Top 10 Courses in Ayrshire and the West Coast of Scotland

The pick of the region!

When people think of golf in Scotland the likes of St. Andrews, Muirfield and Carnoustie will spring instantly to mind; venues that have grown into legend. Those with a basic grasp of geography will be aware that all of those courses are in the east of the country, and even Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart are in the north. So, what about the west? Well it does have a lot to offer from Championship classics to traditional links. Here are ten of the best. 

  1. Ailsa Course, Turnberry

Tom Watson’s victory over Jack Nicklaus at the Open Championship in 1977 is frequently ranked among the finest majors in the history of golf. The spectacular Ailsa Course at Turnberry was the canvas for that incredible display of artistry from two of the game’s all-time greats, and the Ayrshire links has grown in stature ever since.

The enchanting coastline and iconic lighthouse has resulted in Turnberry being the most picturesque of all the Open venues in the UK, with many visitors describing it as Scotland’s answer to Pebble Beach.

The Open Championship would return in 1986, 1994 and 2009, with a host of other important events keeping the Ailsa firmly in the public consciousness. The course was initially established in 1902; however, the layout that tested Tom and Jack wasn’t in place until 1951, when Philip Mackenzie Ross was commissioned to return the course back to its former glory after a number of the holes having been irreparably damaged during the Second World War.

In peacetime, Turnberry has long-established itself as one of the most tranquil and scintillating experiences in Scottish golf, but it would be a fair assessment to argue that some of the holes didn’t quite match the extraordinary visuals. In fact, its owner Donald Trump clearly felt the same way.

Towards the end of 2015, Turnberry underwent a series of major changes and enhancements. New holes replaced the 6th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 14th, which dramatically improved a section of the course that fell short of the rest.

That’s not to say the old holes were necessarily bad, they merely didn’t make the most of the land they were laid out on. Nine new greens were also built, with all 18 of the surfaces being redone for its grand “rebirth” in 2016.

The dramatically rocky coastline that has adorned photographs for decades has been brought more into view (and play), with the 9th becoming a par 3 across the sea; the Ailsa will finally fulfil the potential of its stunning landscape. Scotland’s answer to Pebble Beach? Possibly. It may even be the superior of the two now.

   2. Old Course, Royal Troon

If a traditional-links challenge is what you are seeking, there are few better than the Old Course at Royal Troon. Hosting the Open Championship for a ninth occasion in 2016, the excellent Ayrshire layout has been a firm favourite of Americans; who have triumphed in the last six Opens on the course. They must appreciate quality.

Ask anyone what they know of Troon, and the famous Postage Stamp will come instantly to mind. At just 123 yards on the scorecard, the tantalizing par 3 is the shortest hole on the Open Championship roster, but unquestionably one of the most memorable. Many double-bogeys have been recorded, with only the most precise tee shots being rewarded and exempt from danger.

Another hole that stands out is the 11th, also known as ‘The Railway’. This is an apt name for one of the toughest holes in Scotland, as the train line to Glasgow runs alongside to the right. Gorse bushes will consume any shot that doesn’t find the narrow and uncooperative fairway.

Arnold Palmer, who won the Open at Troon in 1962, referred to the 11th as being "the most dangerous hole I have ever seen." The legendary American successfully navigated this treacherous hole with a one-iron off the tee and a two-iron to the green on each round of the Championship. His prowess there played a huge part in his stunning five-shot victory on Old Troon.

It’s certainly a thrill to walk in the footsteps of Palmer and take on the 11th for yourself.

    3. Prestwick Golf Course

The birthplace of the Open Championship is certainly an opportunity to step back in time. On the 17th October 1860, Willie Park finished two shots ahead of Old Tom Morris to become the first winner of what would become golf’s oldest major. That was at Prestwick, which ultimately hosted the Open on 24 occasions.

Sadly, the old course didn’t have the infrastructure to sustain an event that was ever-growing, with Prestwick now being absent from the rotation for over 90 years. That is no slight on its quality as a course, however, as the ancient links remains one of the best and most enjoyable courses in Scotland.

Prestwick is a monument in the same mold as the Old Course at St Andrews. There is a natural authenticity to the links that does stir the senses when you play it. The first hole plays alongside the railway line, while an assortment of intriguing short and testing long holes ensures for a varied and balanced round.

Unquestionably a course for the strategist, Prestwick rewards intelligently managed and executed shots, with many of the traditional nuances of links golf that favor a cerebral player. It is a fine test for all standards of golfer.

Though its era in the spotlight has long passed, Prestwick is still one of the greatest courses in Scotland, with a storied and important history to back it up.

   4. Championship Course, Machrihanish Golf Club

Tucked away in the most remote corner of Argyll is a golfing masterpiece. Undoubtedly one of the most thrilling and enjoyable layouts in Scotland, the old Championship Course at Machrihanish is a popular favorite of anyone who has made the journey to discover it. A course that shouldn’t be missed.

The opening tee-shot is one of the most startling in the game. From a slightly elevated tee, the hole demands a drive that is played diagonally across the sea and beach. Thrilling! It is almost worth the journey just to experience that (hopefully) one swing. However, there is certainly more to savor on the links.

With its undulating fairways and blind shots, old Machrihanish has been modelled brilliantly through the landscape down the years by an assortment of great minds including Old Tom Morris and J.H. Taylor.

Rugged and natural, its remote location only enhances the experience of playing there, with Machrihanish almost feeling like an exciting secret waiting to be revealed. It can often be said that you take from a golf course what it offers you as an experience; Machrihanish certainly provides a lot.

  5. Western Gailes Golf Course

Of the many courses in Ayrshire, Western Gailes is perhaps the most unappreciated. Frequently used as a final qualifying venue for the Open Championship, it is a fine links that complements the more revered layouts that can be found nearby. In fact, some would argue that it’s even better.

For Geoff Ogilvy, former U.S. Open champion and connoisseur of fine courses, Western Gailes was of an extremely high quality. “I had heard so much praise about Western Gailes over the years that it was high on my list of must play courses. It didn't disappoint.  Beautiful holes, on great land made it endlessly interesting and challenging.”

Like many of the other great Ayrshire links, the course is framed between the fairway and Firth of Clyde. Gazing directly toward the mountainous Isle of Arran, there are many great visuals to be consumed on this Irvine classic, but the course itself is extremely varied and challenging. It’s among the very best. 

  6. Dundonald Links

When golfers think of the modern links courses that have been built in Scotland, Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart will spring instantly to mind. Trump International is another that often dominates headlines. Though it is less esteemed, the links at Dundonald wouldn’t look out of place alongside those well-known layouts.

Situated on the same stretch of coastline as Western Gailes, Dundonald was opened in 2005 having been commissioned by the Loch Lomond Golf Club. Kyle Philips, designer of Kingsbarns, was the man entrusted with molding the course into a modern classic. He has largely succeeded.

There is a great variation in distance from each tee, catering for all standards of players. It can play to well over 7,000 yards, which was a capability that saw Dundonald being touted as a potential Scottish Open venue. That may still happen in the future, but for now it is fully in the possession of the discerning hacker.

With its large and complex greens protected by St Andrews-like bunkers, the course is extremely challenging to score well on, but remains very playable. It has that balance just right, and is certainly worth playing.

    7. Glasgow Gailes Links

Willie Park Jnr redesigned this excellent links course in 1912, 20 years after its opening. More than 100 years on, Glasgow Gailes’ reputation is continuing to rise with the R&A selecting it as being Scotland’s final qualifying course for the Open Championship through to the end of 2017.

Owned by Glasgow Golf Club, which is the ninth oldest in the world, Gailes is a testing layout, with gorse bushes and heather being  frequent hazards for those who miss the fairways. It doesn’t quite have the spectacular visuals of some of the other courses in the area, but it makes up this with a consistently strong, varied assortment of holes that would challenge anyone.

Sandy Lyle, a former Masters and Open champion, is of the opinion that Glasgow Gailes is “one of the world’s true great tests of links golf.”

There are many of those in Ayrshire. And Gailes is continually growing in popularity. Perhaps ‘West is best’, after all. 

    8. Prestwick St Nicholas.

It may be an unexpected inclusion in a top ten list, but Prestwick St. Nicholas is surely among the most underrated courses on the west coast of Scotland. Though lacking in yardage, it makes up for it with some delightful, characterful holes that wouldn’t look out of place on a championship course.

Like all traditional links courses, short par 4s are a feature. The 3rd here is called Maryborough, and looks out from an elevated tee towards the coast.  The view from this hole is breathtaking, with the Firth of Clyde and Isle of Arran on the horizon.

There are some intriguing and unique facets to the course. Behind the first green, there are two old stone buildings that date originally from the 18th century. These buildings housed plants to boil the sea water from the firth in an effort to retrieve salt. These days the buildings merely provide an interesting backdrop to the opening hole.

Not a course reliant on brute strength and power, Prestwick St. Nicholas is a charming layout that rewards thoughtful accuracy.

    9. Irvine Bogside Golf Course

Irvine Golf Club may be overshadowed by its illustrative cousins along the coast, but it is an extremely well thought out and enjoyable course to play. With the legendary James Braid having touched its design, a varied, quality layout is ensured, with Irvine having been an Open Championship qualifying course.

Reminiscent of the Old Course at St Andrews, there are only two par 3s on the Bogside links: the 8th and 16th. Both are very good, as are the majority of the fifteen par 4s on the course that range from 287 to 463 yards in length. That variety is certainly a welcome aspect to the layout, which has ample gorse and heather to punish wayward tee shots.

With so many great and revered courses nearby, it is in pretty esteemed company in the south-west of Scotland. However, Irvine holds its own, and is certainly a course that is worth visiting if the opportunity should arise.

    10. Machrihanish Dunes

Since it opened in 2009, Machrihanish Dunes has received a wide spectrum of reviews. Some absolutely love the natural, thrilling nature of the design, while others believed the course to be unreasonably difficult. In light of that feedback, changes were made to the course, alleviating some of the challenge, and making it more playable.

David McLay Kidd has laid out a course that rolls through the natural dunes beautifully, with some extremely imaginative and interesting green designs at the end of each undulating, bumpy fairway. Much like the nearby old Championship Course, there are some blind shots to the Dunes that may be an acquired taste, but it certainly adds to the old-fashioned feeling that they were aiming to create with this modern course.

36-holes on the two courses at Machrihanish represent an incredibly thrilling and challenging experience. Links golf at its purest, certainly.

Request a quote if you are interested in playing any of these courses as part of your golf vacation to Scotland with Golfbreaks.com.

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 favourite. 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.