Course of the Week: North Berwick

May 18, 2011
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

Editor's Note: The following article is written by David Brice, President of Golf International. Established in 1988, Golf International specializes in the design and operation of quality golf trips to Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Wales, France, Spain and Portugal. The articles written by David represent trips available to Golf International customers. Click here to learn more about Golf International.

Scotland's capital of Edinburgh is undoubtedly one of Europe's most charming cities. Small enough to be manageable, large enough to be impressive, filled with history and culture, galleries and museums, excellent shopping, fine restaurants and a nightlife that keeps popping until the wee small hours of the morning. You could spend a couple of weeks in Edinburgh and still not have time enough to see and do all that mustn't be missed. And because this is Scotland, there is also golf, lots of top ranked, world-class golf, practically sitting on the city's front doorstep.

North Berwick's historic West Links is not to be missed by any connoisseur of links golf
The 1st green has views across the small town of North Berwick
The West Links' fabled Redan Hole is the most copied in golf
Filled with surprises, North Berwick's West Links specializes in memorable golf
Ancient stone walls come into play and must be navigated, adding some extra thrills
The 2nd and 17th fairways are watched over by The Marine Hotel

Think of the possibilities -- even those with families less than enthralled by the Royal & Ancient Game can take them all on an Edinburgh vacation and everyone's going to have a wonderful time. Share some sightseeing and castle exploring together, then slip away for a half day of golf here and there, while they are all shopping, hunting down cashmere sweaters, crystal, tartan and other things Scottish.

From a city center hotel, it will take less than half an hour drive east of the city to the small county of East Lothian, a region filled with golf history, much of it dating back to the 15th century and probably even earlier. There are even claims that this is the place where golf began, despite similar, though perhaps louder assertions coming from St. Andrews.

East Lothian is home to Musselburgh Old Links, the oldest playing course in existence, where Mary Queen of Scots played golf as early as 1672. Host to six British Open Championships between 1874 and 1889, Musselburgh was also home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the world's oldest golf club, until it moved to nearby Muirfield in 1891. Dunbar links, at the eastern end of the county, also lays claim to age and official records show that golf was played here as early as 1616.

Yet despite the important role East Lothian has played in the development of the game over the centuries, it remains one of the least known regions of Scotland to most American visitors -- Pity, they don't know what they are missing.

Along this 30-mile stretch of magnificent shoreline, running from Musselburgh in the west to Dunbar in the east, there a dozen excellent links courses, including Muirfield, one of the top ranked links courses in the entire world. Longniddry, Kilspindie, Luffness New and Gullane's trio of links are all well worth playing. There's a sparkling newer links layout at Craigielaw and another, The Rennaisance Club, designed by our own Tom Doak, each sitting within a few miles of the other near the village of Gullane. But if time is a problem and only one fits your schedule, make it North Berwick's West Links, a true classic and consistently ranked among Scotland's top ten courses.

There are many who believe that if the British Open had started on the east coast of Scotland in 1860, rather than the west coast, then Musselburgh would have been the automatic venue. But The Open would have soon moved a few miles up the road to the superior, West Links at North Berwick.

Those less accustomed to links golf may not agree. A good traditional links course demands a layout with character and something of an independent nature. It must have a streak of cunning, a dash of wiliness, a touch of eccentricity and an extra large helping of charm. If all of this comes with good looks as well, that's just a bonus - North Berwick fits the bill to a tee.

North Berwick is a pure links of the highest order. There is good reason why it is used as a qualifying course whenever The Open is held at Muirfield and even greater reasons why two of its holes - the 14th and 15th, are the most mimicked by golf architects the world over, a practice that has gone on for the better part of a century.

The 15th, "Redan" has proved to be especially tempting to these folks and has inspired a host of look-alikes around the globe, including a good number on this side of The Atlantic.

Strong resemblances to the Redan hole appear at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles (the 4th); Seminole in North Palm Beach (the 18th); at Shinnecock Hills, Long Island (the 7th and 17th); Brookline Country Club (the 12th); Valhalla in Louisville (the 16th); Poppy Hills in Monterey (the 15th); Ocean Links in Newport, R.I (the 3rd); Somerset Hills in New Jersey (the 2nd), even at Mid Ocean Golf Club in Bermuda (the 17th). And there are a host of others.

The original North Berwick course saw its first light of day in the early 1700's as a six-hole layout and was extended to 18 holes in 1877. It enjoys a wonderful location, overlooking The Firth of Forth Estuary with impressive Bass Rock in the foreground and magnificent seascapes all round - this is the way you dreamed every Scottish links would look.

The strong character of the layout is apparent from the beginning with three opening par 4's that test and tease, just to see if you are up to the challenge that lies ahead. And that challenge is an eclectic mix of hazards, tests and obstacles that require a mastery of every club in the bag - the reward will be a golfing experience to be found nowhere else.

There are blind holes and drives over stone walls that cross fairways; there are burns to avoid and shots to be made over the bay and skirting the beach. There are gullies to steer clear of and greens perilously perched on the edge of the course that seem about ready to slip into the sea.

Be wary of the greens, all of which are slanted seaward, some at frightening angles. The bunkers that guard them can be so deep that any poor soul who has the misfortune of finding one, literally vanishes from view while attempting to extricate that little white ball.

Add to all of this the ever-present and fickle wind that seemingly changes direction and velocity on a whim and you have the great West Course at North Berwick. Most either love it or hate it, with very few who fall in between. There is no question that it's tough and undoubtedly tougher than most, but if you are up to it, I can promise you will certainly not have a boring round. The experience on this, one of Scotland's most important links courses will be totally memorable -- even unique.

For some ideas on how to include North Berwick's West Course and a few other East Lothian gems on your family's Edinburgh vacation, contact the Scotland experts at Golf International and call toll free 1 (800) 833-1389 or click here.

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