6 Sleeper Scottish Golf Courses You Need to Know About
So, you're off to Scotland, the ancient home of golf, land of a thousand bucket-list courses. But which ones do you plan to scratch off first? Gleneagles likely ranks high, and with good reason. The luxe retreat, in the country's lush green center, hosts the Ryder Cup this fall on its PGA Centenary Course, and the property has been dressed up for the occasion. Visit its grand grounds, before or after the big matches, and you'll find that the hotel has undergone a face-lift, with 36 new guest rooms, replete with modern stylings. And its Ryder Cup venue? Overhauled, too. Jack Nicklaus, the Centenary's original designer, returned in 2012 to oversee the changes. Drainage was upgraded, tee boxes were tweaked, sight lines were improved for better viewing. It's a perfect stage for a premier competition, with a stadium course built to house large crowds and accommodate the big games of the world's best players.
It's not what you think of when you picture Scottish golf, though. Scottish golf is links golf, played on wild and woolly coastal layouts, sandy dunescapes sculpted by the wind and sea. The British Open venues are the most famous: icons such as the Old Course and Carnoustie. But scour the Scottish shoreline, and you'll find many low-profile stars that are no less stunning for being less known.
Call them Scottish sleepers. Here, six you'll want to place high on your itinerary - some near other higher-profile courses.
1. DUNBAR GOLF CLUB
6,597 yards, par 71
Most big-game hunters tracking trophy courses train their sights on nearby Muirfield, the fabled British Open venue. It's their loss for letting Dunbar slip away. Among the striking features of this seaside stunner, in the county of East Lothian, 40 miles south of Edinburgh, is an ancient stone wall you pass on your path to the fourth tee. There, the course begins in earnest, spilling alongside a craggy coastline, whipped by winds off the Firth of Forth. The wall looms as a hazard in several places, hugging the fairway of the par-4 seventh, marking out-of-bounds right on the long 18th. As your round draws to a close, the red-roof town of Dunbar rises into view like a coastal postcard. It's a picture worth mounting on your wall back home. dunbargolfclub.com
Off the course visit...
John Muir's Birthplace
Though he's best known for his work in the American West, the famed naturalist was born in Dunbar, a town that celebrates his life with an engaging museum. Excerpts from Muir's journals stand on display, along with some of his wildlife sketches and maps of his journeys around the globe. jmbt.org.uk
2. THE GOLF HOUSE CLUB, ELIE
6,273 yards, par 70
A periscope, salvaged from a British navy submarine, rises from the rooftop of the starter's shack here, stretching up more than 30 feet. Peer through its lens for a peek at the first fairway, which is hidden from your view when you're standing on the tee. Elie's blind opening shot makes a fitting introduction to a course filled with classic linksy quirks: rumpled fairways and slyly placed bunkers; large, firm greens with subtle breaks. Elie sits in the county Fife, home to St. Andrews, and though it can't match the prestige of the renowned Old Course, its seaside backdrop is equally arresting. The drama of the setting strikes full force on the par-4 10th, its green so close to the water you taste salt spray as you putt. "If I had my way," five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson once said, "I'd build Elies all over the world." It's all the more special because there's only one. golfhouseclub.co.uk
Off the course, eat at...
Anstruther Fish Bar
When is Scottish pub grub worth a side trip? When it's the fish and chips at this landmark seaside eatery, which draws culinary pilgrims from far and wide. The house specialty is halibut, caught by local fishermen, coated in crispy batter, and served with mushy peas and golden fries. You can grab yours on the go, or snag a table in a nautical-themed dining room, with sweeping views of the Firth of Forth. anstrutherfishbar.co.uk
3. CRAIL GOLFING SOCIETY, BALCOMIE LINKS
5,922 yards, par 69
Take the footpath between the 14th and 15th holes, and you come upon a cave, cut deep into the bluffs. A sign at its entrance claims Scotland's King Constantine met his end here, put to death by Vikings in 874. That was then, though, and Danish invaders no longer pose a peril. Your worry is the wind, gusting off the North Sea, and the multitude of bunkers (more than 60 altogether) on this short, demanding links (the older of two courses on property), where distance off the tee will get you only so far. Like the famed layouts of St. Andrews, just up the road, Balcomie is ancient and idiosyncratic, with crisscrossing fairways and double-greens. It's also a largely overlooked delight, a thinking-golfer's design that rewards brains as much as brawn. Take the 14th hole, a 147-yard downhiller. Depending on the wind, it may be no more than a 9-iron. But there's water to the right and bunkers in front. Leave it short, and, like a certain monarch, you're pretty much dead. crailgolfingsociety.co.uk
Off the course, walk the...
Fife Coastal Path
The Scots love their hill walks and their coastal hikes. This safe, partly paved trail, which runs for a total of 117 miles, cuts directly alongside Crail, hugging the water on its way to St. Andrews. It takes about five hours to walk that scenic 8-mile stretch, not much longer than it takes to play a round. fifecoastalpath.co.uk
4. MONTROSE GOLF LINKS MEDAL COURSE
6,585 yards, par 71
Don't be fooled by its plebeian-looking pro shop. This unassuming links, about 20 miles northeast from famed Carnoustie, deserves its royal designation, granted by Prince Albert in 1845. The young monarch knew what many stateside travelers don't: This sandy seaside landscape is a place of great prestige, having hosted its first rounds in 1562. Over the years, Old Tom Morris and Willie Park Jr., iconic figures in Scottish golf design, both laid their hands on Montrose, helping shape a layout whose grandeur can't be measured by the yardage on the card. From its understated first hole, a short par 4 that shoots toward the North Sea, the Medal Course runs atop a stretch of towering coastal dunes, then curls inland once again through waves of native grasses and minefields of deep bunkers that test the best shot-makers' skills. Placards on the tees call your attention to local points of interest: a nearby lighthouse, the bright blue harebell flowers that bloom all around. But the most compelling sight is the course itself, a prince that feels no need to wear a shiny crown. montroselinks.co.uk
Off the course, see...
One of Scotland's oldest whisky distilleries, GlenDronach welcomes drop-in visits daily. But it's worth planning ahead for the Connoisseur's Experience, which features a guided tour followed by a tutored tasting of premium whiskies in the company of Frank Massie, a legendary figure in the Scottish spirits world. glendronachdistillery.com
5. TAIN GOLF CLUB
6,404 yards, par 70
In the Scottish Highlands, land of whisky and windswept layouts, you can sample single malts and singular courses (Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart are two of the most famous). But no trip is complete without a taste of Tain, a rollicking links squeezed between the mountains and sea. It has been tweaked since Old Tom Morris created it in 1890. But 10 of Old Tom's original holes remain, including the celebrated 17th, a long par 3 made perilous by a burn that splices it not once but twice. Though wind is ever-present, the layout's sheltered location protects it from the wildest northern Scotland weather. But this being the Highlands, you won't be alone if you pack a flask of whisky or find yourself sipping a dram in the clubhouse - a relaxing place for a post-round round. tain-golfclub.co.uk
Off the course, see...
If Walt Disney had lived in 14th-century Scotland, he might have dreamed up something like this storybook castle, with its ornate spires and turrets rising by the sea. Dunrobin was built as a summer house for William, Earl of Sutherland, and it remains the home of his descendants. Now, though, it's also open to the public, so you can wander through its lavish grounds and gardens, its grand halls and parlors, enjoying a rare glimpse of how the other half of one-half of 1 percent live. dunrobincastle.co.uk
6. BRORA GOLF CLUB
6,211 yards, par 70
Head way up in the Highlands, farther off the beaten path than many golfers care to tread, and you come to this lovely, isolated layout, on linksland overlooking the North Sea. It's a quiet, calming place, but you'll always have companions. Terns wheel in the sky, dolphins ply the currents, and herds of sheep tend to the tangled rough. Small electric fences ring the greens, protecting them from the local livestock. But the course defends itself in familiar links fashion, with assorted humps and hillocks, riveted pot bunkers, and a frequently fierce wind huffing off the water. The routing, too, follows a traditional format: the front side leading out, along the shoreline; the back side turning back toward the clubhouse, whose windows peer out on the closing hole - a long, demanding baah-three. broragolf.co.uk
Off the course, see...
You've come this far, why not drive a little farther and look for Nessie in the famous Loch, where legend says she lives? On the off chance you don't spy her - there are seasonal cruises on ships equipped with underwater cameras - there's always the Visitors Centre. It's loaded with exhibits on the history and mystery of the famous lake. lochness.com