Each year, especially during the weeks of The Open and Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, I think about what a Scotland golf trip would look like if I were the group leader.
I've been to Scotland enough times to get a good feel for which courses a group would enjoy best, and perhaps more importantly, how much mileage can be handled. The tough part of being the planner of a golf tour here is that because of logistics, any week-long itinerary is going to make for some cruel cuts. Courses in my personal Scotland top 10 like Machrihanish, Turnberry, Kingsbarns and Gleneagles are narrowly on the outside looking in. Also, Open rota venues aren't always the best options for golf tours full of mid- and high-handicappers, and I don't prioritize them. Chasing these venues can often lead to more headaches, whether it's greater cost, tougher booking barriers, and higher scores.This is not a "spare-no-expense" trip; I am minding my quid to a certain degree. There are no helicopters involved. But if we have at least eight heads, hiring a coach won't break the bank.
So, here's my trip: I've packed this into eight nights (two nights in Dornoch, one in Cruden Bay, three in St. Andrews and one in Edinburgh), which is just short enough that you'll only have to take a week off work. There's a bit of driving, about 14 (scenic) hours in the coach total:
Arrival day: Land in Edinburgh and drive up to the Highlands
This is how I've kicked off numerous past Scotland trips and it seems to work out well (even as I'm red-eyed behind the wheel): Touch down at EDI airport (which has plenty of non-stops from the east coast) in the morning and make a relaxing journey up to the Highlands, stopping often for plenty of coffee along the way and taking in some various scenic outlooks and castles.
We'll arrive in the storybook town of Dornoch by the late afternoon, where we'll stay two nights at the Royal Golf Hotel overlooking the first tee of Royal Dornoch. The group can either head out for a warm-up round on Dornoch's Struie Course or putz around the town.
I will warn everyone to go easy on the booze while jet-lagged on arrival day, and they won't listen. Ah well. I'll head to the first tee in the morning one-up.
Royal Dornoch Struie Course twilight rate: £20.
Day 1: Royal Dornoch's Championship Links
After introducing the group to the joys of sausage, blood pudding and haggis, it's a short walk out the door to the first tee of the Championship Course at Royal Dornoch, one of the most thrilling and magical links around. This place has it all for golf groups: history, scenery, some birdie opportunities, hole variety and plenty of pot bunkers. With some luck, we'll have RAF protection overhead. As the place where Donald Ross grew up, play Dornoch helps enrich a group's appreciation for America's earliest courses still around today.
I'm a big fan of replaying a few courses on a golf trip. This is especially true in Scotland, which has a dream-like combination of fast pace of play, long summer days, and day-ticket green fees. You can walk 18 in the morning, eat lunch, take a nap, then still have plenty of time for another 18 in the evening.
Championship course day ticket: £190 (single round: £120)
Day 2: Castle Stuart
It's time to head south from Dornoch to our eventual destination, the Home of Golf. We won't be driving long, though. The first stop is at one best modern links in existence, Castle Stuart. It's a wildly fun links with wide fairways, and probably the most scenic round we'll play all week. It also has a full practice facility (something many of the older clubs don't have) and probably the coolest clubhouse in our itinerary, too. We'll be sure to loiter around awhile here.
Castle Stuart green fees: £190 (day ticket: £235)
Afterwards, we'll head east along the scenic coast towards Cruden Bay, perhaps stopping off at a distillery or two on the way, and bunk up somewhere nearby. The area's very own golf nut, Ru MacDonald, who hosts the Scottish Golf Podcast, recommends the White Horse Inn on a budget or the Kilmarnock Arms.
** Money-saver option: Castle Stuart is the most expensive course on my itinerary, but a fine and and affordable detour would be Boat of Garten (£47), a pleasant heathland course in Cairngorms National Park designed by James Braid.
Day 3: Cruden Bay
One of the great old-world gems left behind by Old Tom Morris, Cruden Bay will be the quirkiest course we play all week. Yet many tour operators tell me when they poll their golf groups following a trip, Cruden Bay is the collective favorite. Several holes play high on a bluff, before four blind approach shots in a row highlight the back nine. My hope would be that a few guys in my group get enough bad breaks to not only lose money to me, but warrant some colorful 19th hole dialogue in the clubhouse overlooking the links.
There may be an emergency nine.
Cruden Bay green fees: £105-140 (weekend rate is day-ticket only)
Also, starting today, I'll begin entering our group into the Old Course lottery. (I am assuming I will be asleep at the wheel when the Links Trust has its write-in tee times request window in the fall; I've never planned that far in advance for any event in my entire life.) Keep in mind that in the next few years, the Links Trust will be significantly changing the Old Course's booking process, probably for the better.
There are loads of options to stay in the ultimate golf town of St. Andrews. I'm not sure everyone in the group will have the dough for Kohler's five-star Old Course Hotel. But at the very least, I'll make sure we spend at least one happy hour on it's fourth floor bar, which has an unmatched view of the rippling links:
The Macdonald Rusacks Hotel next to the 18th hole is another good high-end option too, or maybe we'll find a more affordable B&B in town we can rent out entirely.
Days 4-6: St. Andrews Links Trust 3-day ticket and the Old Course Lottery
The 3- and 5-day Links Trust unlimited golf ticket (£200) is a phenomenal deal, and it's great because we can enter our names in the Old Course lottery daily and have a back-up plan in place. You can book your morning tee times in advance and then find space available replays in the afternoon (which is usually no issue at all).
St. Andrews' New Course and Jubilee Course are both very good links. Or, for those who want more eye candy, the ticket includes the Castle Course just outside of town, which is a showy new bluff-top links with plenty of drama and views of St. Andrews are second to none. (I recommend match play or skins here -- there are some goofy holes!).
With any luck, we're able to secure a spot on the Old. (Green fees: £175.)
Day 7: North Berwick
It's about an hour's drive from St. Andrews over the Firth of Forth to East Lothian, where St. Andrews' links antithesis awaits, the West Links at North Berwick.
St. Andrews is to a certain degree a sum of its parts, whose subtleties are revealed after a second round in a different wind direction. North Berwick, despite a similar out-and-back routing beginning and ending in the heart of town, simply has a collection of the most unique holes in the world. One after another is different and riveting. So much is made of the "Redan" green, but frankly, that's about the 14th most interesting hole on the course.
I'm booking a day ticket here, and will encourage my whole group to play at least 36 holes. There are tons of other options in golf-rich East Lothian, and for those in my group wanting to see more, I'll recommend Gullane No. 1 or a casual round at Kilspindie or Dunbar Golf Club. Personally, I'll probably have to be dragged off the West Links at sundown.
North Berwick day ticket: £150 (single round: £105)
For our final night, we'll stay in the town center of Edinburgh, a wonderful, lively spot for sight-seeing, dinner and drinks.
If I've done my job properly, I'll have plenty of raised hands on the plane up for a return trip in a couple years to play the courses in Ayrshire and Mull of Kintyre.
So, who's comin' with me?