Can traveling golfers somehow overlook a Scottish golf destination that includes a 16-time British Open venue? In the case of East Lothian, just east of Edinburgh, the answer is far too often, "Yes."
First-time visitors rightly flock to St. Andrews an hour north of Edinburgh, or to the west coast layouts within an hour of Glasgow. But those fortunate enough to make multiple visits head to East Lothian for a superb, yet underrated, menu of links courses capped off by the world-renowned Muirfield.
Logistically, it's easier to get to after that long transatlantic flight than the other two aforementioned destinations and measures up admirably in terms of golf history, quality of playing options and accommodations. It's also less crowded overall, with smaller villages not as full of tourists (as in St. Andrews) or as isolated (i.e., Turnberry).
You'll see plenty of Muirfield during this year's Open Championship, but hopefully other worthy courses in the area get some coverage, too. Go there yourself someday and you'll understand why.
Muirfield (muirfield.org.uk, 01144-620-842123, $294)
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the world's oldest club, hosts the British Open for the 16th time this year. Want a tee time (on Tuesday and Thursday only) in the summer at the layout ranked ninth on Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses in the World? Book at least a year ahead.
However, your chances are better now than in past years since morning four-ball play is finally allowed from the 1st tee, not just the 10th. You could also stay at Greywalls (greywalls.co.uk) a pricey 23-room boutique hotel adjacent to the clubhouse; for an extra fee guests have access to limited tee times on Mondays and Fridays. If/when you do get on, prepare to face wind in every direction, fescue grass that will devour a few sleeves and some memorable uphill par 3s, notably the 185-yard seventh and the 193-yard 13th.
North Berwick (northberwickgolfclub.com, 01144-1620-892135, $98-$136)
Not a course architecture junkie? You'll still appreciate the rich history here on a layout that includes the original Redan green, The Pit hole (where your approach to the green must carry an ancient stone wall), and the 16th green, bisected by a deep swale. Argue all you want about the latter's impossibility, but you will likely face a putt, or two, like none other you have attempted before. Views of Bass Rock and the Firth of Forth are companions on almost every hole. Also stop in for a souvenir at quite possibly the world's only subterranean pro shop before heading to the nearby first tee.
Gullane No. 1 (gullanegolfclub.com, 01144-1620-842255, $145-$168)
Never heard of this place? Play it and then you can spread the word. An excellent links layout with elevation changes that provide sweeping views from the sea to the Edinburgh skyline. The last two holes feature downhill tee shots, but par doesn't come easy on either. This popular course does restrict tee times for visitors on weekdays (between 10:30 a.m. and noon, and 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.) and even more so on weekends (only at 10:56 a.m., 11:04 a.m. and from 2:56 p.m. to 3:28 p.m.)
Dunbar (dunbargolfclub.com, 01144-1368-862317, $98-$128)
This might be the most underrated links course in Scotland. The benign opening three holes and closing hole are not especially memorable, but once you cross through an opening in a wall that dates back to the late 16th century, the remaining 14 holes offer character, challenge and fun. Standouts include the par-5 ninth, and the par-3 16th, where a carry over water is required when the tide comes in.
Musselburgh Links (musselburgholdlinks.co.uk, 01144-131-6655438, $20-$21)
The conditioning is average at best, and six of the holes are inside a working horse racing track. So why play here? Because it hosted six British Opens between 1874 and 1889. Rent a bag of hickory clubs from the pro shop to appreciate what your golfing ancestors went through back in the day. That laughing sound you may hear? Probably the ghosts of Open winners Mungo Park and Willie Park Jr. chuckling at your futility with the whippy shafts.
Best of the Rest
Craigielaw (craigielawgolfclub.com, 01144-1875-870800, $89-$121)
The newest public course in the area opened in 2001 and features slightly raised and well-bunkered greens, making it an especially demanding test off the back tees. Views of the sea come with every hole and Gullane Hill looms in the distance to the west. There's also a grass driving range (a rare sight in Scotland) and a six-hole short course, plus 23 rooms attached to the clubhouse.
Glen Golf Club (glengolfclub.co.uk, 01144-1620-892726, $56-$92)
Despite having eight holes close to the sea, this 1894 layout is more parkland than links. You'll long remember the spectacular downhill par-3 13th, with water on two sides and backdropped by Bass Rock just off the coast. This is as scenic as any course in East Lothian.
Luffness New Golf Club (luffnessnew.com, 01144-1620-843336, $128)
When Muirfield last hosted the Open in 2002, this Old Tom Morris-designed layout was a qualifying course. Plenty of work has been done since then, including the clearing of buckthorn to open up views and the addition of some new tees. It carries a reputation of having the best greens in East Lothian, ones that get especially fast in the summer months. The male-only club recently added changing facilities for women visitors.
Kilspindie (kilspindiegolfclub.com, 01144-1875-870358, $68-$84)
Located just over a wall from Craigielaw, this short (5,600 yards) layout is even closer to the sea than its neighbor, with the first four holes right next to the water. If the tide is out you may see seals lying on the nearby rocks. This will be a fast but fun round — highlighted by the par-3 eighth — and one worth considering as a second option on a 36-hole day.
Gullane No. 2 (gullanegolflcub.com, 01144-1620-842255, $72-$80)
Many locals think this 1898 layout is the equal of its higher-profile sibling, Gullane No. 1. It's almost half the cost with more tee times available for visitors. The first and last holes are on the inland side of the Edinburgh main road, along with a visitor's clubhouse that serves this and the Gullane No. 3 course. Beware of the short par-4 third — it's so steep that it's called Angina Hill. The club offers a variety of green-fee packages, some including breakfast/lunch in the clubhouse, for all three courses.
Whitekirk Golf & Country Club (whitekirk.com, 01144-1620-870300, $38-$59)
It's not adjacent to the sea, but this 1995 public course plays very links-like throughout the round. Gorse, blind shots and handsome coastal vistas abound in its 6,526-yard journey, with highlights being panoramas of Bass Rock, the surrounding farms and villages, and Tantallon Castle. You can walk 36 in high season for $89, play twilight golf for $29 and can book a foursome for less than $40 per player. Not every hole is a textbook classic, but there are so many plusses — at these prices — that it's a smart play for visitors on a budget.
Worth the Money
Muirfield is a must for serious fans of course design and golf history. While the present layout dates only to Old Tom Morris' 1891 design (with substantial updates from H.S. Colt in 1925), the club itself is the oldest in golf, formed in 1744. Walking in so many famous footsteps (British Open winners here include Nicklaus, Vardon, Braid, Hagen, Player, Trevino, Watson, Faldo and Els) is only part of the appeal. The jacket-and-tie stuffiness and the legendary six-course lunch (for an additional fee) completes one of the truly memorable experiences in golf.
Travelin' Joe Says
"North Berwick's West Links is much beloved for its quirky features and stunning sea views. It's also legendary for giving the golf world the one-of-a-kind, par-3 15th, a hole much better to play than it is to photograph. Has any hole on the planet been so revered, so influential among architecture geeks, yet been so blah looking in print and in person? "The Redan," as it's known, is a semi-blind hole that plays over spectacle bunkers to a truly twisted, mostly right-to-left sloping green, which sits diagonal to the line of play and which is contoured to shed balls in every direction. A ridge 40 yards in front of the green obscures nearly all of the troubles. Sure, you could elevate the tee, but then it wouldn't be the real Redan. Oft-copied with more photogenic versions elsewhere, the low-profile original is still the one to check off on your golf bucket list."
— Archie Baird's one-room collection of artifacts and memorabilia, called The Heritage of Golf, is located right next to the pro shop at Gullane Golf Club and is a must see (by appointment only; no fee but donations are encouraged) for aficionados of the game's long history. Meeting the inimitable Mr. Baird is equally worthwhile. (heritageofgolf.org)
— A rental car remains the best way to get from Edinburgh to East Lothian. But you could stay in Edinburgh and take a train (check timetables at scotrail.co.uk) from that city's Waverley Station to stations near courses like North Berwick (a five-minute downhill walk) and Dunbar (a 15-minute walk).
— Consider buying a day ticket offered by virtually every club here. Doing so covers the green fee for 36 holes on the same day with up to 50 percent off the second round. The second time around the same links course can be as enjoyable and even more challenging thanks to ever changing wind directions that create entirely different playing conditions.
— Two excellent private clubs in the area are The Renaissance Club (trcaa.com) and Archerfield (archerfieldgolfclub.com). The former is hard to get on unless you are a serious candidate for membership, or a fortunate guest of a member. Three new holes, built by course designer Tom Doak, debuted this year on coastal land purchased from next door neighbor Muirfield. Archerfield recently added accommodations and a spa, and with those came some very restricted visitor tee times ($180) on both of the club's pleasant 18-hole courses.
The Lodge at Craigielaw (craigielawlodge.com)
Just opened in May, the 23 no-frills rooms (with solid Wi-Fi service and rain shower heads) here provide a centrally located base for visiting golfers. Book one of the 13 course view rooms and soak in the Firth of Forth scenery.
Macdonald Marine Hotel & Spa (macdonaldhotels.co.uk/marine)
Overlooking the West Links at North Berwick, this 83-room hotel includes an indoor/outdoor spa facility, but it's the views, especially from an upper floor room facing the sea, that you will remember the most.
Duck's at Kilspindie House (ducks.co.uk)
Don't overindulge with the extensive wine list here at this 23-room property in Aberlady or it might affect your putting. Your barstool putting that is, which you just might find yourself trying in the pub with owner Malcolm Duck, who describes his establishment as a "restaurant with rooms." The Wi-Fi is free, as are those putting games.
From the Expert
"You'll hear this from every part of Scotland, but there really is a microclimate here in East Lothian. It only works when the wind is coming out of the west, which is the prevailing wind. Bad weather usually splits up when it reaches Edinburgh, either heading over the Firth to Forth or south to the Lammermuir Hills.
"It does tend to be 1/3 drier than the west coast of Scotland and courses are normally open all year round thanks to the sandy subsoil. Greens on a course like Gullane are almost as good during the winter as the summer.
"Off the course, visitors should see Edinburgh Castle, and walk the Royal Mile that connects the Castle with Holyrood Palace. There are many open spaces in the city, including an extinct volcano called Arthur's Seat, which is quite near the Palace. There are great walks all over the city." — Allan Minto, Golf Tourism Officer for East Lothian.
"Links golf courses are always exposed to the varying wind conditions. That's the case here in East Lothian, where we do get our fair share of wind! You will need a punch shot when playing into a strong wind, to give your shot a lower ball flight than usual.
"To do so, grip down on the club an inch or two more than usual and position the ball slightly back of center in your stance. Set your hands ahead of the ball and place around 60 to 70 percent of your weight on your left side. This ball position will encourage a steeper than usual angle of attack on the ball and help the initial trajectory of the ball stay lower.
"During the backswing, feel as if the weight stays on your left side. This will restrict the length of your backswing to three-quarter length and help you to maintain your balance in the wind. The backswing should feel very centered above the ball.
"Due to the limited lower-body weight shift, the forward swing will feel more downward towards the ball than you are used to. Expect a deeper divot, even on the tight turf here, and a shorter follow through — hands to shoulder high — as a result of the steeper angle of attack." — Jacky Montgomery, head professional at Dunbar Golf Club