It starts quirkily: A long iron off the first tee, because a well-struck driver will carry you to a nasty ravine. Mid-iron to an elevated green, and then the fun really begins. Second hole: A par four that requires a big drive over the beach or, indeed, onto it, if the tide is out, as it was (fortunately) on my second loop. Third hole: A par four where the famous rock walls first come into play, here cutting perpendicularly across the fairway. Fourth: One of the great tee boxes in all of golf, a vast expanse for a pair of par threes, one of which—the fifteenth—is the original Redan hole, among the most storied one-shotters in the game.
It’s around this point that Fidra Island first comes into view. It—along with Bass Rock, Craigleith and the Lamb—sits just offshore, kind of like the Ailsa Craig does at Turnberry, only closer. They all add dimension to the course’s visual pleasures, but Fidra is particularly intriguing: It was Robert Louis Stevenson’s inspiration for Treasure Island. (Another work by Stevenson, who summered in North Berwick, is called The Pavilion on the Links.)
The shoreside treats are just as good: Every hole has bunkers, burns, rises and drop-offs that command your attention. And the finishing stretch of six holes is quite possibly the most original collection of shot-making challenges anywhere. The thirteenth is a short, straightaway par four but for the narrow green that sits in the dunes left of the fairway and is defended by a rock wall. Fourteen requires a pinpoint drive to a hillocky, well-bunkered fairway and then a blind shot over the dunes to a beachside green. Fifteen—ah, fifteen. Here we are back at the Redan, a par three that plays uphill to a blind green that slopes away from the player. On a benign day, I hit a six-iron to ten feet. On a windy day, I pumped a three-iron up into the sky only to watch the ball sail off to the right, out of bounds but permanently etched into my memory.
Sixteen: A big drive over a rock wall and a small burn will leave you with your best chance to hit the green, but hit it you will not. For this is the legendary original Biarritz green. Picture two big round dining room tables set several yards apart, their overlapping tablecloths comprising the putting surface. Now lift whole thing way up in the air. Just for fun, after we holed out the first day, my playing partner and I tried putting from one tabletop to the other. They say it can be done, but we did not prove the point.
The drive on seventeen must be threaded through an alley of bunkers; the approach is another blind shot to an enormous, severely sloped green, this one from back to front. Eighteen is a tricky little par four where a good drive or long iron will allow a lengthy roller-coaster putt or ticklish pitch from the fairway to a green by the handsome clubhouse’s front door.
"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." I had come across that quote by Stevenson while in the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, devoted to him, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. It was much in my mind as I toured North Berwick West. Stevenson was not, to my knowledge, a golfer, but I thought the words applied well to the game, and after my second trip around, as I plucked my ball out of the cup on the eighteenth green, I vowed to myself that I would travel hopefully here again soon.
There’s so much more in East Lothian, of course. There’s North Berwick’s Glen Golf Club (also known as the East Links), which, if not for the shadow cast by its illustrious sister on the other end of town, would be world famous, as it shares the same scenic coastline and wears the imprimatur of James Braid. The town of Dunbar, just down the coast, is also bookended by two fine links: Winterfield, a fun test that plays right out into the North Sea, and Dunbar East Links, an Open qualifier course formally laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1856 and, frankly, one that many consider even finer than the West Links at North Berwick.