Where to Travel in Scotland for the Best Golf?

During the past few years I have conducted an informal survey of American golfers making their first visits to Scotland. It consists of one question: “Which course have you enjoyed the most?”

The top answer by far is Turnberry. That’s not surprising, really. Situated along a dramatic stretch of the Irish Sea and backdropped by a luxury hotel, Turnberry is Scotland’s answer to Pebble Beach. The Ailsa course, its middle holes winding through immense dunes, has the brawny majesty of Irish links like Ballybunion instead of the flat, understated quality of the Scottish variety.

With the return of the British Open this year, Turnberry will command the international spotlight, along with Scotland’s “other” coast, the west. Although the links of eastern Scotland, led by the Old Course at St. Andrews, attract most of the press and praise, the west coast has a strong lineup of its own. Indeed, the question has legitimately been posed, “Which is better: East or West?”

First, a bit of boundary setting. From a golf standpoint, we may divide Scotland into three parts: East, West and the rest. The East consists of the counties of Fife, Angus and East Lothian; the West is comprised of Ayrshire, Argyll and Dunbartonshire.

The rest is essentially the center of the country, a broad swath extending from Dumfries in the south up through Perthshire (Gleneagles country) and north to the Highlands, which for the purpose of this assignment I will expand eastward to include the coast from Aberdeen upward.

This area has some very worthy courses of its own, including Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay, Royal Dornoch and the new Castle Stuart, but for our current purposes it is geographically irrelevant.

OK, so we’ve defined East and West. What exactly does each of them offer the visiting golfer? Let’s look at this as a nine-hole match.

1. Number of Courses
The three western counties encompass roughly 4,500 square miles (a bit smaller than Connecticut) while the eastern counties are a third that size (think Rhode Island). Although you might expect the larger West to have an advantage, each side has roughly 100 layouts.

Of course, not all these are gems, any more than all of Chicago’s or Scottsdale’s courses are worth playing. Nonetheless, in terms of inventory, let’s call it a draw.
All Square

2. British Open Venues
Everyone wants to play the Open sites. In addition to Turnberry, Ayrshire gives us Royal Troon. There is also Prestwick, site of the first dozen Opens, although the current course bears little resemblance to the 12-holer played by Old Tom Morris.

On the east coast, there is St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Muirfield, plus the nine-hole course at Musselburgh, which hosted the last of its six Opens in 1889. If we give the relic sites half a point each, the East wins 31⁄2–21⁄2.
East, 1 up

3. Must-play Links
Golfers make the pilgrimage to Scotland for links golf. Forgive me a moment of shameless self-promotion, but my co-author, Malcolm Campbell, and I are working on a book in which we are attempting to identify and catalog every bona fide links on the planet. Our current count is 291. Of those, precisely 100 are in Scotland—34 on the east coast, 21 on the west.
Once again, not all are must plays, but there is a correlation between quantity and quality. There are more top-quality links in the East.

In St. Andrews, there is the Old Course as well as the New, which most locals deem a better, more difficult test. Down the road is Kingsbarns, ranked in the world’s top 100 since it opened nine years ago, and a bit farther along are seaside charmers Crail, Lundin Links and Elie.
Carnoustie country includes Monifieth, Montrose and Panmure, while flanking Muirfield are North Berwick and Gullane No. 1, where the shot values match the views. That’s 13, and I could add another 10 without significantly diminishing the quality.

The West is not without star power, beginning with Machrihanish on the Kintyre Peninsula and The Machrie on the Isle of Islay, a pair of jewels well worth the trouble it takes to get to them. In and around Ayr, there are Glasgow Gailes and Western Gailes, a course many prefer to both Troon and Prestwick.

Fine links may also be found at Open qualifying sites Kilmarnock (a.k.a. Barassie) and Irvine (a.k.a. Bogside). But there the list of quality sites comes to an end. The East wins for its quantity.
East, 2 up

4. Best of the Inlands
This one’s easy. The best non-links course in Scotland—or all of Europe, for that matter—lies in Dunbartonshire at Loch Lomond, the ultra-private Tom Weiskopf masterpiece that has hosted the last several Scottish Opens.

The East offers Ladybank, Scotscraig, Downfield and the Duke’s Course, each a bucolic experience. But none can look Loch Lomond in the eye. This time the West’s quality beats the East’s quantity.
East, 1 up

5. New Developments
If you haven’t been to Scotland in the past several years, you have missed additions and improvements to the golf landscape. Last year, St. Andrews welcomed the Castle, perched on a cliff with views of the town and the North Sea. Several early reviewers, myself included, criticized it as too difficult, but after some changes the kinder, gentler Castle is worth a visit.
The aforementioned Duke’s, under the ownership of Herb Kohler, has seen major refurbishment and a rerouting of its last several holes. In addition, the Devlin course at the Fairmont Hotel has been both reworked and renamed—it’s now the Kittocks—and a similar renovation has just been completed on the Torrance course in preparation for its debut next year as an Open qualifying site.

Next to Muirfield, two private clubs have opened. Archerfield Links boasts two layouts by former European Tour player David Russell. Next door, the Renaissance Club is Tom Doak’s first course in Scotland and actually abuts Muirfield. This one’s definitely worth a stop if you can talk your way on. The good news is that both clubs are looking for members.

On the west coast, Kingsbarns co-designer Kyle Phillips once again showed his routing genius at Dundonald, a links course less than 15 minutes from Troon. Meanwhile, the Kintyre at Turnberry has seen a refurbishment by Donald Steel, and may be more difficult than the Ailsa.

Just minutes from Turnberry, Colin Montgomerie will make his architectural debut in his native land this summer. Rowallan Castle is a parkland design flanked by million-dollar homes. A couple of miles from Loch Lomond, Toronto-based Doug Carrick recently opened a namesake course to positive reviews.

Finally, this summer brings the anxiously awaited debut of David McLay Kidd’s Machrihanish Dunes. On the same rugged terrain as the original, it is expected to be an exacting, exhilarating test.

Sadly, there has also been some disturbing news: the bankruptcy of Lyle Anderson, principal owner of both Loch Lomond and Dundonald. Both courses are still being maintained, and Loch Lomond will hold the 2009 Scottish Open, but as of this writing their future is in doubt.
However, this may be good news should the next owner decide to take the two courses public. If that happens, the golf profile of the West will surely rise.
All Square  

6. Cost
Flights from the U.S. cost about the same whether you land in Glasgow (West) or Edinburgh (East). The price of accommodations can be whatever you’re willing to abide—from $50 a night for a modest B&B to 10 times that for a suite at Turnberry or the Old Course Hotel.
As for green fees, the weekday average of the top five courses on each coast couldn’t be closer: $198 for the East, $197 in the West.
All Square

7. Logistics
Loch Lomond, Prestwick and Troon are all within 45 minutes of Glasgow Airport, while Edinburgh Airport is about 45 minutes from Muirfield, an hour from St. Andrews and 90 minutes from Carnoustie.

But for traveling from course to course, the East is easier. Most of the courses in Fife and Angus are within 30 minutes of St. Andrews and you can get to the Muirfield region in about an hour and 45 minutes.

In the West, if you want to stay in the Troon area, Prestwick, Turnberry, Western and Glasgow Gailes, Dundonald, Kilmarnock and Irvine are all nearby. Loch Lomond and Carrick are more than an hour away, and it will take three hours of hard driving to get to Machrihanish, five hours to the Machrie.

Then there’s the actual matter of getting tee times, where the West has an edge. Two of the toughest courses to get on are the Old Course and Muirfield. In the West, exclusive Loch Lomond is the only major challenge, and that may soon change.

Of the above considerations, however, the drive between courses is most important. Do not underestimate the ability to unpack in St. Andrews and remain there for your entire stay.
East, 1 up

8. Weather
No matter where or when you play golf in Scotland, the weather is unpredictable. You may encounter sunshine and horizontal sleet—on the same hole. The west coast is generally a couple of degrees warmer thanks to the Gulf Stream, but the advantage is minor.
A more telling statistic is rainfall. The driest part of Scotland is the East, with an average of two or three inches per month during the summer. (From my experience, St. Andrews mostly escapes the downpours.)

And in September and October, two of the best months to visit, the West gets twice as much rain as the East, which wins this meteorological comparison.
East wins the match, 2 and 1

9. Intangibles
The East wins, but in the spirit of the Aloha press, let’s keep things alive with a look at the less definable side of a Scottish golf trip.

Your answer depends on what you’re looking for beyond the golf. If you want to live and breathe golf history, you have to go to St. Andrews and the East.  If nothing gives you more joy than playing the last few holes beside a sun setting into the sea, it’s Turnberry and the West.

If you want culture and city life, go for Edinburgh. If you’re a Robert Burns fan, Ayrshire is the place to explore his roots. There is no hotel in the East to match the majesty of Turnberry, but there is no town in the West with a collection of pubs equal to those in St. Andrews.

The simple truth is, when it comes to Scotland, no matter in which direction you chase your ball, you can’t go wrong.