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Southwest Scotland: Home to some of the finest links

PGA Tour website article The following article was originally written for PGATour.com by David Brice, President of Golf International. The articles represent trips available to Golf International customers.

There are few serious golfers around who don’t hear the call of the links. If you haven’t heard it yet, don’t worry, you will soon enough. It’s an insatiable yearning to get back to the roots of this 600 year-old game, to experience those courses of old, formed by Mother Nature and the elements with only minimal assistance from man.

These are the original courses around which golf came to be, the tests they offer are unique and although architects the world over have tried to replicate them, true links courses, the real McCoy, only occur where over the centuries, the elements have come together in a perfect mix to create them. It is estimated there may be no more than 300 genuine links courses on the globe and the majority of those are to be found around the coastlines of Britain and Ireland. Even there they occur only occasionally, most often in small clusters where past and current conditions are perfect.

One of the richest examples of genuine linksland sits along the southwestern shores of Scotland in the county of Ayrshire, with the heaviest concentration of all focused along a short stretch of only 40 miles or so. Extending northward from Turnberry to a few miles beyond the town of Troon, this blessed coastline is home to 20 of the purest links layouts known. A few have names instantly recognized, while others will be completely unfamiliar, but all share one thing in common; they are all real links and while each has its own personality, all are well worth every visiting golfer’s attention.

Trump Turnberry’s Ailsa Course, Royal Troon Old and Prestwick Old are the established names in this part of Scotland and as members of the ultra-prestigious, British Open Club, that’s the way it should be. Turnberry hosted its fourth Open in 2009; Royal Troon is the venue for the 2016 Open, which will mark the ninth occasion it has been so honored; and Prestwick, though no longer on the active rotation list, is the place where the British Open was born back in 1860.

Between 1860 and 1925, Prestwick hosted golf’s event of the year on a grand total of 24 occasions and was honorably retired in 1925 for the simple reason that Prestwick’s facilities were no longer adequate to accommodate the fast growing crowds attracted to The Open each year. Prestwick remains very much alive today and offers visitors an especially warm welcome and the opportunity to play the very same course where The Open was born more than 150 years ago.

Deservedly, these three links receive a lot of the attention showered upon this corner of Scotland, but they are only the tip of the iceberg and there are many others that although not as famous, deserve equal billing. Leading the pack is unquestionably, Western Gailes, often viewed as Ayshire’s most precious gem of a links course. Real links courses are a rare breed and if you are staying in Troon, you will be surrounded by some of the finest — miss even a small sampling of those located within 15 minutes of your hotel and you’ll be missing a perhaps never to be repeated opportunity.

Western Gailes is a unique course that encapsulates so many of the glorious qualities of Scottish links golf. Ranked among Scotland’s Top 20, this is a real jewel and many would insist, the shining star in the galaxy of links courses calling Ayshire home.

Western Gailes Golf Club was formed in 1897 by a group of successful though frugal merchants from the city of Glasgow. Having quickly invested what most considered as too much on a piece of shoreline property to accommodate their own course, they decided cost savings would have to be made on the development of the layout. The thrifty membership saw no reason to hire a famous and thus expensive golf architect to design the course and instead hired an anonymous local greens keeper for the task. With no formal training and little experience, his job was simply to design and build a course for the Western Gailes membership. The mystery designer did a remarkable job, and today the classic Scottish links he produced at Western Gailes is considered to be one of the finest in the entire country. Some consider it superior to both Royal Troon and Turnberry.

Prestwick St. Nicholas, not to be confused with the “other” Prestwick (the one that has hosted 24 Open championships) is a special treat, often overlooked by visitors — If only they knew what a treasure was sitting under their very noses. This is a pure Scottish links course, laid out between the sea and a railway line, both of which come into play, depending on where the always fickle wind is blowing in from. Established in 1892, and boasting the great Old Tom Morrisamong its original members, Prestwick St. Nicholas is filled with golf history.

Quietly and unobtrusively, this unacknowledged course, encapsulates so much that is the essence of links golf. The deep, unforgiving pot bunkers are always strategically placed, the huge greens, consistently firm and slick are filled to overflowing with tricky slopes and undulations. There are spectacular views across the Firth of Clyde everywhere and that special links attribute of unpredictability makes every round special. The members no doubt appreciate that their course is not inundated with visitors — take advantage of the fact and savor a true, undiscovered gem to the fullest.

Dundonald, only opened in 2003, is the resurrection and extension of an original 9-hole links that had been sitting here for over a century. Forgotten and turned over to first military and then agricultural use, most had no memory of its early days as a golf course. California architect Kyle Phillips of Kingsbarns (St. Andrews) fame learned of its existence and undertook the re-build of what is fast becoming one of the top links layouts in Ayrshire.

Owned by the very exclusive Loch Lomond Golf Club, Dundonald has played host to a number of professional and amateur tournaments, including pre-qualifying for the European Tour and the Senior British Open Championship.

Glasgow Gailes is one of two courses belonging to the Glasgow Golf Club, founded in 1787 and the 9th oldest golf club in the world — their other course is a parkland layout, located 35 miles away, just outside the city of Glasgow. The club’s pride and joy is their Ayrshire links gem that somehow manages to escape the attention of most visitors and for no logical region. Tucked in alongside Dundonald, Western Gailes and Kilmarnock Barassie, were they not so close to the courses of Troon this would be a noteworthy links cluster in its own right, the courses are so good. Designed by Willie Park of Musselburgh, winner of the very first Open Championship in 1860, the course first opened in 1892. A firm believer in simple, honest course design, this is considered perhaps Park’s finest of the almost 200 courses he fashioned. Void of blind holes, the bane of 19th century courses, Glasgow Gailes boasts some of the most strategic bunkering to be found on any links, together with sharply contoured greens, which are always in immaculate condition.

Measuring a hefty 6,903 yards from the championship tees, most visitors will find the middle tees provide a more enjoyable round, but the ominous rough of thick heather and a profusion of gorse, remains a serious obstacle to be avoided at all costs. Glasgow Gailes is not only regularly used as a final qualifying course for The Open whenever it is held at Turnberry or Royal Troon, it also holds the reputation of being the most testing of all Open qualifiers.

Irvine Bogside is another centenarian, though much of the character of today’s layout comes from the great James Braid, who placed his indelible mark here in 1926, producing a classic links of the first order. Notorious for its wildly undulating fairways and dense rough of thick heather, sticking to the prescribed path will save a lot of aggravation, so be accurate off the tees.

Irvine gets down to business right from the get-go, opening with a 418 yard par-4. After a carefully positioned tee-shot, the second is blind and to a miniscule green, well protected by formidable bunkers. The second hole is the only par-5 on the course, a demanding 474 yarder with a few surprises of its own. Welcome to Irvine Bogside, a crusty, old-fashioned links with little forgiveness for those lacking in golf skills and jam-packed with a never-ending array of stern and often tricky examinations. It comes as no surprise to learn this is another frequent Open qualifying course, when Turnberry or Royal Troon host. Irvine Bogside is a layout to be appreciated by the accomplished links golfer, but perhaps better avoided by the high handicappers.

Kilmarnock Barassie may have a few features that resemble an inland course, but don’t let that put you off – it’s another true links and top drawer quality, with more than enough challenge to push even scratch golfers to the extreme. Narrow fairways, large undulating greens, doglegs, gorse, heather and ominous bunkering, demand creativity together with a good all round links game and the ability to use every club in the bag effectively.

This is a links with real teeth that calls out to be played more than once and the more you play it, so your appreciation for this tough and unforgiving layout will grow and no one will appreciate Kilmarnock Barassie more than the real connoisseurs of Scottish links golf. Barassie is yet another final qualifier for The Open.

With the wealth of genuine links courses to be found in Ayrshire, it’s well worth planning on an extra day or two here to take in at least a couple of those gems with less familiar names. It’s likely to be a long time before you have so many links delights within a brief 15-minute drive.

©2015 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Photo courtesy of Dundonald Links