Although several countries and cultures have some historical claim on the development of golf, the genesis of the modern sport certainly stems from a simple game played with sticks and pebbles on the eastern coastal dunes of Scotland during the 15th century. This primitive game was popular enough in St Andrews by 1457 for King James II to issue a parliamentary decree forbidding it, worried that it may keep his subjects from the archery practice required to repel the frequent English incursions. Despite the decree the game expanded beyond St Andrews (right) and the Kingdom of Fife and by 1650 there were a dozen links along the Scottish eastern seaboard, from Dornoch and Aberdeen in the north down through Montrose, Carnoustie, Leven and further south around the city of Edinburgh and East Lothian.
Between this period and the game’s boom in the mid-to-late 19th century, golf was legalized and formalized, with clubs and rules established. The eighteen-hole course was standardized and its playing fields and hazards defined. Golf, however, remained prohibitively expensive due to the cost of handcrafted equipment such as the individually stitched featherie balls. That all changed with the introduction of the mass-produced gutta-percha ball in 1848, which made the game more accessible and led to the most significant period of growth in its history.
As player numbers in Scotland increased so too did golfing venues. Courses were created across the country with almost every seaside town, small or large, fuelling the national pastime by converting its suitable linksland into golfing fields. The influence of St Andrews on the greenkeepers and golf professionals who laid out Scotland’s early links was considerable. The course continued to have a substantial impact on the work of the first professional golf architects, men like Colt, Braid, MacKenzie, Simpson, Park Jr and Fowler, who studied its every natural feature and then tried to copy its style and strategy in their designs.
Scottish golf has an antiquated charm all of its own, the links here are older, the clubs more traditional and the venues more naturally suited for the game than anywhere else in the world. Beyond the historical ambience and superb scenery, the beauty of Scotland is the number of genuine hidden gems situated in close proximity to the famous classics. Beyond those featured in the following pages you would do well to also consider old-fashioned charmers like Elie and Crail outside of St Andrews, Monifieth and Panmure near Carnoustie, Western Gailes near Troon and Gullane’s No. 1 Course next door to Muirfield. Also, on the remote island of Islay the Machrie Golf Club is a wonderful destination and worth doubling with Machrihanish, while the championship quality of Nairn and the fun of Boat of Garten make both worthy of a side trip for those venturing into the Highlands for Royal Dornoch and Brora.
For many golfers a trip to Scotland is a rite of passage, and while its mighty Open championship venues are rightly revered throughout the world, to visit these shores and ignore ancient gems like North Berwick, Royal Dornoch, Machrihanish, Prestwick and those listed above is to miss as much as you see.
above - Cruden Bay