CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — The week of The 147th Open in Carnoustie was a sunny affair, brightened further by the Scots' ear-to-ear grins thanks to historic warmth and sunshine this summer.
Other parts of the golfing world - those prone to drought and water insecurity - might be less willing to celebrate such a dry spell. Not Scotland. Round two's morning rain was a reminder the damp and cold will be here before you know it. Members and staff at nearby parkland courses are relishing their own "links-like" brownish fairways. You could get a little taste of the extreme speed of Carnoustie's fairways virtually anywhere you played.
It revealed what's so special about attending an Open and fitting in your own games nearby: Where else can you enjoy similar playing conditions and historic courses as the pros right around the corner? You can hit the same 280-yard iron that goes bounding down rumpled, brown fairways and manage heroic recoveries out of the wispy fescue roughs. The stylings of prominent architects of the old-world game, like James Braid and Old Tom Morris, isn't just at Carnoustie but everywhere you look.
For golf travelers, a round on the Carnoustie Championship Links is typically an add-on to a St. Andrews-centric tour, so its neighbors tend to go overlooked. Hardly household names back in America, the "Carnoustie Country" collection around Angus is nevertheless as historic and reputable as it gets in Scotland. Many cherish their small roles in one or more of Carnoustie's eight Opens. The area on a whole lacks the mystical lure of the Highlands and the prestige of St. Andrews and the result is less competition for peak season tee times and remarkable value.
Video: Tour the courses around Carnoustie
Carnoustie is the natural home base for golfers, thanks to 60 holes, the hotel, as well as the recent additions in facilities made since 2007, including a £5 million clubhouse and restaurant.
Its nearest peer in the neighborhood is its next door neighbor to the west, Panmure Golf Club. In 1953, the club arranged for Ben Hogan to practice here in solitude prior to his one-and-only and ultimately triumphant Open. Just a couple blocks separate the two links, and Panmure's own James Braid-designed layout also prides itself on providing a proper challenge. Unlike Carnoustie, it's a traditional out-and-back routing on a narrow strip. Like Carnoustie, low-lying Panmure is hidden from the sea but lets its dunes and design make the statement. The 6th hole kicks off a stout middle stretch; a par 4 with a narrow fairway that doglegs gently left and heading up to an elevated green. A blind bunker short and right of the green won the affection of Hogan himself.
Panmure's layout and £105 green fee puts it in close peer with Carnoustie. The remainder of the itinerary however features tremendous bargains on layouts less prone to shredding your scorecard.
Backing up to Panmure's west side is the club's old home, Monifieth golf links. The two share a border and in theory you could play cross-country off from first hole of Monifieth's Medal Links and play east six holes, continue along onto Panmure's 13th and play into the clubhouse.
Several clubs still play at Monifieth and it's a bustling scene with 36 holes, the Medal and Ashludie. A collection of clubhouses - the Grange, Broughty and Monifieth clubs, as well as the Ladies Panmure (the former clubhouse for Panmure) overlook the opening holes. Tom Watson played his first links shot on the Medal in 1975 and end result was the same as Hogan's, ultimately hoisting the claret jug.
Our group had a late-evening knockabout on the Ashludie course and absolutely adored the rippling and charming 5,100 layout. Two long par 4s keep your long game honest while several elevated and other well protected greens provide make approach shots loads of fun. At just £15-20 twilight, with some of the purest greens we rolled all week, it's the steal of the east coast and gives you all the charm of the club, including its big practice green next to three clubhouses that promotes family fun in the evening hours.
On Carnoustie's east side is Arbroath Golf Links, and similar to Panmure it's an out-and-back routing. For eye-candy seekers, the separation of about a two miles from the flatter Carnoustie-Panmure-Monifieth trio gives the links a different flavor. Farmland slopes down from the north and the blue sea peeks from its narrow strip of land that heads seven holes out before turning around at the 8th tee which is steps from the railroad tracks. Trains runs so close to some of the inward holes, most notably the 8th, a passenger could toss you a sleeve of balls should you need the ammo.
Three burns bisect the course perpendicularly and play a heavy influence in the strategy of several drives, while creeping up in front of greens on others.
Counting Carnoustie's three courses along with Panmure and Monifieth, you could take on a week's worth of links without putting many miles on your vehicle. But expand your radius another 12 miles or so and you'll play the area's true star and a prime candidate fo Scotland's best £50 or under course.
The links at Montrose has a remarkable history and a future in jeopardy. At one point, it claimed to have more holes than anywhere else in the world - St. Andrews included - and celebrated its merit with a 25-hole tournament. The links have changed since balls were known to be swatted around as early as 1562. Its current form, largely the result of H.S. Colt, is terrific. He routed the course so that players tee off the first and play up to the sea on a dunes formation called the "Bents." An opening par 4 plays up a hill, and when you make the ascent to the green, the sea comes into view. The 2nd tee is fully exposed and spectacular. It's also eroding, as several red signs warn. It's also been a poster child for what climate change and rising seas could do to the U.K.'s links. You can see installed rock fortifications trying to slow the process. Stare back down the fairway though and it's a beautiful dogleg right that snakes through the dunes. Losing this hole or any of the holes on the bent to the sea would be a shame.
A parkland treasure
Playing only links on a Scotland trip only tells half the story in a country that is wholly beautiful. Dundee, the nearest city to Angus, is void of links but features a stellar parkland that played a part in the road to Paul Lawrie's '99 triumph, Downfield Golf Club. Lawrie qualified on this delightful layout, set up in the forested hills, where towering trees feel that much more extraordinary once you've played open links several days in a row.
Downfield is a peaceful walk and despite its tree tunnels the playing corridors are generous. Par 5s are rare on the old links around Angus, so long hitters will be eager to chew off Par-73 Downfield's quintet of them, including three in four holes on the back. Built in the early 1930s, there doesn't seem to be much in the form of design excess by James Braid. It's a simple but brilliant loop, with a £44-55 green fee that's a fraction of other top U.K parklands.
More golf in the area
Virtually every nook of Scotland is chock full of golf courses to play and Angus-Dundee is no exception. On arrival day, I found a little resort minutes from my hotel with a fun, relatively new 9-holer in the hills at Forbes of Kingennie. Lots of scenery, a fine 19th hole and a putting course for kids. (£20)
On my first morning in Scotland, twiddling thumbs wide awake at 5 a.m., I found an impromptu game with a member first out at Ballumbie Castle. It's just £10-20 and is a pleasant, bargain and confidence-boosting inland walk.