Just 30 minutes east of Edinburgh on “Scotland’s Golf Coast” you’ll find one of the oldest and most revered golf courses in Britain. It may not enjoy the fame of the Open venues, but the West Links at North Berwick Golf Club is one of those courses that rightfully enjoys a stellar reputation among golfing devotees. For the links lover, this is on that “must play” list alongside the likes of Royal Dornoch and Royal County Down – special, historic places that promise exceptional golfing and life-long memories.
Where to begin? Let’s start with its position. Extending across the beach towards the Island of Fidra and out towards Bass Rock, the views alone at North Berwick are enough to bring you back for more. This could be a pitch and putt and you’d be smitten, calling your friends from the clubhouse after your round to tell them to catch the first train to Edinburgh. But instead you’re walking the fairways of a genuinely world-class links course. Now you’re considering paying for their ticket.
For me, there’s something special, something evocative, about playing a course that starts and finishes in the centre of a town. The course is so clearly a part of the community, helping to shape the history of a town that’s grown up around it, that you can’t help but be swept up by the atmosphere. Playing in to a clubhouse that’s framed by the backdrop of the town is a rare golfing treat.
Playing the West Links you enjoy all of this, plus a wealth of other charming bygone features. That’s not to say the course hasn’t stood up to the test of time, however, as this is a links that maintains a championship pedigree despite the remarkable fact that it has been changed very little from the original design. Formed back in 1832, the course was originally a six hole loop before being extended to the full eighteen. Amazingly, no-one’s absolutely sure who the architect was, which only adds to the magic. One thing’s for sure – there are plenty of modern designers who would be delighted to put their name to it.
With a relatively conservative length – a little under 6,500 yards – North Berwick doesn’t intimidate like some other championship layouts, but there are enough challenges and subtleties to ensure the course poses plenty of questions while remaining playable (and enjoyable) for all standards. Here it’s all about brains not brawn, giving the nuanced design the chance to take centre stage. Throw in the coastal breeze and let a few well placed patches of rough grow up, though, and you’re left in no doubt why the course hosted Local Final Qualifying for The Open in 2013, and served as joint host for the 2010 Amateur Championship.
Making its way from the town, the course forms a traditional figure of eight routing, heading out and back. The opening few holes play adjacent to the Firth of Forth, before cutting inland until the turn. The back nine hugs the shoreline for the most part before a final flourish under the watchful eye of a few local hotels and houses. The first and eighteenth holes share a fairway that sits neatly in front of the recently refurbished clubhouse which in turn provides a suitably comfortable finish to a truly wonderful golfing experience.
Courage is demanded very early on in your round as North Berwick quickly gets in to its stride. A mid-length par 4, the second hole is aptly named “Sea” and tests your nerve with a tee shot across the corner of the shore. Stray off to the right and you’ll be left with a particularly difficult and sandy approach (best case scenario, as that presumes the tide is out). It’s a wonderful and immediate taste of things to come.
Having already negotiated the first par 3 on the course, “Carlecamp” (the fourth) with its blind approach over the dunes, the next short hole comes two holes later at the sixth. Short in length but not short on character, “Quarry” features a sizeable bunker and rolling humps and hollows that guard the front of the green. Maintaining your focus is the hardest thing here, so making your par is something to cherish.
“Bos’ns Locker” and “Bass” set the tone of the back 9 beautifully. The first is a great dune-hugging dog-leg par 5 that sweeps left around the corner. Then your approach on the next hole demands that you flirt with the waiting rocks while being distracted by the glorious view across the bay.
Fine holes though others are, the 13th wins the award for most memorable with it’s quirky stone wall bisecting the hole just ahead of the green. I am sure some will think it madness but they’ll be outnumbered by those who enjoy what is a truly unique and enchanting feature.
The next is fittingly named “Perfection” and gives you a fairway plateau to aim for from the tee ahead of a blind approach shot that drops down towards the beachside green. Next is the famous “Redan”. A superb par 3 that has been endlessly recreated around the world (which only adds to its allure), it’s a fabulous hole. Completing this wonderful stretch is the comparatively innocuous looking sixteenth hole, “Gate”, which saves all its trouble for its undulating, double section green. An imaginative (or evil!) greenkeeper could keep himself endlessly amused with pin placements here.
Tradition, history, charm, quality, quirkiness, and spectacular scenery – it’s an unbeatable combination. This is quintessential Scottish golfing and as fine a links experience as you could hope to enjoy anywhere in the British Isles. Or perhaps I should just end that sentence with “anywhere”. It doesn’t hurt that North Berwick itself is a delightful old town, too.
Given the riches on offer at other clubs located along ‘Scotland’s Golf Coast Road’ (the A198), such as wonderful Gullane and the mighty Muirfield, this is a region to be savoured. And the courses are so close together that arranging a links tour to this part of the country is probably easier than anywhere else, especially given the accessibility by road, rail and air links. There are plenty of quality b&bs and local hotels, or you can trip out daily from Edinburgh if the city lights are what you’re looking for each evening.
What to say in conclusion? Well, it’s pretty simple. If North Berwick isn’t near the top of your ‘bucket list’ of courses, write it in now. In indelible ink. You won’t regret it and you won’t even have to remortgage the house either, as green fees start from as little as £35 per person in the winter (yet the course stays in superb condition). Even in the peak of summer fees are less than £100. OK, you can find cheaper courses, but if you’re looking at value for money this is as good as it gets. North Berwick really is the most golden of golden oldies.