Five Scottish golf gems you must not miss

Western Gailes might contain more of the good things of links golf than any other.
November 09, 2009
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.
Western Gailes might contain more of the good things of links golf than any other.
Filled with subtleties and pure delight Western Gailes is a must play for all.
Crail's Balcomie Links is one of Scotland's most under-rated layouts guaranteed to please the most jaded golf traveler.
Crail is jam-packed with an endless variety of tests from beginning to end.
Craigielaw may be only 10 years old but the feel is that of a crusty old centenarian.
Craigielaw is proof positive that a contemporary Scottish links can be at least the equal of the old classics.
Fraserburgh Links - Unashamedly old-fashioned cantankerous and unforgiving.
Rough and tumble Fraserburgh will frustrate confuse and certainly thrill all who take it on.
Tain is an Old Tom Morris masterpiece in an idyllic setting.
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It's no secret that Scotland literally wallows in golf, boasting almost 600 golf courses in all. Considering it's taken the Scots more than six centuries to build this enviable collection - a 500-year head start on the rest of the world - it should be no surprise to learn that Scottish golf is not only plentiful, but also top of the line when it comes to quality. Nowhere is the excellence of Scotland's golf as evident as in her glorious links courses, those windswept, seaside courses we all find so appealing, each and everyone deserving of star status.

The only problem with so many could-be or would-be stars crowding the stage, only a few gain the audience's attention and many very worthy contenders for fame are lost in the crowd, spending their days in relative obscurity. Relegated to the ranks of the so-called, "Hidden Gems". Scotland is flooded with such layouts, too many of which, receive precious little attention from visitors - if only they knew what they were missing.

The term, "Hidden Gems" is a misnomer, although practically all are indeed gems, none are hidden and many of the very best, especially the links layouts, are located close to their more celebrated neighbors. It's a fact of life that wherever you find one good links, there will assuredly be others close by and Scotland's most important five links clusters each contains its share of outstanding links layouts that have somehow managed to escape the spotlight. Don't let that deter you from playing as many as you are able, these are courses with the warmest of welcomes and they unfailingly provide the most genuine Scottish golf experience.

Ask any seasoned golf travelers who knows their way around Scotland for a list of their own favorites and you will have as many different answers as the number of people you ask. But you need to start somewhere and the following is my own list of five -- one for each links cluster. Each certainly qualifies as an excellent links layout, but they also have competition from others in their own cluster, so regard this listing as very personal and unapologetically, subjective.

The Southwest's Ayrshire coast is spoiled for choices, but one course stands out as being very special and perhaps deserves to be ranked along side Turnberry and Royal Troon. Western Gailes - ranked number 13 in Scotland, few would disagree, this 110 year-old is a classic Scottish links of the very first order.

Squeezed in between the sea and a railway track, with barely enough room for two fairways, the clubhouse sits in the middle, with two 9-hole loops shooting out in opposite directions. Totally exposed to the infernally cantankerous sea winds, this is a test of links golf ability that is tougher than many of those trophy courses, with an examination that never lets up. There are only three par-3 holes, each deceivingly tricky, where par will be an accomplishment and surprisingly, a total of thirteen par-4 holes, ranging from 309 to 450 yards.

The challenge is only compounded by the finely contoured greens, all immaculately maintained and most ingeniously located, set into the folds of the surrounding sand dunes. Needless to say, pot bunkers are in plentiful supply and adding only more spice to this already hot dish, meandering burns pop-up strategically and immediately in front of four of the greens.

Jam-packed with variety and ever-changing, demanding tests, this is a real golfer's course, with an irresistible personality that virtually guarantees it will become a firm favorite of any who give Western Gailes the chance. Miss playing this beauty and your visit to the Southwest will be incomplete.

St. Andrews is surrounded by excellent courses, both famous names and little knowns, but Crail's Balcomie Links is one of those precious gems that deserves some extra attention. Combining a unique blend of good looks, spectacular views and a testy links challenge, a rollicking round is assured, with a generous helping of pure, unadulterated fun thrown in for good measure.

Founded in 1786, the Crail Golfing Society is the 7th oldest golf club in existence and the club's Balcomie Links, a masterful design from the legendary 19th century architect, the great, Old Tom Morris. It's an impressive pedigree which builds the expectations of most visitors and this is a layout that will not disappoint.

Standing on the first tee, towering some 150 feet above the distant green, with the entire layout at your feet, the view is fantastic. It clearly shows that the North Sea will be a factor to be contended with from start to finish and the hilly terrain, very unusual in a links, creates a distinct feeling that this is no ordinary links. By the time you reach the final hole, your suspicions will have been confirmed and proved -- Crail Balcomie is quite extraordinary.

Savor the pleasure of the first hole and that initial downhill drive, which no matter how poorly struck, will get an extra hundred feet or two of roll, courtesy of gravity. Enjoy the moment while it lasts, as it's the only gift this spunky layout gives and you are about to discover that good looks can be deceiving, as can modest yardage. This handsome shorty has teeth that bite, but fortunately, it's all accompanied by a distinct sense of humor -- an exhilarating and thoroughly enjoyable round is going to be yours.

Edinburgh is proud to have The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and their fabled British Open venue, Muirfield, located a brief 30 minutes drive from the city center. But the city is equally proud of the wealth of other excellent links courses in the same neighborhood, where Craigielaw Golf Club shines as an outstanding example.

Despite it's comparative youth, Craigielaw is a stunning layout, exuding the many varied qualities of a pure Scottish links. A course barely 10-years old, isn't supposed to impress the most died in the wool, links traditionalists, but that's precisely what Craigielaw has done.

Filled with imagination and variety, the great English designer, Donald Steel, has created a piece of golf artistry that simply wows all who play it. An exhilarating assembly of 18 holes, each with a challenge quite different to the previous and every one a joy to play. Steel's respect and sensitivity for links golf comes shining through in grand style. He has worked with Mother Nature and not against her. There have been no massive transformations of the landscape, only a very carefully thought out routing of the holes, which shows off the "made for links" terrain to its best golfing advantage.

The end result is a very tough links layout, more than enough to test the scratch golfer from the back tees, but with a selection of three different tee-positions, a course that can also be enjoyed by the mid to high handicap player. Craigielaw is a special treat and a links that belongs on the must play list of every visitor to this golf-rich corner of Scotland.

Aberdeen is Scotland's third largest city and famous as the gateway to a bevy of ancient castles, the beginning of real whisky country and the heart of a select collection of wonderful links courses. Royal Aberdeen, Murcar and Cruden Bay are the most familiar names, but they are only the beginning of Aberdeen's golf story.

Take a brief, 45-minute drive along the coast, north of the city and you will find a totally unspoiled, good old fashioned links layout, as rough and ready as it was on the day it was born well over 200 years ago -- If you are looking for a genuine slice of real Scottish golf history, this is it..

Parish records show that golf has been played on nearby Fraserburgh Links since 1613 although it took another 158 years before Fraserburgh Golf Club was officially founded. This is where the Moray Firth and the North Sea converge, creating a unique microclimate where Mother Nature becomes even more cantankerous than usual. Be prepared for a bumpy ride around Fraserburgh's substantial sand dunes and an experience reminiscent of how golf must have been more than a century ago. Wildly undulating fairways, sand hills, unpredictable winds, wonderful views and some truly spectacular holes makes Fraserburgh a stern test from start to finish.

Today's feisty championship course, a James Braid redesign of the original layout, is one of the most natural links courses you will ever find. It's well worth the extra few miles of driving to experience such authenticity, where you are likely to be the only overseas visitor. Just be prepared for an exceptionally warm welcome and one of the most stimulating rounds of your trip.

The Scottish Highlands have an almost magical, entirely unique appeal to visitors, whether golf is in the visitors equation or not, but for the golfers, alongside the trophy courses, is an amazing array of less familiar names, practically all gems. Play any one of them and you can't go wrong, but for a special treat, choose the 1890, Old Tom Morris design at Tain, located almost midway between Dornoch and Nairn.

Today, Tain sports a full 18-holes, including 10 that have survived the 119 years since Old Tom Morris first laid them out. Not surprisingly, among "Tom's 10" are the best holes on a course filled with challenge from start to finish; they stand as a tribute to the artistry and abilities of one of golf's greatest design talents ever. Immaculately maintained with greens as good as presented by any Scottish layout, this combination of links and heathland boasts an idyllic setting. The course skirts the shoreline of the Dornoch Firth, with some dramatic views to a mountain backdrop, evoking a feeling of total solitude, even reverence.

Tain may lack the majesty of Royal Dornoch, but that takes not one iota from the pure joy it will bring to any serious golfer. This is a piece of golf history like few others, laid out by the all-time master of classic course design and to end your round with a respectable score requires strategy, clear thinking and the ability to constantly adjust to the ever-changing problems presented.

Focus on only Scotland's trophy courses and you will be missing a very special part of the real Scottish golf experience. For a few more ideas and suggestions on getting the most out of your golf trip to Scotland, click here.

©2009 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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