Birkdale and beyond: the greatest golf links in the world

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The Open Championship starts on July 20

Links courses exclusively used for The Open

UK's links courses revered by golfers

CNN  — 

Golf’s origins begin some 600 years ago on the links lands of Scotland and it is on these same tracts the British Open is played out every year.

Links golf – on rugged sandhills linking the land to the sea – presents a particular test, where fresh winds, deep bunkers, rolling surfaces and deep rough challenges players to the end.

The list of courses on the current Open rotation includes some of the finest examples of links golf anywhere in the world.

Here’s a guide to those 10 tracks, plus some some alternative options nearby.

Royal Birkdale

Venue for the 2017 Open Championship, Royal Birkdale is a powerhouse of a links with holes framed by towering dunes.

The Lancashire links, in northwest England, has been in existence since 1897 and is easily recognized by its 1930s art-deco clubhouse which looks like a liner.

The course fans seaward, with the two nines returning to the clubhouse, with flat fairways and fair greens rewarding accurate shots.

Ireland’s Padraig Harrington won the last of the nine Opens at Royal Birkdale in 2008.

Best course nearby: Hillside is a hidden gem and shares the same stretch of sandhills, while Southport & Ainsdale is a two-time Ryder Cup venue which winds through rollings links land.

Royal Birkdale, Waterloo Road, Southport, England PR8 2LX; +44 (0) 1704 552 020

Green fees: From £165-245 ($213-316)

Royal Birkdale in northwest England hosts the 2017 British Open Championship.

St. Andrews

Known as the “Home of Golf,” the game in various forms has been played over the St. Andrews links since the 15th century.

The historic seaside and university town north east of Edinburgh on Fife’s east coast is home to seven golf courses with the Old Course at its heart.

The venerable layout occupies a windswept triangle of dunes, hills and gorse bordered by the West Sands Beach to the east and sandwiched between the New Course (1895) and the Eden, with the Jubilee, Strathtyrum and Balgove also occupying the venerable links.

The Old Course begins from in front of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club clubhouse and winds out to the Eden Estuary before turning for home, with many blind shots over seas of gorse and fearsome pot bunkers with names like “Hell” and “The Coffins,” which require careful navigation.

St. Andrews squeezes six courses, including the Old Course, onto its venerable links.

The course features an iconic finishing stretch – the “Road Hole” 17th passing the Old Course Hotel and the 18th across the Swilcan Bridge back up into town.

Playing the Old Course is a bucket-list item for most golfers and a ballot, drawn 48 hours in advance, is the most common means of entry, although there are limited advance bookings.

St. Andrews has hosted 29 Opens stretching back to 1873, and has seen some of the game’s biggest names lift the Claret Jug, including Tiger Woods in 2000 and 2005.

“I fell in love with it the first day I played it. There’s just no other golf course that is even remotely close,” said 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus.

Best course nearby:: Just along the coast is Kingsbarns, a blockbuster of a modern links in a spectacular cliff-top setting, opened in 2000; further south lies Crail, where the Balcomie course (1895) offers a step back in time and a quintessential links experience.

St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland; +44 (0)1334 466 666

Green fees: From £88-175 ($113-226)


South of Troon on the same stretch of Ayrshire coastline sits Turnberry, nowadays best known as being owned by US President Donald Trump.

The celebrated course was bought by POTUS in 2014 and underwent a multi-million dollar revamp along with the hotel.

The redesign of the Ailsa course includes bringing the iconic Turnberry lighthouse more the fore with a new ninth green near its base. The setting and the views out to the Aisla Craig rock and the Isle of Arran are still sublime.

Turnberry's redesigned Aisla course features a new ninth green at the foot of the iconic lighthouse.

Turnberry hosted its first Open in 1977, a tournament which became famous for the “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.

The course last held the Open in 2009 when American Stewart Cink beat the 59-year-old Watson in a playoff.

Best course nearby: Trump’s son Eric recently opened the new “King Robert the Bruce” course, a redesign of the old Kintyre course with the same sublime views.

Trump Turnberry, Turnberry, Ayrshire, Scotland, KA26 9LT; +44 (0) 1655 331000

Green fees: Visitor £200-350 ($258-452); Hotel resident £100-250 ($129-323)

READ: Is Turnberry’s new ninth the best par-3 on the planet?


The Championship course is one of three layouts on the Carnoustie links east of Dundee in the county of Angus on Scotland’s east coast.

The challenging, heavily bunkered track is arguably the toughest on the Open rotation, particularly when the wind blows. It is also the longest Open course at 7,421 yards.

It was known as “Car-nasty” during the 1999 Open because of its thick rough, narrow fairways and a potent spell of bad weather. That year, Frenchman Jean van de Velde famously contemplated a shot out of a stream while leading on the final hole before Scotsman Paul Lawrie won a playoff.

Frenchman Jean Van de Velde looks at his ball in the burn on the 18th hole during the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie.

Carnoustie has hosted seven Opens, most recently in 2007 when Padraig Harrington beat Sergio Garcia in a playoff. It will stage the tournament again in 2018.

Best course nearby:: Carnoustie’s Burnside course offers a characterful test away from its fearsome big brother.

Carnoustie Golf Links, Links Parade, Carnoustie, DD7 7JE, Scotland; +44 (0) 1241802270

Green fees: From £87-175 ($112-226)

Carnoustie is one of the most daunting challenges on the Open rotation.

Royal Troon

Troon was founded in 1878 but took its current form 10 years later in the South Ayrshire town overlooking the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s west coast south of Glasgow.

The Old Course is a classic “out-and-back” links, akin to the Old Course at St. Andrews, with a relatively gentle start and finish and a devilish middle section through spectacular linksland with views across to the Isle of Arran. Wind is its major defense – the breeze in your face coming home presents a formidable challenge.

Royal Troon is famed for the “Postage Stamp,” its infamous 123-yard par-three eighth hole, and “Railway,” the 11th which runs next to the train track with a blind drive over a sea of gorse.

Awarded Royal status in 1978 to honor its centenary, Troon has hosted nine Open Championships, most recently in 2016 with an epic final-day duel between Phil Mickelson and eventual winner Henrik Stenson of Sweden.

Best course nearby: Prestwick hosted the first Open Championship in 1860 and the next 11 until the tournament moved briefly to St. Andrews. In all the historic links just down the road from Troon hosted 24 Opens.

Royal Troon, Craigend Road, Troon, KA 10 6EP, Scotland; +44 (0) 1292 311 555

Green fees: From £195-230 ($252-297)

READ: Prestwick – birthplace of a legend

Royal Troon's 8th, known as the Postage Stamp, is one of the world's best par 3s.

Royal Lytham and St. Annes

The Lancashire course was opened on its current site in 1897 on a pocket of duneland south of Blackpool.

Unlike other Open venues, it is hemmed in on all sides by houses but it retains a linksy charm, though with a sting in the tail.

There are 206 bunkers which require players to thread their way around rather than try to overpower the relatively short 7,118-yard course.

Royal Lytham hosted the last of its 11 Opens in 2012 when Ernie Els triumphed. It’s also famed as the course where legendary European golfer Seve Ballesteros hit a shot from a car park on his way to his breakthrough major victory in 1979. He also won again when the tournament returned in 1988.

Best course nearby: Formby is closer to Royal Birkdale but this revered old track through dunes and pinewoods is acknowledged as a classic.

Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Links Gate, Lytham St. Annes, Lancashire, FY8 3LQ; +44 (0)1253 724206

Green fees: From £135-240 ($174-310)


Home to the historic Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield Links has been in existence since 1891.

The celebrated course lies to the east of Edinburgh on the south shore of the Firth of Forth in East Lothian, dubbed “Scotland’s Golf Coast.”

The testing track features two loops of nine running in opposite directions, which ensures the wind is never blowing from the same direction on consecutive holes.

The club has been the center of controversy in recent years after first voting not to allow women members in 2016 before reversing its decision and changing its membership policy this year.

Muirfield hosted the last of its 16 Opens in 2013 when American left-hander Phil Mickelson clinched his fifth major title.

Best course nearby: North Berwick is one of the gems of Scottish golf, quirky and charismatic with a stunning seaside setting and views out to Bass Rock.

Muirfeld (Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers), Duncur Road, Muirfield, Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland, EH31 2EG; +44 (0)1620 842123

Green fees: From £110-230 ($142-297)

Muirfield is the big attraction on Scotland's 'Golf Coast' in East Lothian.

Royal St. George’s

The most southerly Open venue in the UK at Sandwich in Kent, and the first English course to host the tournament.

Royal St. George’s was founded in 1887 and winds through dunes overlooking Sandwich Bay south east of London. It is a testing mix of undulating fairways, slick greens and daunting bunkers, none more so than the towering “Himalaya” on the fourth hole, at 40ft tall the highest bunker in the UK.

The course is also the setting for the famous golf match between James Bond and Goldfinger in the Ian Fleming novel. Fleming, who named the course Royal St. Marks, was a member of Royal St. George’s.

It hosted the last of its 14 Opens in 2011 when Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke won his sole major title.

Best course nearby: In the dunes to the south lies Royal Cinque Ports, an equally compelling historic links which hosted the Open in 1909 and 1920.

Royal St. George’s, Sandwich, Kent CT13 9PB; +44 (0) 1304 613090

Green fees: From £100-190 ($129-245)

Royal Liverpool

“Hoylake,” as it is commonly known, was built in 1869 on the racecourse at Liverpool Hunt Club and retained a dual function for the first few years of its life.

Located on the Wirral peninsula on the seaward side of the River Mersey from Liverpool, it presents a classic links challenge next to the beach and overlooking the Irish Sea at the mouth of the Dee Estuary.

Famous golf scribe Bernard Darwin once wrote: “Hoylake, blown upon by mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions.”

Past winners of the Open here include Tiger Woods during a firm and fiery week in 2006, and Rory McIlroy, who led from start to finish in winning his third major in 2014.

Best course nearby: Wallasey is another jewel of seaside golf just up the coast from Hoylake.

Royal Liverpool, Meols Drive, Hoylake, Wirral, CH47 4AL; +44 (0) 1516323101

Green fees: From £90-200 ($116-258)

Royal Portrush is the jewel of the North Antrim coast.

Royal Portrush

Hugging the northern coast of Northern Ireland, Royal Portrush is the only Open venue outside Scotland and England.

The spectacular Dunluce links above a sandy beach was laid out in 1888 and redesigned in 1932 with a single loop of holes meandering through dunes and along the cliff top with constant changes of direction and elevation. The fierce North Atlantic weather adds to the challenge.

The course is overlooked by the ruins of Dunluce Castle which gives it its name, with views over to Donegal in the west and Islay and Scotland to the north and east. The rock formations of Giant’s Causeway lie a few miles to the east.

Royal Portrush hosted its sole Open in 1951, but will return to the Open rotation in 2019.

Best course nearby: Royal Portrush’s Valley course twists and tumbles through hills and swales between the Dunluce and the East Strand and provides an absorbing antidote. Further west Portstewart is another fine track.

Royal Portrush, Dunluce Road, Portrush, Co. Antrim, BT56 8JQ, Northern Ireland; +44 (0) 287082 3335

Green fees: From £60-190 ($77-245)