By David Brice, Golf International Inc.
If you are one of the 25 million or so golfers who make their home in the USA, but have yet to take a golf trip to Scotland, what’s keeping you from one of the game’s greatest pleasures? Scotland after all, gave birth to the game almost six centuries ago and has deservedly earned the attention of golfers the world over. Scottish golf is phenomenal and an experience that thrills every player who makes the trip. If (as many do) you are using family as an excuse for not taking a Scottish golf trip, then it’s time to learn a little more about this amazing country and all it has to offer visitors, whether golf is in their vocabulary or not.
If a reason for your procrastination has been a concern about driving on the wrong side of the road, cast that excuse aside. Of course you could take a chauffeured car for your stay, but there are more frugal ways to avoid having to drive yourself. You can easily spend a week or two in a very comfortable Edinburgh hotel, playing golf on a different, top ranked course each day and do it all from the convenient comfort of a train.
It takes just 33 minutes to travel by train from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, located in the very heart of the city, to reach North Berwick and that town’s fabled links course, ranked the 10th best in Scotland. Along the half hour journey, the train will pass within a couple of miles of 15 other great courses, some with famous names, others probably less familiar, but all with a story to tell. This is a train ride through a slice of golf history and the county of East Lothian – this is Scotland’s Golf Coast.
Barely 6 minutes out of Waverley Station, the train will be pulling into bustling Musselburgh, thought to be the oldest town in Scotland with a history dating back to Roman times. There’s a lot of golf history here as well. Musselburgh Old Links dating from 1672 is the oldest continuously played golf course in the world. Mary Queen of Scots played the game here in the 1560’s and in the late 19th century, it was one of the three most important courses in the land, sharing that honor with Prestwick and St. Andrews Old Course. Musselburgh’s Old Links hosted 6 British Open Championships between 1874 and 1889.
Just down the road, Royal Muselburgh Golf Club, founded somewhere around 1760 (record keeping was not too good in those early days) lays claim to being one of the oldest golf clubs in existence. It’s current course is of more recent vintage and a very worthy parkland design, laid out by the great James Braid in 1925. Nearby, Musselburgh Golf Club at Monktonhall, rounds out the trio of courses carrying the Musselburgh name. Another James Braid layout, this may be one of the most demanding of East Lothian’s parkland courses.
The train takes a brief 12 minutes to journey from Musselburgh to Longniddry and Longniddry Golf Club, another East Lothian gem, designed by the great Harry S Colt in 1921. Both James Braid and Mackenzie Ross had a hand in modifying this combination, links / parkland gem. More recently, Donald Steel has added his own refinements to the ground where Mary Queen of Scots is also said to have played the game in 1567. The end result is a truly elegant layout, where even scratch golfers are pushed to the extreme.
From Longniddry it’s a short 3 miles along the coast to Craigielaw, one of the more recent additions to East Lothian’s golf inventory. Only opened in 2001, it took Scotland’s golf establishment by storm and the consensus of opinion was unanimous – East Lothian had given birth to a new links course that more than measured up to its centuries old neighbors. The ensuing 11 years and some added maturity have only made this excellent track even better and Craigielaw has become a permanent fixture on East Lothian’s long list of must play courses.
Immediately next door to the new Craigielaw, sits a much respected old-timer, Kilspindie Golf Club, dating from 1867 and a charmer of a links originally laid out by Mackenzie Ross and native son, Ben Sayers. Kilspindie is jam-packed with fun and pure enjoyment from beginning to end, just don’t be deterred by the modest length. At a hair under 5,500 yards from the tips, this is a spunky little devil; where skill is rewarded more than muscle and if the wind is blowing, as it usually does, everyone will be in trouble.
A couple of miles further along this attractive coastline, another cluster of top-flight links layouts sit waiting. The Old Tom Morris design at Luffness New was new in 1894 when it first opened and though one of East Lothian’s less familiar names, offers a superb test. Filled with variety and excellent bunkering, the challenge is complicated by an ever-changing wind - links golf doesn’t get much better.
The small seaside village of Gullane with a population of not quite 2,000 people, lives and breathes golf. Dominating the scene is Muirfield, home to The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the world’s oldest and most prestigious golf club. The course is ranked number 2 in the British Isles and is a regular host to The British Open, which it has been called upon to host again in 2013. If you are fortunate enough to be able to get a visitor time here, it will be the highlight of your entire trip. A word to the wise; to be successful in securing a Muirfield time does require booking far in advance and 9 months to a year ahead is not too early. It might be best to use a professional golf travel company, such as Golf International, to assist. But Mighty Muirfield is only the beginning of Gullane’s claim to fame.
The three excellent links courses of Gullane Golf Club are enough to keep any avid golfer gainfully occupied for a week. The courses are simply known as Numbers 1, 2 and 3 - their ranking by age. The locals insist that Number 1 is the equal of Muirfield and most agree there is little to separate Numbers 1 and 2. Play at least these two together with Muirfield if you can and draw your own conclusions - if nothing else you will have experienced a trio of Scotland’s finest links.
The railway line from Edinburgh comes to an end in the town of North Berwick and for the true golf connoisseur, a fitting conclusion to this short journey through golf’s history. North Berwick is famed for its West Course, arguably the one course in all of Scotland that has remained closest to the game’s origins. Virtually worshipped by golf architects from around the globe, no other layout has been imitated quite as much and this is a case where impersonation is the greatest form of flattery. This is simply a must play.
Don’t overlook North Berwick’s other links, The East Course, better known as The Glen. Unheralded and too often overlooked, this is a jewel of a layout, filled with testy holes, spectacular views and one of the friendliest clubhouses you will ever find. It has been said that The Glen is filled with more of the good things of golf than most and after experiencing this charmer, you will only agree.
The railway line may end in North Berwick, but East Lothian’s amazing collection of courses does not. It’s only another 8 miles along the coast to reach the historic links at Dunbar Golf Club, where records show golf has been played since at least 1794. This was the campsite for Oliver Cromwell’s army at the battle of Dunbar in 1650 and two centuries later, the prolific designer, Tom Morris was brought in to bring the existing links up to standard. Bearing some remarkable resemblances to The Old Course at St. Andrews, Morris’ influence on today’s Dunbar remains very much in evidence.
And East Lothian’s golf story is still not finished. Between Gullane and North Berwick there is another pair of private new links courses at Archerfield and American designer Tom Doak completed his first Scottish links project next to Muirfield, with the new Renaissance Golf Club, which will soon be celebrating its fourth anniversary. And we’ve still not touched on East Lothian’s excellent collection of inland courses, all just as conveniently close to Edinburgh. Tiny East Lothian, Scotland’s’s Golf Coast, boasts almost 2-dozen courses in total and all within a half hour of Scotland’s handsome capital city.
The region is beginning to gain some long overdue recognition from visitors and with the important role the county has played in the development of golf over the centuries; it’s not before time. St. Andrews and the county of Fife may have been claiming all of the credit for the past 600 years or so, but East Lothian’s role has been no less important.
You can experience East Lothian’s golfing wealth from a hotel in Edinburgh, or better yet, stay close to the golf in North Berwick, Gullane or Aberlady and use the convenient train to head into the Edinburgh for a day excursion and a night or two on the town. East Lothian’s hotel choices range from modest Bed & Breakfast accommodations, to elegant 4 star hotels, charming country house and stately home accommodations, even a genuine castle hotel and the selection of dining possibilities is just as impressive.
Staying in a local hotel puts all of East Lothian’s golf within no more than a 10 or 15 minute drive and sometimes as close as the hotel’s front door. You will be able to play as many of the courses as you choose with the convenience of having your own car and without the hastle of fighting Edinburgh’s sometimes bewildering one-way street system. For the frugally minded, the price of the train ticket into town is no more than you’ll pay for Edinburgh parking anyway.
For a few ideas on how best to experience East Lothian’s golfing wealth, contact the Scotland golf experts at Golf International by calling 1- 800 833-1389 (toll free), or click here.