Review: Western Gailes Golf Club

By Art Stricklin, Contributor

GAILES, Scotland - Overlooked by its more famous neighbors, Royal Troon and Prestwick to the North and Turnberry to the South, Western Gailes was established as a perfect holiday spot for Glasgow merchants in the late 1890s.

With its fast, firm greens, wonderful seaside location and crisp turf, the course serves as a classic links design today next of the Firth of Clyde.

The Glasgow merchants were determined to lay out a new golfing playground, but already knew about the many famous courses in the area and knew they could not compete with the many famed architects who designed them.

So a committee was formed and an anonymous greenskeeper was hired to craft a new course and he did a remarkably good job with little formal training or experience, giving the merchants a par 72 course measuring 6,763 yards from the back tees.

The uneven 130-acre tract of land was purchased from the Duke of Portland and lies between the huge body of water and the local railroad line which would provide easy access to the large city for the members.

Initial play was 50 pence a person with life memberships selling for 5 pounds in the early 1900s. The first nine holes were opened in 1897, and by the turn of the century, the rapidly growing membership was enjoying a full 18 hole layout.

As the members knew when they started, Western Gailes would never overtake the head start given Troon, Turnberry and the others, and has never hosted an Open Championship, but it quickly overshadowed the older Glasgow Gailes course and is now known as one of the classic links courses in the country.

The first hole begins at the clubhouse and moves to the right before swinging along the water and continuing uninterrupted for the next 12 holes before heading back toward the clubhouse and playing the final five along the railroad track, which is in use to this day.

It's certainly not a place for the timid or the weak, but those who appreciate classic seaside links golf have long enjoyed the Western Gailes layout.

As the name would suggest, gales of wind and rain have always played a major factor in the course design and conditions. Wind is almost a constant factor coming off the nearby Firth, adding distance to the shortest of holes and sometimes making the par 4s and 5s along with water almost impossible to reach in regulation.

Rain can also be a major factor, owing to the fact that in Scotland, rain can be a given on any golf course, but especially one this close to the water. The great storm of 1926 almost wiped out the course, forcing members to rebuild the clubhouse, move the layout slightly inland, and spend long hours and great amounts of money to shore up the coastline.

The only thing separating water from the course on the outward holes is a wooden picket fence, which runs the length of the course, and a series of natural sand dues. During most of the 1900s, members have taken it upon themselves to help build up the dunes and fortify them with marram and bentgrasses, which grow well in this area.

Playing the back nine holes against the water, the Isle of Arran and the Ailsa Craig formation, near the home of the Turnberry course, are visible in the distance.

One of the local Gailes traditions is that if the Craig rock formation is visible, then rain is in the near future, if the formation is not visible, then it is already raining.

The course also carries on many of the old world traditions of Scottish golf. Sunday golf was banned for much of the 20th century and was only allowed after a hotly contested debate. Women were prohibited from entering the clubhouse until 1974 when the course hosted the biannual Curtis Cup matches drawing female professionals from the U.S. and Great Britain.

Even today, while the huge, red-roofed clubhouse has a modern lobby with scrolls of past captains and club champions, there is no separate golf clubhouse. Players simply pay for their green fees and trolleys (pull carts) at the bar where hats are strictly prohibited from being worn.

Anyone wishing to purchase anything further from the club can have it brought up from the storeroom and purchase it at the bar, along with any food or drink for the course.

It's classic Scottish golf history and tradition at its best.

While the course has never hosted the Open Championship, it has served as the final qualifying site for the various Ayrshire-area Opens at Troon and Turnberry and has also hosted several famous matches.

Harry Vardon, inventor of the widely-used Vardon grip, played in the first major championship here in 1903 and in the succeeding decades, Western Gailes has hosted a succession of top Scottish amateur and pro events from the juniors, seniors and Scottish Open. The reason is the quality of the course and it doesn't take long to see why.

A mixture of long par 4s and 5s greets first timers as the course swings by the sea after the opening hole. The par 4 second hole is a classic seaside links layout with a small green hidden off the tee by the rolling mounds, swales and hollows. Among the best layouts on the front nine are the par 5 sixth and the par 4 seventh.

The sixth plays along the water and requires two good shots to even have a chance for a comfortable approach to this large green with a narrow opening to the putting surface and large bunkers on every side.

There is enough thorny, yellow-flowered gorse and thick heather surrounding the green to punish any golfer who falls short of the target or goes over the pin.

The seventh hole features an elevated tee overlooking the water and beach, but it is also greatly exposed to the often fierce Ayrshire winds which can greatly affect course conditions.

The back nine has similarly challenging holes with long and straight shots required off the tee, and many hidden greens which require the most delicate of approaches. The par 3 12th is short enough, but the green is almost totally surrounded by bunkers, gorse and heather.

Once the golfer makes the turn toward the clubhouse, they will be playing parallel to the railroad track, so be careful that a piercing train whistle doesn't catch you off guard.

As the par 4 18th doglegs left toward home, golfers must play over one more burn and navigate the final bunkers; it's often possible to see a rainbow arched over the 18th green going into the water.

Perhaps it's a sign that the visionary Glasgow merchants who began Western Gailes on a dream and a plan, knew what they were doing after all.

Western Gailes Golf Club
Irvine, Ayshire Scotland KA11 5AE
Phone: 44 01294 311649
Par: 72
Yardage: 6,763
18-hole championship links course, modern clubhouse

Art Stricklin, Contributor

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