Scotland's off-the-beaten-path courses offer great golf, a sense of history
Suffering, as we do, a great deal of humiliation pretty well every time we tee it up, golfers naturally develop a skin every bit as tough as that wrapped around the balls they use. And so when it was suggested I possessed a natural affinity for the subject of "old and obscure" golf courses in Scotland, instead of flying into an uncontrollable rage, I scratched my bald and wrinkled head, settled my weary body into my favorite leather armchair, poured a single malt whisky and racked my failing brain.
Most of the 500-plus courses in Scotland comfortably qualify as "old" and most are comparatively obscure, and so finding a few that were both presented no problem. Selecting the best, however, demanded so much intellectual effort that a second glass of scotch was required.
Balcomie Links should be even more famous
Although not as obscure as some, Balcomie Links is so wonderful that it really ought to be a great deal more famous than it is. It's also rather confusing because, as is often the case in Scotland, the club and course have different names. In this case, the club is called the Crail Golfing Society and Balcomie Links is the older of the two courses upon which its members play. To add to the confusion, the Crail Golfing Society, which was founded in 1786 and is the seventh most venerable golf club in the world, is considerably older than the course.
None of the above need bother the visitor to this delightful spot on the east coast of Scotland a little to the south of St. Andrews. Of more interest, perhaps, is the fact that, back in 1895, Old Tom Morris designed an extra 10 holes to add to the original eight to create the unforgettable course that is there today.
Set on a narrow strip of duneland that hugs the seashore, it is a thrill from the exhilarating opening downhill drive to the last putt way below the clubhouse on the final green. In between are all manner of inspiring challenges that will delight every golfer fortunate enough to play this genuine gem.
And don't leave without having a drink in the clubhouse. Sit by one of the many picture windows that stare out over the North Sea past Carnoustie and Bell Rock to the north and St. Abbs Head, North Berwick and May Island to the south.
Scotscraig: A gem near St. Andrews
Another great course in the famous Kingdom of Fife that, like Balcomie Links, is somewhat overshadowed by its more illustrious neighbor St. Andrews, is Scotscraig Golf Club. Although the club was founded in 1817 and is the 13th oldest in the world, the course was largely redesigned by the legendary James Braid as "recently" as 1923.
Not directly on the sea, it is part links and part heathland with distinctive features from both genres. The large revetted bunkers have a coastal quality while the impressive pines, which provide welcome shelter from the sea breezes, do not.
This truly beautiful course is considered "linksy" enough to be used as a qualifying venue whenever the British Open is played just 15 minutes away on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Glasgow Gailes: An outstanding links on the Ayrshire coast
With age, as well as an increasingly erratic putting stroke, comes wisdom, and I'm wise enough to avoid upsetting half of Scotland by ignoring the west coast, which is, of course, every bit as impressive as the east.
Glasgow Gailes Golf Club is one of several truly outstanding links courses strung along the Ayrshire coast. Since you are now familiar with the strange way they sometimes name courses in Scotland, you won't be at all surprised to learn that Glasgow Gailes is a long way from Glasgow. Just south of the town of Irvine, it's one of two courses owned by Glasgow Golf Club, which was founded in 1787, is the ninth oldest golf club in the world and built Glasgow Gailes in 1892. Twenty years later, twice British Open champion Willie Park worked with the club pro to redesign the layout, which has pretty well survived to this day.
Just more than 6,900 yards off the championship tees, it's a great challenge created on gently undulating links land. With numerous tough bunkers, gorse bushes, heather, quite a number of trees and the inevitable wind blowing in from the Firth of Clyde, it's plenty tough enough and has been a British Open qualifying venue since 1973 and recently hosted the British Amateur Championship. The only slight disappointment is that it's about half a mile from the sea.
Western Gailes G.C.: Another lovely west coast links
Bang next door is another lovely links course, Western Gailes Golf Club. Founded just a few years after its neighbor, it too was built to offer golfers living in industrial Glasgow somewhere to escape the smoke. "Gailes," by the way, has nothing to do with the wind that frequently howls around these parts but is the name of the family from whom the land was purchased at the end of the 19th century.
Right next to the sea, the course is more fortunate than those inland because it's much less inclined to freeze in winter. Squeezed between the railway line and the Irish Sea, it has hosted the Scottish Amateur Championship no fewer than seven times, and in 1972, witnessed the United States' 10-8 victory over Britain in the Curtis Cup.