EAST LOTHIAN, Carnoustie Country and the Highlands are three very different regions of Scotland. What they share, as well as superb scenery, both inland and on their coastlines, is an array of superb golf courses, from a brace of current Open Championship venues, through to little known inland gems and on to relaxed nine-hole affairs that ensure that there is something in these golfing oases for everyone.
Golf is inexorably woven into the culture of East Lothian, which boasts more than 20 courses. Indeed, it can stake a claim to being the real “home of golf”. Musselburgh Links’ Old Course is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest. Playing this nine-hole gem with Arthur’s Seat in the background is quite an experience. Not to be outdone, the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club is the fifth oldest club in existence and boasts the world’s oldest still-running golf competition. Completing the local trio, Musselburgh Golf Club offers a testing James Braid-designed 6,725yds par-71 gem.
Pushing east, Longniddry, Craigielaw, Aberlady, Kilspindie and Luffness cling to this stellar coast. Then we come to Gullane, which boasts a trio of links courses and centuries of history. Gullane No.1 has a long heritage of hosting international championship golf events and is an Open Championship qualifying course. Gullane No.2 is highly regarded in its own right and has also been used for Open qualifying, while Gullane No.3 may be the shortest of the three, but is still no slouch.
East Lothian’s most famous course is, of course, Muirfield. It is home to The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, who started life in Leith in 1744 and may be the oldest club in the world. This Old Tom Morris course is links golf at its best, with the 471-yard par four 10th one of the world’s great holes. The eyes of the world will be on Muirfield in 2013 when it once again hosts The Open Championship.
More treasures await in and around North Berwick and Dunbar, courses that really make the most of the exceptional coastal scenery. East Lothian is not just about the coast, though, with a sprinkling of hidden gems dotting the interior. Gifford Golf Club is a beginner-friendly nine-hole course. Castle Park near Gifford was designed by an ambitious local team and they have worked wonders, their original nine holes opened in 1994 now topped up to a 6,443-yard 18-hole par 72. Nearby Haddington, meanwhile, offers a stiff parkland test.
Most golfers have heard of Carnoustie, but how many know Carnoustie Country offers 30 courses all within a 40-minute drive of each other, including four Open Championship qualifier courses? It is easy to see why leading golfer Catriona Matthew calls it a golfer’s paradise.
The highlight is, of course, Carnoustie Championship, which has held the Open Championship seven times. To some, this is the toughest links course in the world, a 6,941-yard par 72 test expertly designed by James Braid, featuring vast bunkers and a particularly testing closing trio of holes. Two other 18-hole courses can be found here, in the shape of Carnoustie Buddon and Carnoustie Burnside.
A little further north, golf has been played on Montrose Links for more than four centuries – choose between the Open qualifier Montrose Medal or Broomfield. Both offer a superb links challenge. Another Open qualifier course is Monifieth Medal, a testing 6,655-yard par 71 combination of parkland and links, with undulating ground often flanked by rows of pine trees and deep, unforgiving bunkers.
Carnoustie Country is also home to myriad hidden gems. Edzell is a beguiling 6,445-yard par 71 mix of heathland and parkland, with panoramic views of the Cairngorms National Park which make it one of Scotland’s most scenic courses. Kirriemuir Golf Course, at the foot of the mighty Angus Glens, is spread across woods, gorse and broom with the expert hand of James Braid at work.
It is not all about 18 holes in Carnoustie Country, though, with an array of nine-hole courses available, including Forbes of Kingennie Country Resort. Opened in 2007, it is welcoming for beginners, with a few tests to challenge more experienced golfers as well.
Heading north into the Highlands, the big buzz today surrounds Castle Stuart, a superb links overlooking the Moray Firth, which hosted last month’s Scottish Open. On opening in 2009, the course debuted at No. 56 in Golf Magazine’s Top 100 global courses. The first Scottish Open held here in 2011 was also groundbreaking, as it was the first European PGA Tour event ever staged in the Highlands.
To the south, the Cairngorms National Park boasts a trio of superb courses. Aviemore’s Dave Thomas designed Spey Valley only opened in 2006, but already has won an army of devotees. The fairways are tight and the rough unforgiving at this 7,200-yard monster, which features, at 641 yards, the longest hole in Scotland. Carrbridge is the venue for the Scottish Nine-Hole Open and is a surprising wee test. Boat of Garten is perhaps the most famous of the three. Designed by James Braid, this Speyside marvel regularly makes it into lists of top courses and its admirers have dubbed it “The Gleneagles of the North”.
Heading east along the Moray Firth, Nairn Golf Club boasts a testing 18-hole links that invites you to batter the ball into the sea on all seven of the opening holes, as well as a more relaxed nine-hole course. Nairn Dunbar, meanwhile, is a slightly less testing 18-hole course, while Moray Golf Club at Lossiemouth has two treasures. The Old Course was laid out by the seminal Old Tom Morris, a real links test with seven par four holes each measuring more than 400 yards. The New Course is the brainchild of Henry Cotton, shorter but no slouch with its tight greens a challenge.
Further north still you have the nine-hole courses at Bonar Bridge and Durness, with a lovely 18-hole links at Brora. Then there is one of Scotland’s most famous clubs, Royal Dornoch, founded back in 1877. It says it all that last year Golf Digest rated the Championship Course fourth and the Struie 50th in its UK and Ireland list. The former is as thrilling a links challenge as you will find, while the latter is relatively forgiving. Royal Dornoch is typical of the Highlands, a golf region that boasts diversity and flexibility to go along with its epic scenery, something that the region also shares in common with both East Lothian and Carnoustie Country.