Open Competitions are the key to bargain golf in the UK
Many American golfers would like to play golf in Scotland but think it’s too darned expensive. Tour operators want thousands of dollars for package tours featuring a half-dozen “trophy” courses and expensive lodging.
But what if you could book top-drawer golf courses in Scotland, or throughout the United Kingdom, for an average of $20 to $60 each? Would you start making travel plans? And if your trip offered a little competition, golf with the locals, and post-round socializing at their clubs, would that make the prospect more attractive?
Green Fee: $208
O.C. Entry: $25
All this is possible when you discover Open Competitions—the best-kept secret to booking bargain golf in the United Kingdom.
Hundreds of Open Competitions are held throughout the UK from March through October at courses big and small, famous and obscure. Incredibly, entry fees typically range from £15 to £45 (roughly $19 to $57). Events are held in a variety of categories: Seniors, Scratch, Men’s, Ladies, Mixed Couples, Pairs, Teams, Juniors, and “Special Interest” (e.g., parent/child). Groups of any size can enlist, a boon for single golfers but just as good for twos, threes, fours, or more.
Most Open Competitions are one-day events, though a few with higher entry fees extend to multiple rounds or as long as four days. Most often, scoring is either in Stableford format or net stroke play, and an official handicap/index is required for entry. All bookings can be made online or by contacting the golf clubs. When the golf is done, players congregate in the clubhouse for food, libations, prizes, and “good craic” (conversation).
A trip might focus entirely on Open Competitions or complement an itinerary featuring high-profile (i.e., expensive) courses booked at the “rack rate,” reducing the cost of an expensive trip while giving the golf traveler an insider’s look at “club golf” in the UK.
INTERESTED? HERE’S HOW TO DO IT.
Step 1: Determine your travel dates and where you would like to play. Flexible travel dates maximize options. Focusing on “bucket list” courses tends to limit travel dates: High-demand courses (e.g., Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Cruden Bay) may be available only during “shoulder” months like April, May, September, and October.
Green Fee: $325
O.C. Entry: $60
Step 2: Survey the Open Competitions early in the year you want to travel. Two excellent websites provide all the information you need: happygolf.co.uk and golfempire.co.uk. As early as January, you can search both sites for all the registered open events in England, Wales, and Scotland (Ireland and Northern Ireland are included but their reporting is not as comprehensive). If you search later in the year, top-drawer courses may be closed out, but you will find many other available events.
Both sites divide countries into regions. For example, golfempire.co.uk has six regions in Scotland, happygolf.co.uk lists 11. The sites are well designed for searching by year, month, region, course, gender, event type, and even availability of “Top 100” courses (on GolfEmpire).
HERE ARE A FEW STRATEGIES FOR FINDING OPEN COMPETITIONS THAT FIT YOUR TRAVEL SCHEDULE.
Strategy 1: Search by category. If you are age 50 or above, search the Senior category. Scratch golfer? Search that module for top-flight competition. Mixed Couple, and so on. If you have specific travel dates in mind, start by category, and scan either the entire country or by region.
Strategy 2: Focus on “bucket list” courses. If you’re looking to play specific courses, it’s best to have as much date flexibility as possible. Both happygolf.co.uk and golfempire.co.uk enable course-specific searching, and, as noted above, GolfEmpire has a “Top 100” module. Snagging just one or two high-profile courses can lead to dramatic savings. For example, if you had entered the Senior Open Competition on October 2, 2023, at North Berwick West Links, your cost would have been £20 ($25) rather than the high-season rack rate of £200 ($250).
Note: For highest-demand courses (think Top 20), contact the golf club to determine the exact date and time booking opens. Slots go fast. As the GolfEmpire folks say, “Places in these tournaments are like gold dust so we suggest entering as soon as possible.” If a top-drawer course is fully booked, put your name on the club’s waitlist; cancellations are common.
Green Fee: $250
O.C. Entry: $25
Strategy 3: Search by date. If your travel dates are firm, look for Open Competitions to build an itinerary or complement visits to “bucket list” courses you’ve booked at full price. For example, say you booked Royal Dornoch on July 11, 2023, at the rack rate of £210. Checking for Open Competitions around that date, you would have found events on successive days after July 11 at Muir of Ord near Inverness (£16); Spey Valley Golf Club, a Dave Thomas design (£30); Boat of Garten by James Braid (£20); and Carrbridge (£12), one of Scotland’s best 9-holers. Your cost for all four would have been £78 (about $100). Total cost for all five, including Royal Dornoch: £288 (about $360).
Strategy 4: Search by region. With flexible travel dates, this is the one I like best. If I can find several prime events in geographic proximity, I can hunker down for an extended stay in one place, then move on to another region. For example, one could pair golf in Fife (around St. Andrews) with a foray to the Highlands or anywhere else in Scotland. A regional search is where you’ll find the “hidden gems”—worthy courses rarely played by visitors but deserving of wider recognition.
In January 2023, I decided to make a trip to Scotland in May before the summer onslaught of tourists and golf travelers. In my view, May is the prettiest time of year in Scotland: Trees are in full bloom, golden gorse blankets the hillsides and golf courses, daffodils, daisies, and dandelions dot the highways and byways. I also wanted to go to the Highlands where sheep outnumber people, golf is a religion, and Open Competitions abound.
With dates in mind and a preference for play in the Highlands, I needed a plan. I started by surveying scheduled Senior events in the Highlands in May (combining a category, region, and date search). It didn’t take long to find several Top-100 courses (top100golfcourses.com) in reasonable geographic proximity holding events that fit my criteria. As soon as the “diaries” opened, here’s what I booked:
- May 18: Fortrose & Rosemarkie Golf Club. A James Braid original uniquely sited on a peninsula jutting into the Moray Firth. Fifteenth oldest golf club in the world, ranked No. 70 in Scotland’s Top 100. Cost: £20 (high-season rate, £85)
- May 19: Tain Golf Club. Old Tom Morris’s “Northern Jewel,” a bracing track on the Dornoch Firth with eight holes maintaining original Morris designs. Ranked No. 82 in Scotland’s Top 100. Cost: £18 (high-season rate, £80)
- May 23: Peterhead Golf Club. A few miles north of Cruden Bay, an overlooked gem first laid out by Willie Park Jr. and flanked by the North Sea. Claiming status as the world’s 18th oldest golf club, it’s ranked No. 65 among Scotland’s Top 100. Cost: £15 (high-season rate, £125)
- May 25: Cruden Bay Golf Club. Golf’s equivalent of icing on the cake for this trip. One of Scotland’s most dramatic links, it’s ranked No. 11 at top100golfcourses.com. Cost: £20 (high-season rate, £165) Total Cost: £73 (about $88) against a high-season rate of £455 (about $546). That’s an 84 percent discount and a saving of $458, enough to pay for most of a transcontinental airline ticket.
Green Fee: $187
O.C. Entry: $25
I played four Top-100 courses in two regions of Scotland for less than $100. (Incidentally, I was the only competitor from the U.S. at the Senior events.) Add that to the rack rates for Royal Dornoch, Nairn Dunbar, and Nairn Championship and the total cost for golf on this trip was well under $1,000.
If you want to save money and enjoy great golf anywhere in the UK, Open Competitions are the way to go. And it’s not too early to start thinking about 2024.
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