Links to the Past
As a sport, golf today involves a ball, 14 clubs, 18 holes, a distance of a few thousand yards and a gait no faster than a casual stroll.
Oh, but the passions stirred by this seemingly innocent combination, and nowhere are emotions more engaged than when playing in Scotland, the country that lays claim to inventing the ancient sport.
This is the country that measures its golf history not in years, but in centuries; where its beginnings were considered a threat to church and national security and where skilled players and designers such as Alexander Findlay and Charles Blair Macdonald were courted around the world to demonstrate the game and create challenging courses.
Golfers wanting to test their mettle know the only honest assessment should be made upon Scottish soil, where the combination of rugged terrain, brutal offshore winds and—on at least one course, even grazing cattle—are factors that can torment the lowest handicap.
In terms of tradition, no ground is more hallowed than St. Andrews, about an hour’s drive northeast of Edinburgh. Golf has been played on the coastal site for 600 years, and its Old Course, now one of seven at St. Andrews, has hosted 29 British Open championships, the most of any club. More than 230,000 rounds of golf are played there annually, and over the decades many of the greatest in the game have paid homage to the iconic Swilcan Bridge or come undone in Hell Bunker, a 6½-foot-deep kidney-shaped pit on the 14th hole.
Another popular site to the west, Gleneagles Resort, offers three championship golf courses. The King’s and Queen’s courses were created by legendary designer James Braid. The third, the PGA Centenary Course, was designed by Jack Nicklaus and was the site of the 2014 Ryder Cup.
Nestled in the softer Highlands foothills, the Gleneagles courses offer slightly less frightful greens along with panoramic views of rolling fields of heather. Golfing great Lee Trevino, after his first round at Gleneagles, is said to have remarked, “If heaven is as good as this, I sure hope they have some tee times left.”
Golfing great Lee Trevino, after his first round at Gleneagles, is said to have remarked, “If heaven is as good as this, I sure hope they have some tee times left.”
Golf courses in Scotland are nearly as plentiful as convenience stores in America, so once you’ve played the bigger draws, you have ample opportunity to turn your attention to some of the country’s hidden gems—the time-honored, coastal-weather-infused links courses.
The east coast, particularly around Edinburgh and Firth of Forth, offers numerous clusters of courses such as Montrose, North Berwick, Kilspindie, Musselburgh and—one of the most intimidating courses in Scotland—Carnoustie. To the west, set on a remote southern peninsula and buffeted by Atlantic winds, is Machrihanish Golf Club. Its first hole requires a shot over the Atlantic shore. To the north, Royal Dornoch provides epic vistas and harsher environs. Nearby, Brora Golf Club adds the possibility of animal interaction because sheep and cattle still graze on the fairways.
These courses, too, are steeped in history, packed with challenges and offer local flavor that will give you a richer experience of true Scottish play.
William Zachs, an American from Hartford, Connecticut, says he moved to Scotland 20 years ago for the golf. He now plays only two courses, Machrihanish and North Berwick. On a recent sunny morning, he was looking forward to a shotgun start at North Berwick, a course where play began in 1832.
“You have the sea, you have spectacular views and you have the weather right in your face,” Zachs says. “You never play the same shot twice because the weather changes constantly. And they just let nature decide how the holes should be created.”
The 13th, 14th and 15th holes at North Berwick are fine examples and make the course one of the most unique links courses in Scotland. The 13th, called “The Pit,” requires players to shoot over an old stone farm wall to get to the green. The 14th, a blind green called “Perfection,” requires that same level of performance. A shot has to clear two large bunkers, then sail over “a wee hill” before slowing down on the green at the edge of the sea. Its 15th hole, “The Redan,” is considered the most copied hole in golf. It’s a blind green, meaning the player can’t see the hole from the tee. North Berwick introduced the Redan hole to golf, and the challenge is that the ground subtly slopes away from the green. A good player knows to shoot away from the hole to allow the contours to move the ball home.
On the Links
Time has diluted the meaning of “the links” to refer to any golf course, but if you’re going to play in Scotland, you should know the original meaning. It refers to the grassy, sandy soil between the sea and firmer land.
The sandy soil provides a few advantages, both in terms of the sport and sheer location. Its composition has good drainage, allowing for more frequent play. Topographically, its naturally rolling, uneven surface requires greater skill to place the ball well.
Logistically, the land was readily available because it wasn’t useful for agriculture. During the late 15th century, links play had strategic importance. In 1457 King James II sought to ban golf. He was concerned that Scottish soldiers were so caught up in golf they were not getting sufficient archery practice. The government ban was later followed by condemnation from the church, which took no liking to the competition for Sunday attendance. The out-of-the-way links made sneaking off for a few rounds a little less noticeable.
Near-shore golf offers its own set of challenges, and players who hone their skills here will find it easier to adapt to inland play. The ever-changing winds, the rippling fairways and the thickets of sea grass and gorse require different play that focuses on lower drives and short shots that move the ball over the ground.
At Montrose, founded in 1562, the course still serves up an ancient style of play, where fairways are narrow, bunkers and gorse are plentiful and the wind coming off the beach-side cliffs is often fickle.
“If you’re an inland player, you’re going to try to play high windy shots,” explains Claire Penman, the club’s company secretary and a frequent player. “Here, you have days where there is no wind and other days when you can hardly stand up.”
Though Kilspindie, established in 1867, is set along a wide, flat marsh, the wind can be equally punishing.
“The eighth hole is the toughest,” says Graham Sked, the PGA pro on the course. “It can play like a really short hole but when the wind changes, you can be driving on it all day. You can change from 9-irons to drivers on the same day depending on the wind.”
And while the assumption may be that the more often a course is played the better the outcome, that isn’t always true, particularly on a Scottish course. Lynn Coull, Doreen Gordon and Andrew Boyd grew up in Montrose and are regulars on the course. Coull’s and Gordon’s father, William Coull, literally wrote the book on Montrose and its history as the fifth-oldest course in the world. Boyd is chairman of the club’s board. Ask the three whether they are experts on the course, and there is laughter and a shaking of heads.
“Every time you think you’ve got the golf course beat it comes and bites you,” Boyd says. “A simple bounce can get you in a lot of trouble.”
Links Across Scotland
Some of Scotland’s best or most interesting historic links courses include the following:
1. St. Andrews
Scotland’s oldest golf site at 600 years has seven courses
More than 400 years old, its championship course is feared and revered for its difficulty
Established in 1562, its two courses challenge with narrow fairways and abundant thickets of sea grass and gorse
4. North Berwick
Established in 1832, it’s praised for the unusual course design and scenery
Established in 1867, the course lies within Aberlady Bay nature reserve
6. Machrihanish Links Courses Established in 1876, its first tee is considered one of the most beautiful settings in golf
7. Royal Dornoch
Established in 1877, the club earned royal status in 1906 from King Edward VII
8. Brora Golf Club
Established in 1891 and designed by James Braid, low, electric fences keep sheep and cattle, used to graze the fairway, off the green
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