I have been lucky enough to visit the land of the Scots twice in my life. My family and I took a trip to the tiny nation in the summer of 2007 right after I graduated high school, and I studied abroad in Stirling, Scotland during the summer of 2010 for two months.
If you are a golf nut — and if you are reading this, you probably are — do not turn down an opportunity to visit the nation that gave us the most rewarding (and frustrating) game of all time. While I could write books about my experiences in Scotland, I want to narrow this post down to focus on golf. Specifically, I want to rank my favorite Scottish golf courses that I have been lucky enough to play.
1 (a.) – St. Andrews (Old Course)
Not having this course in the one-spot would be a travesty to all of the golfing world. While it is a bit cliche to list this as my favorite Scottish course, it owns this spot for a reason. I will come out and say it; St. Andrews, Scotland might be my favorite town on the planet, and I have spent enough time there to prove it. On my first trip to Scotland, my dad and I played the Old Course on an absolutely perfect day. So few people get a chance to tee it up on a golf course that is by some accounts almost 500 years old that I relished the chance to walk where every great golfer who has ever played has walked. I even bounced my tee shot on the famed 17 (the Road Hole) off of the Old Course Hotel’s roof and got the best bounce my caddie had ever seen, landing in the fairway and leading to a par-4 on the course’s hardest hole.
I figured I would make it back to St. Andrews one day, but I didn’t know it would be so soon. In the summer of 2010 when I lived in Stirling, I made it to the home town of golf no less than eight times, including another trip as a player. The Open Championship was in Scotland in 2010 and I made it to a practice day and three tournament rounds. I doubt many other people made the 90 minute train ride from Stirling to St. Andrews that summer as many times as I did. The place is like crack to me. If I could go tomorrow, I would. My second round was special, because I walked on the course with no tee time like so many hopefuls do. In fact, I showed up to the course at 3:45 a.m. and was 18th in line. Golfers truly are an interesting (see: insane) bunch. I did get to play with a couple local professors, rather than with tourists. Remembering my hotel-bouncing tee shot from three years earlier, I hit a gorgeous pull-hook that can only be described as “left of left.” Facing about 218 to the front on one of the smallest greens in golf, protected by the famed road hole bunker, my caddie asked me if I wanted to “play smart or stupid.” Of course I channeled my inner Phil Mickelson and chose stupid. What resulted was one of the best shots I have ever hit; my ball landed on the front and rolled to about 20 feet for birdie. I made par again and will never forget it. Another bonus: I made a par out of “Hell Bunker,” which I can only assume isn’t that common, or it probably wouldn’t be called “Hell Bunker.”
Obviously, you can tell I could talk for days about my time at St. Andrews, so I am going to move on to my other rankings.
1 (b.) – Royal Dornoch
In what is somewhat of an upset, Royal Dornoch gets a tie with St. Andrews for my favorite course in Scotland. If not for the tradition and the town of St. Andrews, this would likely be in the top slot. Dornoch is not on the Open Championship rotation and it is not likely to be added. Why? Because it isn’t close to anything. And I mean anything. There isn’t a damn thing within a Bubba Watson drive of Royal Dornoch, and that is part of its charm.
The Northern shore of Scotland is breathtaking. In fact, to see Dornoch, look no further than the banner photo on this blog. But another picture can’t hurt to help prove just how beautiful this place is.
This course is absolutely breathtaking and my dad and I played early in the morning. Keep in mind that it was summer and the sun was coming up at about 1:45 in Northern Scotland at that time. What made this round great was that we were the only players on the course, it was breathtakingly beautiful and the RAF was doing drills over the water. If I could only play one course of the ones I have already played for the rest of my life, this would be it.
Carnoustie is a much tougher track than the previous two. I am sure it didn’t help that I played it with my dad in a driving rain — yes, I forgot my rain suit — two weeks before the start of the Open Championship. I played my best golf in Scotland at this course and was rewarded with an 84. Any course where that is the case is simply hard. There is nothing quite like the unique bunkering Carnoustie offers and at one point I two putted from over 150 feet. In case you were wondering, I did par the famous 18th hole where Jean Van De Velde so famously blew a three shot lead at the British Open. Apparently I have a knack for playing the tough holes well. Here’s to hopefully parring the 11th at Augusta whenever it is I play there.
3. Troon (North)
Tough, tough golf course. Most courses in Scotland are fairly wide open. Troon is not. For someone whose game off the tee can best be described as Phil Mickelson-on-the-18th-at-the-2006-U.S. Open-like, that can spell serious trouble. But Troon itself is another course steeped in tradition and a treat for any golf fanatic to play. Any course that is on the Open rotation is worth teeing it up at. Bring extra golf balls. Your least favorite word of the day will be “Gorse.”
Honorable Mentions: Troon (South), Stirling (Par 3)
My memory of Troon South is pretty fuzzy, mostly because we played 36 holes that day and it was the last round of my first trip to Scotland. I remember it being easier than the North course — thankfully — and that my caddie loved the show 24.
The Stirling University Par-3 course holds a special place in my heart. For just a few pounds, you got a golf ball and three clubs, most of which looked like there were milled about the time golf was invented. In fact, I am sure William Wallace himself was hitting flop shots around that track at some point. We played the little par-3 layout many times and may have sneaked out there for a few extra holes than we should have. There are no holes over 140 yards, but I was still never able to shoot par on that little course.
I hope you get a good feel for why I love Scotland so much. One day, I hope to make it back so I can expand this list and play my favorites again. Something tells me I am going to make that happen.