Top 10 Courses in East Lothian and Edinburgh
East Lothian markets itself as being ‘Scotland’s Golf Coast’, and when you consider what is on offer in Ayrshire and Fife, that is a bold statement. However, the courses that are situated to the south of the Firth of Forth are of such a consistent high quality that it is easy to understand why many people rate the region so highly. St Andrews may be the capital of Scottish (and world) golf, but the Lothians live under the impressive shadow of Edinburgh - Scotland’s historic and beautiful capital city. Golf in this region is fittingly magisterial.
Home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers since 1891, Muirfield has long established itself as arguably the finest course on the Open Championship rotation. It has hosted golf’s oldest major on 16 occasions, with an array of the game’s greatest players triumphing on the East Lothian links including Vardon, Braid, Hagen, Cotton, Player, Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, Faldo, Els, Mickelson. It’s a course built for champions.
Upon analyzing the layout at Muirfield, aficionados of links golf will quickly become aware of a fundamental difference between it and the other legendary courses at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Troon. Rather than the common ‘out and back’ layout of the two nines, Muirfield is laid out in two alternating loops of nine holes with, many of them intersecting.
The front nine progresses in a clockwise direction, with the back nine cutting inside following a counterclockwise route. This is significant as it can complicate play with a consistent wind coming from a different direction on each tee. Different shot shapes and course management is required on every hole. Perhaps that demand on technical execution and attention to detail is why so many great players have triumphed here.
There are far less ‘quirks’ to Muirfield than most other links courses. The fairways are not especially undulating and bumpy, certainly when compared with a course like Royal St. Georges in England, while blind shots are at an absolute minimum. The challenge and obstacles are clear as you stand on each tee. The examination paper is all there in front of you.
There are no spectacular sea views and panoramic vistas at Muirfield. It is quite simply a pure, honest examination of links golf, and unquestionably one of the world’s great courses.
If Muirfield is the studious, serious course of the region, the West Links at North Berwick is the unruly teenager. Carefree and unrestrained in its routing makes for one of the most thrillingly quirky and enjoyable layouts in Scotland. With some unique features and fairly outlandish holes, it’s easy to see why it has grown into something of a cult-classic. Perhaps East Lothian’s answer to Cruden Bay..?
Veterans of Turnberry will be able to find similarities between the sea views on offer at North Berwick with those of the Ailsa. Bass Rock sits out in the Firth and features prominently in the background, and is very reminiscent of the impressive Ailsa Craig off the coast of Ayrshire. Additionally, with the 18 holes situated right on the edge of the old town, there is more than an air of St Andrews to that closing stretch. Perhaps the shared characteristics with Turnberry and the Old Course transcendently play a part in North Berwick’s popularity.
Ask people what they know of North Berwick, and they will likely bring up two holes. The 15th has become one of the game’s most famous holes in golf course architecture circles. The ‘Redan’ is a challenging par 3 that has influenced designs all across the world, and its name has become almost mythical in golf.
Two holes before that is the 13th, which is perhaps the most photographed on the course. On first glance it is a fairly innocuous short par 4; however, the green is obscured by a small stone wall that runs right alongside it. Like so many of the holes at North Berwick, there are tricks and surprises and variety is the word.
Unique is another apt adjective to describe this course, and that is largely down to an organic sense to the holes. Consequently, the course blends naturally with the land adding up to a wonderful golfing experience.
Along with St Andrews and Dornoch, there are few places that ooze golf more than the beautiful town of Gullane. A paradise of golfing coastline is on its doorstep with the revered Championship Course at Muirfield grabbing the attention of visitors. However, on the other side of town is Gullane Golf Club and its three courses, with No. 1 being among the best conditioned and highest quality in Scotland.
Somewhat unusually, Gullane No. 1 features a number of elevation changes throughout the round. An uncommon characteristic for a links course, but it is largely down to the progressive climb on the front nine. The stunning panoramic view from Gullane Hill is the reward for that gradual trek on the opening holes, with breathtaking images across the whole golfing landscape being on offer. Muirfield, Luffness New, Kilspindie, and Craigielaw are all in view from the 7th tee, which then progresses downhill to initiate a brilliant stretch of holes.
The back nine is certainly superior, with the holes around the turn and up to the 13th being of such a quality that they wouldn’t look out of place on an Open Championship course. Clearly, the R&A feel the same way with Gullane No. 1 having frequently been used as an Open Final qualifying venue in the past.
In 2015, Gullane was showcased to a worldwide audience with the Scottish Open making its first appearance in East Lothian. The pre-Open Championship event has visited the modern links of Castle Stuart and the classic layout of Royal Aberdeen in recent years, with Gullane being held in similar esteem. A composite course of No. 1 and No. 2 was used when the likes of Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson came to town.
Both courses are fantastic, ensuring that Gullane’s position as one of the great cathedrals of Scottish golf.
- Fidra, Archerfield
In a region dominated by courses with significant history, it can be hard to break into that successfully with a modern design. That is unless the layout is of such a high quality that we have to pay attention. The Fidra at Archerfield is certainly of that quality. Despite its close proximity to Muirfield and Gullane, it doesn’t seem out of place, and is a fine complement to them. Opened in 2004, DJ Russell created a truly excellent course.
The first half of the course is dominated by holes that are routed through imposing pine trees, offering a more secluded setting to an opening nine that retains the firm and fast fairways that are expected from any course near the seaside. That sense of privacy is contrasted with the final six holes on the course, which break out into a more open landscape thus giving this closing stretch of the course a more traditional-links feel.
A warm and very professional welcome can always be expected at Archerfield. They treat you like a millionaire for the day; which is nice for those of us without bulging bank balances.
The historic settlement of Dunbar is found on the easternmost segment of the Lothians. Just 30 miles north of the border with England, the town has been the site for a number of military conflicts between the two nations. Fortunately, those bloody days are long past and it has become a very enjoyable place to visit, with its excellent golf course deservedly attracting visitors from across the globe.
Established in 1856, the links at Dunbar is routed through a narrow stretch of land, with Old Tom Morris having had a significant hand in the design of the course that we see today. Many of the holes on the back nine run alongside the coast, offering views across the cavernous North Sea and the striking Bass Rock.
The course captures the imagination from the 4th through to the 17th, with the holes somehow being squeezed into a tiny acreage that ensures a view of the water throughout. Consequently, the difficulty of the course can betray its relatively modest yardage on a breezy day as it has very little respite from the elements.
It may not quite have the bucket list or storied name of many of the nearby courses, but it is certainly a layout to match them.
The second course at Gullane is shorter in length and comparatively easier than Gullane 1, but it is favored by many visitors who believe it to be of an equal standard. Initially designed by Willie Park, Gullane 2 hosted final qualifying ahead of the 1980 Open Championship at Muirfield, and has been the venue for a number of events in recent years.
The course begins in a very similar way to its numerically superior neighbor, with the first seven holes running up Gullane Hill. There is a welcome sense of variety to this opening stretch, with the 4th being the standout hole, and a green that is potentially the toughest on the course. Measuring 454 yards from the back tee, it requires two epic hits to reach the green in two. Hit it short and you’ll be in one of five bunkers that protect the putting surface.
Once you get onto the back nine, the excellent par 3, 11th offers a stunning view of Aberlady Bay before the remodeled 12th then takes you alongside a nature reserve. The par 5, 16th is another hole of note, with bunkers presenting an obstacle on both the drive and second shots. Strategy and execution are a necessity on the truly excellent Gullane 2.
- Kilspindie Golf Course
In terms of a classic, traditional and historic links, there may not be any more charming in East Lothian than Kilspindie. Though short in yardage, its tight fairways and small greens ensure a challenging, yet playable, round for all standards of players. Ultimately, golf should be fun, and there aren’t many courses that are more enjoyable than Kilspindie.
Uniquely, the course opens with a par 3 of 167 yards. Reminiscent of Royal Lytham and St Annes, it is a gentle start to the round before the next three holes guide you directly along the coastline. They are all spectacular, with the 4th a particular highlight of the front nine. Appropriately named ‘The Target’, it requires a precise tee shot and approach, with the Firth of Forth looking on ominously from the right-hand side.
The front nine continues to impress with the par 3, 8th, another tough, but wonderfully scenic, hole that plays over a small bay towards the green. Be aware that tee shots can be influenced by strong winds that emanate from the sea. Kilspindie unquestionably possesses one of the most aesthetically pleasing nines in the region.
The back nine is not without merit though. There are some excellent holes to be played in the second half, with two short par 4s to finish that offer tantalizing birdie opportunities. A fitting conclusion to a thrilling and characterful course that fully merits being on a top ten list for the Lothians.
- Longniddry Golf Course
This truly wonderful course could be considered something of a hidden gem, with most visitors passing it by en route to the likes of Gullane, Muirfield and North Berwick. However, it is better than that. An intriguing mix of parkland and natural links, Longniddry has been touched by many of the great designers. Initially laid out by Harry Colt, alterations have been made by James Braid, Philip Mackenzie Ross and Donald Steel.
In 2015, Golf World rated Longniddry as the 59th best course in Scotland. It is easy to see why it is held in such elevated regard, as it is an immensely enjoyable experience. Modest in length from the tee, with reasonably wide fairways and large greens, the 18 holes are certainly playable for most, but there is just enough danger lurking to keep the best players on their toes.
The 5th hole may be the most exciting on the course. A short par 4 of only 319 yards in length, the fairway doglegs to the left with a drawing drive required for anyone attempting to get close to the green. The surface itself has two levels, which ensures some challenging putts and approaches.
Well bunkered and varied, Longniddry is certainly one of Scotland’s most unappreciated courses.
- Luffness New Golf Course
Luffness New is a thoroughly satisfying example of old-fashioned links golf. Not flashy or spectacular, but restrained and unassuming. Established in 1894, with the great Old Tom Morris laying out the course, the holes share the same exquisite and crisp turf that you would experience at nearby Gullane and Muirfield. It is underrated and overlooked, but would quench the thirst of any seaside-golf lover.
The course is – for the most part – flat in stature, with none of the undulations and hills that you would find on the likes of Gullane meaning that it is a pleasant and relaxing course to walk. Though short in yardage, it can be punishing in summer to those wayward off the tee, with thick rough and cleverly-positioned bunkers poised to devour any ball that has dared to stray off the requisite fairways.
Luffness New is traditional both as a course and as a golf club. Though that second characteristic may not be exactly to the liking of some, the classic nature of the holes ensure for an enjoyable round of golf.
The city of Edinburgh is one of the most historic and beautiful in Europe. Its iconic castle dominates the skyline, overlooking the old and well-trodden streets that all have unique stories to tell. Mortonhall is the oldest course in the city, and remains arguably the best. It is not a course that many from outside Scotland will have heard of, but it is challenging, classy and beautiful, and very much reflects the city in which it is situated.
The Mortonhall estate is impressive, with the course having been laid out in its early years by Willie Park, J.H. Taylor and James Braid. Renowned for being in perennially excellent condition, Mortonhall features wide fairways that are framed by large trees of various kinds. Raised tees on a number of the holes offer stunning panoramic views of the course and surrounding area.
There are some excellent holes, with the 2nd hole perhaps being the very best on the course. From an elevated tee, which reduces the impact of the hole’s full 460 yards, a pond, numerous bunkers and ominous trees have to be overcome to offer an approach to the green. Many of the surfaces at Mortonhall are large and, like the rest of the course, well kept. It is an elegant experience in Scotland’s capital city.
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