In July 2022, I took two months leave from my job and travelled with my clubs to Scotland and Ireland. It wasn’t the first time I’ve done this; in 2018 I also travelled across much of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland with two friends, for two months.
It was an incredible experience in 2018, including attending the weekend of the Open Championship at Carnoustie, playing the Old Course at St Andrews twice, plus 22 other rounds including Carnoustie (to the same pins, 3 days after the Open Sunday), Royal Troon, Royal Dornoch, Royal County Down, Royal Portrush and Old Head. It would be hard to top that trip but I was keen to go back and try as soon as possible! But like many of us, Covid put that idea on hold, and it would be four years before I could get back.
In 2022 I wanted to do it solo; experience these two beautiful countries in a different way. In the four years since the first trip I was able to use my 2018 experiences, plus I had help from some good friends I met on the first trip and also some like-minded people on Instagram who would later become friends also.
In this blog post I’ll talk about Scotland, which was the main focus of my 2022 trip. Instead of playing the big name courses as in 2018, I decided to visit some of the other great courses I learned about through word of mouth, social media and podcasts, including some lesser known gems. I even joined a local course for 2 months to get some reciprocal discounts!
My first stop was Perth, a beautiful and historic city on the River Tay in southern Scotland and west of St Andrews. There I played the nearby Gleneagles PGA Centenary Course (host of the 2014 Ryder Cup), with my Perth-based friend Mark. This was the first course played on my trip, and the day after arriving was a big walk but well worth it. The PGA Centenary is one of three beautifully maintained courses at Gleneagles and offers views of surrounding countryside and a strong championship test. Gleneagles also features one of the premier hotels in Scotland, and as an overall destination should be on any Scottish bucket list. Additional bonuses in the area can be found in the nearby Perthshire countryside; Sterling Castle and the William Wallace Monument.
Round 2 was at Craigie Hill Golf Club, where I joined as a temporary member for the duration of my trip. Joining gave me a Scottish Golf Membership number, which can provide discounts at some clubs plus membership gives you access to club facilities, and it felt good to support a small club. Craigie Hill is, like the name, a hilly parkland layout with pure greens and panoramic views over Perth city and surrounds. It proved to me early that great golf in Scotland doesn’t need to cost a fortune.
My final Perth golf experience was at King James VI Golf Club, in the city centre. It is completely surrounded by the River Tay, and as such is the only island golf course in Britain. The only access is via an overhead rail bridge footpath! It was a bargain at £20 on a Tuesday and was in great condition, with apple trees a feature of the course. The legendary Old Tom Morris had a hand in designing this hidden beauty and is worth carrying your clubs over the rail line!
One of my ‘must-do’s’ on this trip was the Kintyre Peninsula, on the remote south-west of Scotland. I had learned about the area when researching my 2018 trip but couldn’t fit it into the itinerary last time. Since 2018 I became friends with a Kintyre local named Robbie (make sure you follow @linksrobbie on Instagram for amazing golf and historical site content!). Robbie and I had many online chats before my trip and I soon worked out a mini west coast itinerary, with Robbie joining me.
The drive from Perth to Dunaverty Golf Club is roughly 4.5 hours, but soon became as important as the destination. The A85 and A83 roads take you across the heart of Scotland and by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, then south along the Kintyre Peninsula; maybe one of Scotland’s most underrated scenic drives. Concentrating on the road in front of you is a challenge; such is the natural beauty along the way.
Upon arrival at Dunaverty (circa 1889), I was greeted by a small clubhouse and a gravelled carpark and the egg, bacon and black pudding-filled roll was a warm welcome to the west. A perfect clear day awaited me, and I finally met my mate Robbie in person. Don’t let the modest clubhouse fool you, Dunaverty is a links stunner; arguably as enjoyable at £50 per round as some of the famed Open Rota links across the Firth of Clyde in Ayrshire (Royal Troon, Trump Turnberry) which charge £300-£400 green fees. Standing at the top of the course, which shares its back fence with the velvety-looking barley fields that supply the local Springbank whisky distillery, you find yourself looking out to Northern Island, the Isle of Arran and also towards the Ayrshire Coast from another elevated section of the front nine.
Next up was Machrihanish Golf Club, one of the main reasons for my travel to the Kintyre Peninsula. Another links course (circa 1876) with design credit to Old Tom Morris, Machrihanish begins at the local village with the “Best Opening Hole in Golf”, requiring a drive across the beach to reach the fairway. To describe Machrihanish as ‘epic’ would not be a stretch. It is a truly amazing, traditional links course that forces you to say “wow!” hole after hole. Not only a strong test of golf but some of golf’s best views on a fine day (again I was treated to perfect Scottish summer weather), towards Northern Island and the Scottish isles of Islay and Jura. Machrihanish is Robbie’s home course and as a member’s guest I was treated to one of the world’s top 50 ranked courses that well-heeled golf tourists regularly fly to by helicopter to avoid the lengthy drive. If Machrihanish was the last course you played before you die, you wouldn’t be upset. It’s that good.
My final round with Robbie was at Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club on the Isle of Arran. I met Robbie at the Arran Ferry Ramp at 7am and watched as the fog lifted and the electric powered ferry and Arran came into view. Shiskine (circa 1896) is a 12 hole course that is as quirky as it is challenging. A feature is the 2 consecutive par 3’s that are built into the elevated “Crows Nest Shelf”. First a blind tee shot up to the 3rd hole then from the shelf down to the 4th green located near the back corner of the course close to the beach. In fact blind shots are common at Shiskine, and small greens for that matter! The course overlooks the Kilbrannan Sound and Drumadoon Cliffs and overall was so worth the day trip. Arran is often referred to as a ‘Miniature Scotland’ due to the differing terrain and climates mimicking the mainland. I recommend a visit to the Arran whisky distillery, plus an Arran Ice Cream is a nice way to finish the round.
My next destination was Barassie Links (also known as Kilmarnock Barassie) on the Ayrshire Coast between Dundonald and Western Gailes to the north, and Royal Troon to the south. This is one of Scotland’s great golf regions and like many of the Ayrshire links courses, Barassie fronts the rail line that follows the coastline. Barassie’s green fee (£95) is a fraction of the nearby big names such as Troon, Prestwick and Turnberry. It has been used for final Open qualifying and provides a strong test.
As I found out, don’t miss left, right, long or short! I was able to get a late afternoon tee time and walked up 18 at 7:30pm in brilliant sunshine, and watched groups tee off for an evening round with no risk of finishing in the dark (Scottish summers are the best if you love your golf! June to July is the peak season with the longest days – usually slightly more expensive and busier but well worth it).
Don’t get me wrong, Royal Troon is a lot of fun (but expensive and difficult to get on in summer) and it’s a great idea to include courses like Barassie to get a full Scottish experience without breaking the bank.
I had intended to spend more time in the west, including isles like Islay (The Machrie is a highly rated course and hotel), Jura and more of Arran, plus more of Ayrshire (Western Gales and Dundonald are on my ‘to play’ list) but I was offered a ticket to the first round of The 2022 Open Championship at St Andrews, which turned out to be a good one for an Aussie to attend!
In my next article I will cover my experience at the Open plus more Scottish golf stretching from East Lothian (east of Edinburgh), up along the east coast and into the Highlands, then back to St Andrews.