Courses of the Week -- Four of Scotland's unhearlded gems

February 11, 2010
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

Boasting almost 560 courses, Scotland has no shortage of golf layouts and perhaps not surprisingly, the vast majority have at least some gem-like qualities, to one degree or another. Scotland over the centuries has taken its position as the home of golf very seriously and has no place for mediocre or average courses.

Fortrose Rosemarkie just might be Scotland's testiest unheralded gem.
North Berwick's historic West Links is not to be missed neither is nearby Glenkinchie Distillery.
North Berwick's Redan Hole - The most imitated in golf.
West Kilbride's defenses include gorse and an old stone wall.
Panmure is a member of Scotland's Top 50 Club and was Ben Hogan's favorite links.
For other ideas on golf trips to Scotland, Ireland, British Open, Spain & Portugal, click here or call Golf International at 1.212.447.5003.

In today's world however, very few (if any) of Scotland's courses are really hidden - it may have been the case 50 or 100 years ago, but no more. But still we get requests from a number of golf travelers, yearning to discover a hidden gem or two during their pilgrimage to the home of golf - I guess there's a little bit of the Captain Cook in all of us.

Perhaps instead of seeking out hidden gems, we should be looking for under-appreciated gems -- excellent courses that have somehow escaped the spotlight and are strangers to most visiting golfers - these Scotland has plenty of.

It's still those famous "trophy courses' that are in high demand by most -- they are Scotland's British Open venues or courses that well known golf celebrities have played and made flattering comments about, but this can be no more than 20 or so layouts in all, leaving well over 500 Scottish courses as under-appreciated, if not totally ignored - at least by visitors.

Picking four of the very best of these unheralded beauties is inevitably subjective and absolutely tainted by personal preferences and experiences, this I cannot deny. But the list could be ten times as long and I would still have missed too many, thoroughly deserving layouts -- the quality of Scottish golf is consistently that high. My selection is listed in alphabetical order and includes one links gem from each of four of Scotland's important links clusters. And once again, they are personal choices.

Fortrose & Rosemarkie is a 120 year-old, Highland jewel, located on the ominously named, Black Isle, less than a half hour's drive north of Inverness. Situated on a pencil thin promontory, jutting audaciously into the Cromarty Firth, the sea views are spectacular and the winds that constantly pound in from the water are nothing less, creating a superb links environment, perfect for the connoisseur of links golf in its purest, undiluted form.

Deceivingly short at a humble 5,295 yards from the tips, the course occupies literally every available square inch of its small penininsula, with barely enough room for the out and back fairways, made even narrower by a road that separates the two. The renowned James Braid twice remodeled the course, ending up with a remarkable design, containing far more challenge than you will be expecting.

The sea comes into play on no less than 8 holes; the heather strewn rough is something to avoid and the astute bunkering and small greens present an even greater threat. Fortrose & Rosemarkie is a pure delight, but not above frustrating if not confounding virtually every first timer, regardless of their skill level. Take along your sense of humor because you're unlikely to end a guaranteed exhilarating round here with a decent score. Fortrose & Rosemarkie is one of those magical experiences that can only remind us all of why we love this game. You will remember your round on Royal Dornoch, but you're unlikely to forget this little tester in a hurry, either.

North Berwick - West Course doesn't really belong on any listing of unknown courses, as in the world of golf architecture, this is one of the most respected layouts in existence, containing elements that have been studied and then copied by more course designers around the globe, than any other. Unfortunately, beyond Scottish shores and the architects' drawing boards, the rest of the world is remarkably unaware of Scotland's 10th ranked course. But this a problem endured by many of East Lothian's excellent links courses, despite the fact that this tiny, golf-rich county, sits within a half hour's drive of Edinburgh's city center.

North Berwick is a course for the golf connoisseur and a classic links layout of the finest order, although those less accustomed to links golf may disagree. Good traditional links demands a course with character and something of an independent nature. It must have a streak of cunning, a dash of wiliness, a touch of eccentricity and a large helping of charm. If it comes with good looks as well, that's just a bonus -- North Berwick's West Course has it all, together with a sense of style that immediately tells the seasoned links golfer, they have discovered a winner.

Include this beauty in your itinerary and the chances are it will provide the very best links experience of all.

West Kilbride sits on the northern edge of Southwest Scotland's golf coast, a 30 minute drive along the shoreline from the town of Troon and maybe it's this short drive, slightly away from the beaten path that causes many visitors to ignore this attractive piece of golf history. Originally designed by Old Tom Morris in 1893 with later improvements made by James Braid, West Kilbride has an impressive pedigree and a knock-dead location, overlooking the Firth of Clyde and magnificent views of the Isle of Arran and Ailsa Craig.

Beauty, they say, is only skin deep, but in the case of West Kilbride, beauty is all the way through and nowhere is this more apparent than in the feisty examination of golf skills it presents. Play this charmer on a rare calm day and you will have a thoroughly enjoyable round, but on a more likely, windy day and you will have your hands full with a rollicking rodeo-ride of a test, which will prove interesting, to say the very least!

Superb bunkering, a meandering burn, a stone-wall, the few trees that have been left standing by the erratic wind and the white caps of a sea that pokes its head into play every so often, makes this a track favoring the thinking golfer. Count on losing more than the usual number of balls, but take solace in the pure fun you're going to have losing them.

Panmure Golf Club, despite sitting slap-bang next door to fabled Carnoustie, is overlooked by many visitors as they make their way to play the toughest Open venue of all, appropriately nicknamed, "Carnasty". If only they realized they had driven past the front gate of "Ben Hogan's Links", they might have stopped by Panmure and inquired about playing this impressive links as well.

Ben Hogan came to Carnoustie in 1953 for what would be his only appearance at an Open Chamionship, he arrived with that year's Masters and US Open titles already secured. Thoughts of a third 1953 Major was an irrestible temptation and arrangements were immediately made for Hogan to practice at Panmure.

Accompanied only by his caddie, Hogan put in a solid two weeks of preparation on the links at Panmure where he mastered the then smaller British ball and the unforgiving, thick rough, peculiar to this stretch of Angus coastline. He learned how to handle the eternally cantankerous wind that blows in from the Firth of Tay; the special challenge of a links layout with trees, blind holes, deep pot-bunkers and the many other oddities of Scottish links golf.

Ben Hogan went on to win the 1953 British Open by four strokes, setting a new Carnoustie course record of 68 on his final round. He gave full credit to Panmure for his victory, declaring it to be one of Scotland's very finest links courses. The opportunity to walk in the foot-steps of Ben Hogan at Panmure, is too much to resist and in the process you will learn what makes this little known layout, so very special.

There you have it, four of Scotland's least known, but truly great courses, all deserving of far more visitor attention than they receive and there are more, the best of which will be covered in future articles when I will bring a little more attention to these unheralded gems. Until then, if I or my company, Golf International, can assist you get more out of your Scottish golf trip, call us at 1 800 833-1389 or click here.

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