Everyone wants to play golf in Scotland and Ireland. Fact. Maybe this is a once in lifetime experience, or perhaps an annual pilgrimage? The bucket lists will be overflowing with your Old courses, whether that’s at Portmarnock, or St Andrews! The Open Championship courses will trip off your tongue, including Portrush, back on the rota, and rightly so. There will even be the must-plays that very few can play, unless well connected, financially sound, or both.
I can understand why the usual suspects are always on the golf itinerary. And, by writing this blog, I don’t want to question their appeal, or their quality. But, my argument lies in that in this day and age of travel and tourism, it is all about going off the beaten track, exploring, living a little, and not conforming. Some may argue my selections aren’t off the beaten track enough, but they’re there to debate!
It is with a great deal of smugness that I present to you ten golf courses (11 if you include two at Moray) I have experienced, five in each country, where you can be assured of as Scottish and Irish golf experience as you richly deserve.
Protruding deep into the Atlantic on the west of Ireland is Carne Golf Links. The village of Belmullet lies almost exactly 3000 miles from New York and Carne idly inhabits an area, which is low on population, but highly populated with dunes. Sand dunes of the highest order! Now offering 27 holes, you will think you are driving to New York, but just before tipping off the edge of Europe, the dunes come into view. They are something to behold.
Travelling further down the west coast and driving beyond the practice greens of Ballybunion, Lahinch and Tralee, is Castlegregory on the Dingle Peninsula. Surely I am not recommending a 9-holer? I will grant you access to one of the usual suspects in the morning, but following a couple of Guinness whilst watching the boats bob up and down off the Inch Peninsula it seems appealing to play 9 more. Doesn’t it? Castlegregory gifts dramatic views across to Tralee, the steep-sided Mount Brandon as a backdrop and a challenge that simply not enough people know about. But, that’s its charm.
The Wild Atlantic Way, the world’s longest defined coastal route should send you in the direction of the Ring of Kerry. A beautiful stretch of road and home to Waterville and Dooks, but perhaps controversially we will head cross-country to County Wicklow on the Irish Sea.
Pat Ruddy designed The European Club. In fact, he is still designing the European Club. Heading out with his spray can, he will mark where bunkers need to be tweaked and changed before heading in again to talk to his golfers about Tiger’s course-record 67, how Padraig Harrington has his three Majors thanks to the European and how Rory thinks it’s the best links he’s ever played. Oh yes, I forgot, you get 20 holes for your money and the world’s longest green.
Not too far away and inland, is Druids Glen. The over-used phrase of the ‘Augusta of Europe’ is once again on show on the club’s website. However, this is as close as I have come to what I imagine Augusta to be like. Spectacularly manicured, fascinatingly interesting, wonderfully unexpected and a lot of fun. Monty has won twice at Druids, whilst Sergio won his first tour event here. It goes to show it’s not just about how pretty the golf course looks it’s tricky too.
At the end of the 19th century, golf was becoming steadily more popular with the elite of the day. The Island Golf Club, north of Dublin was originally a spit of land opposite Malahide. One fine day, a Syndicate of gents jumped in a boat and acquired the slice of land for their golf course. You still had to get a boat to the course until 1973 with the clubhouse putting up coloured disks to draw the attention of the boatman. Once on dry land, the dunes loom. It’s hard to tell just how big they are when you’re in Malahide, but after 18 holes and a couple of Guinness, trust me, they’re massive.
‘Hidden gems’ is a phrase too often used. After all, golf opinion is subjective, and dependent on how you play and what type of course you prefer to play! My challenge in Scotland is to demonstrate that no matter how low or high your handicap, or how close to it you play, you will still walk away appreciating what has just happened. This must be the reason we play? Personally, play poorly I appreciate the view, play well it’s the scorecard, not forgetting the view. In Scotland, we will start by sauntering down the Edinburgh coast.
The views of the Bass Rock extend out into the North Sea, whilst 150,000 gannets stare at you as you hover over the birdie putt. The 9th at North Berwick Glen drops to the seashore and has the rock as its aim. A visual treasure and perched up high so susceptible to the odd breeze, it’s hard to concentrate on the swing when there is so much else to consider. The pretty town of North Berwick is a pleasant 5-minute stroll along the beach if you fancy a boat trip to see the birdies.
It’s not all about the sea and links though if you truly want to experience Scottish golf. The hills, the heathland, the contours and the gradients have helped assist the Queen’s at Gleneagles. Slightly over-shadowed by its bigger brothers of the King’s and the PGA Centenary (Host Venue of the 2014 Ryder Cup) on a summer’s evening the views across the Ochils are worth the trip. Deer and rabbit will frolic in the rough, whilst the swans will serenely cruise on the loch at Nos. 13 and 14.
Back on track, the Aberdeen coast has recently been synonymous with the arrival of the Trump International Golf Links. No matter your politics, it’s a marvellous golf course. But, a little further up the coast is Royal Aberdeen. Royal Aberdeen is the 6th oldest golf club in the world and was founded in 1780 as the Society of Golfers at Aberdeen. The front 9 are arguably the best group of links holes anywhere on the planet, yet it might depend on how well you’re playing. Either way, the tradition, the atmosphere, the welcome and the clubhouse are reassuringly old skool.
The furthest north I will head is Moray. I know some of the purists will sight Dornoch as THE Scottish golf experience, but the 36 holes of the Old and New at Moray will once again offer pure Scottish golf. It’s important to play one ‘Old’ on your trip, so Old Tom Morris’ Old can then be followed by Henry Coton’s New. That’s not a bad combination. They won seven Opens between them, so they knew what they were doing.
Heading back down the road, the steam from the Highlands only steam railway will welcome you to Boat of Garten. Home to the ospreys and nestling by the River Spey, the course was designed by the legendary James Braid. The railway also runs alongside the 4th, so don’t forget to give the passengers a wave, not a fore. It is a beautifully untouched end to the tour. There is not much flat terrain to be had, but then you are in Scotland.
It is without question that Scotland and Ireland offer the ultimate golf experience. But, it’s important to explore beyond the brochure. Where Turnberry and Ballybunion are our Coliseum and Eiffel Tower, the plethora of courses will equally fulfil your romantic notions of Scottish and Irish golf. With a Guinness or whisky in hand, come rain or shine, your tour of golf heaven awaits.