11 most special golf courses in Scotland: Martin Dempster picks out the ones to play

While I’ve only really scraped the surface when it comes to playing the 580-odd golf courses in Scotland, which I fully intend to do something about before my time is up, I still feel lucky to have teed up at lots of cracking venues.
You get some spectacular views of the Highlands when you play Castle Stuart.You get some spectacular views of the Highlands when you play Castle Stuart.
You get some spectacular views of the Highlands when you play Castle Stuart.

Muirfield is No 1 on my list of favourite courses, having fallen in love with the East Lothian venue with its two concentric circles the first time I got to play it and refusing to let a fresh air shot on the first tee on another visit dampen my view.

However, I’ve compiled this list based on them being special to me as opposed to being my favourite courses and I’ve also included a ‘hidden gem’ at the end after being introduced to it by one of the greats of Scottish golf journalism.

1) Eyemouth

The clubhouse at the Braids, where the Dispatch Trophy is played.The clubhouse at the Braids, where the Dispatch Trophy is played.
The clubhouse at the Braids, where the Dispatch Trophy is played.
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I have to begin where it all started for me in golf, having been introduced to the game here by my dad as I was growing up in nearby Coldingham. It was a nine-holer at the time and what a fun place to learn about the game. The first hole was a sharp dog-leg and, on a Saturday afternoon, players turning out for the local football team and their opponents ran the risk of being clobbered by wayward shots! I also remember spending a lot of time clambering down deep gullies to retrieve golf balls that had been gobbled up. The holes retained in what is now an 18-hole course play in the opposite direction, with one of them – the sixth and named ‘A Still No Ken’ – having been turned into a par 3 that was named as ‘Britain’s Most Extraordinary Golf Hole’. Though probably a bit quirky as a nine-holer, it now provides a proper challenge from start to finish and a visit to The Heathers Restaurant, run in the clubhouse by local man George Aitchison and wife Heather, is a must either before heading out for a hit or afterwards. Website: www.eyemouthgolfclub.co.uk

2) Dunbar

Another course where I played as a youngster due to the fact my dad and his pals were members and played there almost without fail every Sunday morning. And what a treat that was, both in terms of the golf course and also the life lessons it served up! You always knew what sort of test awaited you over the East Links by the smoke coming out of the chimney at Blue Circle’s cement plant and, if that was horizontal, then you were in for a tough test. With three par 5s on the front nine, you really have to make your score on that stretch, especially so if you then find yourself playing seven of the nine holes on a testing inward nine into the prevailing wind. The par-4 12th and short 16th have always been two of my favourite holes and, with an out-of-bounds wall running all the way up the right side, a good score can always be an undone at the par-4 18th. Though exciting changes are about to take place, the existing clubhouse has a real charm and will always be fondly remembered by me for being the venue for both Sunday afternoon tea and time spent in the back lounge listening to tales of good golf shots but mainly bad ones! Website: www.dunbargolfclub.com

3) Aberdour

The Postage Stamp at Royal Troon is one of Scotland's most iconic golf holes.The Postage Stamp at Royal Troon is one of Scotland's most iconic golf holes.
The Postage Stamp at Royal Troon is one of Scotland's most iconic golf holes.

This is where I’ve played most of my golf over the past 20 years and I am grateful that meeting and marrying a Fifer has provided me with that opportunity. Without a shadow of doubt, it is located in one of the best spots I’ve ever come across in golf and not just in Scotland. Nestling on the banks of the Firth of Forth, the views across to Edinburgh with the Pentland Hills in the background are simply breathtaking. Unusually, the course starts with back-to-back par 3s and both of them are potential card-wreckers, though one member, Gary Cruickshank, was probably tempted to see if he could walk across the water between the tee and green at the second after starting 1-1 in a club medal. Though quite short with a par of 67, it’s no pushover as the greens can be tricky, especially when they are running at summer speed, while holes like the 11th – a spectacular par 4 that would probably sit on any course in Scotland due to both its beauty and also the challenge – ensure that nothing can ever be taken for granted. With its panoramic view and fantastic food, a visit to the clubhouse is als highly recommended. Website: www.aberdourgolfclub.co.uk

4) Queen’s Course, Gleneagles

I love the King’s Course and, in fairness, the PGA Centenary Course has also gradually grown on me, but this is where I’d always choose to play when visiting one of my favourite destinations in golf. I have to confess that we’d actually sneaked on for a game – I was there with my dad as spectators at a pro-am event taking place on the King’s Course – the first time I played it and the absolute treat it provides has never diminished. It is located in a special part of the country and the challenge is fantastic, starting with six holes that run in the same direction before twisting and turning through a loop then heading back to the Dormy House via brilliant stretch of holes, including back-to-back par 3s and three in four holes, with all of them providing a different test thanks to the natural terrain. On a nice day, there are few better places in the world to hit a wee white ball than here. Website: www.gleneagles.com

5) Castle Stuart

The 18th green at Carnoustie.The 18th green at Carnoustie.
The 18th green at Carnoustie.

The first time I played here the clubhouse hadn’t been built, but I had the privilege that day of sitting with Mark Parsinen, who discovered the location for the course and designed it in tandem with Gil Hanse, and, though sadly no longer with us, his legacy has been well and truly created. Its split-level design is similar to Kingsbarns, which I also love, and the fact the six holes on the bottom level are divided into three playing in one direction and three in the other is a mark of golf course design genius. One of the great things about Castle Stuart is that it is playable off the tee for golfers of all abilities, with the main challenge then being provided through shots into the greens, the majority of which are undulating, though not in a daft way like some other modern courses. The holes on the upper level twist and turn in different directions and there’s no hiding place when the wind is blowing along the Moray Firth from Inverness. This place really deserves to hold an event like the Scottish Open again in the future and spending some time in the fabulous art deco-style and very homely clubhouse is an absolute must. Website: www.castlestuartgolf.com

6) Royal Troon

I could easily have picked the Ailsa Course at Turnberry, especially now after the sensational changes made to it in recent years, or even the ever-improving Dundonald Links for one of my west coast selections. But I’m going with the venue for the 2024 Open, which was also the scene of a titanic tussle between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson when that event was last held at the Ayrshire venue in 2016. This is a course that breaks you in gently before really starting to show its teeth when you head for home and have the Glasgow to Ayr railway line flanking you for a couple of holes. If the last few hoes are straight into the wind, then you find yourself hanging on for dear life on the journey back to the clubhouse. The Postage Stamp – the short but tricky eighth – is one of the best holes in golf while the 17th, another par 3, is also a cracker. Like the other Open venues, the clubhouse here is steeped in history and well worth devoting time to savour either before or after your time out on the links. Website: www.royaltroon.co.uk

7) Braid Hills

The 8th hole at the exclusive Loch Lomond club.The 8th hole at the exclusive Loch Lomond club.
The 8th hole at the exclusive Loch Lomond club.

This place might not figure highly on any of those lists of ‘Scotland’s Top Courses’ but that’s maybe not a surprise. The main reason for that is due to it being quirky and also perhaps because it’s a municipal course. But there’s something special about playing at the Braids due mainly to the fact it sits high above Edinburgh and offers stunning views of not only Scotland’s Capital city but down the coast to East Lothian, over the Firth of Forth to Fife and along to Stirling in the west. You’re faced with shots and stances you are unlikely to encounter on most courses, but that’s part of what is almost a unique challenge and, when the gorse is in full bloom in the spring/early summer, the holes on the back nine in particular can be very daunting indeed, even more so if they are playing straight into a westerly wind. This is the host venue of the Dispatch Trophy, an historic team tournament in Edinburgh, and its double foursome format makes for fantastic entertainment, though perhaps not if you are the player standing on the tee at the 16th, 17th or 18th feeling the pressure of the occasion. Website: www.edinburghleisure.co.uk

8) Loch Lomond

It’s probably a bit unfair to include this due to it being an exclusive club, but it really is a special place. The course had been laid out but was still just soil when I got a first glimpse of it from a helicopter on a media visit while Rossdhu House, which is now like a palace, only had one small welcome room that wasn’t riddled by dry rot at that time in its development. I’ve always found leaving the locker-room a challenge due to the friendly welcome receive and also due to it being such a warm, comfy and plush place, but doing so is well worth it because Tom Weiskopf, sadly now departed, in conjunction with Jay Morrish created one of the best courses on the planet. While the holes that flank Loch Lomond are especially good, the ones inland on the back nine are equally good and the risk-and-reward par-4 14th, as well as the par-3 17th are two crackers. Playing here is definitely a treat but so was getting through the big iron gates when it hosted the Scottish Open and it has to be hoped that big-time tournament golf returns here one day. Website: www.lochlomond.com

9) Carnoustie

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I’m a big fan of Downfield, Monifieth and Panmure when it comes to courses in Angus, but the Championship Course at Carnoustie would definitely be one of the places I’d play if I was ever told that I had just one more game left in me. That horrible flat-roofed building was still there behind the 18th green when I first visited here, but I was soon made to forget about that by the golf course itself and it never disappoints as far as a proper but also enjoyable test of golf is concerned. I love the way it constantly twists and turns and also how you almost get a parkland feel for a few holes around the turn. The par-3 16th is phenomenal, the 17th equally so, though I’m never quite sure what bit of the burn I’m trying to carry off the tee so invariably end up getting wet, and the 18th just gives you goosebumps when you think about what Paul Lawrie achieved there in the 1999 Open. Condition-wise, the course just gets better and better under Craig Boath’s stewardship and the new Carnoustie Links facility, which includes The Rookery restaurant, is a very impressive addition in recent years. Website: www.carnoustiegolflinks.com

10) Boat of Garten

I’d heard lots of praise for this place before paying my first during the Scottish Challenge when it was held for a lengthy spell at Macdonald Spey Valley in nearby Aviemore and it certainly lived up to its hype. The first hole - a short one - is nothing to shout about, but it quickly picks up and James Braid came up with something special in what is a gorgeous spot on the banks of the River Spey, The holes in the middle of the round are particularly memorable, with tee shots framed by the scenery and clumps of heather waiting to gobble up wayward shots. As is the case at Spey Valley, which is a lot newer in comparison but another fine test of golf in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. Website: www.boatgolf.com

11) Dunaverty (hidden gem)

The late, great Jock MacVicar always raved about his home course on the Kintyre peninsula and his love for it was certainly justified. First and foremost, it is located in a stunning setting in the village of Southend and offers breathtaking views, including across the North Channel to the Antrim coast, from various tees. Including some drivable par 4s, it’s a fun test from start to finish and it was an absolute treat to play it in the company of the club’s other legendary figure, seven-time Scottish women’s champion Belle Robertson, in an event in MacVicar’s memory. The club also now has a special cabinet in his honour in the small but welcoming clubhouse that is part of its charm and why he loved it so much. Website: www.dunavertygolfclub.com

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