[Ed. note: To read about Royal Troon, the site of this week’s Open Championship, scroll down past where I open with Turnberry… Troon is the second course out of the five.]
In the southwest of Scotland–not far from Glasgow–is a historic country called Ayrshire, which is home to at least a handful of top-rate links courses. I’ve traveled to Scotland at least half a dozen times, but somehow, my trips hadn’t taken me to this area for some particular reason. I found out quickly how rich in golf history Ayrshire is and all that it has to offer from five of the best links tracks in the world.
The region is home to two courses in the Open Championship rota, Turnberry (Alisa) and Royal Troon (Old), where next summer’s Open is taking place this July, along with the birthplace of the Open Championship, Prestwick Golf Club. We also played a newer course, Dundonald, which is the links course for the prestigious Loch Lomond Golf Club, and Western Gailes, an old school, classic links track that is a favorite, must-play on the western coast of the country.
After playing all five of these courses, how could I rank them? Well, it was really, really tough. Each track was better than the other and/or just as fantastic of an experience as the next. I mean, seriously, this is nearly an impossible task. Every one of the courses offered something unique and intriguing, with loads of history. If I absolutely *had* to rank them 1-5, I think it would go: Royal Troon, Prestwick, Turnberry, Western Gailes and Dundonald.
I’m not sure, though, to be honest. I feel biased with Troon because I had an awesome caddie who saved me at least a handful of shots. I shot four-over. I was thrilled. Hell, I’m still thrilled about it. It’s a super tough course, especially the back nine and I scored better coming in than the front, which is significantly easier.(I was quite pleased with a 79 on a par 75, especially with the course’s reputation as such a difficult and demanding test. But, to be fair, we played it in quite calm conditions.)
Now, let’s take a look at each of the five courses we played, so I can go into more detail on the layouts and the experiences — one better than the next, practically!
[FYI: Not all the pictures go with the corresponding text above and/or below it.]
Playing Turnberry’s Ailsa course was an incredibly great experience. We happened to get lucky with the weather last September (all week, actually!) and conditions were mild and calm, so it wasn’t as challenging as some of the other courses. The one word that keeps popping into my mind to describe Turnberry is “fun.” I know that sounds hackneyed and boring, but it’s just the opposite.
The celebrated holes that are set along the beautiful coastline, along with the famed lighthouse, are the most well-known aspects of Turnberry, but the playability and character of the less prominent holes are what make the track so special and a favorite to all golfers.
The opening hole provides a soft start as long as you can avoid the fairway bunkers. As you get through the first three holes, you approach the par-3 4th, which begins the series of holes through the 11th that guard the ocean, providing a spectacular setting. The par-4 fourth is short and straightforward, but it has a green that has a severe false front on the left-hand side. The par-4 5th, a dogleg left, is one of the tougher holes on the front nine, with an uphill approach.
The par-5 7th is rated the most difficult hole on the course, with a stroke index of 1. The dogleg left is not the longest in the world, but it can be tricky. You need to hit an aggressive drive to score, while avoiding the bunker that guards the corner of the fairway. If you don’t stripe it perfectly, it’ll likely end up in the gnarly rough. The approach to the green is uphill, so more club is needed, as I learned the hard way.
The par-4 8th is overshadowed largely by the two following more famous holes, but this long par-4 hugging the coastline is a beauty, as well. The fairways slopes left to right and away from the dunes along the beach.
Then, of course, you get to one of the most famous, celebrated holes, the par-4 9th (which will be a par-3 when the renovations are complete). The tee sits on a point out in Turnberry Bay. It’s a risk-reward hole, so your tee shot must carry as much water as you dare. The fairway is crowned and undulating, so only the best drives will find the short grass. The green is uphill and surrounded by bunkers and mounds, making it difficult to hold the ball. If you walk off with a birdie or even a par, there’s a sense of satisfaction.
The back nine was probably tougher than the front, but somehow I played A LOT better. Go figure.
The par-4 10th requires another solid tee shot over a cove. The bunkers in the middle of the split fairway make it more difficult. The par-3 11th is arguably the easiest on the course, as it’s stroke index is 18. The par-4 12th takes you back inland to complete the fabulous links track. No. 14 is rated the second toughest hole, with two massive bunkers guarding the front and the back of the green. (It made it all the more gratifying to birdie it!)
The par-4 16th is quite diabolical, so to speak. There’s a valley with a creek that runs through it and it meanders to the front of the green. The wee burn is only 4-5 feet wide, but the dramatic slopes on both sides make it more like a 20-30 yard hazard. You have to carry this creek on your approach, otherwise you’re in danger of your ball rolling back into the water.
Overall, Turnberry was a pleasure to play, a relatively tough but fair test, and quite the memorable day. It was the most fun I had playing golf in a while, but of course, it was only the first of five courses that were lined up in my itinerary on this trip.
Without getting too much into politics, I feel it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge the predicament that Turnberry finds itself in with its owner Donald Trump, real-estate mogul and now GOP party frontrunner in the American presidential election. Trump bought the golf course and the hotel — which sits atop the hill about a short par-4 from the clubhouse — in 2014 and rather promptly renamed the iconic venue, “Trump Tunberry.” (There go those pro shop sales!)
When you used to pull up to the clubhouse, you formerly would admire the quaint clubhouse, but since Mr. Trump purchased the property, he has installed a Trump-esque fountain that doesn’t quite look like it belongs, right smack in front it.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Trump announced he was investing a large sum of money to renovate Turnberry — the golf course and the hotel. Though Turnberry hasn’t hosted the Open since 2009 and the championship’s venues have been announced through 2021, the R&A supposedly insists that Turnberry remains on the Open rota. It’s not unusual for courses (especially such old ones) to endure touch-ups and relatively minor changes in preparation in hosting an Open (again), as things need to remain up to par with the ever-changing technological advances.
Turnberry, however, needed a massive overhaul. Unfortunately, as much as I hate to even acknowledge this, some could argue that the weaknesses in the layout showed when the last time the Open was staged at Turnberry in 2009 and 59-year-old Tom Watson missed an eight-footer to win before eventually losing in a four-hole playoff to Stewart Cink. (I cried really hard, not going to lie.)
Our group had the opportunity to play the course shortly prior to the close shutdown for the renovations to take place. In fact, it was the first of the five we played in our incredible itinerary. Playing Turnberry was a wonderful experience and I’ll discuss in more detail soon.
However, the developments that have occurred in the world news regarding Trump’s campaign for presidents may have hindered his opportunity to get that elusive major championship. Following one of many of Trump’s absurd comments — this time it was about the U.S. closing its border to all immigrants, I believe — in December, the R&A is reportedly distancing themselves from the presidential candidate and reconsidering bringing the Open back to Turnberry as long as Trump is associated.
Either way, expect a dramatically different Ailsa course the next time you visit and/or play it when it reopens. The par will remain at 70, but the course will be lengthened from 7,204 yards to 7,357 yards. It will be configured differently. Prior to the renovation, there were two par-5s and four par-3s. When the championship course reopens this summer, it was feature three par-5s and five par-3s. Most notable of these changes, Turnberry’s iconic lighthouse will become the backdrop to a new par-3 to replace the somewhat quirky par-4 9th. Our host from Turnberry whom I had the fortune of playing with Angus explained what it would likely look like if you use you imagination a bit.
The ninth currently plays 452 yards from a tee perched near the edge of the Firth of Cylde. The scene is one of the most dramatic in golf, with the hills of the Isle of Arran seen across the water in the distance. When construction is finished, the course will play as a 235-yard par-3, with a long carry over water and the lighthouse sitting as the backdrop to the green. This new ninth hole will capture your imagination and is expected to be jaw-dropping gorgeous, with the vistas from the tee and the challenge of the carry across the bay. The test of the championship will require a perfect ball in typically down wind conditions to carry a minimum of 200 yards and then control the test of running it onto the green.
This major change sounds like it will be lauded, given that most critics believe the ninth hole is unfair. The camelback fairway with run-offs means good drives often undeservingly end up in the rough.
Another notable modification will include the 10th being changed from a 457-yard par-4 to a 562-yard par-5. This hole lies adjacent to the water, curling around Castle Port Bay. A new championship tee will be built closer to the sea and taken back closer to the remaining walls of Tunberry Castle, and then green will be moved toward the water –pushed back to where the old 11th tee was. If taking an ultra-aggressive line off the tee, players will have to carry their drives 280 yards, which will be a fun challenge to watch the few brave
or daft ones attempt it. There should probably be a sign that says: This tee shot is for highly skilled golfers only. (I mean, if you want to throw away a $5 golf ball, that’s up to you. I actually would probably do something similar.)
Trump’s plans also involve turning the iconic lighthouse into a halfway house.
The par-3 11th will feature more of the water, as well. (Do we see a pattern here?) The hole will be lengthened by 40 yards to 215 from the championship tees. The 11th will play across beautiful rocky inlets and any thoughts that it will be too similar to the 9th will see that isn’t the case as there’s supposed to be a greater sense of intimacy in the setting.
Other notable hole changes include the 17th, which will turn from a 558-yard par-5 to a 505-yard par-4. And finally, the 18th will shift from a 461-yard dogleg par-4 to a straight 485-yard par-4. For a championship course, some critics found the ending somewhat disappointing with an awkward dogleg and internal out of bounds to the left. There will be a new tee added on the dune that separates the course from the Firth of Clyde. Now that will be dramatic.
Here’s a great video that gives you a good overview of the changes:
ROYAL TROON — OLD COURSE
On the second day of this glorious trip, we played Royal Troon’s Old Course. And as I mentioned above, it was probably my favorite links of the five, but I can’t say for absolute certainty because all of them were brilliant and unique and I’m biased because I scored well there. We had a relatively calm — a bit breezier than at Turnberry — day at Troon, which was fortunate because it is one tough test of golf, but I’m also not sure if I’ve played many that are truer, better tests. Troon was absolutely pure and as flawless as you’ll find any links.
Founded in 1878, Troon has certainly stood the test of time. It will play host to the Open Championship for the ninth time this upcoming July. The inward nine is an especially stern golfing examination that is widely accepted as the most demanding of any course on the Open rota. No joke: the back nine is hard. You have to hit it or miss it in the right spots, navigating the well-placed and plentiful bunkers, tough angles, blind shots and possibly looking for errant shots in the gorse or deep heather.
I’m more than glad that I decided to take a caddie for this round. (I hate myself right now that I can’t remember his name, but I think it was Colin?) When we teed off, I felt like I was about to have one of those “off” days, but with the proper course management and advice from my excellent looper, I was able to turn it into one of those “I-don’t-have-my-A-game-today-but-I-am-somehow-scoring days.
The course measures 7,208 yards from the tips, but generally, the line is more important than distance from the tee, especially because of the bunkers — many of which aren’t visible from the tee. The front nine starts off fairly tame, with several short par fours running along the Firth of Clyde, but I made some stupid, brain-less bogeys out of the gate. You can also see the Isle of Arran on a sunny day. The airport isn’t far, so you might see a plane that looks like it’s landing on the golf course when you’re on the second or third tee…
The par-5 6th is the longest par five in Open Championship history, and as you approach the green, you can see the landscape changing, and then when you walk toward the next tee, you’re at a higher point overlooking the course and its various contours, dunes, and nooks and crannies that make Troon such a special place.
Next, of course, you reach one of the most famous holes in golf — par 3 8th, also known as “The Postage Stamp.” This short par 3 only measures 123 yards, but if you miss the small green, well, then best of luck!
It’s pretty much obligatory to get a video taken of hitting your tee shot on this hole.
When you make the turn, you feel like you’ve been transported to a completely different place because the terrain looks so different than the relatively flat front nine. Like I mentioned, the inward (back) nine is extremely difficult and often plays very long with the northwesterly wind into your face. You walk through a narrow, tree-lined dirt path like you’re headed into a different make-believe amazing links to finish this great test of golf.
The 11th is a brute of a par four, with O.B. and the railway tracks running along the right side of the hole. Similar to all the tough par 4s on the back, the 13th is a dogleg right that presents a challenging tee shot. It’s one of the only holes without a bunker and the approach shot is hit into an elevated green.
General, overall thoughts on Troon: It was very long, with small greens. Precision was required from tee-to-green and it was simply the most demanding of the five we played that week — but that said, it was also my favorite because it was the best test. (And like I said, I played well… scored better on the back!)
PRESTWICK GOLF CLUB
Prestwick was on my top five bucket list courses-to-play before I die. You know, you have a few of those tracks that just sound absolutely magical and are treated like sacred grounds. Prestwick is the birthplace of the Open Championship, though it hasn’t hosted the major since 1923 — because of its eccentricity and relative lack of length for the best pros in the world. You’ll hear Prestwick often described as “quirky,” with its untraditional features and blind shots. It is indeed quirky, but it’s also got tons of character, history and charm.
It *feels* old (in a good way!). Playing there it was like you could just feel the ghost of Old Tom Morris walking down the fairway alongside you. It’s simply a special place that creates a tons of fun, interesting golf. (I take back what I said about Troon — Prestwick ties as my favorite course. There can be a tie, right?)
Prestwick’s character reminded me of a cross between the Yale Course, where I played my college golf, and the unconventionality and charm of National Golf Links of America. The layout is like one you’ve never played and the brilliance of the multiple blind holes and undulating fairways that lead to a majority of small greens, some of which have serious ripples running through them.
The first five holes is called the “Big Loop” and the last four are the “Small Loop.” These holes are filled with blind shots, odd numbers and hazards and present an unknown and unfamiliar challenge if you’re not a creative type. (Either way, get a caddie.) The first hole is considered one of the most intimidating tee shots in golf, a par-4 called “Railway,” with tracks running all the way down the right side of the hole, waiting to lure a couple of slices into OB territory.
The third is a short par five — but with a stroke index 1 — and is perhaps the most unique hole you’ll ever play. First off, if you’ve never played Prestwick before and you don’t have a caddie in your group, make sure you know where you’re going because it’s really not clear to newbies. You have to place your drive in a good spot off the tee, but the real challenge is the second shot and hitting it over the massive, extremely deep bunker, propped up by railway sleepers.
The 5th is a challenging blind par 3 called “Himalayas.” You have to carry your tee shot over a massive sand dune and you have no real idea where the green is, so it’s one of those hit and pray kind of moments.
Now, you have to wait until 17 to get to the “Alps,” which is one of the most famous holes in the world because of its notorious blind second shot. The tee shot is straightforward, but the approach is the one that’s terrifying because of the large dune between the fairway and the green and where it slopes. If the shot is short, it will likely roll to the back of the dune or the huge bunker guarding the front of the green. But if it’s long, the chip is gone down the largest tier on the course and tough to stop on the green.
The finishing par-4 is a fine risk-reward hole. It is only 284 yards without trouble in front of the green. Bombers have a shot at eagle if they hit their drive online. However, a missed drive to the right can find long hay or an awkward 80-yard bunker shot. Oh yeah, and a shot that goes five yards over the green is OB. There are so many memorable holes — each and every single one of them is unique and a pleasure to navigate and enjoy the different challenge. Playing Prestwick should definitely be on everyone’s bucket list. I know I’m certainly looking forward to a return trip this summer!
Dundonald Links is the “links-style” course that’s owned by the exclusive Loch Lomond Golf Club. Since Loch Lomond is a parkland course, the idea was to give its members an alternative links option. The course measures 7,100 as a par 72. It was designed by U.S. golf course architect Kyle Phillips, who has received high esteem for his work on Kingsbarns near St Andrews, designed the links track. The course design was inspired by the timeless architecture of the great Ayrshire links at Royal Troon, Prestwick and Western Gailes, all connected by the historic rail line.
Dundonald means ‘Fort Donald’ and there is a hill near the course upon which fortifications have been located dating back to the period 500 through 200 B.C.
Though a newer course, it seems to have grown in and matured pretty well. It obviously doesn’t have the iconic, statuesque feel of Prestwick or Troon, but it’s a very nice, fun track, and there was a proper wee breeze for the first time all week. Phillips said from the start that it was his intention “to create a championship Ayrshire links that felt and played as though it was an old, rediscovered course.”
Phillips moved some earth around while constructing Dundonald Links but only where it was necessary to enhance the existing contours. The fairways are wide and generous, but beware of some really nasty bunkers out there or getting out of position isn’t exactly a blast, either. The course does play longer than the yardage, though, especially with the wind. (I feel like Kyle Phillips courses are like that.)
The opening is pretty soft, with a nice par-4 requiring a solid tee shot down the right center of the fairway. The distance to the green appears fore shortened by the bunker some 20 yards short of the green. The green has a hollow on the front right and slopes from back to front with all the trouble lying to the left.
The par-5 3rd is a tricky, fun hole. It requires a well-guided tee shot to avoid the ditch, which encroaches on the right. The safe play is to lay up short of the fairway bunker, then play to the left of the ditch with your second shot. If conditions are favorable, longer hitters may want to go for it in two, but you must avoid the gorse on the right at all costs (in other words, you’re screwed). The green is very undulating and a hidden bunker lurks at the back for anyone that takes one club too many.
I felt that all the par 3s were particularly strong — they were varied and tested different shots with a large range throughout the bag. The par-3 6th demands excellent distance control. You can’t go left because a cavernous ditch runs down the left of the green as a gathering spot. But most important, DON’T GO LONG AND RIGHT. There’s a hidden pot bunker at the back of the green, and trust me, you don’t want to be in it.
The par-3 13th is one that you can’t forget, as it runs parallel to the famed railway line. The most challenging part of the his hole is the approach shot to the green. A ditch — that you can’t see — meanders along the front of the tough two-tier green. Finding the fairway off the tee is a must and get the ball on the right level of the green. I actually birdied this hole and it was the proudest moment of the day for me (and I’m glad I didn’t know there was that ditch). The finishing holes were quite fun and provided a good test.
The par-3 15th has a relatively small green that runs from back to front, and you definitely don’t want to take too much club, but it plays every bit of its yardage.
The par-4 16th is the most challenging hole on the course, especially when playing into the prevailing wind. A perfect tee shot should favor the right center of the fairway and avoid the first fairway bunker, but it’s quite intimidating. The skinny two-tiered green is guarded with one bunker to the left of the green. Walk away with a score of 4 and it will feel like a birdie.
Finally, last but most certainly not least, it was time to play Western Gailes, which I had very much been looking forward to as many locals rave about it. This links track is regarded by many as a hidden gem — one that doesn’t have the same acclaim as some of the other courses we played — but for those golfers in the know, it’s on the “must-play” list.
We played Western Gailes on a cloudy September day along the Firth of Clyde with a nice wee breeze (in other words, it was like 20mph probably). It was the first day where it felt like there was a proper wind. (Yes, we got very lucky with the weather!)
The course presents a fair challenge and is pretty straightforward (not many blind shots). It’s situated on a perfect Scottish links piece of land between the sea and the railway — a feature we’ve seen with other classic Ayrshire links courses. The undulating terrain surrounded by the stretch of dunes running down the coast stretch from the 5th to the 13th, the OB wall from the 14th onwards, and the ample supply of treacherous pot bunkers and meandering burns all combine to present a very fun yet memorable test of golf.
The course starts off relatively straightforward as it builds up to the challenge of the par-4 5th, which has a stroke index of 1. This long par 4 plays straight into the wind and for the average golfer, it will take three full shots to reach. Take enough club on the approach, as the entrance to the green is narrow, turtlebacked and guarded by pesky pot bunkers. If you make par, do a little dance and give yourself a pat on the back — you deserve it.
There are so many fun, unique holes that it’s hard to choose just one, but if I had to, I’d say my favorite at Western Gailes was the par-3 7th. It’s one of those perfect par 3s that’s stood the test of time and likely plays just as it was intended to when the course was first designed in 1897. It’s simply a great links par 3 that demands a very straight tee shot, but don’t go long and left because you’ll have trouble getting up-and-down. Actually, if you miss the green, hope you have one heck of a short game. Here’s my shot on the hole — not the greatest swing in the world, but I got lucky and landed safely on the green.
Teeing off the par-3 7th at Western Gailes. Had a serious proper wind finally! But another beautiful day in Scotland! A video posted by Stephanie Wei (@stephaniemwei) on
Once you reach the par-5 14th, you’ve now completed nine holes in the other direction and should now be playing with the prevailing wind. However, the tee shot here is intimidating and difficult, so don’t let your guard down. Staying on the left side of the fairway is the easier play, but it leaves you with a tough second. The third is always tricky into a long narrow green.
I really enjoyed the closing holes at Western Gailes — they were varied and provided a proper, terrific test. The par-3 16th isn’t the hardest hole in the world, but it’s fun and you need to take notice of the wind direction as it kind of cuts across. There is dead ground over the front bunkers, so you can land it short and let it run up. If you hit it straight, everything gathers and funnels toward the green, but if you’re offline, you could face a tough up-and-down.
The par-4 16th is a fun challenge. Off the tee, beware of the fairway bunkers on both sides. There is dead ground over the burn to the front of the green, but it can still be a long shot to carry, so weigh your risk-reward options carefully!
The par-4 17th is another strong hole coming down the stretch. The railway line on the right might be a little bit of a challenge off the tee, but you must stay out of the fairway bunkers because that’s pretty much an automatic double-bogey. On the approach, take the line toward the left edge of the clubhouse and make sure you take enough club. Do anything but end up short right.
After going around 18 holes on these proper Scottish links, you won’t feel disappointed when you reach the clubhouse. In fact, it’s one of those courses, where you want to go back out there and tee it up again because you enjoyed the challenge so much and would like to have another go at it. Again, I had heard so much about Western Gailes from industry insiders and fellow writers, but it wasn’t a “big name,” like Turnberry or Troon. However, it’s the best-kept secrets that provide some of the greatest experiences. You won’t be disappointed by Western Gailes.
A golf trip to Ayrshire is extremely convenient in terms of logistics, as well. All the courses are about within an hour of Glasgow and they’re not farther than 45 minutes apart, with Turnberry and Western Gailes being the longest trip between any two destinations. We had McLaren Travel, an executive coach service in the area, provide our transportation services — and I’d highly recommend them to anyone and everyone. Our drivers were extremely personable, knowledgable and helpful. (Shout-out to Lloyd!)
Personally, if I were on my own, I don’t mind renting a car, but I know that some Americans have reservations about driving on the other side of the road.
For accommodations, we stayed in a nice array of various places — all of which were well situated and located only a short 20-minute-ish drive from the courses. So, a quick rundown of the options were Old Loans Inn, The Marine Hotel and Blair Estate. Oh yeah, we spent a quick night at the Radisson in Glasgow before we headed off to our golfing adventure in Ayrshire. It was fine for the evening and a nice corporate option if you’re in the city. Next, we had a couple of days at Old Loans Inn, which is pretty much a larger old-school “inn” with some hotel-like amenities (i.e. restaurant open during certain hours of the day and also a bar). I’d give it a standard three stars. Maybe 3.5.
Then, we moved on up to the Marine Hotel, which overlooks Royal Troon, so that’s obviously not far to several of the courses and especially convenient if you’re playing Troon and/or Prestwick. The rooms are gigantic, especially if you are lucky enough to get a suite, but some of the wear and tear of the place is starting to show a little…but it’s still a beautiful hotel and when it comes to convenience, you can’t beat it.
If I were going by myself or with a small group, I’d probably just look into Airbnbs in the area.
We also visited two properties that are suited for corporate outings or for a billionaires buddies’ trip. We had a wonderful tour and dinner at the lovely Blairquan Castle, which would be a perfect place to rent out for a sponsor that’s entertaining during the Open at Troon this summer (or it might already be reserved, but it’s worth looking into).
We spent our last night at the Blair Estate, and I know I’ve done a lot of raving in this post about this trip, but staying there was a super send-off treat. (I mean, we could’ve just stayed here all week and I wouldn’t have complained!) This was my (en-suite) room with the original four-poster bed from the 1800s.
Here are some pictures of the common areas of this beautiful property:
Blair Estate had all that comes with old-world charm of a historic home (or castle?), but with modern amenities and comforts. Heck, I wish I could live there. Coming back to the estate for a hot drink after a long day battling the elements on the Scottish links every day sounds like absolute bliss.
Overall, it was (clearly) an incredible trip filled with wonderful memories (and writing this is making me nostalgic for Scottish golf) and spectacular links golf. It’s not often you can find FIVE world-class courses within 45 minutes of one another — especially ones that make it almost impossible to rank and separate the best from a little less than the best; that are all equally filled with character and intrigue, not to mention carry the roots of the game.
I obviously highly recommend a golfing trip to Ayrshire. You certainly won’t be disappointed by the premier links golf experiences!
For more information, please go to ayrshiregolfscotland.com.