East Lothian, otherwise known as "Scotland's Golf Coast," features a collection of links as good as anywhere in the world. St. Andrews to the north might be the "Home of Golf," but this region that hugs the southern shores of the Firth of Forth just 30 minutes east of Edinburgh remains steeped in the history and tradition of the game.
The oldest golf club in the world, The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, dating to 1744, calls Muirfield home. Evidence indicates that the Musselburgh Links, the Old Golf Course -- the oldest course in the world still in existence -- dates back to the 16th century. It hosted the last of its five Open Championships in 1889.
There are 22 courses along Scotland's Golf Coast, many of them links. If you seek their dunes and wind-swept fairways, here are the five best to play:
Phil Mickelson's magical back nine in winning the 2013 Open Championship only enhanced the legend of Muirfield. Established in 1891, Muirfield is among the three original Open Championship hosts, along with Prestwick and Musselburgh Links. Mickelson joined a long list of golf legends who have hoisted the Claret Jug at Muirfield, the fairest of all the Open rota courses. They include: Harry Vardon (1896), James Braid (1901, 1906), Walter Hagen (1929), Gary Player (1959), Jack Nicklaus (1966), Lee Trevino (1972), Tom Watson (1980), Nick Faldo (1987, 1992) and Ernie Els (2002). Architect Martin Hawtree's renovation prior to the 2013 Open added seven new back tees and moved bunkers closer to fairways and greens. Getting inside the gates at Muirfield takes planning. The club only accepts outside play on Tuesdays and Thursdays and often fills up months in advance. Jackets and ties are required in the clubhouse. Wear your Sunday best when you show up before changing into golf attire in the locker room.
West Links at North Berwick Golf Club
No course personifies all the oddities of links golf better than the West Links at North Berwick Golf Club, a 6,432-yard course that dates to 1832. The original Redan, the par-3 15th hole, features a green that slants front-right-to-back-left away from players. Its design has been copied around the world. An ancient stone wall protects the greens of the course's two toughest par4s, no. 3 and no. 13. Those challenges are tame compared to the madness of the narrow, raised 16th green, which has two plateaus on either end with a chasm in the middle.
This 6,548-yard British Open qualifying site dating to 1884 is the strongest and most scenic of the three courses at the club. The climb up the famed Gullane Hill makes par on the par-5 third hole a seemingly impossible task. The reward comes at Gullane No. 1's fourth tee, an elevated perch that overlooks the entire links -- along with some holes of Gullane's No. 2 Course -- and the Firth of Forth. Another elevated tee box at no. 7 reveals a beach popular with kite surfers and a distant peek at Muirfield. Heading home on the front side of the hill while playing the 17th hole called "Hilltop," even the shortest of hitters can use the tailwind to drive the green below. Walking downhill, downwind feels much more manageable than the beginning uphill slog, especially with a pint in the clubhouse just a few steps away.
This 6,597-yard par-71 links comes to life once players walk through the ancient wall behind the third green. Dunbar Golf Club's next 14 holes play along the North Sea, providing both beauty and challenging conditions in the ever-present wind. The Barns Ness Lighthouse and the Bass Rock offshore add visual fireworks along the journey. The wall, built by prisoners of the invading armies of Napoleon, causes trouble on five holes. The seventh fairway doglegs right with out-of-bounds over the wall very much in play. Many a match has been decided on Dunbar's par-4 finishing hole when sloppy tee shots end up too close to the wall for a proper swing. The club, founded in 1856, has big dreams of building a new clubhouse within five years on a ridge overlooking the second hole, and tweaking the routing, where the par-5 first hole becomes the finisher, and the par-5 second hole becomes the new opener.
Golfers who don't care about the origins of the game might skip this scruffy inland nine-holer to play another links. Perhaps the 6,606-yard Craigielaw Golf Club in Aberlady or the scenic 6,275-yard Glen Club in North Berwick will suffice. But purists will want to rent a set of hickories from the clubhouse to experience golf as it was played by our ancestors. The 2,954-yard par-34 Musselburgh Links continues to survive inside the Musselburgh Race Track. Billboards near the second tee tell of its historical significance. The first documented evidence of golf came in 1672. The wives of local fishermen played the first women's competition in 1811. Robert Gay used the first hole-cutting instrument in 1829. Seven of the current nine holes were laid out in 1838, with two more added in 1870. Playing through the rails and over the racetrack brings an odd feel to the round. Fantastic sod-walled bunkering and colorful gorse make up for these peculiar moments and any rough spots in conditioning.