Some tips for playing Scotland's Golf Coast on a budget

North Berwick is one of the very best courses in the world, and loves welcoming visitors!

North Berwick is one of the very best courses in the world, and loves welcoming visitors!

I consider myself incredibly lucky to live where I do. Gullane in East Lothian is a wonderful village. Just over half an hour from Edinburgh, and all the Scottish capital brings, but rural - with wonderful beaches and a caring community.

East Lothian can lay claim to being one of the golfing Meccas of the world. Within 10 miles of Gullane there are 12 golf courses, any of which would grace a golf trip itinerary. Muirfield and North Berwick are both in the top 40 of my Ultimate Top 100 courses in the world and there are 9 East Lothian courses in the top 50 in Scotland.

The climate here is good (albeit it by Scottish standards!). It is the sunniest area of Scotland and the driest too. The greens are usually in tremendous condition all year round and the sandy soil and drainage means that even the heaviest rain rarely affects things for more than an hour or two.

This is a part of the world where golf plays a fundamental part in the community. The pub names give it away - The Old Clubhouse in Gullane and the Golfer’s Rest in North Berwick. You will see people walking down the streets of both those places with golf clubs on their backs every day of the year and no-one ever blinks an eye at you leaving your clubs in a corner of a restaurant while you have a meal. If you want to try something different, Gullane even has a shop that hires hickory clubs.

At Gullane Primary School the 4 houses that compete for the annual shield are named after local courses - Kilspindie, Luffness, Muirfield and Craigielaw - and the school's summer fair has a variety of golf related games to raise school funds. It’s just that kind of place.

The great thing about golf here is that it is pretty much accessible to all. However, such is the popularity of the area that in the peak summer months green fees can be high and accommodation prices go up to.

If money is no object then have a look at how to do East Lothian in style here. However, if you are looking for something more affordable, then, with some careful planning, you can enjoy this amazing golf location for a very reasonable price. Here are my top tips, and a draft itinerary, for doing East Lothian on a budget:

Pick your month with care
When planning a trip to East Lothian there are several factors to take into account, but weather will be high up on the list, as will green fees. Here are some stats to help you plan.

Rainfall in North Berwick and golf green fee

You can see here that the winter months may be dry and cheap but the sunshine hours are really restricted. The only months I would definitely avoid are November - February as they are cold and there's not much daylight. You can have days here where the streetlights don’t go off all day! Another thing to consider is that, even though the greens are great all year round, in November - February you will be playing off a mat.

Conversely, the hours of daylight in the summer are amazing - you could comfortably play four rounds in a day if you were so inclined.

However, July and August can often be wetter months - we’ve had some stunningly wet Augusts of late - and the green fees are higher. Above I have used the weekday green fees at North Berwick as a guide, and you can see that from April to October you are paying full whack.

If you are looking for a combination of a good value green fee with the best chance of good weather you could do a lot worse than look at March. It’s the driest month of the year, the days are getting longer and the green fees are still good. You should bring your thermal underwear though as the average high temperature is only 9 degrees C, but on a calm day with the sun out, fear not, it will feel much warmer. I would recommend trying for the end of the month as the clocks will have changed by then so there's will be more light in the evenings and less chance of a frosty start.

Stay local
I regularly hear from visiting golf parties at kicking out time in the Old Clubhouse on a Friday night is that they regret their decision to base themselves in Edinburgh.

It may be only half an hour away but I would recommend staying locally and, if you want to sample a night out in town, to get a taxi in to Edinburgh rather than trying to do it the other way. There are plenty of good pubs and restaurants around here to keep you entertained and it saves on a trip at the beginning and end of every day.

I would recommend staying in either Gullane or North Berwick. There are pros and cons to both. Gullane has more golf courses but is smaller, and quieter. North Berwick has more pubs and restaurants and feels more of a proper town.

There is a good smattering of hotels and bed and breakfasts around but you are likely to find Airbnb the cheapest option and lots of places have sprung up over the last couple of years.

There are plenty of options around for food and drink as well and I've called a few out in the itinerary below. 

The Old Clubhouse is within 100 yards of Gullane Golf Club and a great spot for a post (or pre) match drink.

The Old Clubhouse is within 100 yards of Gullane Golf Club and a great spot for a post (or pre) match drink.

Don’t play one and go
I saw the redoubtable American golf writer Alan Shipnuck on the driving range one morning at Muirfield. He had arrived at Glasgow airport fresh off a transatlantic flight the previous day and driven straight to the first tee at North Berwick. After a night in Greywalls he was playing at Muirfield in the group ahead of us before doing the 2 1/2 drive to St Andrews for an afternoon tee time at the Old Course.

He wrote about it in this fantastic article thus:

Back at Greywalls, waiting for sandwiches we would eat in the car, a gent asked, “Where are you playing next?”
“Old Course.”
“Lovely! I hope the weather is good tomorrow.”
“Actually, we’re playing it today.”
“That doesn’t seem possible.”
Variations of this conversation would be common throughout the trip, and it always left us feeling self-satisfied with the ambition of our itinerary.

This is a feature of many Americans trips to Scotland. Their vacation days are so precious (the average American only gets 16 days holiday a year) that they try and squeeze every Open course in to a trip.

My advice would be not to even try. You will miss out on so much by ‘Open-bagging’ and not staying in one place for a few nights. There is so much great golf around East Lothian that it would be criminal to play only one and move on.

Chat to the locals
Hopefully you’ve got the idea now that this is a place where golf is central to many people’s lives, and certainly it’s a knowledgeable crowd. People will generally be only to happy to hear about your trip, your views of the courses and generally to engage. Even if you’re English, you should be fine!

So, with all that in mind, I have suggested an itinerary for a short trip that comes in at under £300 for four rounds in March, including golf and accommodation. I’ll do an update of my ‘East Lothian in luxury’ guide in the near future but I think this one should be accessible to most!

Day 1
Arrive in Edinburgh and travel to East Lothian and play at Dunbar Golf Course. Dunbar is about 45 minutes east of Edinburgh - it's worth hiring a car to get you around and in March won't cost you much at all. There's been golf played at Dunbar for 400 years but the course you play on today is a James Braid layout from the 1920s. After the first couple of fairly average holes the course becomes classic links. It's not long, but you'll have great fun. There's been a new greenkeeper in town for the last couple of years who is getting rave reviews.

After the round, drive 20 minutes to North Berwick for the night. There are AirBnB options at this time of year for around £100 which will sleep 4 easily. Have a drink at the Auld Hoose or The Golfer's Rest and a bite to eat at Herringbone or The Grange and you won't go wrong. 

Day 2
Drive 10 minutes to Gullane and tee it up at Gullane 1 in the morning. Gullane 1 is the course that you will largely see used for the Scottish Open. 16 of the holes are used for the tournament with a couple from Gullane 2. The course is a wonderful Scottish Links which starts in the village before going over Gullane Hill to the Firth of Forth and then returns back to the village. The course is the toughest of the three Gullane courses but it won't beat you up and is great fun to play. The rough can be fairly brutal in the summer, but in March you will be fine and the greens are amazing all year round.

The 2nd at Gullane Number 1 plays as the opener on the Scottish Open course

The 2nd at Gullane Number 1 plays as the opener on the Scottish Open course

I would recommend trying to get off at number 1 as early as you can and then having lunch in the clubhouse before going out again in the afternoon on Gullane 3. This may be the shortest of the 3 Gullane courses but you will have great fun. It's a par 65 with only one par 5 but the par 3s and 4s all vary nicely in length and the greens are just as good here as on number 1.

If you do want to venture away from the Gullane properties then Kilspindie is just a 5 minute drive away in Aberlady and is another real gem of a course by all accounts. I have my first game there in a couple of weeks so will add a link to a review then.

For dinner I would heartily recommend eating just across the road from the golf club at the Main Course - a very friendly Italian restaurant and maybe having a pint in the Old Clubhouse (better for a drink than food in my experience).

Day 3
Playing the West Links at North Berwick in March may be one of the best value golf experiences you can find. The golf course is one of my very favourites in the world. Its world ranking has been consistently rising and it's now up to 38. I have it higher than that. I just love this golf course. It's everything you could want in a golf course - fair, playable, breathtakingly beautiful, characterful and quirky. No-one would ever build a course like it again but thank goodness this golf course has emerged over the last 400 years. It's one you will never forget. 

So there we are, you have played 4 great golf courses in 3 days for under £250 in green fees (Dunbar £50, Gullane 1 £75, Gullane 3 £29. North Berwick £85).

The only 'must play' course you've missed in this trip is Muirfield, but the green fees there would break this budget at any time of year. Take this trip though and it will leave you with memories for life, and probably saving up to add Muirfield the next time you come!