Along the shores of the Irish Sea south of Glasgow is the Ayrshire coast, where the sheep far outnumber people and where the seaside links, exposed to the elements, can be fierce and wild. The venues in the southwest of Scotland range from classic Open venues to one of the game's most lovable dowagers, Prestwick, a priceless antique and birthplace of the Open Championship (1860). Prestwick hosted its last professional event in 1925, the same year competitors grumbled that success here depended a wee bit too heavily on the rub of the green.
But for antiquarians with a sense of humor, this throwback of a links, sandwiched between the seashore and a railway line, has giddy surprises in store. Take, for example, the par-five third hole and its infamous Cardinal bunker. The fairway, incongruously, stops abruptly in front of a bunker big enough to sleep a brontosaurus. An elevated section of fairway, propped up by blackened timbers, swings sharply to the right above the sand pit. Forget your instincts. Follow your caddie's instructions to the letter.
If Prestwick is a quirky old nursery rhyme, nearby Royal Troon is a tartan-bound version of War and Peace. Traditional and austere, Troon, site of the 1997 British Open won by Justin Leonard, corkscrews through brambles, gorse, and broken sandhills. The most renowned hole on the links is the "Postage Stamp," the tiny but treacherous par-three eighth, its no-bigger-than-a-postage-stamp green cut into the side of a large sand dune and defended by crater-like bunkers.
Troon's front nine, which flanks the beach for the first six holes, plunges into sandy hillocks as it turns inland and heads for home. The back nine, where the holes are generally longer and narrower (and into the wind), can be ranked with the toughest incoming nines in the world. The club motto, tam arte quam marte ("as much by skill as by strength") sets the tone for the round.
Royal Troon separates the men from the boys. Also from the women. Women are excluded from the clubhouse and are permitted to play only on selected weekdays.
At the south end of Ayrshire along the Firth of Clyde is Scotland's most spectacular seaside resort, Turnberry. Of all the great Scottish links, the Ailsa Course, set on a sweeping curve of rock-bound coast, is the most majestic. The outward half, notably holes four through 10, is truly world-class, a rare match of exalted scenery and first-rate golf. Here the shaggy dunes rise up to create amphitheaters for each hole as the links climbs higher and higher toward the lighthouse. Dune grass rustling in the wind and skylarks singing as they hover over the fairways are the only sounds a golfer hears. It was on the Ailsa that Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus staged their epic duel for the 1977 British Open title (Watson closed with 65-65 to claim the title).
No matter what happens on the Ailsa -- and if the breeze is "up," everything usually does -- players can take shelter in the resort's gorgeous clubhouse overlooking the 18th green, or, later, in the white-faced, red-roofed, Edwardian-style hotel that peers down on the links from its hilltop perch. Turnberry will burnish its reputation in 2001, when the resort's second venue, the formerly mundane Arran Course, will debut several new oceanside holes.
One more course on the Ayrshire coast merits attention. This is Western Gailes, a well-balanced links crossed by three burns, its higher holes offering impressive views of the Firth of Clyde and the ragged peaks of Arran. Like many of Scotland's older links, the course is wedged between the sea and a railway. Constant changes in direction invite the wind from all angles. The greens at Western Gailes, imaginatively contoured and demanding careful approach, are among the finest in Scotland.
Turnberry Hotel. Opened in 1906, world's first purpose-built golf resort offers bright, airy guest rooms, oak-paneled public areas, full-service spa. A genuine five-star experience. Ailsa is open to hotel guests only. Rooms from $160 to $268 per person, double occupancy, with breakfast.
Marine Hotel, Troon. Four-star hotel recently completed major refurbishment. Prime location overlooking 18th fairway of Royal Troon. Excellent dining. Rooms from $142 per person, double, with breakfast.
Piersland House Hotel, Troon. Manor house, built in 19th century for grandson of Johnnie Walker, founder of famous whisky firm, has 28 nicely furnished rooms. Located opposite Royal Troon. Per person, double rates range from $95 to $132 with breakfast.
Turnberry Hotel. Patrons can take in views of links, sea, and Ailsa Craig, a granite dome offshore, from tables near windows. Refined continental cuisine. Sean Connery's favorite dining room in Scotland.
Malin Court Hotel. Located near Turnberry, hotel's Cotters Restaurant turns out modern preparations of traditional Scottish dishes.
Highgrove House. Expect culinary excellence at this hillside hotel overlooking the town of Troon and the sea.