A Golf Guide to Ayrshire and the West Coast of Scotland

We spoke to the Golf Channel’s Mike Bailey and Canadian Golf Traveller’s Brian Kendall about some of their Scotland experiences. Hear about some of their favorites...
 

The majority of attention is usually fixated on the east of Scotland. And it is understandable. That’s where you will find St Andrews, Carnoustie, Muirfield and the likes of Royal Aberdeen and Cruden Bay. However, the other side of country isn’t short of brilliant courses, either. For many people, west is best. Spectacular and historic – there is much to savor in Ayrshire and the south west of Scotland, from the revered birthplace of the Open, to the breathtakingly scenic resort of Turnberry – it is a golfing paradise.

155 years ago, Prestwick Golf Club hosted the first Open Championship. Only eight players competed in the inaugural edition of what would become the game’s most historic event, with Willie Park Sr. triumphantly finishing ahead of Old Tom Morris to claim the Challenge Belt. For the next six decades, the Open would return to the links on a total of 24 occasions, until 1925 – when it became clear that the logistics of the venue simply couldn’t withstand the contemporary infrastructure and popularity of the championship.

That is extremely unfortunate, as Prestwick was (and remains) one of the finest courses in Scotland. It is the quintessential links experience - having just about everything that you could hope for. From blind shots to deep bunkers, long holes and short ones, it is a wonderfully balanced golf course, and is certainly a must-play for anyone with an appreciation for the history of the game.

The first hole is legendary – and terrifying – and not for anyone who suffers from an incurable slice. Any ball hit over the out of bounds on the right could find itself taking a swift journey north to the city of Glasgow. As you will discover, there is a very good reason why the hole is called Railway.

Very much like the Old Course at St Andrews, Prestwick is a monument to the game of golf, and though it may lack the contemporary recognition and status of Royal Troon or Turnberry, you may find that it is the old links that becomes the highlight of your visit to Ayrshire.

If Prestwick is an Open Championship venue of the past – then just along the road you will come across a venue of the present and (very near) future. Royal Troon has been the site of eight Opens throughout the last 90 years, and will be very much in our consciousness next year when the Championship returns after more than a decade away.

There are two very famous holes on Troon – one measuring 490 yards from the back tee, and the other a meagre 123. Both present their own unique challenges. The 11th is a fearsome par four, playing (in a similar manner to the first at Prestwick) with the railway line running alongside, ensuring its status as one of the most intimidating holes on the Open rotation – which Arnold Palmer successfully navigated to win in 1962.

The Postage Stamp is one of the truly classic par threes in golf. The shortest that you will find on the Open rota – the eighth hole at Troon often beguiles its length by playing into the prevailing wind, with carnivorous bunkers awaiting any slightly misjudged and or miscued approach shot. Back in 1973, the legendary Gene Sarazen (into the eighth decade of his life) famously made a hole-in-one on the Postage Stamp, but (for us mere mortals) a simple par is a welcome addition to the scorecard.

Overall, Troon is a solid and challenging test of links golf. With views across the Firth of Clyde towards the mountainous and spectacular Isle of Arran, it is also pleasing to the eye. It’s also worth noting that visitors from the United States should feel particularly comfortable on the links, as the last six Open Champions at Troon have all been from America. Much to the chagrin of the patriotic Brits!

Aside from the golf, there are numerous attractions to Ayrshire. From the museum and heritage site dedicated to the life of the great Scots poet Robert Burns, the beautiful Troon beach, to the stunning Dumfries House, there is always something to do. But it would perhaps be advisable to use any free time by making the short journey north to Glasgow, which is the largest city in Scotland. With modern urban attractions intersected amongst an historic and architecturally impressive setting, Glasgow is a great place to spend some time.

And, if you’re lucky, the friendly and (often barely understandable) locals may just christen you as an honorary Glaswegian.

Back to the golf, Turnberry is the third of the championship venues in Ayrshire – and it is unquestionably the most visually spectacular. For some, it is Scotland’s answer to Pebble Beach, and it is easy to see why when standing on the ninth tee – overlooking the rocky coastline and the iconic lighthouse. It is a beautiful place, with views towards the imposing uninhabited rock island of Ailsa Craig available on many of the holes, with the stunning hotel building providing a unique backdrop to the closing holes.

As you will be aware, Turnberry has played an important part in the history of major championship golf. The legendary 36-hole battle between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in 1977 – referred to as the ‘Duel in the Sun’ – remains arguably the finest modern edition of the Open Championship, and was an impressive christening to the rotation for the resort.

Greg Norman would finally win his first major championship at Turnberry in 1986, before the great Nick Price famously holed a 50-foot putt for eagle on the penultimate hole before snatching the Claret Jug from Jesper Parnevik. It would then be 15-years before the championship returned, and it was undeniably memorable.

32 years since he triumphed over Jack Nicklaus, a 59-year-old Tom Watson rolled back the decades in extraordinary fashion – leading the championship with just one hole to play. Sadly, there would be no fairy-tale ending, as Watson bogeyed the final hole to fall into a playoff with Stewart Cink, which the younger American would win. Afterwards, the five-time Open Champion said: “It would have been a hell of a story.” It certainly would have been. But it still was a great one.

Last year, the resort was purchased by (everybody’s favorite haircut) Donald Trump. Later renamed Trump Turnberry, the American has already invested millions into the hotel, resorting it as one of the finest you will experience anywhere. There are numerous changes scheduled to be made to the course throughout the winter of 2015 into 2016. These were recently showcased to the public, and the alterations will definitely enhance the course even further, and ensure that Turnberry maximizes the potential of its spectacular location. So, if you want to play the “old” Ailsa Course, you better hurry up and get over here!

Prestwick, Troon and Turnberry are unquestionably the ultimate trifecta of Ayrshire golf, but there are a number of other courses that garner attention.

Towards the north of Ayrshire, you will find Western Gailes, which is consistently rated as one of the finest courses – not just in Scotland – but in the United Kingdom. Situated on a narrow stretch of coastline in the town of Irvine, the course provides a stiff and traditional links challenge, and is a more than fitting compliment to the more revered venues.

The same can be said of the modern Dundonald Links, which is renowned for its welcoming and classy sense of presentation and occasion. The course itself isn’t too shabby, either. Designed by Kyle Philips, it offers an engaging and pleasant challenge for players of all standards, with it being unfortunately overshadowed by its more established neighbors. That may change when the Ladies European Tour contests its annual Scottish Open at Dundonald in summer 2015, as it is certainly an underrated gem.

With spectacular locales and classic courses, Ayrshire is certainly a feast of links golf. Yes, it’s true. West is best.

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We spoke to the Golf Channel’s Mike Bailey and Canadian Golf Traveller’s Brian Kendall about some of their favourite links experiences across Scotland. 

Kieran Clark

Author, Kieran Clark.

I began playing golf at the age of five on the Isle of Bute in Scotland. It was the start of a relationship that hasn’t waned, with it becoming a mission to tick off as many courses as possible, with the Old Course at St. Andrews being my favorite. I love everything that it represents. After securing a degree in history at the University of Stirling, I have attempted to establish a career as a freelance golf journalist to express my love for the game and Scotland. And I relish any opportunity to share that adoration with anyone willing enough to read.