By Richard and Mary-Alice Jafolla of Golf Nook, Scotland
It took me a number of years and visits to Scotland before I caught on that links golf was the traditional way to play the game and above all, that it was fun!
Because Scottish links golf is the purest form of the game, playing it where it was born is the ultimate golfing experience.
Golf in Scotland, especially Scottish links golf, is a bit different than playing golf anywhere else. You actually have to experience Scottish links golf to understand it fully.
But let me give you some insights into the differences to help you get the most out of playing these superb Scottish links courses.
Links golf is what sets Scottish golf apart
The word “links” refers to land that links the sea and the arable land – not quite in the water but not good enough for farming. Not every golf course in Scotland is a links-type golf course. There are superb parkland golf courses like Scotscraig and Longniddry; beautiful and challenging heathland golf courses like The Duke’s and Whitekirk; and seaside golf courses like the new Castle Course in St Andrews. There are even unique combination courses that include parkland and links traits like Lundin Golf Club. These golf courses are challenging and great fun. But it is links golf that sets Scottish golf apart.
Playing the Scottish links golf courses is truly unique – unlike any other kind of golf.
And what makes it so unique is the land on which it is played.
Golfers don’t travel to Scotland to play on parkland golf courses or heathland golf courses or even seaside golf courses. No, they make the pilgrimage to Scotland to play on genuine Scottish links golf courses. What serious (or even not so serious) golfer doesn’t dream of playing on a Scottish links – true links – where golf has been played for centuries and where the vagaries of wind and rain can embellish the challenge of hitting a small hard ball along grass covered ancient dunes until it falls into a 4 ¼ inch hole?
Quality of golf courses unequalled anywhere in the world
The quality of Scottish golf courses is, in my opinion, unequalled anywhere in the world. In a very small area of the planet there are at least 30 golf courses that rate from fabulous to exceptional and hundreds more that are well above average. Names you may have heard like The Old Course at St Andrews, Turnberry, Muirfield, Royal Dornoch, Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Prestwick, North Berwick West Links, Royal Aberdeen, Nairn, Western Gailes, Cruden Bay, Gullane #1 and Machrihanish, are among the most famous and deservedly so. Ones you may not have heard of but are still exceptional golf courses, like Crail Balcomie and Craighead courses, Tain, Brora, Fortrose and Rosemarkie, Montrose, Craigielaw, Kilspindie, Glasgow Gailes, Murcar, St Andrews New, Luffness New, Scotscraig, Dunbar, Golspie, Lundin, Leven Links…got the picture?
There’s a whole palette of exceptional golf courses, great golf courses, terrific golf courses and hundreds of just plain good golf courses, all of them jammed into an area the size of South Carolina.
As in most countries, greens fees in Scotland vary considerably. However, higher fees don’t necessarily correlate to better golf. They correlate more closely with the fame of the golf course.
Choose a home base
The best strategy for playing golf in Scotland is to choose an area – a hub – and stay and play your golf in that hub area. It saves travel and moving and allows you to play and relax and not be concerned with finishing up a round and getting into a van to scurry off to the next location.
Speed of golf play in Scotland
One thing that sets golf in Scotland apart is speed of play. I have seldom played a round of golf in Scotland that took more than 4 hours, most take about 3 1/2 hour – and that’s walking. It’s not as if you feel rushed.
St Andrews Duke’s Course is one of the few courses where you can use a buggy.
Sounds impossible for those used to the five hour slow dance of stateside courses. In fact, in the States I seldom play a round of golf under 4 hours. And keep in mind, very few courses in Scotland have electric golf carts (called “buggies”) so virtually everyone is walking either carrying their bag or (like me) pulling with a pull cart.
It seems the Scottish golfer knows how to keep things moving. Since everyone is walking, they are at their ball and ready to hit as soon as it’s their turn. There’s plenty of camaraderie but when it’s time for you to hit, be ready.
This is especially true at the St Andrews Old Course where you are expected to finish a round under three hours and fifty-eight minutes and, if you’re not keeping pace with the four ball in front of you, the marshals will see that you move along. The range balls at St Andrews driving range are stamped “3:58” just to remind you.
Here’s a quote from Lundin Golf Club yardage book under the heading SLOW PLAY:
“PLEASE NOTE: It is perfectly possible to complete a four ball round in three and a half hours. Slow play usually results from failure to clear the green promptly or from being unprepared to play your shot immediately it is your turn. Your co-operation in eradicating this malaise will be greatly appreciated.” (‘Malaise’ is just about a perfect word, don’t you think?)
As I’ve said, there are few courses that supply golf carts (buggies). When they are available, it’s usually on the hilly parkland courses and in some cases a doctor’s “prescription” is required to prove you are not able to walk the course. The flat links layouts almost never have them. But you can rent a pull cart, called a “trolley,” or even an electrified trolley. Or, you can get yourself a caddie. Of course you can always play golf as it was meant to be played – purge your bag of extraneous items and carry!
Scotland golf course protocol and code of conduct
Scottish golfers are extremely courteous. It’s customary to say to your playing partners “have a good game” or “play well” at the first tee. After the last putt is sunk on the 18th, it’s also customary to take off your hat before shaking hands all around.
And be conscious of what’s going on around you. Many of the golf courses are tight, there are holes that share the same green (St Andrews Old Course has 14 holes that share greens), so there will be times when 2 foursomes are putting in close proximity. Watch you’re not disturbing the other golfers by being too boisterous. There will also be times when you are teeing off right next to a green. Be aware of not hitting your ball while someone is putting.
These little courtesies may seem self-evident, but I mention them because I’ve seen visiting golfers time and again yelling out loudly on the golf course as if it were their private domain.
Another thing; know your terminology. There is a difference between a “foursome” and a “fourball.” A foursome match is a competition between two teams of two golfers each with each team member playing alternate shots on each hole with the same ball. In a fourball each player plays his own ball.
I mention this because golf clubs like Muirfield play foursomes during certain times of the day and if you are playing there you are expected to play that type of match. Oh, and one last thing. Please be sure to fix your ball marks and replace your divots.
St Andrews Old Course – some greens are shared and get a little crowded – 8 golfers, 4+ caddies … and 2 cyclists!
Some miscellaneous stuff that’s good to know
#1 The pins
The flagsticks in Scotland are not the six foot variety we see in the States. They are normally only 5 feet high. That’s important to know because there are not a lot of yardage markers and you’ll often judge your club choice by sight. Even if you’re told the distance, unconsciously you’ll be judging it by the size of the flag and seeing a 5 foot flag when your eye is accustomed to a 6 foot flag will tend to make you overclub thinking you have further to go. Distance measurers and Sky Caddies are often used, so bring yours with you.
Links golf is played on the ground. Remember that. Because of the short grass and fast fairways and wind, keeping the ball low will keep your scores low. Putt every chance you get.
#2 Dress appropriately
No jeans or cut-offs or denim, not even denim shirts. Bermuda shorts are acceptable at most clubs if they are true Bermuda shorts, in other words, no short shorts. It’s best to ask beforehand if you are planning to wear them because a few courses require knee socks if you wear shorts.
All clubs require a shirt with a collar. They also require golf shoes not “trainers” (sneakers). A few clubs require a jacket and tie in the clubhouse but this is the rare exception.
At most clubs, when you pay your golf fee you are considered a temporary member of the club and you can use the showers and changing room. Of course you can just change into your golfing shoes in the car park if you wish.
Virtually all golf clubs have very nice bar/restaurant facilities where you can get a plain but quite decent meal at a very reasonable price.
Dress appropriately for the weather, too. In Scotland you can experience rain, wind and cold and maybe all three at the same time. Waterproof (NOT water resistant) clothes are a must. A good waterproof windbreaker is the best choice. Often on a cold day with strong wind, a wind breaker (called a wind cheater in Scotland) and sweater is all you need to keep warm, particularly when you are walking (which, because there are few golf carts, is almost all the time). Dress in layers because it may start out chilly but warm up later.
#3 Cell phones
Not welcome. Unlike dogs (see below), mobile phones are not permitted on most golf course or in clubhouses.
#4 Warming up
Few courses have driving ranges. Some have small cages you can hit balls into. So you’ll have to do your warming up in another way. Most of the time you’ll see members arrive, check in at the Pro shop and then just go and tee off. Since they are walking I guess they figure they’ll get warmed up soon enough. There is almost always a putting green, so you can practice that aspect of your game.
#5 Speaking of putting
Both St Andrews and North Berwick have very extensive miniature putting courses. They are not part of any golf course but are “stand alone” facilities. St Andrews’ course is next to the Links Clubhouse, it’s called “The Himalayas“, and is really fun to play. Even if you don’t play it, you must at least look at it. People of all ages play. You’ll see women putting with their pocketbooks hanging from one arm, young children playing with their parents and teen-aged couples concentrating more on each other than on where their putts are going.
#6 Dogs go golfing in Scotland
And speaking of friendly, dogs are allowed on many of the courses.
We were at the tee at the Jubilee Course at St Andrews late one day and a man was teeing off with his dog sitting next to his golf bag. We asked him about this and he said every evening at this time his dog comes over and nudges him. It’s a signal that it’s time for them to go play some golf.
We saw dogs on many courses. Needless to say, they are well behaved.
#6 Golf courses in Scotland are public walking areas
If you are traveling with a non-golfer, he or she is free to walk along with you as you golf or walk anywhere on the golf course except the greens. Golf courses are pleasant to walk, the scenery stunning. Just be sure to keep an eye out for the golfers, give them the right of way, and watch out for those unexpected golf balls !!!
Golf in Scotland is more of a “working man’s” game than it is in the States, where so many fine golf courses are private and are the purview of the rich – hidden behind high walls and guarded gates. Not so in Scotland.
As an example, the most famous golf course in the world, The Old Course at St Andrews, is right out in the open, smack dab in the middle of town. In fact there is a road bisecting the 1st and 18th fairways and, from time to time the starter has to wait for a passing vehicle or ask walkers to move it along over his loudspeakers. Many are surprised to find out that it’s actually a public golf course and belongs to the residents of St Andrews, who can play it for a very small yearly fee (less than the price of a single round!).
Sunday is “not a good walk spoiled” at the Old Course at St Andrews because the course is closed on Sundays and is filled with families, couples just enjoying the day, and awe-struck golfers ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the monster pot bunkers.
And there are cameras – lots and lots of cameras – and lots of dogs enjoying their Sunday outings with their owners. Try that at Cypress Point or Pine Valley!
Special hints for playing Scottish links courses
#1 Bunkers, Gorse, Broom, and Other Hazards
There are only two rules for getting out of pot bunkers, broom, or gorse. Memorize these two rules:
- Rule 1: Get the ball back in play.
- Rule 2: If you think you can hit a great shot and get the ball on the green, see rule #1.
Remember, according to Rule 28 At any place on the course except in a water hazard a player may declare his ball unplayable. The player is the sole judge as to whether his ball is unplayable. It will cost you a stroke but you can play the next stroke as nearly as possible from the spot where the last ball was played or you can drop a ball within 2 club lengths of the spot where the ball lay (not nearer to the hole) or you can drop behind where the ball lay as far back as you want. (If you’re in a bunker you must drop in the same bunker.) Take advantage of this rule if you are in gorse or any of the other hazards and you feel you can’t get out. Don’t wait until you get into more trouble and then take a drop. I’ve seen players take 8s and 9s on holes because they tried to blast their way out of impossible situations.
Nothing can get you into more trouble in Scotland than trying to do too much when you are in the rough or in trouble. There are times when the best play in a bunker is to hit it backwards rather than forward… As David Duval should have done here at the 17th at St Andrews in the 2000 Open Championship.
If you are in trouble, don’t get fancy, JUST GET THE BALL BACK IN PLAY. Take your bogie and be thankful it’s not worse. I played with a young man who played to a 4 handicap but, like many teenagers, did a terrible job in managing the course. Wasting 3 shots in one fairway bunker trying to do too much with it, he finally hit it into the gorse and then took 3 more shots trying to hit a career shot out of the gorse rather than just getting it out onto the fairway. So upset with himself he next fluffed his approach and ended up with an 11 on a par 4. His father was in the same bunker but decided to hit it out backwards. To his son’s dismay he then hit his approach shot within 10 yards of the front of the green and chipped in for a par.
Depending on where your ball ends up, you may be better off hitting out backwards. Sometimes it’s better to take your bogie medicine than to end up with a triple.
Golfers from every country are familiar with sand bunkers. Few outside of the British Isles have had to deal with gorse.
Gorse is a bush with yellow flowers that lines many fairways. It’s thick and unyielding and if your ball gets in it Rule #1 is doubly important. Most of the time you’ll just have to lift it out and take a penalty.
#2 Use Your Putter
At links courses, the grass around the greens is cut very short. In fact, sometimes it’s difficult to see where the fairway ends and the green begins. This coupled with the fact that many of the greens are hard and shaped like an inverted saucer and wind is often a factor makes the use of the putter a viable choice. You’ll use it much more than you may be used to. Watching a Scottish Professional tournament at one of the links courses I noted that virtually every golfer within 50 yards of the green was putting rather than using a wedge!
Don’t automatically reach for the wedge when you are off the green, it’s almost never the right choice. If the grass is short, try your putter.
Try a few practice strokes to get the feel for distance and fire away. You’ll almost always get closer to the pin.
#3 Wind & Rain
Wind is a big factor in Scottish links golf. Try to keep the ball low unless the wind is behind you. A 260 yard drive in calm weather will go 270 yards if there’s a 10 MPH wind behind you. However, if a 10 MPH wind is in your face, the ball will go only 242 yards. That’s only 10 yards longer with a trailing wind but 18 yards shorter–almost double the distance – with a head wind. (And 10 MPH is a mere breeze in Scotland!) However, if you can keep the ball low, the wind will not be such a factor. Some balls are designed for low flight. Bring a few of these with you and use them when you are teeing off into the wind. It will make a difference. And practise your knock down shots before you leave. (Golfers playing at Crail Golfing Society have to deal with the fierce winds coming off Firth of Forth. Graeme Lennie, the friendly professional, is often asked how to play in such winds. His answer? “Keep your putts low to the ground, laddie!”)
#4 It rains in Scotland
… and, depending on which area you’re in, it could be a lot. (Generally drier in the east, wetter in the west.) You should always assume it is going to rain even though the weather looks sunny and mild. If you’ve made reservations at a special course and it rains and you’re on a tight schedule, what do you do? You play, that’s what you do.
So carry a good rain jacket and rain trousers. Be sure they are water-proof not just water-resistant. Same with shoes. If you get caught in a downpour and there’s lots of wind you’ll be glad you are protected by more than your umbrella.
Most Scottish golfers play in rain that people from other parts of the world might not play in. Often a downpour will start and if you play a hole or two things will clear up for the rest of the round. If you have good raingear that gives you enough freedom for a full swing, the weather won’t bother you and you’ll be a happy golfer.
Oh, and don’t forget good non-slip rain gloves – the kind whose grip improves the wetter they get. (Peter Aliss, the BBC and CBS golf announcer and former Ryder Cup player, says he doesn’t change gloves, he just wraps a handkerchief around his grip. It’s legal and works just as well.) I personally use only Dimplet Golf Gloves. They are equally effective in rain or shine.
#5 Toilets & Drinking Water
Two things rarely found on UK golf courses are toilets and drinking water so be sure to bring along a bottle of water. I want to address this next item as delicately as possible. All of us have had the urge during a round of golf when we were not near a toilet. Usually, we just find a hidden spot behind a tree or in a bush and relieve ourselves. Let’s face it, we’ve all done it. The problem is that it’s not that easy to do in Scotland – especially on the flat (and windy!) links courses. In addition, many of the links courses are “out and back” meaning the 9th hole is furthest from the clubhouse. So take care of business before you tee off.
#6 Golf Balls
The drive is critically important in Scottish links golf. Many of the greens on links golf courses are the inverted saucer shape protected by fierce bunkers. Usually there is an “alley” thru the bunkers on your second shot if your drive landed in the right spot. If not, you’ll have to hit over bunkers to greens that are not that receptive to being held – especially if you are coming in low. You’ll have to hit a high shot that flops down on the green and holds. Trouble is, the greens are often hard and the wind may be blowing sideways. One solution is to use a high-spin ball – one that will stand a better chance of hitting and holding. You may not get as much distance but you’ll be happier around the green.
#7 Use the correct tee area
Ask which tees you are to play off of. Seldom are you allowed to play off the championship tees and often even the medal tees are off limits. They are very strict about this so be sure to ask which tees are being used that day and don’t deviate from them.
#8 The 19th Hole
Most of the golf clubs serve good food. In fact, we often eat at clubhouses even if we may not have played golf that day. Don’t look for fancy cooking. We eat at clubhouses because the food is simple food but it’s well prepared and inexpensive. (One of our favorite eating spots is the St Andrews Links Clubhouse.) Clubhouses are a great place to meet people. Scottish people are friendly and Scottish golfers are the friendliest of all – at least that’s how it seems!
Check out our favourite golf courses in St Andrews and the surrounding area
Richard and Mary-Alice Jafolla absolutely ‘practise what they preach’ with 15 years experience as independent golf travelers in Scotland. They up-sticks from their base in Florida every year and come to Scotland for 3 months. Why? Because they love it. We can think of no better people to tell you about why Scotland is such a special place. They maintain an entirely independent website, Golf Nook Scotland, focusing on the independent golf traveler visiting Scotland. They have kindly allowed us to share their insights here on Ginger Beer Golf Travel.
You can rely on our recommendations for where to play because we’ve played there. You can rely on our suggestions for where to go because we’ve been there. You can trust our ideas because we accept no payment for endorsing the places and services we recommend.
Richard, a mid-handicapper, loves the game of golf. Mary-Alice, while not a golfer, loves the land, the castles, the people, and all things to see and do in Scotland.
Both of us love the lore and aesthetics of the great courses – their history and tradition, the great players, the skill involved, the game itself with all its frustrations and rewards. We admire those respectfully silent at golf tournaments while someone else yells “GET IN THE HOLE”. We appreciate the golfers who replace their divots, repair their own ball marks and look for others to repair. We’re grateful for the one in the foursome who suggests letting the group behind play through.