Links golf — played among rugged dunes linking the land to the sea — presents a particular test, where fresh winds, deep bunkers, firm fairways and thick rough challenge players of all abilities.
For a taste of golf as it was invented, a trip to Scotland is on the bucket list of almost everyone who has ever wielded a club.
The Scottish hospitality at the “19th hole” — otherwise known as the clubhouse — is another big pull.
Here are some of the best courses in the country, along with some local alternatives.
St. Andrews squeezes six courses, including the Old Course, onto its venerable links.
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Known as the “Home of Golf,” the game in various forms has been played over the St. Andrews links since the 15th century.
The historic seaside and university town north east of Edinburgh on Fife’s east coast is home to seven golf courses with the Old Course at its heart.
The venerable layout occupies a windswept triangle of dunes, hills and gorse bordered by the West Sands Beach to the east and sandwiched between the New Course (1895) and the Eden, with the Jubilee, Strathtyrum and Balgove also occupying the venerable links. The Castle Course is on a cliff top overlooking the town.
The Old Course begins from in front of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club clubhouse and winds out to the Eden Estuary before turning for home, with many blind shots over seas of gorse and fearsome pot bunkers with names like “Hell” and “The Coffins,” which require careful navigation.
The course features an iconic finishing stretch — the “Road Hole” 17th and the 18th across the Swilcan Bridge back up into town.
“I fell in love with it the first day I played it. There’s just no other golf course that is even remotely close,” said 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus.
Kingsbarns is a sought-after track down the road from St Andrews.
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Crafted on land that first witnessed golf in 1793, Kingsbarns quickly went to the top of many wish lists for its rugged scenery, testing championship course and lavish hospitality.
It features as one of three top-notch courses used in the European Tour’s annual Dunhill Links Championship along with St Andrews’ Old Course and Carnoustie.
US President Donald Trump owns the historic Turnberry course and resort on Scotland’s west coast.
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POTUS bought the celebrated course in 2014 before he took office and signed off on a multi-million dollar revamp, including to the famous Edwardian-era Turnberry hotel.
The redesign of the showpiece Ailsa course includes bringing the iconic lighthouse more to the fore with a new ninth green near its base. The setting and the views out to the Ailsa Craig rock and the Isle of Arran are still sublime and the redesign gets rave reviews.
Before Trump rode into town, Turnberry was most famous as the venue for the fabled 1977 Open Championship which came down to a final-round shootout between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and was known as the “Duel in the Sun.”
The lavish resort hotel and spa was named Scottish Hotel of the Year at the 2018 Scottish Hotel Awards and the 2019 Scottish Hotel Awards.
Carnoustie is one of the most daunting challenges on the Open rotation.
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The lengthy, heavily bunkered track is arguably the toughest on the Open Championship rotation, particularly when the wind blows.
It was known as “Car-nasty” during the 1999 Open because of its thick rough, narrow fairways and a potent spell of bad weather.
That year, Frenchman Jean van de Velde famously contemplated a shot out of a stream while leading on the final hole before Scotsman Paul Lawrie won a playoff.
Down the road, the historic town of Dundee on the Firth of Tay estuary has plenty of life for all tastes.
Frenchman Jean Van de Velde looks at his ball in the burn on the 18th hole during the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie.
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Royal Troon’s 8th, known as the Postage Stamp, is one of the world’s best par 3s.
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The Old Course is a classic “out-and-back” links with a relatively gentle start and finish and a devilish middle section through spectacular linksland with views across to the Isle of Arran. Wind is its major defense — the breeze in your face coming home presents a formidable challenge.
Awarded royal status in 1978 to honor its centenary, Troon has hosted several Open Championships.
Muirfield is the big attraction on Scotland’s ‘Golf Coast’ in East Lothian.
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The celebrated course lies to the east of Edinburgh on the south shore of the Firth of Forth in East Lothian, dubbed “Scotland’s Golf Coast.”
The testing track features two loops of nine running in opposite directions, which ensures the wind is never blowing from the same direction on consecutive holes.
The club has been the center of controversy in recent years after first voting not to allow women members in 2016 before reversing its decision and changing its membership policy the following year.
The first women members were finally admitted in 2019.
Royal Dornoch is a Scottish treasure north of Inverness.
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Royal Dornoch hosts two courses — the Championship and the Struie — but it is the former track that draws in visitors from around the world.
Winding along sinuous sandy shores and among the dunes behind, the fast-running course features humps, hollows, pot bunkers and gorse of a true links test, sandwiched between the sea and purple heather-clad mountains.
Donald Trump’s Trump International course north of Aberdeen has become a highlight of Scotland’s east coast.
Winding through towering dunes and sunken valleys with tantalizing snapshots of the sea, the course offers the full Scottish links experience, with American hospitality thrown in.
Designed by renowned course architect Dr Martin Hawtree, Trump’s Aberdeen venture features two out-and-back loops of nine holes in an authentic natural setting.
Play switched to its current links location across the River Don in 1888, 15 years before King Edward VII granted the royal charter, and it has since been a beacon of golf on Scotland’s northeast coast.
The historic Balgownie course is the highlight, a classic links layout threading its way through the natural ecosystem of dunes and back along a seaside shelf with tight, rolling fairways and fast greens.
The zesty breeze off the North Sea — known as the “Old Lady of Balgownie” — is one of its main defenses.
Loch Lomond is a private club on the banks of Britain’s largest freshwater lake.
The rub is, it’s a private club so access is like a golden ticket from Willy Wonka.
Loch Lomond is a relatively recent addition to Scotland’s golfing repertory, designed by former US golf star Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish and opened in 1993, but its setting between mountains and water in the grounds of the ruined medieval castle ensures its a regular in lists of the world’s best courses.
Gleneagles hosted the 2014 Ryder Cup between Europe and the USA.
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The Jack Nicklaus-designed Centenary course — used for the 2014 Ryder Cup — is the centerpiece of the golf offering, a big, parkland-style layout with soaring views to purple heather-clad mountains.
The Gleneagles Hotel opened in 1924, dubbed the “Riviera of the Highlands” and now features bedrooms including suites and onsite luxury lodges can also be rented.
Castle Stuart is fast becoming part of Scottish golf’s prized fabric.
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The course, overlooked by a towering white art-deco clubhouse, hugs the shore and shelving cliffs on a thin stretch of links land with views to Ben Wyvis mountain, Kessock Bridge, Fort George and Chanonry lighthouse.
There are a number of on-site lodgings available. The course is 10 minutes from Inverness airport and a regular host of the Scottish Open.
Machrihanish, with a famous opening shot over the sea, is another links in classic Scottish tradition, with undulating fairways, firm turf, pot bunkers, gorse, wind and vast views towards the islands of Islay, Jura and Gigha.
It’s rarely busy and affords golfers time to savor the bracing breeze and spectacular setting.