Championship Caliber Golf Courses of Scotland
March 17, 2023 –––––– Shaun Tolson
The Open Championship was played for the 150th time in the summer of 2022, returning to the Old Course at St Andrews, a centuries-old layout universally adopted by the golfing world as the birthplace of the game. Fortunate golfers who’ve teed it up will know how unique and special a round in Scotland can be. The countryside is mecca for the golf obsessed, and the experience of playing its hallowed links courses—the Old Course in particular—is a thrill, no matter how challenging the conditions or how high your final score is. After all, successfully playing links golf, especially in the UK, requires a different mindset and a commitment to distinct shots that aren’t played as frequently— and don’t always work as well—in the States.
As the world’s best players competed for the Claret Jug in St Andrews this past July, millions of golfers around the world likely aspired to play golf in Scotland themselves one day. With that in mind, we’ve highlighted seven spectacular Scottish courses that every golf enthusiast should play. But the list isn’t as predictable as you might think. Sure, we could easily spotlight the seven Scottish courses that have hosted the Open Championship, but you may know those layouts very well already. Instead, we’ve highlighted seven exceptional golf courses that have never hosted an Open Championship. They may not have a Claret Jug pedigree, but each of these courses—and the golfing experiences they provide—are championship caliber.
The Championship Course at Royal Dornoch Golf Club
It would be an overstatement to describe Royal Dornoch as a hidden gem, if only because the historic links course has sat routinely near the pinnacle of many Top 100 course rankings over the years. The club’s championship layout was finalized by Old Tom Morris in 1886, and it was across those now-hallowed holes that Donald Ross—an esteemed course architect famous for building some of America’s most revered courses— first took up the game. Twenty years after Morris completed construction of the course, King Edward VII granted the Dornoch Golf Club its royal status.
Set along the shores of the Dornoch Firth in the Northern Highlands, the 6,754-yard layout—like so many links courses throughout Scotland—can be lashed by rain and blustery, unpredictable winds. Despite those frequently challenging conditions, Royal Dornoch offers a fair test of golf across a collection of diverse and memorable holes. Unlike many links courses, there’s a fair amount of elevation change at Royal Dornoch, which creates an environment that allows players to see the challenges ahead of them most of the time.
For more than a century, Royal Dornoch has enraptured noteworthy figures within the game, too. Following his first-ever round on the course in 1981, Tom Watson, winner of eight major championships, declared those 18 holes to be “The most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course.” In a similar fashion, the late American sportswriter Herbert Warren Wind, a respected authority on golf course architecture, was effusive with his praise of the historic links course. “No golfer has completed his education,” he wrote, “until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch.”
LOCATION East Sutherland
DATE FOUNDED 1886
TYPE OF COURSE Links
PUBLIC ACCESS/RESTRICTIONS Open tee times available seven days a week
RESERVATION INFO email@example.com
There is an ongoing debate over who served as the designer of this classic Scottish links layout, and while such a detail might impact the reputation or desirability of some courses, it doesn’t affect Western Gailes. That’s because this 7,014-yard track located south of Glasgow is as pure a links layout as you’ll likely find anywhere in Scotland. Given that characterization, the course adheres to the notion that a golf shot’s success should be determined only by how close it delivers the ball to the hole.
“At Western Gailes you’re penalized for trying to overpower the golf course,” says Gordon Dalgleish, president of PerryGolf, a private travel company that specializes in golf tours throughout the UK. “It’s about playing the course sensibly. The golf course is in front of you with good bunkering, and you’ll do well to keep the ball on the ground as much as you can. There’s a variety of ways to play a golf hole, and Western Gailes delivers on that.”
In this area along the southwest coast of Scotland, a number of prestigious championship links courses draw the lion’s share of attention from international golf travelers, but those visitors would be remiss if they didn’t tee it up at Western Gailes, a charming and challenging layout that maximizes its tiny parcel of land squeezed between the Firth of Clyde on the west and an active railway on the east. After all, respected golf architecture writer and editor Ron Whitten once declared this course to be “the least-known grand old Scottish links.”
LOCATION North Ayrshire
DATE FOUNDED 1897
TYPE OF COURSE Links
PUBLIC ACCESS/RESTRICTIONS Limited visitor tee times are available each day of the week
RESERVATION INFO firstname.lastname@example.org
Kingsbarns Golf Links
When Kingsbarns Golf Links opened 22 years ago, the entire golfing world took notice. After all, it’s not every day that a new Scottish golf course is built on genuine linksland–low-lying, firm, sand-based terrain that’s located near the sea and typically links the coast to more fertile ground farther inland. (Today, the UK government has designated most linksland as ecologically sensitive areas and, as such, protected.)
Designed by golf architect Kyle Philips and course developer Mark Parsinen, the 7,224-yard Kingsbarns layout meanders across former farmland and over and around more dramatic dunescapes, while also hugging almost two miles of coastline along the North Sea. Six holes play right alongside the rocky coast; however, every fairway (even those farther inland) offers ocean views.
A golf course existed on a parcel of the Kingsbarns property centuries ago, so while the present course is unmistakably modern, it still adheres to the strategies of classic links golf and often requires players to think creatively and play low-running shots. Of greater significance, Parsinen considered the abilities of the average player when conceptualizing the course’s green complexes. So while the putting surfaces are typically protected by two or three bunkers, there are more closely mowed areas that allow golfers to wield putters for their recovery shots. “Greenside bunkers are great for really great players,” Parsinen once said, “but for average players, nothing good ever happens in them. A putt from 40 feet over a big contour is difficult, but the average player with a putter in his hands is hopeful. To be without hope is a bad thing in golf.”
DATE FOUNDED 2000
TYPE OF COURSE Links
PUBLIC ACCESS/RESTRICTIONS Open to outside play at all times
RESERVATION INFO Submit a booking form through the golf club’s website
The West Links at North Berwick Golf Club
Founded in 1832, the North Berwick Golf Club is one of the world’s oldest golf properties, evidenced by the fact that an ancient stone wall runs through the middle of its championship layout, the West Links. That wall impacts two holes in unique ways. It first bisects the third fairway more than 300 yards from the championship tee box, where a small gap in the wall provides an ideal target line for players’ tee shots. Later, on the 13th hole, the wall angles its way up the left edge of the fairway before crossing just in front of the green. Predictably, the preferred landing area for tee shots is the right center of the fairway. “Don’t argue with the wall,” the West Links yardage book declares, “it’s older than you.”
To be fair, the wall is older than the entire golf course; however, the West Links is home to a historic design feature of its own: It’s the birthplace of the Redan, a classic golf hole design that features a green positioned at or close to a 45-degree angle with a deep bunker guarding the front left portion of the putting surface and a large hump or shoulder on the right of the green complex, which golfers can use to bounce or funnel balls closer to the middle of the green (and, usually, the hole). At North Berwick, the Redan makes its appearance on the par-3 15th hole, which plays 189 yards from the back tee.
LOCATION East Lothian
DATE FOUNDED 1832
TYPE OF COURSE Links
PUBLIC ACCESS/RESTRICTIONS Blocks of tee times for visitors are available six days a week, excluding Saturdays
RESERVATION INFO Tee time inquiry form available on the club’s website
Nine years after Kingsbarns debuted only a few miles south of St Andrews, developer Mark Parsinen opened Castle Stuart up in the Northern Highlands, just a 15-minute drive outside of Inverness. Similar to Kingsbarns, the parcel of land upon which Castle Stuart is routed is as dramatic as it is authentic linksland; and architects Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner worked closely with Parsinen to construct a layout that takes advantage of its perch alongside the Moray Firth. In fact, while playing the half-dozen holes that run directly along the sea, golfers will enjoy unobstructed views of the Kessock Bridge, Chanonry Lighthouse, Fort George, and Castle Stuart itself.
The course’s wide fairways make for a welcoming start to most holes, while edge contours along the greens—in place of many bunkers—lessen the penalty of poorly hit approach shots. This means high-handicap players can bump and run or putt their balls back onto the green, while more skilled players will still be challenged with wedges in their hands. As Parsinen once declared, Castle Stuart’s ethos is “more about redemption than punishment.”
Visually, Castle Stuart excels for its ability to contrast manicured playing surfaces along natural rugged areas strewn with expanses of gorse, broom, heather, and dense maritime grasses. The course’s routing is also exceptional, as it was laid out in such a way that golfers are unlikely to see evidence of any other golf holes aside from the one that they’re playing.
DATE FOUNDED 2009
TYPE OF COURSE Links
PUBLIC ACCESS/RESTRICTIONS Open to visitor play seven days a week
RESERVATION INFO email@example.com
Golfers with preconceptions about what a Scottish links course is or what it can be will find themselves flabbergasted by Cruden Bay. With dramatic changes of elevation, including a series of elevated tee boxes on the back nine, this Old Tom Morris layout (redesigned during the 1920s by Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler and renovated more recently by Tom Mackenzie in 2015), plays through towering dunes that present a number of challenging and memorable shots.
Unlike some courses on this list that deliver opening holes set in jaw-dropping locations— we’re talking about you, Castle Stuart—a round at Cruden Bay is a slow build, both for the challenging shots to be hit and the dramatic views to be enjoyed. After the opening trio of holes, all of which are medium-length par 4s, golfers reach the easternmost point of the property, where they’ll play a long par 3 with the town of Port Erroll and its harbor across a small estuary to the left. It’s a captivating and charming view that also provides golfers with their first distant view of the ruins of Slains Castle—a 16th-century fortress that is said to have been Bram Stoker’s inspiration for his seminal novel “Dracula.”
The elevated fifth tee box reveals much of the course stretched out below, and as golfers make their way around the remaining 13 holes, they’ll encounter funnel-like, bathtub-shaped greens, elevated putting surfaces, and green complexes completely obscured by steep dunes. When they finally sink their last putts on the 18th hole, first-time visitors will understand why famed course designer Pete Dye declared Cruden Bay one of his favorite courses, and a source of inspiration.
DATE FOUNDED 1894
TYPE OF COURSE Links
PUBLIC ACCESS/RESTRICTIONS Open for outside play seven days a week
RESERVATION INFO firstname.lastname@example.org
The King’s Course at Gleneagles
Despite the fact that The King’s Course was built just after World War I, the James Braid-designed layout has a look and feel that could easily convince players that it’s much older. Routed over quintessential heathland—terrain that is strewn with heather, gorse, and coarse grasses—the course is rich with history, headlined by the fact that it hosted an inaugural international golf match between professionals from the U.S. and Great Britain in 1921 that eventually evolved into a more formal affair now known as the Ryder Cup.
Speaking of the Ryder Cup, Gleneagles’s youngest course, the PGA Centenary, hosted the biannual event in 2014, and for that reason golfers are more likely to set their sights on that 7,296-yard Jack Nicklaus design. But the 6,790-yard King’s Course remains the resort’s crown jewel—a standing further enhanced by the fact that Braid considered the layout to be his greatest creation. Each hole on The King’s Course boasts an evocative Scots name, which only adds to the course’s historic sense of place. Take the fifth, a par-3 named Het Girdle, which means hot griddle or skillet. Appropriately, the green is shaped a bit like an upside-down frying pan, and just as oil can easily slide around a hot skillet, a ball that flirts with the edge of the putting surface can easily trundle down into one of four deep bunkers guarding the front of the green.
DATE FOUNDED 1919
TYPE OF COURSE Heathland
PUBLIC ACCESS/RESTRICTIONS Tee times available to resort guests and outside play seven days a week
RESERVATION INFO Tee times can be booked through the resort’s website