You can drive from top to bottom in forty five minutes but to do those would do an injustice to the quality of golf you would be bypassing. Take your time and savour a golfing journey fit for any connoisseur.
Irvine Bogside Golf Club represents the beginning of the West Coast Golf Links and it certainly deserves to be amongst them and is a delight in every way, most especially on the greens.
Built between the town, an old racecourse and the banks of the River Irvine, Bogside’s situation may lack the setting of some of the courses to follow but on arriving on the narrow road to the clubhouse you cannot fail to be captivated by the golfing terrain that lies ahead of you. Always immaculately manicured, the fairways and greens roll over heavy contours and high dunes dissected by copious amounts of traditional gorse and even more heather. Likened by some to Prestwick for its quirky individuality and blind approach shots, if Irvine is where you start your tour you will not be disappointed.
A couple of miles to the south of Irvine are the two Gailes courses of Western and Glasgow, both of which have been well known to the golfing visitor for many years. These two traditional links have been joined, and complemented, by the new Dundonald Links which geographically slots perfectly into the parcel of land left vacant between Western, Glasgow and Barassie.
Glasgow Gailes course designer, former Open Championship winner, Willie Park always believed this links to be one of his best creations. The classic layout is tough, fair and traditionally Scottish, wild heather and gorse define the fairways and the greens are guarded by strategically placed bunkers. Sandy Lyle, former Open and Masters Champion describes the course as “one of the world’s truly great tests of links golf’ and it has been selected by the R&A as a final qualifying venue for The Open Championship every time it has been at Royal Troon and Turnberry. At 6903 yards long from the back tees, Gailes is a great test of golf whilst the kinder forward tees provide a fine test for players of all abilities.
Just across the railway track and closer to the sea, the reputation of Western Gailes has become stronger and stronger over recent years, attracting visitors from all parts of the world and featuring as a must-play on many Scottish itineraries. This is nothing new; in June 1903 the great Harry Vardon arrived at Western celebrating his fourth Open victory to win the first professional championship held and promoted by the Club, whilst in 1923 its attractions were being lauded by the then US Open Champion Gene Sarazen who played the course.
Western Gailes’ setting is imposing being situated between the railway and the sea, both being very much in play as major features. The course is never less than an excellent test of true links golf with the almost central clubhouse situated between the seven holes to the north and eleven to the south.
Sitting across the railway line is Dundonald Links which since its opening has fast become one of the most impressive new links courses in Scotland. Designed by Kyle Phillips, the structure and shape of the course easily matches his better known design at Kingsbarns and the layout offers a great challenge from whichever set of tees it’s played off.
It has perhaps as fine collection of Par Threes holes that you are likely to encounter and a feeling of historic links golf that belies its youth and its quality.
Kilmarnock Barassie Golf Club nestles up to the south side of Dundonald Links and is flanked on the west by Western Gailes. From above it is one glorious piece of golfing estate. Barassie is on the north side of Troon and has been extended in recent years in order to maintain its role as an Open qualifying venue. The new nine hole section has been added to form the longer Barassie Links which from the back tees measures in at 7109yards. There are now 27 holes to play over, with the ideal scenario being 18 in the morning and a more gently nine holes in the afternoon. The course has hosted a number of important events in its time, remains an Open Qualifying Course, but importantly remains wonderfully playable for the visitor to Ayrshire.
Moving along the beach road through the centre of Troon you will be struck by the views out to the Firth of Clyde towards Arran and may even witness one of the fast ferries entering the town’s harbour from Northern Ireland. It remains a vibrant community steeped in the history and business of golf, with its links courses – all six of them - infilled by the odd street here and there.
One would almost presume that Troon had held its Royal status for an age but the club remains the youngest of the Royals with the title only bestowed in the club’s centenary year, 1978. Similarly Royal Troon is a “relative” newcomer to the Open Championship rota with the first Open played here in 1923, two years before Prestwick’s last. Open winners at Troon include Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Tom Weiskopf and Nick Price and it truly is a pilgrimage worth making.
It is the 8th or Postage Stamp which is Royal Troon’s most famous hole. From the tee, looking out to sea, it somehow seems a long way to that little green. For visitors it plays at around 120 yards, the shortest hole on the Open circuit which atypically of West Coast Links Golf can call for a pitching wedge or three iron into a prevailing south westerly! A birdie opportunity if fortunate enough to hit and hold the small target or a calamitous ruination of a card for those venturing into any one of the five greenside bunkers. Arnold Palmer scored a seven here in 1973!
The furthest point out at Royal Troon sits alongside the furthest most point of Prestwick, a fact that has resulted in an annual challenge match of nine holes over Troon and another nine over Prestwick with members starting at one clubhouse and finishing at the other!
Although it no longer features on the Open rota, Prestwick is still one of the most unique and challenging courses in the country. The memorable experience starts at the first tee where, if you have a caddy, he may gently suggest that Sir does not need that driver from the tee. Prestwick Railway Station is only a mild slice away to the right.
The massive, and famous, Cardinal Bunker dominates the third hole with the danger compounded by the nearby burn or in striking the oppressive railway sleepers that rise from the sand. The seventeenth remains pretty much unchanged since the 1850s with a blind second shot up and over a high dune into a wonderfully shaped green guarded by the infamous Sahara Bunker. You cannot come off the links at Prestwick not having had fun.
Slightly more hidden away in the town is Prestwick St Nicholas. Located less than a mile along the beach from its more famous neighbour, Prestwick St Nicholas Golf Club no longer hosts Final Qualifying but remains a true delight with some superb views across the Firth of Clyde. The course has some wonderfully quirky challenges with rolling undulating fairways and many gorse bushes that, as at the other courses, lend some splendid colour to early season rounds. The course is not the longest but is a delight to play, offering a serious challenge; it requires straight hitting and has some wonderfully timeless approaches to traditional links greens.
Turnberry is the most recent of Ayrshire’s three Open Championship links to join the rota, with the event first played over The Ailsa Course in 1977 – that famous ‘Duel in the Sun’. The world class resort has undergone a complete transformation with a full refurbishment in time for the 2009 Open Championship and is now truly one of the finest golfing destinations in the world boasting not one but two Championship standard courses.
The venue is a visual treat from the moment of arrival. The hotel on the hill, the wonderful clubhouse facilities, the golf academy and the whole ambience ensure that your experience will be memorable, even if the scorecard is less so.
The Open Championship course, The Ailsa, has been supported for the past decade by the excellent Kintyre Course. The Kintyre included some of the best holes and features of the old Arran layout and is regarded by many visitors as a tougher course to play and, if not straight, the gorse can catch stray drives with impunity. It is itself an Open Championship Qualifying Course and provides a wonderfully appealing addition to its neighbour.
There are anumber of breathtaking holes on the new course, none more so than the devilishly tricky 8th hole with a blind approach shot which plays down to a green sitting almost in the sea!
The Ailsa course, host of its fourth Open Championship event in 2009, is deserving of every accolade given to it, set out on land between the sweeping dunes and the gently rising Ayrshire hills. It is also regarded by many as the most picture perfect and instantly recognisable of the Open venues. Not only does it have the magnificent hotel to look up to, it has its own iconic lighthouse and Ailsa Craig, providing the backdrop.
The 9th hole, Bruce’s Castle, with the famous Turnberry Lighthouse to its left, is probably one of the most photographed golf holes in the world with the tee perilously positioned out into the Firth of Clyde. It is an experience that is hard to replicate or surpass.
And when you finally complete this particular tour of Ayrshire's golfing coast it is hard to imagine, even for the most seasoned of golfing travellers, a finer, more picturesque final green anywhere in the world to hole out at.
Replace the flag, look around and just let it wash over you.
Whether you play one or all, you can be sure you will cherish the experience that is Scotland’s West Coast Golf Links.