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Issue 1 - Missing Links

Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002

 

This article is 15 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Missing Links

The game of Kings has its roots firmly established in Scotland, which is home to some of the World's finest courses. Hugh Dodd takes us a round...

It is impossible to play golf in Scotland without becoming quickly aware of the history of the game. There is hardly a Scottish links course that is not at least a century old with an established past and clubhouse full of tradition seeping out of every trophy cabinet.

In 1764, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the world’s first golfing club, was established and was soon followed by the Golfers of St Andrews and then Aberdeen Golf Club (1780), Crail (1786) and Bruntsfield (Edinburgh, 1787). A multitude of others quickly followed, designed and developed by such luminaries as Tom Morris, Baird, Ross, Mackenzie and Colt. There are well over 430 golf courses in Scotland and many are household names and of the finest championship standard. The Open has in the past been played at Prestwick, St Andrews, Turnberry, Troon, Carnoustie and will again this year be held at Muirfield (home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers). The latter is highly regarded as the best golf course in the UK and, many would say, in the world.

Stand on the first tee at St Andrews or on the Swilken Bridge at the 18th and the history of the place is palpable. Gleneagles in the Highlands boasts The Kings, Queens and Monarch courses, all championship quality. To the north and west of Glasgow is the glorious Loch Lomond set in the Luss Estate, pristinely laid out by the professional golfer, Tom Weiskopf. To the far north, beyond Inverness, lies the purist’s delight, Royal Dornoch, one of the finest links courses not to host an Open championship but where many professionals ‘warm up’ before the real event begins. With so many fine courses around it is little wonder why so many people travel from far and wide to play at the home of golf.

However, there are also some glittering gems, hardly known even in Scotland, where an enthusiast can walk on and for a few pounds enjoy the experience of a lifetime. Just less than an hour south of Glasgow lie the championship courses of Royal Troon, Turnberry and Old Prestwick. The latter is part of the integral history of the game, as it was here in 1883 that the first Open was played and won by Old Tom Morris. As the birthplace of the Open it served as the venue for 12 of the first 24 championships, of which the last was played in 1925. Although considerably shorter in length now than a modern championship course, it is a must to play and demands straight driving and really precise club selection. Yet at 6,544 yards (par 71) you may try to emulate Tom Morris’s feat of a birdie three at the breathtaking first hole, which lies alongside a railway line. Old Prestwick is simply a natural magnet for golfers wishing to experience a place where legends were made. However, nearby Prestwick St Nicholas and Barassie are also wonderful treasures not to be missed.

In many people’s opinions however, Western Gailes, just south of Kilmarnock, is one of the nation’s prettiest links. It has many spectacular holes, challenging greens and well-positioned pot bunkers. The combination makes it one of the most demanding links courses to play. The club has staged several Scottish Amateur Championships and Home Internationals, and the Curtis Cup has been played over its links. Not surprisingly, it is used as a qualifying venue for The Open when played at nearby Troon or Turnberry.

Irvine is also a qualifying course but is considerably shorter than Western Gailes. However, the big hitters are invariably chastened by the many hidden bunkers, undulating fairways, half-hidden mounds and numerous thorny gorse bushes which demand precision iron play. Designed by James Baird, Irvine is a hidden gem worth seeking out.

Royal Troon and Turnberry are the two great West Coast links championship courses. The 7,097 yards (par 73) course of Royal Troon is laid out south of the fashionable seaside resort, with stunning views of Arran, and is very popular with Glasgow holidaymakers. The course boasts a bunker for every day of the year and when the wind blows, unless you are well on in your game, you are likely to visit plenty of them – particularly as most are invisible to the naked eye. Created in 1878, Royal Troon is one of the greatest links courses in the world – so great indeed that the Royal & Ancient has staged The Open seven times there since 1923.

Many of the great names, including Arnold Palmer and Mark Calcavecchia, have won the day over those famous links.

A half hour away to the south lays Turnberry with its sumptuous hotel overlooking the famous Ailsa and Arran coastlines. A third, The Kintyre, is a new but distinguished test of golf, freshly designed by Donald Steel and with his characteristic saucer-like greens – a great and worthy addition to the older two. But it is The Ailsa which has been the venue for some remarkable Open championships in 1977, 1986 and again in 1994. It was over those links in ’77 that the great Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson fought an almost match-play epic on the final day of the tournament before Watson (a five-time Open Champion) prevailed. 11 years later in 1986, the ever-popular Greg Norman finally won.

Moving North West, far off the beaten track at the very tip of the peninsula of the Mull of Kintyre, opposite the formidable coast of the Northern Isle, lies a magnificent treasure. Golfing pilgrims travel worldwide to test the pleasures of Machrihanish. Historic, stunningly beautiful, and immensely challenging, it is quite simply one of the great experiences in the golf world. Playing Machrihanish is rather like catching your first salmon: once hooked, you are hooked for life.

This is a course for the golf classicist and the connoisseur; for those who like good old-fashioned, no-frills golf. Originally the Old Kintyre Golf Club was like many in the old days: 12 holes long. But Old Tom Morris changed all that in 1879 to lay out this fantastic 18- hole classic. Various other changes were effected over the years, principally by J H Taylor in 1914 and Sir Guy Campbell at the end of World War II, but the character has remained unchanged. The first tee overlooks Machrihanish Bay to the fairway beyond and ostensibly the first drive requires power, precision and confidence from the get go. If the tide is out, and if by chance you have hit an errant shot, the beach is still ‘in play’, but needless to say there is no margin for error when it is high tide. As with all links courses, the wind is the governing factor and it can turn very quickly. Although there is not a great deal of heavy rough to contend with, every green is difficult in its configuration due to the undulating fairways. With several blind shots you may need every club in your bag, but on a fine June day, there is no place better to be.

Travelling to the far north, past the capital city in the Highlands, Inverness, there is a cluster of historic courses. Over the Cromarty Firth lie Tain, Royal Dornoch and Brora. In high summer this area of Sutherland is light until almost midnight and it is not uncommon to see golfers out at that time. On a midsummer’s day, many a Midnight Foursomes used to be played. But light and warmth are the key ingredients of the area. The warm Atlantic Gulf Stream comes in from the west, sweeping past the most northern tip of Scotland at John O’Groats then down with the Moray Firth south toward Inverness before turning east to Elgin and Banff. This is a rewarding, unspoiled old-fashioned area to journey to and is the stuff of golfers’ dreams. Brora links was laid out by James Baird and is set between the towering Sutherland Hill to the west and the shining Moray Firth to the east. At not more that 6,000 yards and with only one par five, the course is not long – nor is it tough – but it is no pushover. With a burn running through it and ample cunningly-placed bunkers, the course will keep you focused, as will the animal life on it.

Traditionally, and long before lawnmowers, sheep were used to contour grass on golf courses as they still do here. Subsequently, there is little rough on the course enabling a golfer to ‘open up’, although the sheep still pose a natural hazard!

Five miles down the road, there’s a slightly shorter challenge at Golspie with a not-dissimilar layout. However it does boast a section of heath land to focus the mind.

As befits a course of Golspie’s standing it has hosted qualifying rounds for the British Amateur Championships held nearby at Royal Dornoch. Yet with no par fives, but with five par threes, it really demands good iron play. The great Scottish architect Dr Alistair Mackenzie once said: “A good golf course is like good music or good anything else, it is not necessarily a course which appeals at the first time one plays it but one which grows on the player the more frequently they visit it.”

Golspie has all the characteristics to make it very special.

Tain, nearby, is also a favourite of many, with beautiful gorse bushes and a small river running through it. From there we are led very naturally to Royal Dornoch, one of Tom Watson’s favourite links course. Designed by Tom Morris and John Sutherland, this 6,514 yards (par 70) course is simply a golfing triumph.

The course, which snakes alongside Embo Bay, is a brilliant test of the best of seaside golf with fairway hummocks, knolls, rough tortuous bunkers and silky greens held together by beautiful yellow gorse. The greens are often platform-like and vary from simply large to huge, so an excellent short game is a necessity. But it is a superb test of golf and though the rough can be fierce, the fairways are generous and a total joy to play. They probably represent the best of the Highland golf course, providing an essential experience on a Highland excursion.

On the way south, Nairn ranks second to Royal Dornoch of these Highland experiences. Again laid out by Tom Morris and James Baird, its quality and reputation is assured as the venue for the Amateur Championship. There are many wonderful courses in the area but south on the A95, surrounded by some of the great Speyside distilleries around Grantown-on-Spey, lies the Boat of Garten. A Highland parkland course with a backdrop of the Cairngorm Mountains, the relatively short course of 5,866 yards (par 69) was cut out from a silver birch forest, which is now laid to fairways. The views are fabulous as the Highland steam train puffs by on its way north.

Leaving the Highlands and side-stepping many other great delights, not far from Dundee on the coast lies the formidable Carnoustie, for some the greatest challenge of all. It was here in 1999 that local favourite Paul Lawrie won the Open on a rainy Sunday afternoon and where the heavy rough and tight fairways defeated the best golfers in the world. No more than two consecutive holes run in the same direction, so the wind is an ever-present factor demanding real skill and integral course management.

It would be unthinkable not to head south and attempt to play the Old Course at St Andrews, a pilgrimage which will not disappoint – it is simply the most famous links course in the world. It is much more than a place of golf, the whole setting is an awesome experience and a walk through history where the very legends of the game have taken divots and won famous victories. The ancient architecture of St Andrews cloaks the course from the south, such landmarks as the Royal & Ancient Clubhouse, Bissets Hotel and the Swilken Bridge are all icons, which create a perfect picture. Hell’s Bunker, the Principal’s Nose, Road Bunker and the Valley of Sin all await the unwary and where even the greats of the game have faltered in the heat of battle. The surrounding area also claims a plethora of other outstanding courses including Crail, Leven Links, Ladybank, and Balbirnie.

The capital Edinburgh is only an hour south which boasts many fine municipal and city courses including Royal Burgess and Bruntsfield Links and 85 other courses within a 40-minute drive! But half an hour east of the city is what many enthusiasts describe as ‘golfing heaven’. There the county of East Lothian boasts 17 superb courses, including Craigielaw, a fine new course completed only last year. This is an area of unspoiled charm and beauty with long sandy beaches and charming seaside towns. A journey to the old town of Gullane immediately sets the scene with five surrounding courses: Luffness New, a mile before Gullane is one of the great treasures of the area – a classic links course laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1894, it is also a national qualifying course for The Open. After playing the uphill seventh to Gullane Hill one of the finest views in golf appears on the eighth tee. Set out below is a panoramic view of the course toward the west and the Firth of Forth, with the city of Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat in the far distance.

Golf has been played around Gullane for around 300 years and there is a Golf Museum to add testament to that as one enters the town. The three courses on the west of the town vary considerably but offer every golfer an opportunity to sample good links play. Number one course is a massive challenge laid out on a rolling upland plain, again with wonderful views over the Firth of Forth and is also a national qualifying course for the Open. Number two is somewhat tighter but shorter in length, although a thorough examination of the game. Number three is referred to as a ‘family course’, but, like its siblings, is always in outstanding order. East of the town lies the best course in Britain and, some say, in the world: Muirfield. The 6,601-yard (par 70) was designed, again, by Old Tom Morris in 1871, though the club itself was founded in 1774, making it 10 years older than the R&A. The shape, scale and length of the course are awesome and it is always in a perfect state, so any day of the year it could host an Open. Hit a good ball and you will be rewarded, but a slight transgression offers severe penalties. The course is guarded by an ever-changing westerly wind, cavernous bunkers and some of the deadliest rough around. In high summer it’s not worth looking for that errant drive!

This year the greatest golfers in the world will travel to Scotland to compete for the famous Claret Jug and the Open Championship at Muirfield. There will be just one new name added to the illustrious list of past champions, yet all those who visit will leave with a lasting impression of Scotland, the home of golf.