Scotland is the home of golf – a visit to the country is akin to a trip to Mecca: it’s a borderline religious pilgrimage for any serious golfer.
The trip is more than a vacation, it’s an experience to be relished that you’ll talk about for years afterwards. Treasured memories are made on the courses where the game was birthed, the oldest and most famous courses in the world.
But there are more than just the old classics in Scotland. We’ll take a look at some historic, can’t-miss courses and some hidden gems that should be on every Scottish golf trip itinerary. These scenic courses are a combination of idyllic, difficult, and flat-out fun golf that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
1. The Old Course at St Andrews
The granddaddy of them all, the Old Course at St Andrews is known as the birthplace of golf. It’s the oldest golf course in the world and plays host to The Open Championship every five years. Famously rebuffed by Bobby Jones in 1921 before he matured and realized what made the course so special, The Old Course prompted this quote from the legendary amateur: ‘If I had ever been sat down and told I was to play at only one course and nowhere else for the rest of my life, I would have chosen The Old Course at St Andrews.’
While there’s a lottery for tee times, you can secure one by booking through a travel company or by applying for a guaranteed tee time well in advance of your trip. If you want truly epic bragging rights, contact the club to find out when they’ll play the course backwards, which they do for a day or two each year. Sure, many people have played The Old Course, but how many have gotten to play it backwards?
Just don’t forget to schedule a regular round so you can experience the magic of playing the course where so much history has been made, from Old Tom Morris to Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods.
2: Balcomie Links, Crail
Speaking of Old Tom Morris, Balcomie Links is a course of his design that opened in 1895. It’s a beautiful seaside course that sits on a promontory 12 miles from St. Andrews on the east side of the Kingdom of Fife. While the scorecard yardage is less than 6000 yards, the ever-present wind blowing in off the ocean renders yardages mostly meaningless. You’ll need to control your ball flight and trust your caddy. Yes, you may need to hit a 5-iron despite being only 100 yards from the green. It’s a difficult but gorgeous challenge. If you’re a fan of competitive golf, sign up for the marathon Ranken Todd Bowl tournament, an annual tournament held in September that comprises three playings of the course in a single day.
3. Shiskine Golf Club, Isle of Arran
This is an odd golf course in an absolutely beautiful setting. Since its routing in the 1880s by Open Champion Willie Fernie, it’s played as both a 9-hole and 18-hole course before settling into its current status as a 12-hole course after six holes fell into disrepair during World War I. The hilly island course features blind shot after blind shot and holes that no modern architect would ever design. It’s a historical reminder of how the game was played when holes weren’t designed, but simply emerged among the hills. It’s a cult classic because of this timelessness, and the fact that it’s only 12 holes leaves you plenty of time to tour the Isle of Arran Visitor Center and Distillery only 45 minutes away.
4. Royal Troon (Old), Ayrshire
Royal Troon is home to perhaps the most famous par 3 in Scotland, the legendarily short “Postage Stamp” par 3 eighth hole. Gene Sarazen, at age 71, aced the hole in the 1973 Open Championship, one of the most famous holes-in-one of all time. But there’s more to the course than a tiny green on a short par 3. It’s a perfect example of an out-and-back traditional links course that has thousands of different personalities depending on what direction and strength the wind decides to blow. The long par 5 sixth hole can take five or six shots for the average golfer just to reach the green if the wind’s in your face, but it can be an eagle opportunity playing downwind. The recently remodeled clubhouse is lovely, so stick around for a delightful post-round cocktail and conversation.
The Open Championship was born at Prestwick. The club hosted the first twelve Opens, starting in 1860 until St. Andrews hosted its first in 1873 (the absence of a trophy precluded the playing of the championship in 1871). Willie Park, Sr. became the first “Champion Golfer of the Year” after a marathon 36-hole day (three times around the then-12-hole course), and Prestwick’s legendary status has only grown from there. With numerous blind shots and bunkers so deep there are wooden steps to get down into them, it’s a righteously difficult course. The greens play firm and fast, requiring the classic links tactic of landing the ball short and running it up onto the green. Prestwick boasts many holes that have become blueprints for golf course architects, so it may seem eerily familiar the first time you play it. It’ll feel like you’ve seen holes like these before, but Prestwick had them first!
6. Western Gailes
Western Gailes’ difficulty is right there in its name: a fierce westerly wind tends to blow and wreak havoc with your golf ball as it swirls from northwest to southwest and back again. Navigating the wind and the sandy dunes that line the fairways and surround the greens is the trick to scoring well on this beautiful and challenging links course. The mounded greens complexes and deep bunkers reward a creative short game mind, while the occasional burn lurks to gobble up wayward shots. With numerous seaside holes and a setting you won’t soon forget, Western Gailes is an absolute must-play for any Scottish golf journey.
Jordan Fuller is a blogger at Golf Influence (golfinfluence.com).