The Kingdom of Fife will always be ground zero for golf in Scotland.
St. Andrews is the first choice for every American planning a golf trip overseas. Many golfers believe it's the only choice. Hardly.
I've spent a grand total of one night in St. Andrews during my three golf trips to Scotland. Never did I feel like I was missing out. There are so many fantastic links spread throughout the country that it's easy to fly into Edinburgh and head in any direction for a great golf adventure. Ranking Scotland's top five links golf destinations is certainly subjective, but here's my best objective shot:
1. St. Andrews/Fife
My brief one-night stand in June introduced the intoxicating aura of St. Andrews. It's indescribable. University towns like St. Andrews always appear bustling with so many young people walking about at all hours of the day and night. Having the Old Course as the epicenter just makes the whole scene so special. If golfers were forced to colonize the moon, they would likely try to clone St. Andrews. There's a checklist of things every golfer must complete before they leave -- buying pints at the Jigger Inn, dining at the Dunvegan Hotel, visiting the grave of Old Tom Morris, taking a selfie on the Swilcan Bridge, etc. Beyond the seven courses of the St. Andrews Links Trust, golfers have plenty of options on the outskirts of town, the two cliff-top courses at the Fairmont St. Andrews (Torrance and Kittocks and the world-ranked Kingsbarns Golf Links. The 36 holes of the Crail Golfing Society and the feared Carnoustie Golf Links are a bit farther flung, although still easily within reach.
Its connection to the Open Championship helps the west coast of Scotland finish as runner-up. The Ailsa Course at Trump Turnberry Resort, the Old Course at Royal Troon and the Old Course at Prestwick Golf Club have combined for 36 Opens. Playing Western Gailes Golf Club, a personal favorite, and Dundonald Links, a modern links by Kyle Phillips of Kingsbarns fame, adds up to five fabulous rounds. During my visit in 2013, I tacked on an extra three days to see the classic Machrihanish Golf Club and modern Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club on the Kintyre Peninsula. Taking a car ferry ride across the Firth of Clyde to find them is well worth the effort. Ayrshire's most famous links are busy modernizing these days. Turnberry's Ailsa Course will close for major revisions after the 2015 RICOH Women's British Open in August, reopening next June with its iconic lighthouse as a halfway house surrounded by what looks to be some spectacular new coastal holes. Royal Troon has tinkered with its links to prepare for the 2016 Open Championship. To avoid a firestorm, the club's all-male membership policy will wisely be addressed in the near future. Prestwick remains as timeless as ever, a maze of blind shots and interesting holes.
T-3. Scottish Highlands
Here's where the rankings get contested. Logistically, most Americans are probably better off staying south, but the reward in the Highlands is unsurpassed beauty. Courses don't get much more scenic than the Championship Course at Royal Dornoch Golf Club and Castle Stuart Golf Links. Base yourself in Dornoch, the birthplace of Donald Ross, to spend a couple days exploring Brora Golf Club (30 minutes north) and Tain Golf Club (10 miles south). Cows and sheep still wander Brora, an old-school links along the Kintradwell Bay. Some of the holes designed by Old Tom Morris remain in play at Tain. Castle Stuart, the site of Phil Mickelson's 2013 Scottish Open victory, has plans to build a second course by the Arnold Palmer Group and adding lodging. It's just 12 miles down the coast of the Moray Firth from Nairn Golf Club, a prestigious club that has hosted the Curtis Cup and Walker Cup. Only adventurous types will seek out Askernish Golf Club, a Morris links that was revived in 2008 on an island in the Outer Hebrides.
T-3. East Lothian
East Lothian's proximity to St. Andrews and Edinburgh, coupled with Muirfield's Open Championship legacy, provides the edge over northeast Scotland. The self-proclaimed "Scotland's Golf Coast" makes life easy for Americans with a smorgasbord of links within manageable driving distances. Unfortunately, Muirfield, host of 16 Opens, only accepts outside play Tuesdays and Thursdays. Don't forget to pack a nice jacket and tie to wear in the clubhouse. The West Links at North Berwick Golf Club charms everybody with stellar views of the North Sea and some cool quirks. Gullane Golf Club, home to three courses (No. 1 is best), will host the 2015 Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open. Another sleeper is the scenic Dunbar Golf Club, a classic links with ties to Old Tom Morris and James Braid. Musselburgh Links, The Old Golf Course, a scruffy nine-holer inside a horse-racing track in the middle of the town, holds the distinction of being the oldest course in the world still in existence. Rent a set of hickories and buy a pair of plus-fours for a throwback experience. Nightly entertainment by the way of dinner and drinks comes courtesy of Duck's Kilspindie House in Aberlady.
5. Aberdeenshire/Northeast Scotland
Aberdeen found this spot for two reasons: Trump International Golf Links Scotland might be too pricey or too controversial for some tastes, and the fact that the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club shut down visitor play for the rest of 2015 sent the message that they're not interested in being proper hosts. Course for course, though, the region can stand with any in Scotland. The dunes at Trump are otherworldly. The magical Cruden Bay Golf Club teases golfers with tricky blind shots and stirring scenery from the elevated ninth tee. Murcar Links Golf Club, a demanding test stocked with narrow fairways, will host its first Paul Lawrie match-play event on the European Tour this summer. Worth the drive is the underappreciated Fraserburgh Golf Club, the seventh-oldest club in the world. Its Corbie Hill links is a joy to play. Newburgh-on-Ythan might be worth a look, too. I especially love the accommodations available to golfers near Aberdeen. The four-star Marcliffe Hotel & Spa gets high marks for luxury. For a more authentic European experience, the Maryculter House Hotel, a four-star 40-bedroom retreat, sits on the banks of the River Dee, a site where the Knights Templar once trained in 1227. Kincardine Castle, a 16-bedroom Victorian country house hidden among 3,000 forested acres about an hour's drive from the coast, is available to rent for groups of six or more golfers. Consider this: If you combined a trip touring Aberdeen and the Highlands -- a whirlwind vacation I survived earlier this year -- this destination suddenly shoots up the rankings.
Don't agree with my analysis? In the immortal words of Pat Benatar, hit me with your best shot in the comments below.