian mountains, the Trossachs and the Ochil Hills.
The PGA Centenary, an American-style championship course, measures a whopping 7,288 yards, but with five tees at each hole, it’s a fair test for all abilities. Fittingly, the PGA begins by playing south-east towards the famed glen of the eagles, sweeping up the Ochil Hills to the summit of the pass below Ben Shee. The King’s Course is one of the most dazzling in Scotland, while the equally challenging Queen’s is beautiful as it threads through high ridges and woodland, presenting lochans (small lakes) as water hazards.
Crieff is a superb example of a parkland course. At first sight, it seems a sporting course, not too testing and with reasonably wide fairways but no heavy rough – there is always the chance of a shot no matter how wayward. But it can be deceptive. Although delightful on a summer’s day, when the wind gets up and the rains set in, Crieff can be the epitome of grief.
Also worth a visit is Blairgowrie, two wooded heathland courses with pines, silver birch, gorse, broom and heather.
Courses such as Royal Dornoch, Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay and newcomer Spey Valley at Aviemore are spectacular for both golf and scenery. Better still, they are relatively uncrowded.
Golf was first played at Royal Dornoch in 1616 and this outstanding links course encapsulates everything a golfer seeks: beautiful setting, a tough but fair test of skill, and fast, tricky greens. Set on the banks of the Dornoch Firth, it is not a long course at 6,514 yards, but you have to think your way around the bunkers, sandhills, hummocks, knolls and swales, and the inverted saucer-like greens are extremely testing.
Spey Valley is a welcome newcomer at the Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort. Running along the banks of the River Spey, with heather-lined fairways and the Cairngorms as a backdrop, the 7,153-yard course is a tough challenge but can be played from the forward tees at 5,950 yards. Ideal for a golfing party, it is situated in the heart of whisky country.
In the Grampian region, Cruden Bay wends between towering dunes and knee-high roughs and is one of the finest examples of a traditional Scottish links course. If that’s not enough to give you a nightmare, then the brooding presence of the ruins of Slains Castle might. They dominate the first three holes and were reportedly the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel.
Royal Aberdeen, founded in 1780 is the sixth-oldest golf club in the world. The Balgownie Links is a challenging championship course set among hill, sand and sea. But it is not for the faint-hearted: if you are a competent player, be prepared for a real test of your ability. If not, make sure you bring plenty of balls.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Summer 2007.