No missing links to be found

East Lothian’s abundant coastal courses are some of the best you could play on, writes Martin Hannan

IF there was such a category in the Guinness Book of Records, East Lothian could claim the title of “golfingest” county in the world.

Nowhere else on the planet, not even across the Firth of Forth in Fife, is there such a concentration of golf courses in the one area. With 22 courses in less than 270 square miles, East Lothian truly is the “Golf Coast” of Scotland.

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Much of the county’s fame lies with its superb links courses. This original form of golf has been practised in East Lothian for centuries – Mary Queen of Scots is recorded as having played on Musselburgh’s famous old links in the 1560s.

Musselburgh’s links now lie within the town’s racecourse and are still played on, but along the 43 miles of East Lothian coastline it is Muirfield, Gullane, North Berwick and Dunbar that have become most famed for the test they provide.

Muirfield is home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the world’s oldest golf club. You do need to book some time in advance, but it is perfectly possible for golfers with even a high handicap to pit their skills against a course that in 2013 will host the Open Championship for the sixteenth time, and which has again been voted number-one course in the world by Golf Monthly magazine.

The three courses at Gullane all present a different sort of challenge, with Gullane No. 1 set to host Open qualifying in 2013, the seventh time it has done so.

Heading further east, North Berwick has also been named as a 2013 Open qualifying venue as has Dunbar’s East Links. Both have hosted many other championships over the years, and are recognised as genuinely testing links courses – Dunbar has some 14 holes that adjoin the seashore.

These world-renowned courses are only part of East Lothian’s golfing story. There are smaller gems like Kilspindie by Aberlady, a links course that lengthens dramatically when the wind blows, while nearby Longniddry is an intriguing mix of links and parkland golf.

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Craigielaw is another links course, which hosts the Eric Grandison Golf School, while Luffness New is famed for the quality of its greens.

Further inland, the clubs at Haddington and Musselburgh – it’s actually at Monktonhall and will also be a 2013 Open qualifying venue – are distinguished by their treescapes, which are not usually seen on links courses.

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There are also some gems in East Lothian, that you could not call hidden but which perhaps do not gain the credit they serve.

Take Whitekirk for instance. This golf and country club offers a warm welcome and excellent facilities at value prices – right now you can play 36 holes in a day for just £25.

Situated in arguably the most scenic part of East Lothian near North Berwick, Whitekirk has a links feel but is played on rich, grassy fairways that weave through gorse covered-banks and natural water hazards.

Elevated tees provide idyllic views of the surrounding farmland and the region’s landmarks, including the Bass Rock and North Berwick Law. The club combines tradition, refined decor and quality service – in short, an ideal golf resort.

Owned and operated by the Tuer family, since its opening in 1995 the course has attracted a number of professional tour events including the Mastercard tour, the Sky-televised PGA Europro tour and the Tartan tour.

Many of the players from those events have gone on to play on the main European tour, while among the celebrated visitors to Whitekirk have been Tiger Woods and Mark O’Meara, who visited the club back in 2002.

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Whitekirk is not resting on its laurels and the owners were recently granted outline planning permission to expand the current facilities to include a hotel and holiday lodges.

A spokesman for Whitekirk said: “Once all of the details are confirmed the future development will be a hugely exciting time for the club.”

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Whitekirk is presently offering deals such as a “winter warmer” package and fourball special deals. See for details.

A small but spectacularly beautiful course can be found in the heart of East Lothian at Gifford. Those in the know say it is the best nine-hole course in Scotland, a verdict confirmed by Golf World magazine, no less.

If you play a full 18-hole round going over the course twice – you can vary your round by playing different tees – you will complete a very testing 6,000-yard-plus challenge.

Established in 1904 on land provided by the tenth Marquis of Tweeddale for the use of the community, Gifford has the reputation of being a Very friendly club. Set in stunning surroundings, with the Lammermuir Hills as a scenic back-drop, the club is also famed for that most vital golfing resource – its bacon rolls.

Club secretary Robert Stewart feels Gifford does not suffer from having only nine holes: “Time is much more precious these days, and many of our members and visitors like the idea of being able to complete a ‘round’ in under two hours.”

“We have a vibrant membership which showed a net increase during 2011. We are continually aiming to improve the standard of the course and clubhouse facilities, with a new short practice area due for completion next year.”