In search of links golf Nirvana on Scotland’s Ayrshire Coast
With some of the world's greatest golf on offer, follow this exciting golf tour itinerary around Ayrshire and the South West coast of Scotland.
With some of the world's greatest golf on offer, follow this exciting golf tour itinerary around Ayrshire and the South West coast of Scotland.
“See that graveyard on the side of that hill?” asked our taciturn-looking forecaddie John as we shifted from foot to foot nervously on Prestwick’s famously intimidating first tee in steady rain. “The guy that invented crosswords is buried there”. “Oh yeah?” we asked politely, looking vaguely at a nondescript grid of gravestones on a nearby hillock. “Aye, his grave is four across and two down!”.
As an icebreaker/nerve-settler, it was a welcome gag and, although it didn’t save all of us from the dreaded slice onto the railway line that rears ominously and immediately from the right-hand side of the tight first fairway, it did serve to reduce the pressure and ease us into our trip.
We were a mixed-ability group of twelve thirtysomething lads that had ventured up to the Ayrshire coast from various parts of England, many of us cashing in months of carefully accrued brownie points with WAGS and various infant babies left at home, in exchange for three days of top-notch links golf, overeating and the odd dram of the brown stuff.
Inland golfers have a tendency to mythologise links golf, so rarely do we get to play it. In the weeks and days prior to our arrival, the activity in the group WhatsApp chat suggested that we were no different - excitement threatened to become too much.
We began at Prestwick (where else?), the birthplace of the Open and home - by reputation - to some of the zaniest and most exciting holes in golf. Here the weight of history is heavy, which is reflected in the pages and pages written about this famous crucible of golf, founded by Old Tom Morris in 1851, where the inaugural Open Championship was staged nine years later in 1860.
Golf history buffs will feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven on stepping foot inside the famous clubhouse, which is festooned with artefacts mapping golfing folklore. Arriving as we did a good hour before your tee time, and taking a guided tour of the clubhouse to soak it all in, is well worth it. And if you fancy blitzing your credit card in the pro shop, there is acre upon acre of tastefully embossed leather goodies, wall-to-wall Peter Millar, Kjus and other premium stocking fodder for the discerning golfer: our group did some serious damage here!
Prestwick’s 345-yard 1st is a high-octane start, which isn’t something you’d normally say with a 6-iron in hand on a par 4, but my heart has scarcely beaten faster on a tee - the peanut gallery of Americans, the proximity of the famous railway line and steeply pinching fairway making for a formidable first-hole challenge.
The third, named “Cardinal” after one of Prestwick’s storied bunkers, gives an immediate taste of what Prestwick is all about and absolutely lives up to the hype. Not long as par 5s go, its fairway is however divided into 3 tranches, turns a good 70 degrees to the right and rises a full two stories after the Cardinal, the second of the two gargantuan cross bunkers that prevent undue greed off the tee. Two meaty fairway woods are required to reach the green in two, and keen skiers will enjoy the mogulfield-esque that runs from the Cardinal bunker right up to the green. The Pow burn, which skirts the inner edge of the hole does the same on the fourth, features prominently throughout and is surely the watery grave to many a golf ball.
“Himalayas” - another famous challenge - presents a mountainous ridge of dunes over which you must fly blind with a mid-long iron. This is another which gets the pulse racing but on cresting the dune isn’t quite as hairy as you might think - two of our four caught our tee shots poorly, barely carrying the ridge, but running down the slope on the far side and onto the front of the green for scratchy pars apiece.
The drama quietens a little through the middle holes as the routing heads inland with some tough, longish, heathery par 4s, which leaves more chance to brandish the big stick. The lumps and bumps in the dunes are back on 13 from start to finish and plunging runoffs fore and aft the green: a par here is a serious win.
Hole 15 - “Narrows” - as the name suggests, requires some careful corridor creeping along a narrow passage with disaster left and right before another blind approach into the warm embrace of a bowling green.
A couple of gettable par 4s on 16 and 18 are separated by Prestwick’s final signature - “Alps” - on 17 where an accurate tee shot must be followed by another frightening, blind mid iron over another sandy mountain range and another monstrous, hidden bunker - the aptly-named “Sahara”. If you can do all of that and hit the forgiving backboard green beyond, you’ll be feeling a million dollars after one of golf’s great adventures - particularly if you can take advantage of the very birdie-able 18th.
Provided of course you’ve avoided calamity earlier on, which is by no means a given, particularly if the wind is up. Prestwick is one of a kind and must be played at least once in a lifetime.
We based ourselves at Dundonald Links, which positions itself very conspicuously as a welcoming and modern stay & play resort amidst a sea of traditional links golf clubs. This was immediately evident on arrival when we were greeted like members or long-lost friends.
Everyone seemed to know our names, and nothing was too much trouble, particularly for Davey Rutherford, the Concierge manager, a real gem. We stayed in a pair of extremely comfortable lodges hunkered around our own chipping and putting green (just perfect for a group like us) and wandered over to the terrific clubhouse each morning for an (included) slap-up breakfast, followed by a leisurely warmup on the extremely comprehensive practice facilities.
We’d find our way to the sauna and steam room each evening, which certainly helped keep us limber enough for three rounds in three days - not something many of us do with any regularity.
We put Dundonald’s Canny Crown restaurant through its paces, it’s extensive menus again seemingly designed to please the full spectrum of tastes, bringing together hearty golf club fare (club sandwich etc), seriously juicy local Black Angus steak in various cuts (my rib-eye was sensational), imaginatively-deployed haggis, black pudding and whisky alongside some fine and delicate french flourishes from Head Chef Daniel Sweeney, whose career includes stints with the Roux brothers and at Turnberry.
Fine dining at the Canny Crow @Dundonald Links
Like Prestwick, Western Gailes is as traditional as they come but unlike its more famous neighbours Prestwick, Royal Troon and Turnberry, it rather flies under the radar in terms of name recognition at home and abroad.
In spite of this, I got an inkling that we were in for something special the second I glimpsed the narrow strip of links land separating the charmingly old-fashioned (think wall to wall wood panelling and green leather-upholstered chairs, jacket and tie for members) clubhouse from the sea and the Isle of Arran beyond. It helped of course that it would have been impossible to devise a more perfect May afternoon for our round there, with only a light breeze and scarcely a cloud in the sky.
Club shop custodian Gordon Bettaney told us to expect a wild, natural, and wonderful test of golf threading through spectacular links land. And gazing out of the dining room it was hard to argue. Golf fantasists would struggle to find a purer test of links golf on the planet. On a strip of land not much more than 100 yards wide and contained by the beach to the west and the railway to the east, were 4 holes headed North on the landward side, followed by 9 southbound holes of uninterrupted super-prime beachfront golf real estate, before the final run for home from 14 through to 18 along the railway track and back to the clubhouse.
We were greeted on the first by another trio of jovial forecaddies (one for each of our fourballs - highly recommended) whose help we again enlisted for shotmaking and putt-reading purposes, and - we hoped - a bit of moral support.
Immediately by way of greeting they warned us that Western Gailes’ slope rating of 144 is topped only by Carnoustie’s 145 in Scotland. With our group’s handicaps ranging from 1 to 26… Gulp! Sure enough, when one of our group blocked his first tee shot into an unpromising-looking area of gorse well wide of the target on 1, he turned hopefully to ask if he might find his ball in there. “Son, you could wrap that in bacon and haggis and Lassie wouldn’t find it in there!” - cue squeals of laughter from the rest of the gang and it was in high spirits that we embarked on the challenge ahead.
Some out-and-back links layouts are criticised because they can be samey, with several similar tests coming one after another. Such is the variety of the dunes found at Western Gailes that this cannot be said of the holes here, with very few alike.
One constant was undoubtedly their toughness, tightness and therefore their premium on accuracy off the tee. I didn’t hit driver until 12, and one of our number - who’d been forced to miss Prestwick the day before due to a work snafu, so his blood pressure was well up on arrival - found himself with fewer than 10 points in the bag (not unique among us it has to be said) after 9 and had to take himself down to the beach for a little sit down!
There can’t be many finer 2-hole links sequences in golf than 6 and 7 here. 6, a sub-500 yard double dogleg par 5 begins with a semi-blind tee shot over all kinds of evil stuff (caddie input on line & length here invaluable), followed by a blind second through a pair of towering sentinel dune goalposts, before a picturesque valley bends sharply to the left to the green.
“Sea” - the 7th and possibly signature hole is a belter of a par 3. From an elevated tee overlooking the sand, you fire a short iron into an amphitheatrical hollow which looks inviting, but horrifying pot bunkers lurk - mostly out of sight - in wait for anything errant.
The home stretch does see the topography mellow somewhat, with more inviting opportunities to hit driver and some welcome scorable opportunities. Many of us recovered some semblance of dignity here before enjoying a well-earned pint on the terrace as the sun slid into the sea behind Arran to the West.
Henry Fray - a well-travelled 1 handicapper in our group - said that he struggled to recall a finer day of links golf and vowed to return at the first opportunity.
We’d chosen Prestwick, Western Gailes and Dundonald Links from the long list of options in Ayrshire as they appeared likely to offer three contrasting links experiences. Prestwick: the history, the quirk, the famous holes - check. Western Gailes the pure, natural links experience - check. So what of Dundonald, I asked club pro David Ross-Nicol, aka Digger.
Developed by Kyle Phillips (Kingsbarns, The Grove, Yas Links) for previous owners Loch Lomond as a winter/links option for their membership, Digger told us to expect a modern-style links experience. Expanding on this he explained that meant wide fairways (plenty of driver holes) featuring interesting natural and human-enhanced landscaping, large greens with undulation aplenty and a variety of surrounding hazards making traditional bump & run approaches impractical, as well as multiple tees for all abilities measuring an imposing 7272 yards from the tips, down to 5527 yards from the reds.
Looking out over the course from the clubhouse balcony, a couple of other features are striking: pretty yellow flowering gorse (mostly set well back from the fairway to keep it in sight but not so much in play) and some wooded sections. Making our way onto and down the first fairway, I was immediately struck by how inviting it all looked. I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking it was going to be easy, but as a 9 handicap that hits it quite long but not always very straight, I felt more relaxed here.
As promised, burns feature prominently on half a dozen holes, guarding against complacency, and must be avoided at all costs. Some savage bunkering lies in wait and can cause serious damage to the scorecard - none more so than at the short par 3 11th whose green’s front edge is a precipice punctuated by a triptych of overhead pots. Overclub here and another nightmarish trap - more mineshaft than bunker - might never let you out.
With many holes inviting or even demanding a beefy blow with driver, the four par 5s here also offer the chance for better golfers to hit full fairway woods into greens, which again was a welcome point of difference vs the shorter, tighter courses at Prestwick and Western Gailes.
The 18th is one such example, and a plaque in the fairway 275 yards out commemorates Rafa Cabrera Bello’s clutch 3-wood approach, knocked to 8 feet to clinch victory in the 2017 Scottish Open playoff. Big hitters will surely fancy recreating this ballsy shot over the burn fronting the green. Robbie Parker - our other 1 handicap - went one better, ripping driver off the deck from the light rough around 285 yards out to set up his birdie and close his round of 69. Sadly for him, paired as he was with me, that was only good enough for a 3 & 2 defeat that might have been 6 & 7 at one stage!
Dundonald Links promises the ultimate stay & play links experience, and we found it delivered exactly that - superb links golf, offering a bit of everything, and a purpose-built base at that’s every bit as perfect as it looks for a golf trip among friends.
Dundonald stay & play package options exist for all budgets. 2 nights and 3 rounds - at Dundonald Links, Prestwick and Western Gailes costs around £845pp May - September with excellent deals available in April & October. Royal Troon and Turnberry are nearby for “big game hunters” with fat wallets, whilst Gailes, Barassie, Irvine Bogside offer excellent alternatives for those on tighter budgets.
Most of us took the train to Kilmarnock (15 minutes from Dundonald Links) via Carlisle, taking just over 5 hours and costing £98 / person booked in advance. Taxi transfers are easily arranged directly or via the Dundonald Links team. Glasgow Airport is around 40 minutes by car.
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