Lochgreen, one of three municipal courses in the town of Troon, is the kind of modest layout overseas golfers might play only in a pinch—perhaps if they, like me, had just flown in and simply couldn’t wait any longer to strike a ball off Scottish turf. The opening holes plod over flattish, boggy ground, but as you jog up a rise to the fifth tee the scenery changes entirely: Pot bunkers and gorse define a linksy par four that parallels a rail line. Across the tracks lie the rumpled fairways of Royal Troon, and out at sea rises the Isle of Arran. Welcome to southwest Scotland.
That even a humble muni could paint such a stirring tableau testifies to the depth of quality golf along the Ayrshire coast. “As one approaches Prestwick,” Bernard Darwin once wrote, “the train seems to be voyaging through one endless and continuous golf course.” This dense concentration of excellent links is of great appeal, as with Gullane and St. Andrews to the east, but while you’re over here you almost have to add another leg to the journey and experience Machrihanish. The once-isolated village on the Kintyre Peninsula is now readily accessible by sea and air, and later this year David McLay Kidd’s Machrihanish Dunes will open next door to the historic Old Tom Morris links that for decades has been drawing golfers to this distant shore.
Where to Play
Prestwick Golf Club
After the Old Course at St. Andrews, Prestwick Golf Club may be the game’s greatest shrine. It was here that the first dozen Open Championships were contested, on a twelve-hole course laid out by Old Tom Morris. The course, long since extended to eighteen holes, sits on a wildly undulating piece of land that’s bisected by a burn and bounded by a railway on one side and the sea on the other. Having been declared untenable as an Open site because of its lack of space, Prestwick retains many of its wonderful original features. The Cardinal bunker on number three, with its facing of railroad ties, is of a scale seldom seen, and the “buried elephants” leading to the hole’s bunkerless green give the impression you’re walking through a fun house. Prestwick’s famous blind holes, the fifth (Himalayas) and the seventeenth (Alps), each requiring a shot of faith over a towering dune, have to be seen to be believed. On almost any other course, such quirkiness would feel contrived. Here, somehow, it all works.
2 Links Road, Prestwick, Ayrshire. Architects: Old Tom Morris, 1851, 1882; James Braid, 1908, 1913, 1922. Yardage: 6,778. Par: 71. Green Fees: $165–$282. Contact: 011-44/1292-479-483, prestwickgc.co.uk.
Royal Troon Golf Club
It can be hard to cozy up to Royal Troon. There’s an officiousness about the club (to play the championship Old Course, for example, you must also pay for a round on the lesser Portland Course) and a stern edge to its fabled links. The routing forges out and back through low dunes, leading to no precipitous cliffs or iconic lighthouse. Yet there is still much to admire. The Postage Stamp eighth, whose 123-yard carry can demand anything from a sand wedge to a fairway wood depending on the wind—avoid the coffin bunker on the left at all cost—deserves its acclaim. Far less discussed is the delightful mid-length par four that precedes it. The first hole to change direction, this dogleg right calls for a tee shot placed either within a pocket of fairway between four bunkers or beyond it and clear of two more pits on the left. The narrow green sits above a gully and clings to sand hills on either side. A highlight of the homeward stretch is the par-three seventeenth, which demands a long, straight shot into the prevailing wind to reach a plateau green with falloffs left and right.
Craigend Road, Troon, Ayrshire. Architects: George Strath, 1885; Willie Fernie, 1888; James Braid, 1923. Yardage: 7,150. Par: 71. Green Fee: $429 (includes lunch and a round on Troon’s Portland Course). Contact: 011-44/1292-311-555, royaltroon.co.uk.
Immortalized by the epic battle between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 Open—the first held at Turnberry—the Ailsa occupies one of golf’s most spectacular settings. At the par-three fourth, the course begins its bracing ascent up the rocky coast toward the romantic lighthouse, anticipation building with every hole until you reach the clifftop green at the eighth and step onto the pulpit tee at nine. Even many of the non-postcard holes, such as fifteen, a par three that plays over a ravine and into the prevailing wind, are exhilarating. In preparation for the Open’s return here, in 2009, the R&A recently added twenty-one fairway bunkers, including three on the tenth alone, and built mounding and planted gorse along the left side of sixteen, turning it from a straight hole into a dogleg right. Purists might question the wisdom of carrying out such extensive changes, but fortunately they take little away from the ground game: Only the par-five seventeenth no longer allows approach shots to run up.
Turnberry, Ayrshire. Architects: Willie Fernie, 1901; Philip Mackenzie Ross, 1951. Yardage: 7,224. Par: 70. Green Fees: $175–$390. Contact: 011-44/1655-334-032, turnberry.co.uk.