"Ha!" I say to my fellow golfers after tapping in for par on the famed eighth hole at Royal Troon. "You call this a postage stamp?This is a veritable philatelic album compared with the third hole at Whiting Bay."
"Whiting Bay?" they ask. "Where is Whiting Bay?"
"Right over there," I say, pointing west to the Isle of Arran, clearly visible in the hazy sunshine across the Firth of Clyde. The third green at Whiting Bay is no larger than your bedroom, and if that doesn't get your attention, this redoubtable uphill par three is utterly blind and a stout 184 yards long. Believe me, it's a double bogey waiting to happen.
As the crow flies, Arran is just eleven miles from the west coast of Scotland, but in terms of a golf experience, it might as well be on the other side of the world. Consider this: My round at Royal Troon, complete with caddie, cost a staggering $520. You can play all seven courses on the Isle of Arran for about a third of that amount: $190. If you splurge, as I did, and take a trolley (pull cart) on each one, it'll run you about $220.
With one noteworthy exception, this is not notch-in-your-bedpost golf. If you try to regale your regular Saturday foursome back home with tales of your epic par on the Road Hole at Machrie Bay or how you cut the corner and drove the twelfth at Brodick, you will be met with blank stares. Each of Arran's courses has its charms, however, and taken as a whole this salubrious septet provides a refreshing, relaxing and ridiculously reasonable alternative to the high-cost, high-visibility golf on the mainland.
But budget is just one reason a golfer might go to Arran. It is also ideal if you are a high-handicapper, not ready to test your mettle at Troon or Turnberry; are traveling with your golfing spouse, who has no interest in British Open venues but would still like to tee it up; or are looking for a tune-up before tackling the brawny big boys across the Clyde. And perhaps most compellingly, the Isle of Arran is equal parts charming, quaint and beautiful, and it feels like a throwback to an earlier, gentler era—as does its golf.
This is bare-bones, back-to-basics, no-yardage-on-sprinkler-heads golf. Quirky, too, with crisscrossing holes, double greens and a bonanza of blind shots. And just because these courses are short (the longest doesn't reach 5,500 yards) and par is sixty-four or sixty-five doesn't mean they are easy. Keep in mind that on Arran, as is the case throughout the British Isles, visitors are seldom permitted to play the back tees—or "medal tees," as they are called there. This may seem annoying to Americans who "want to play the whole golf course," but it's worth remembering that the wind often compensates for the decreased yardage, and there is nothing to be done about it anyway. Indeed, some courses are more difficult (relative to par) from the regular tees. Lamlash Golf Club is a case in point: From the back tees it features six par fours of less than three hundred yards, but from the regular tees five of them play as scarily long par threes.
With only five thousand year-round residents, Arran boasts the highest ratio of courses per capita this side of Myrtle Beach. But there's more to Arran than golf. Known as "Scotland in Miniature" because its 166 square miles mirror the landscape of the mainland, Arran offers majestic mountains, sweeping moorland and sandy beaches. There are palm trees, golden eagles and seals basking in picturesque harbors. There are medieval castles, a brewery, a distillery and a chocolate factory, all with moderately priced tours. Food and lodging are easy on the wallet as well. Still, the best deal on the island is the Arran Golf Pass, which entitles you to play a round at each of the island's layouts, all for only £95.