We’re in Blighty to celebrate the Top 10 UK Golf Courses, which will showcase some names you know and some of the world’s most esteemed golfing. The UK is, after all, the birthplace of the fair game, so we’re expecting some spectacular things! So, pack your golf bag and let’s tee off.
10. Royal Birkdale
Coming in at number 10, we’re visiting Royal Birkdale. Nestled on the golden-links of the North-West, close to Southport, Royal Birkdale takes the pride of place on what has been called England’s ‘Golf Coast’. It has also been heralded as the ‘finest of all courses in England’ and ranked amongst the top 35 in the world.
2017 is a special year for Royal Birkdale, as it will once again play home to The Open Championship; something that the course is an expert at doing. This is the 10th time The Open has come to this exceptional course; in fact, Royal Birkdale has actually held more Championship and International events since World War 2 than any other course in the world! Quite an achievement!
The course has a long history that dates back to 1889, when it was simply referred to as ‘The Birkdale’; the ‘Royal’ was added in 1951, after King George VI bestowed the royal charter on this beloved English gem. Over the years, the course has been remodelled and updated, but has, thankfully, never lost its quintessentially English charm.
But Royal Birkdale is not like walk through a rose garden. Quite the opposite- the course is an incredibly tough test, where the elements will make or break your game. The rough Irish Sea kicks up some tempestuous winds, that will send your shot flying off of course. The undulating landscape is pock-marked with deep bunkers, sandy dunes and raised tees and greens, so you need to really up your game.
There are some wonderful holes at Royal Birkdale, but the 18th is worth a mention, purely because it has been given the moniker of ‘monstrous’! It’s a heavily bunkered par 4, measuring 476 yards, which has seen some drama over the years. For me, this hole epitomises the course: rugged, beautiful but a no-go area for the inexperienced golfer.
If you do feel up to the challenge, you will be assured a warm welcome a unique experience, so Royal Birkdale is a course I urge you to add to your ‘Golf Bucket List’.
9. Sunningdale (old course)
We’re staying in England for the next course, but moving south to beautiful Berkshire. Located in the affluent Home Counties, the Old Course at Sunningdale is possibly one of the most aesthetically pleasing inland courses to feature on any of our lists. It is also a magnificent place to play golf!
Established in 1901 by Willie Park Junior, the pine, oak and beech-lined course (all planted to create a sense of seclusion, intimacy and natural splendour) has been the venue for many amateur and professional golfing events. These include the News of the World Professional Match Play Championship, numerous European Open Championships, many Ladies Open Championships, the Walker Cup, International Final Qualification for the Open Championship, and most recently the Senior Open Championship in 2015.
In terms of play, this magnificent heathland course almost lulls you into a false sense of security at first. The initial hole is relatively gentle, but you’re in for a rude awakening by the time you reach the 2nd tee! As you make your way around the 18 holes, you will encounter some superb, sprawling putting surfaces, but be warned, they do tend to be extremely fast. The variety of the course is what really makes it stand out, but I’d also argue that the tranquillity, history and almost ‘homely’ qualities that this course exudes is what makes it one of those courses that simply has it all.
8. Carnoustie (Championship Course)
We’re saying ‘good bye’ to England now and venturing north to the true home of golf: bonny Scotland. The Championship Course at Carnoustie sits in Angus on the East coast of Scotland and is infamous- not for its beauty, but for being the ‘toughest course in the world’! It’s a course that has made grown men cry, and brought professionals to their knees. I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you that this is not one for the faint of heart!
Carnoustie’s heritage dates back nearly 500 years! That’s not a typo- the first record of golf being played on the surrounding links land was documented in 1527. Things have progressed since then, but the history still remains. The course, as it is today, remains relatively unchanged since 1926, when James Braid extended the original 18-holes designed by ‘Old’ Tom Morris in 1857. But don’t let its age foal you into thinking that it’s not a modern setting for golf.
Carnoustie is set to hold the 2018 Open Championships and has been a significant player in global tournaments for nearly 100 years. But, remember, I said this course was tough; it has broken the likes of Tiger Woods, so when it comes to hosting competitions, even the most sure-fire winners could face defeat on Carnoustie’s treacherous turns and cavernous bunkers.
So why is it known as the ‘toughest course in the world’? Well, there’s several reasons: firstly, finding the damned thing is a challenge that requires determination, perspiration and true grit! There’s no signposts and you’ll have to navigate narrow railway tunnels and winding housing estates before you’re even permitted to step foot onto the first tee!
In all seriousness, the course has been designed to trip you up. You’ve got ‘Hogan’s Alley’, named after Benn Hogan who won The Championship in 1953, which presents you with two fearsome bunkers slap bang in the middle of the fairway; ‘Lucky Slap’, the 15th hole with a 460 yard par 4, which features a perilously slopping fairway; and ‘The Island’, so called because the previous 16th hole (called ‘Barry Burn’) snakes in front of the tee and loops back around it, cutting across the fairway. You’ve also got the wind from the North Sea to contend with, which is a brutal test of strength at the best of times!
But I don’t want any of that to deter you. It is a formidable course that you really have to see to believe. It’s not pretty, but it’s exciting, memorable and a must-do.
7. Royal St George's
Next, we’re hoping back over the border and visiting Kent, to the most English-sounding course possible: ‘Royal St. George’s’. Ironically though, this world-class course was conceived by a Scotsman called Dr. William Laidlaw Purves in 1885, so retains a certain ‘Celtic’ essence. It was the first English club to host the Open Championship outside of Scotland and is now widely thought to be the best course in England.
Royal St. George’s (also know as ‘Sandwich’, as that is the name of the town where it’s based) has tangible charm and seems to ooze a quirky sort of class: in 1902, it’s club captain was King Edward VIII and James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, was a member and fanatic of the course, so much so he alluded to ‘Sandwich’ in ‘Goldfinger’. These glimmers of its history, for me, set the tone of what this course is all about.
Despite the impression I may have created, Royal St. George’s is not traditional in a golfing sense. It is quite similar to Muirfield, in that the front and back nines are loosely circular and form a figure of eight. It’s also a completely natural course that embraces the wild flowers and surrounding dunes and makes them part of the course and the whole experience. You can also marvel at the White Cliffs of Dover and Pegwell Bay during your round, so it really is a visual and sensory experience.
That being said, it’s also a tough test of your golfing prowess! Each hole is different and incredibly memorable, so you’ve got to be continuously adapting your game and changing your tactic. You also need to be mindful of invisible hazards, severely undulating fairways and the ‘Suez Canal’ (the 14th), where, according to Bernard Darwin, ‘many a second shot has found a watery grave’!
The 4th hole is especially interesting, as it features the UK’s deepest and tallest bunker. If you can conquer the 470-yard par 4 that homes this bunker, then you can enjoy the tranquillity of the fairway beyond, which is known as the ‘Elysian Fields’.
The pedigree of St. George’s speaks for itself and makes it a firm entry on our list of the Top 10 UK Golf Courses.
6. Trump Turnberry (Ailsa)The next course on the list takes us back to Scotland and to a rather controversial entry, given the current political climate. The Championship Ailsa Course at Turnberry is now owned by US President, Donald Trump, but don’t let that cloud your judgement of this wonderful example of Willie Fernie’s work. Designed in 1902, the Ailsa Course was initially commissioned by the Marquess of Ailsa and offers stunning views of the Mull of Kintyre, the Isle of Arran and the small, granite island of Ailsa Craig. The rugged headland location offers players a breath-taking look at the scenic beauty of Scotland’s east-coast, as well as some unforgettable golf. It also boasts an important sense of history, as it was used as an airbase during both World Wars. Sadly, during this time it nearly fell into extinction, but thankfully, it was redesigned by Philip Mackenzie Ross between 1949 and 1951. In its modern history, the Ailsa Course has staged The Open Championship on four occasions (1977, 1986, 1994, and 2009). It has also hosted many other important golf tournaments, including the Women's British Open in 2002, the Walker Cup in 1963, the Amateur Championship in 1961, 1983, 1996, and 2008, and the Senior Open Championship on seven occasions, 1987–90, 2003, 2006, and 2012. In terms of play, the Ailsa Course has recently undergone some radical transformations. This has meant that play has become more pleasurable than challenging, as long as the wind doesn’t catch you out! There’s a fast pace of play on this course, and there are some exceptional caddies at your deposal. The highlight has got to be the back tee on the 9th hole. You will find yourself almost hanging off a cliff edge, with the iconic white lighthouse (which is actually the half-way house) looming in the distance. The jagged rocks below and clear views of the nearby islands make this one of, if not the most, striking and memorable tees in the world. For me, you would play the Ailsa Course to purely marvel at the gorgeous surroundings rather than to take on a tough challenge, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t deserve to be called one of the best courses in the UK.
5. Royal Portrush (Dunluce)
A change from the Scottish and English courses now, as we move over to the Emerald Isle and visit the Dunlace Course at Antrim’s Royal Portrush. In my mind, the Irish are the masters of links courses, and Dunlace does not disappoint. In fact, it was ranked fourth by ‘Golf World’ in their list of ‘The 100 greatest courses in the British Isles’ in November 1996.
Originally built in 1888, and later redesigned by Harry Shapland Colt in 1947, this extraordinary course offers idyllic views over the Antrim coast, whilst snaking its way up and down some enormous sand dunes. It had the honour of hosting the first Open Championship to be held in Ireland in 1951 and will play host again in July 2019.
Hills and valleys are somewhat of theme on the Dunlace Course, so offers golfers the opportunity to practice some solid driving skills. It may be scenic, but it’s a tough nut to crack. The roughs, scattered with heather and briar, are almost punitive in nature and the natural hazards that await you make up for the lack of bunkers.
With the Open Championship only 2 years away, modifications and improvements are in full swing on the course, but, frankly, it doesn’t need them! Royal Portrush is an exemplary links course is one of Harry Colt’s finest hours. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece that demands skill, strategy and will challenge the mindset of the most well versed golfer.
Now for one of the most famous names on our list: Muirfield. The club, which dates back 1744, is the world’s oldest golf club and, unsurprisingly, it’s in Scotland. On any golfing list you’ll read, Muirfield always features in the upper echelons, and it’s obvious why: not only is it a masterpiece in terms of design, it’s where the original rules of golf were born.
Muirfield is officially a links golf course, but it’s highly unusual for this genre. As we’ve already touched upon, the layout forms a figure of eight, with the outward nine holes running clockwise round the edge and the inward running in the opposite direction. That feature was not just for folly: it was built so that the brutal and chilling winds from the North Sea hit you in every direction, so that nature is your biggest opponent.
There are some huge golfing names associated with this course. Muirfield has, after all, hosted The Open Championship sixteen times, most recently in 2013 when Phil Mickelson lifted the trophy. Other past winners at Muirfield include Ernie Els, Nick Faldo (twice), Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Henry Cotton, Alf Perry, Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon and Harold Hilton. It is also the home of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
Playing at Muirfield is hard but fair and some say it has the best opening and closing holes of any course in the world. It is also quite exclusive, offering only 2 visitor days per year, which understandably get booked up very quickly! There are almost too many features to mention, but the most notable are the complex greens funnels of dunes, an ancient stone wall and the stunning backdrop. All of these factors, the history and the prestige of Muirfield, make it one of the most charismatic courses you will find.
3. Royal Dornoch (Championship)
Staying in Scotland, we’re moving further north to the majestic Highlands. Characterised by deep, verdant forests, mysterious lochs and misty-topped mountains, a visit to the Highlands is well worth it, even if you’re not a golfer! But if you are, the Highlands is also home to Old Tom Morris’ 1886 course: the formidable Royal Dornoch Championship Course, which you simply must visit.
Describing the location Royal Dornoch will sound like a snippet from a holiday brochure, and I don’t apologise for that. The curving bay of the Dornoch Firth and its magnificent white broad beaches are the perfect accompaniment for golf. The hills and ridges of the landscape merge with the course, to create difficult dunes and unforgiving undulating fairways.
When researching this course, I was shocked to learn that Royal Dornoch has never played host to the Open Championship. However, this is not because of the quality of golf on offer, but rather due to the sheer inaccessibility. Personally, I think this actually adds to its charm- it feels like a privilege to be invited in to play on such an exclusive, but closely guarded secret.
Royal Dornoch is definitely not a deceptive golf course, as there are limited blind shots and few hidden bunkers to contend with. In fact, nearly all of the hazards are in clear view. That’s a bit of a poison chalice though, as it means you know what’s coming, so can worry about the problems in advance! The course is also an ‘S’ shape, which, like Muirfield, allows the winds to interfere with your shot, wherever you are!
Royal Dornoch Championship Course is a tough test of golf, where you are constantly having to plan ahead and attempt to execute a solid strategy. But that’s why it appeals. It’s not an impossible course, but equally requires a fair amount of skill. It’s also worth the trip up to the Highlands, as the area is bursting with other excellent courses.
2. St Andrews (Old)
And now for the one you’ve been waiting for, but it’s not number one on our list! St. Andrews Old Course is, without question, the most iconic golf course in the world. It’s almost the oldest too, although the technicalities surrounding this statement are often debated.
Back in 1457 golf was becoming increasingly popular in Scotland. King James II saw this trend taking hold and decided to ban the sport, as he felt that young men were spending too much time swinging a club rather than honing their archery skills (I’m sure a few ‘golf widows’ may agree with his stance!) Thankfully the ban was lifted in 1502, when King James IV became a golfer himself. In 1552, this finally led to the Archbishop John Hamilton giving the people of St. Andrews the right to play on the links.
Throughout its history, St. Andrews has been pivotal in the development of the game, for example, it was the first course with 18 holes, which has now become the worldwide standard. The Old Course is also the home of The Open Championship, the oldest of golf's major championships. The competition is now played at St. Andrews Old Course every 5 years.
But enough of the history lesson, what about the golf?
The ‘Swilcan Bridge’ is probably the most iconic feature. The bridge, spanning the first and 18th holes, has become globally recognised. Everyone who plays the 18th hole walks over this 700-year-old bridge, and many famous pictures of the farewells of golfers in history have been taken here. The ‘Hell Bunker’ is another feature to mention, mainly because it’s 10 foot deep!
The other unique highlights are the large double greens, some of which are shared by two holes- a fact that always amuses is me is that the numbers of the holes that share a green must always add up to ‘18’ (e.g. holes 2 and 16 share a green, as do the 10th and 8th).
You’ll also be faced with ‘trick shots’, such as taking aim over replica railway sheds on the back tees and negotiating your way around hazards such as a tarmac roadway and an old stone wall. However, I think that the greatest feature of the Old Course is that despite its grand status it remains a public golf course, open to all. In fact, it even goes as far as closing on Sundays, to let the course rest, and allowing the townspeople to use the course as a park to enjoy picnics and leisurely strolls.
St. Andrews Old Course has got bags of character, and frankly speaks for itself. Jack Nicklaus summed it up best when he said "I'm very sentimental and the place gets to me every time I go there. St Andrews was always where I wanted to finish my major career."
1. Royal County Down (Championship)
We’ve made it, we’re at number one on our list of Top Ten UK Golf Courses. And, we’re heading back to Ireland! I know, I hear you saying, “what, we’re leaving the home of golf!” But trust me, we have saved the best for last.
Heralded as the ‘finest links course in the world’, Royal County Down, is a deserved winner. Set amid the beautiful setting of the Murlough Nature Reserve, pressed against the magnificent backdrop of the Mountains of Mourne, this extra special links course stretches along the shores of Dundrum Bay, and offers players astounding views at every zig-zagged turn.
Originally founded Old Tom Morris, and opened in 1889, the course has undergone several updates, however, many of the original holes still remain intact on the new Championship Course. Royal County Down has made outstanding contributions to Irish golf, even from its early days. It’s played hosting many important tournaments, starting soon after it opened, and continuing to the present day.
The fairways here are like ribbons, threading their way through impressive sand dunes, gilded by golden gorse and regal, purple heather. The ‘bearded’ bunkers are world famous and feature overhanging lips of marram, and red fescue. That may all sound a little theatrical, but that is the intention. The exquisite surroundings are a façade; what lies beneath is a punishing course that holds no prisoners.
The greens are lightning fast and domed, meaning that you have to be completely sure in your shot to succeed. Golfers of all abilities are put through the wringer in the Royal County Down’s Championship Course, but that’s what makes it number 1! Even Rory McIlroy agrees, stating that Royal County Down is his favourite golf course in the world!
I hope that you’ve enjoyed our jaunt around the UKs finest courses and that a few of my favourites have piqued your interest.