ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- If you've never been to Scotland before to play golf, St. Andrews is the obvious choice. Even if you don't play the Old Course, you can certainly see it (and picnic there on Sunday), play the other courses in the St. Andrews Trust, down a pint at the famous Dunvegan Hotel, walk the town and visit the British Golf Museum. And there's Kingsbarns and Carnoustie, too, nearby. If you spend a week in St. Andrews, you really don't even need a car.
But if you're a little bit adventurous or if this isn't your first time, might I suggest you go off the beaten path a little? Because the great golf doesn't begin and end at St. Andrews, not by a long shot. And while there are other high profile courses that can cost you $250 or up to play, there are many that are far less that offer the history and links experiences we hope for when we make the trip across the Atlantic.
This was the crux of my most recent trip to Scotland, courtesy of tour operator GolfBreaks and Visit Scotland. It included some hidden gems and great value on two coasts, and a course or two that should be in every golfer's bucket list.
Starting with the AAM Scottish Open experience
After flying into Edinburgh my first stop was the rental car counter booth outside. Already this would be a new experience for me in Scotland -- driving a manual transmission car with the steering wheel on the right side on the left side of the road. I'm happy to report though, after negotiating rain and 200 or so roundabouts for the week I managed to return the car without any major incidents.
The first stop would be the seaside resort town of Ayr on the west coast Firth of Clyde and a round at Dundonald Links, home of the 2017 Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
The 15-year-old Kyle Phillips design (he also did the acclaimed Kingsbarns) was originally known as Southern Gailes. Purchased by the owners of Loch Lomond Golf Club in 2003, the name was changed to Dundonald, which means "Fort Donald," where fortifications have been discovered nearby, dated to between 500 and 200 BC. It's a manufactured links course with some nice water views, plenty of pot bunkers and ever-present wind and challenging, no matter what tees you play. I don't know if this is the perfect course to play after a redeye, but it was a great introduction to golf in the area.
For this part of the journey, I stayed at the Mercure Ayr Hotel in town, where you could walk to anywhere. While the town doesn't offer anything close to the restaurant and pub selection you get in St. Andrews, it certainly has its charm, most notably the beach where you will find locals and visitors alike taking long walks.
The second course would be one of the most memorable on the trip -- Prestwick Golf Club -- a bucket list experience to be sure. This is where The Open started – in 1860. The first Open was won by Willie Park Sr.; the second by a fellow you certainly have heard of – Old Tom Morris. These two golfers would win the first five Open titles.
The original Prestwick was built in 1851 and it consisted of 12 holes, which were laid out along the dunes. The course became 18 holes in 1882 and retained much of its quirkiness, including a totally blind par 3 hole, the world famous "Himalayas" par-3 fifth, and the oldest hole in golf, the par 4 17th, also known as the "Alps."
The Alps is the original second hole from 1851 and plays more than 450 yards from the member tees (which is what visitors always play). It's a tough tee shot and even tougher blind approach over the Alps. The tee markers indicate the pin position on the other side so you can align your approach with one of three ancient stone markers at the top of the hill. Beyond is the massive Sahara bunker guarding the green.
The golf course is only part of the experience. Inside you'll find all kinds of artifacts, including pictures, scorecards and replicas of the original belt give to the winner (the claret jug came later). Again, this ranks right up there with playing the Old Course (and it costs a little less, about $200 in the summer, but well worth it).
The next two Ayshire courses, located in nearby Irvine, certainly weren't letdowns, and they were good values, too.
You might have heard of Western Gailes, which dates back to 1897. The locals sure know about it, and many Scotsmen consider this their favorite course in all of the land because of its views, history and straightforwardness.
Its par-3 seventh is reportedly one of five-time Open champion Tom Watson's favorite all-time holes, and this classic layout has plenty of ocean views, pot bunkers and undulating terrain. Situated between a railway and the sea, it has all the elements, but mostly devoid of blind shots.
The next stop was the Bogside Course at Irvine Golf Club, which goes back to 1897 and has played host to Open qualifiers as well as the British Amateur Championship. Designed by the great James Braid, the course has a distinctive blend of links holes and holes dotted by trees and native brush. At around $75, it's a good bargain.
From the coasts to St. Andrews
When you travel to Scotland to play golf, rain is simply part of the equation so you have to come prepared. The first couple of days, despite dire forecasts, we escaped most of the elements, but not on the drive to St. Andrews in the Kingdom of Fife to the east coast.
It took about three hours to drive from Ayr to St. Andrews, all of it in the rain. When we arrived at Six Murray Park Guest House, owner Tony Parker was there to greet us. (He even saved a parking spot for us on the street.)
This is where I can give you some great advice. While it's certainly an experience to stay at the Old Course Hotel, for example, this is a lot less expensive, convenient to everything (it's just a few hundred yards from the Old Course) and just feels right.
Parker and his wife El Watson were incredibly hospitable, and I would suspect nobody does a better English breakfast, which was complimentary. The rooms in this three-story bed & breakfast are impeccable, and you can walk to St. Andrews Castle, St. Andrews University and all the town's great restaurants and pubs.
The only exception to walking were some of the hidden gems we played outside of town and the 10-minute drive we took to Rufflets St. Andrews hotel out in the country. This is where Jack Nicklaus forged a life-long friendship with the owners and I got to sample some premium Scotch whiskey. The local lamb at this old resort's Terrace Restaurant was as memorable as most of the golf.
Golf around the Kingdom of Fife
As for the golf, if you want to play the Old Course at St. Andrews, you can certainly try the ballet. We signed up online a couple of times, but were unsuccessful, but if we had a few more days, I'm sure we would have landed a tee time.
No worries, though, since I had played it on my last trip to Scotland. There were plenty of other great courses in the area to try.
One is the Jubilee Course at St. Andrews, which is about a third of the price of the Old Course (about $80), more challenging and probably as enjoyable. The "Jube," as it's known, was originally built in 1897. Renovated a few years ago, it was in impeccable condition. Though some say it's one of the most difficult courses in the Trust, I found the greens to be the most challenging part. With many difficult to read contours, long putts often turned into three putts. The course was right out in front of you, and no two holes are alike. This is a must-play for any St. Andrews visitor.
More under the radar was Scotscraig, located about 20 minutes from St. Andrews. The 13th oldest golf club in the world (founded by 1817 by what is now known as the Royal and Ancient), Scotscraig is one of Scotland's most respected venues. The locals certainly know about this parkland course that was designed under the guidance of Old Tom Morris and James Braid (who redesigned the course in 1923). Here, you'll want to get a taste of the clubhouse and its litany of memorabilia and terrific grub after or before your round. And it's a bargain, too. In fact, you can get your whole foursome on in the afternoon for about $150.
We returned to classic seaside links with a visit to Balcomie Links at Crail Golfing Society. Another Old Tom Morris design, this par-69 gem, which is only about 6,000 yards, but plays much longer, opened in 1895 and follows the incredible lay of the land.
There are shots over rocky bays, long par threes with greens perched on top of vertical cliffs and plenty of gorse to make anyone thinking about taking shortcuts to holes to think about it again.
One of the toughest holes is the fifth, a 447-yard par four named Hell's hole that former Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance called the hardest par four in Scotland. It's really a three-shot hole for most players. Balcomie also has the unusual combination of three par fives, six par threes and nine par fours.
An ending that doesn't disappoint
And finally, we played Lundin Golf Club and Leven Links in Leven. These courses used to be one golf course, but were split up as nine more holes were added to each to complete two very different golf experiences.
Lundin Golf Club, established in 1868, is classic seaside links, as is Leven Links. These properties still border each other, but it takes about 10 minutes or so to drive around from clubhouse to clubhouse.
They are also bargains at around $80 for Lundin and $60 for Leven during peak season.
Again, Lundin is a Morris/Braid creation, has been an Open qualifying course. It has gorgeous seaside views and some pretty challenging par 4s, including the blind sixth hole, where you're asked to climb the stairs of platform to see if the fairway is clear.
Leven Links also has some nice ocean views. The front nine is fairly easy, then the back nine, which is considerably longer is quite a bit tougher. It ends with a 470-yard par 4 (which really plays as a par 5) punctuated by a green surrounded by a burn. For most golfers, laying up to wedge distance is the most prudent play.
How to set up a trip like this
You could call of each these courses in advance and set up your own accommodations, but using a tour operator is highly recommended.
For example, through GolfBreaks, you could do a similar trip to what I did for a little more than $,2300 per person based on four people sharing a rental car. It would include seven nights with four nights at Six Murray based on twin occupancy (though I'd recommend paying a little more to get your own room if you're over 30 years of age), three nights at the Ayr Mercure or a similar B&B or hotel and six rounds of golf at Prestwick, Dundonald, Western Gailes, Jubilee, Crail, and Lundin.
Or if this is your first time in Scotland, spend a week in St. Andrews at Six Murray, and play six rounds at the Jubilee, New Course, Castle Course, Crail, Lundin and Elie. You can still get in the ballot for the Old Course, which if you try all week, you're almost certain to be successful.
Or you can play the Old Course the way I did five years ago: Show up at 4 a.m., put your name on the list as a single. I got in at 9 a.m., birdied the first hole and the rest is my own personal history.