With its breathtaking landscapes and technically challenging courses steeped in history, Edinburgh is a magnet for golf lovers worldwide
There are copious reasons to visit Edinburgh. Take its history, Georgian architecture and its splendid arts festival. Or its magnificent surrounding scenery, apt for shooting, fishing and whisky discovery.
But there’s yet another reason why people flock to “Auld Reekie”, a reason with almost universal appeal: golf.
Edinburgh is ringed with more golf courses than you can swing a club at, so whether you want to genuflect at Muirfield’s championship fairways, stroll about with a stick and a ball at a local course, or visit Musselburgh, the world’s oldest golf course (where Mary, Queen of Scots played in 1567 after her husband’s murder) Edinburgh is top of the bucket list for golf aficionados.
But what makes golf in Edinburgh so special?
“Firstly, this is the historic home of golf,” says Ian Walls of River & Green, specialists in Scottish field sports and hosted tours. “Secondly, there are different types of courses – links, heathland and parkland – all within easy reach of each other and the city.
“But the links courses are what make this part of Scotland so special, and unique. These are the courses on which the game of golf began.”
Another prospect drawing worldwide golfers to Edinburgh is that unlike some improbably sculpted and enhanced courses across the globe, courses in Scotland follow the natural lie of the land, offering a supremely challenging and undeniably enjoyable game while forcing golfers to abide by nature.
Four of the top links courses in the world – Muirfield, Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and Gleneagles – all lie within easy reach of the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian, making it the perfect base from which to explore these iconic courses.
Allow us to be your guide to the essential, often quirky characteristics of these revered fairways and the clubs that keep them in order.
Above all other Scottish golf courses, Muirfield reigns supreme. A privately owned links built in 1891, Muirfield consistently rates among the top ten courses in the world. It is as famous for its lunch scene as for the idiosyncrasies of its membership, a membership whose traditional glaciality towards outsiders has shown signs of melting of late. You do not become a “member of Muirfield”; you become a member of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the oldest verifiable golf club in the world, dating from 1744, which is domiciled here. Located in Gullane, East Lothian, Muirfield overlooks the Firth of Forth 22 miles northeast of Edinburgh. Among winners of the sixteen Open Championships that have graced Muirfield, are Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. At the latest Open held at Muirfield, in 2013, Phil Mickelson lifted the trophy.
Old Tom Morris, a legendary figure in golf design, laid out the course to an unusual plan. The majority of links courses run parallel to the coast, execute a U-turn after nine holes and then run back to the clubhouse, creating two sets of nine holes roughly in alignment. Muirfield, however, breaks with convention. It has two loops of nine holes, one running clockwise, the other anticlockwise, all very exposed. Assuming constant wind direction throughout a round, each hole is subject to what feels like different wind direction. When Nicklaus, Open-winner here in 1966, began his career as a designer of golf courses, he hailed Muirfield his inspiration, pronouncing it “the best golf course in Britain.”
Muirfield has other quirks. Games between two players are discouraged in favour of “two-ball matchplay” contests: two pairs playing against each other, one ball per pair, alternate shots. On Tuesdays, four-ball rounds are permitted. “Muirfield is very exclusive and hard to play at,” says Walls, pointedly. “It is only open to visitors on Tuesday and Thursday and not on public holidays. It is a characterful place, albeit stuffy.” Caddies are essential here, and “very much part of the experience,” says Holland.
Another Open venue, Carnoustie offers golfers a rich mix of three courses: The Burnside, The Buddon and The Championship Course, which has recently (2012) been ranked number one on the Rolex Top 1000 courses in the world. To the amazement of many foreign visitors, golf has been played here for more than 400 years, although The Carnoustie Golf Club was only formally constituted in 1842. The present championship course was unveiled just in time for the Open in 1937. Scenically not the prettiest, Carnoustie occupies a backwater located 74 miles northeast of Edinburgh, beyond Dundee.
What sets Carnoustie apart, however, is its degree of difficulty. The last three holes are considered by some the toughest finishing stretch in golf. Some bunkers need stepladders to climb in and out of. The wind blows more consistently and aggressively than on any other Open venue. There are burns (ditches) that run parallel to fairways, several blind shots and abundant dense gorse. “If you miss the fairway, you may never see your ball again,” says Holland, “and if you go without a caddy, your friends may never see you again, too. It is very easy to get lost.”
Carnoustie’s reputation for throwing up “odd” results was revealed most notoriously at the Open in 1999 when Paul Lawrie, the very famous Scots golfer, won the championship after Jean van de Velde flamboyantly blew a three-shot lead on the final hole.
Kingsbarns is hard to sum up. Golf has been played here for hundreds of years but the club was constituted only in 1922. During the War it closed down under threat of invasion, and only established itself in the post-War era as a qualifying course for the Open. Designed in 2000 by Mark Parsinnen and Kyle Phillips, the present course is consistently ranked among the top five in the world, and in fine weather offers the most spectacular scenery thanks to its location on the easternmost curve of the north coast of the Forth of Firth. Kingsbarns co-hosts the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, played in October, alongside St Andrews and Carnoustie.
The club is expensive and run commercially as a green fee club not a membership club. “Aficionados know Kingsbarns,” says Walls. “The setting is gorgeous—very rugged, with significant exposure.” If the wind doesn’t blow you away, a visit to St Andrews, seven miles north-west along the coast almost certainly will. “Home of the Royal & Ancient which runs the sport, alongside the PGA, St Andrews is a town that lives and breathes golf like no other,” says Holland, misting over.
The stage for last year’s Ryder Cup, which Europe won yet again, Gleneagles is not a true links course, but an inland heathland course. The bunkers aren’t as forbidding nor the fairways as undulating as a traditional links. Gleneagles further distinguishes itself by offering something approaching US levels of service, and commensurate prices. In these respects, Gleneagles is less traditional than other links courses.
Soon after Gleneagles opened in 1924 with its own railway station (Gleneagles was built by the Caledonian Railway Company), the beautiful setting caught the imagination of the beau monde. By the 1950s, golfing and shooting at Gleneagles had become enshrined on the calendar of high society where it has remained ever since. As golfing experiences go, Gleneagles is world-class. There are three courses: the King’s Course, Queen’s Course and the Jack Nicklaus-designed PGA Centenary Course (previously the Monarch’s Course), which opened in 1993 and staged the Ryder Cup in 2014. There is also a nine-hole course called the Wee Course and a Golf Academy that opened in 1994. Asked about his work here, Nicklaus said: “It’s the finest parcel of land in the world I have ever been given to work with.”
Let the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian help you make the most of what the Edinburgh golf scene has to offer.