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.
The Scottish hospitality at the “19th hole” – otherwise known as the clubhouse – is another big pull.
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.
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.
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.
Just along the coast from St Andrews is Kingsbarns, a blockbuster of a modern links in a spectacular cliff-top setting, opened in 2000.
Crafted on land that first witnessed golf in 1793, Kingsbarns quickly went to the top of many wish lists for its rugged scenery, testing championship course and lavish hospitality.
It features as one of three top-notch courses used in the European Tour’s annual Dunhill Links Championship along with St Andrews’ Old Course and Carnoustie.
Best courses nearby: Further south on the western tip of Fife lies Crail, where the Balcomie course (1895) offers a step back in time and a quintessential links experience. Crail’s Craighead course is a equally fun modern links. Along Fife’s south coast are a number of historic links treasures such as Leven, Lundin Links and Elie, with its submarine periscope towering out of the clubhouse.
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 hosted its first Open in 1977, a tournament which became famous for the “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.
Best course nearby: Trump’s son Eric opened the new “King Robert the Bruce” course, a redesign of the old Kintyre course with the same sublime views.
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.
Down the road, the historic town of Dundee on the Firth of Tay estuary has plenty of life for all tastes.
Best course nearby:: Carnoustie’s Burnside course offers a characterful test away from its fearsome big brother.
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.
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.
The first women members were finally admitted in 2019.
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.
Gullane is another local treasure with serious pulling power, featuring three courses of which Gullane No.1 is the historic highlight. Musselburgh, Luffness, Archerfield, Glen, Craigielaw and the Renaissance Club are other good East Lothian options.
On the north shore of the Dornoch Firth on Scotland’s northeast coast lies one of its most revered courses: Royal Dornoch. Golf has been played in the seaside town, north of Inverness, since 1616 but the current club has “only” been in existence since 1877.
Royal Dornoch hosts two courses – the Championship and the Struie – but it is the former track that draws in visitors from around the world.
Winding along sinuous sandy shores and among the dunes behind, the fast-running course features humps, hollows, pot bunkers and gorse of a true links test, sandwiched between the sea and purple heather-clad mountains.
For whisky lovers, the Glenmorangie and Ardmore distilleries are open for visits, just over Dornoch Forth Bridge on the A9 south towards Inverness.
Best course nearby: The Carnegie Links at ultra-luxe Skibo Castle offers golf in spectacular setting on the banks of the Dornoch Firth. What’s more, there is select availability for non members.
Controversy has dogged Donald Trump’s course Trump International, situated north of Aberdeen, since day one – with environmental concerns chief among the criticism – but when it opened in 2012 it was clear that from a golfing point of view it was a new gem.
Winding through towering dunes and sunken valleys with tantalizing snapshots of the sea, the course offers the full Scottish links experience, with American hospitality thrown in.
Designed by renowned course architect Dr Martin Hawtree, Trump’s Aberdeen venture features two out-and-back loops of nine holes in an authentic natural setting.
The modest clubhouse at its heart offers several dining options, including the award-winning MacLeod House Restaurant, and a whisky bar.
As with many of Scotland’s finest courses, golf in these parts goes way back – Royal Aberdeen Golf Club was founded on land close to the “Granite City” in 1780, and is said to be the world’s sixth oldest golf club.
Play switched to its current links location across the River Don in 1888, 15 years before King Edward VII granted the royal charter, and it has since been a beacon of golf on Scotland’s northeast coast.
The historic Balgownie course is the highlight, a classic links layout threading its way through the natural ecosystem of dunes and back along a seaside shelf with tight, rolling fairways and fast greens.
The zesty breeze off the North Sea – known as the “Old Lady of Balgownie” – is one of its main defenses.
Everything about Loch Lomond Golf Club oozes luxury. From 18th Century Rossdhu House at its center to a spectacular parkland-style course on the banks of the eponymous loch – Britain’s largest expanse of fresh water – it’s a study in elegance.
The rub is, it’s a private club so access is like a golden ticket from Willy Wonka.
Loch Lomond is a relatively recent addition to Scotland’s golfing repertory, designed by former US golf star Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish and opened in 1993, but its setting between mountains and water in the grounds of the ruined medieval castle ensures its a regular in lists of the world’s best courses.
Best courses nearby: The Carrick at Cameron House, or its cheeky brother the Wee Demon, plus Buchanan Castle and Helensburgh are other local options.
A one-stop shop for golf and glamor, Gleneagles offers an inland antidote to Scotland’s normal diet of windswept links courses.
With a five-star hotel, three top-notch courses, bags of country pursuits and Scotland’s only restaurant with two Michelin stars – Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles – this highland estate northeast of Edinburgh offers plenty of bang for its buck.
The Jack Nicklaus-designed Centenary course – used for the 2014 Ryder Cup – is the centerpiece of the golf offering, a big, parkland-style layout with soaring views to purple heather-clad mountains.
The Gleneagles Hotel opened in 1924, dubbed the “Riviera of the Highlands” and now features bedrooms including suites and onsite luxury lodges can also be rented.
Best courses nearby: Gleneagles’ historic King’s course offers an atmospheric experience with testing holes through woods and across moorlands with the Trossachs and Ben Vorlich as a northern backdrop, while the Queen’s and the nine-hole par-three course will keep the golf addict happy.
Although it only opened in 2009, Castle Stuart on the banks of the Moray Firth has become a highlight of golf in the Highlands.
The course, overlooked by a towering white art-deco clubhouse, hugs the shore and shelving cliffs on a thin stretch of links land with views to Ben Wyvis mountain, Kessock Bridge, Fort George and Chanonry lighthouse.
There are a number of on-site lodgings available. The course is 10 minutes from Inverness airport and a regular host of the Scottish Open.
Speyside’s Malt Whisky Trail, taking in eight distilleries, including Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet, is a short drive away.
Best courses nearby: A wealth of Highland gems lie close by, including Brora, Gulspie, Moray and Nairn.
For golf off the beaten track, this historic club in the village of Machrihanish lies on the long finger of the Kintyre peninsula on Scotland’s west coast pointing towards Northern Ireland.
Machrihanish, with a famous opening shot over the sea, is another links in classic Scottish tradition, with undulating fairways, firm turf, pot bunkers, gorse, wind and vast views towards the islands of Islay, Jura and Gigha.
It’s rarely busy and affords golfers time to savor the bracing breeze and spectacular setting.
Best courses nearby: Machrihanish Dunes, the vision of Australian businessman Brian Keating, opened in 2009 and offers an authentic modern complement to the original course, centered around the revamped Ugadale Hotel.