NORTH BERWICK - 18 POINTS
There are so many great golf courses in East Lothian it's hard to pick a favourite. Muirfield has the history, Gullane has the panoramic views, Archerfield has the service but if there was one course above all I would encourage everyone to play if they ever get the chance it would be North Berwick.
Set in the heart of this delightful coastal town, the West Links at North Berwick is just a great place to play golf. The course is ranked in all of the world's top 100 lists. Indeed, the Planet Golf and Golf Course Architecture lists both have it in their top 20 courses in the world - it's understandable that people fall in love with the course and want to tell the world to play here. I have given it 18 points - there are few courses in Scotland I would want to play before it.
North Berwick is not a long course (6,450 yards from the members tees) and it's not too penal. Stay off the beach and it's likely you won't lose too many balls. But it is tremendous fun. As a visitor the welcome I have always received at North Berwick is as warm as any other course I have played - they are at pains to tell you that you are 'a member for the day' and it really feels like it.
The first hole runs parallel with the Firth of Forth and for most players it is just an iron to the foot of the mound at 200 yards before a short iron to the elevated green which butts onto the beach. Once when I played here a dog came up from the beach, stole my partners' Pro V1 and ran off. You just know that any course that starts with this and ends with a driveable par 4 has to be fun!
The set-up is basically an out and back shape parallel with the water ,with a figure of eight included - it makes sense when you're there! It would be easy to try to describe every hole, they are so memorable, but here are a few highlights.
The second is maybe the site of my most terrifying drive yet. The beach is directly on your right hand side (red stakes) and you actually have to drive over it to find a good line on the fairway. The problem can be that if the tide is up and the beach is full of school kids on an early summer afternoon you actually have to drive over their heads which is an unusual experience.
The 3rd is a tough par 4, usually playing into the wind (like all the front 9 holes) and with a wall positioned 280 yards from the tee. Survive that and you are rewarded with the innocuous sounding 153 yard par 3 4th. Short it may be but into a 3 or 4 club wind and with the pin at the back it can be another matter.
7 is an unusual hole - you approach shot needs to carry a burn and a devilish green awaits. 8 and 9 are back to back par 5s and if the wind isn't blowing too hard they are holes where you may manage to hold your own against the course.
The quality in no way drops when you turn for home at the 10th, often with the prevailing wind behind you. 10 is a lovely par 3 where all is laid out below you and the 14th, 'The Pit', is a hole that no-one who plays it will ever forget. The approach shot to this narrow but long green requires a shot over a three foot high wall which more often than seems to come into play.
Americans seem to go nuts for the 15th. It is the original 'Redan' hole. If that doesn't mean much to you here's a definition http://golf.about.com/od/golfcoursearchitecture/a/redanhole.htm. Basically, it's a long blind par 3 with a green that's pretty difficult to hold. The 16th has the most crazy green you will ever play with two massive summits either side of a deep valley. Any fan of Florida resort course golf must surely shake their head in disbelief when they see it.
And so to 18. It's an easy version of the 18th at the Old Course - 285 yards long, a valley of sin in front of the green and the clubhouse behind. Oh yes, and cars perilously close to the right hand side of the fairway to catch out all of these slicers amongst us. Great fun.
And that's really what North Berwick is all about. If they built it today people would call it gimmicky and ridiculous in parts. But it's not. It's a great course which I would get on a plane to play. The good thing is, I don't have to!
BOOKING THE COURSE
North Berwick has recently changed its visitor opening times and the course is now open for visitors every day bar Saturdays. Monday - Fridays tee times are available from 10-4 and between 12-3 on Sundays. You can get a time by filling in a form on the website and they are always efficient at responding, for what you get it is great value at £120 in the High Season. In the winter months play is off of matts from the end of December to end of February but the greens are in great shape still and it's a steal at £55.
A golf trip to East Lothian has a huge amount to offer. The courses are great, playable all year round and close together. Basing yourself in North Berwick is a good idea as there are a good range of pubs and restaurants in town and it's easy to get to Gullane, Muirfield, Dunbar and others. And make no mistake, this is a real golf town - no-one will blink twice at the site of a group carrying their clubs into a pub while you have a post-game pint.
The Marine Hotel overlooks the 16th hole (and kids course) so is a really great setting. It is quite pricey though if you book directly with the hotel there so hunt around for deals. From there it's a short (10 minutes) walk into town. There are also a plethora of guest houses in the town itself which will probably offer better value for money and Airbnb is up and running. You won't find it hard to get somewhere to buy a drink, there are plenty of pubs, and you'll find a good steak in The Grange, in the centre of town. If you want to go a bit more swanky Italian then Osteria is a good choice. For a little more cheap and cheerful then try Zitto on Quality Street. If you are here in the summer then having a glass of white wine and fresh lobster at The Lobster Shack can't be beaten on a glorious summer's night.
When it comes to courses then Muirfield, North Berwick and Gullane 1 are the very top drawer and but you could happily add Renaissance, Archerfield (not cheap though!) or Gullane 2 or 3, Dunbar, Luffness, The Glen, Criagielaw. The list goes on and on!