There's no golf vacation quite like one to Scotland. It's my favorite place to play the game in the world, and I've been fortunate to make the trip five times.
Before presenting my Top 10, a disclaimer: I've played 44 courses in Scotland, but a select few, top-ranked ones have proved elusive, such as Western Gailes, Muirfield, Trump Aberdeen & Royal Troon, so they don't make it on the list even though I'm sure they'd warrant great consideration. Other fine clubs, such as Open Championship hosts Prestwick and Carnoustie, Royal Aberdeen and The Renaissance Club are on the outside looking in.
Here is my Scotland top 10, which spans from the Mull of Kintyre up to the Highlands and, of course, St. Andrews.
I've been fortunate enough to play the Old three times, each time in an entirely different conditions and wind directions, which really brings the nuances to this most unique design to life. There's just simply no round like the Old in the world. St. Andrews is the perfect-sized golf town. I try and spend at least a night here every time I'm over.
So while there are more visually dramatic links with higher dunes and sea views, I still have to give the nod of Scotland's best course to the Old.
When people ask me about where to play in Scotland, I assume they're fully aware of St. Andrews, so the first course out of my mouth is often North Berwick.
Berwick's routing is similar to St. Andrews in that it's a true out-and-back links that begins and ends in the heart of town. The difference, however, is it's more scenic, with more variety on the terrain and plenty more sea views. The design also has its own brand of old-world quirkiness. Shots include drives over a beach, stone walls, blind shots and some really neat green complexes.
I've played Dornoch three times, and it grows on me more and more. If you've ever played Pinehurst No. 2, Dornoch is a little glimpse into how Donald Ross discovered the design style he would import into his many works in the U.S. Afterwards, an afternoon stroll though this most charming little Highlands town only amplifies one of the world's greatest golf experiences.
Yes, you're headed to Scotland for a history lesson, but Kingsbarns, opened in 2000, earns its keep and then some in the neighborhood of St. Andrews. More manmade than your average Scottish links, yes, but the finished product is a surreal, tiered amphitheater setting overlooking the sea.
5. Cruden Bay
Historians of the game in search of a great throwback links, full of Old Tom Morris quirks (such as four sunken, bind greens in a row), must play Cruden Bay.
Tour operators often tell me it's the highest-rated links by their clients following their trips; I won't go that far, but it's absolutely worth inclusion for any group that wants to see the wild side of old Scottish golf.
I was the only one on the golf course the chilly April morning I played Machrihanish. Hail pounded down as I teed off on "Battery" and nutted one down the middle. It was too wet to use my camera and with rain gloves on I wrote down nary a score. But still, I recall this loop in solitude, with Paul McCartney's "Mull of Kintyre" tune as my swing thought, most fondly.
An absolute hoot to play, Castle Stuart, which is the second Scotland creation by developer Mark Parsinen after Kingsbarns, is a must on any Highlands tour. Few fairways in Scotland are more forgiving, while there may be no more scenic course in Scotland, either.
The layout has the unique distinction of featuring holes both high above the sea, affording fabulous views with greens with infinity backdrops, while others play on low ground right along the sea (plus others with a castle backdrop). The tremendous hole variety and changing of landcape makes the round go by too quickly. You'll adore every hole.
I haven't played Turnberry since the Trump renovations. By all indications it's even better now. The two times I've played it, I found it to be a delightful walk that can play as a fair resort course or a stern Open Championship venue. Because it was plowed over to serve as an airstrip during World War II, the rebuild took some old world quirks out of the routing, making it one of Scotland's fairest championship links. In a kind of twisted way, that kinda knocks it down a peg or two for me.
Links courses are only half of the tale of golf in Scotland. Exhibit 1-A as to why every itinerary should include at least one heathland course is the King's at Gleneagles.
This is a hands-on lesson in the imagination of James Braid, who throws massive bunkers, elevated greens, risk-reward holes that stand the test of time and much more at the golfer. By the way, the surrounding hillside views are magnificent, and the on-site five-star hotel rivals Turnberry and the Old Course Hotel as the luxury digs in Scotland. Be sure to hit the breakfast buffet.
10. Gullane No. 1
In a crowded golf scene, don't forget East Lothian's Gullane No. 1 next to Muirfield, a stellar, championship-worthy links with some real unique qualities to it, such as a volcanic hill and some exhilarating elevated tees. Don't forget to inquire about a post-round tour from Archie Baird's Heritage of Golf Museum.