Scotland has so much to offer traveling golfers. Maybe too much, in fact. Certainly too much for a single visit. Open rota links golf, undiscovered oceanside gems, lesser known but no less interesting inland courses, more whisky than most of us can consume in a lifetime, majestic castles and country houses, friendly family-owned bed-and-breakfasts, the world’s best sticky toffee pudding and some of the most beautiful countryside you’ll ever ramble across by vehicle or on foot — preferably with a golf bag slung over your shoulder.
It’s an embarrassment of centuries-old bounty that raises a single question: How do I start planning my visit to golf’s homeland? It’s a conundrum we all face — even our Golf Trip Experts team members who have made multiple trips to the United Kingdom. The logistics can be overwhelming. What courses should we play? Should we stick to one region or traverse as much of the country as possible? Are the more budget-busting bucket-list tee times worth the money (and effort) or would a Scotland trip be just as memorable if we return home with stories of quirky courses where history, friendly memberships and local pride speak to the soul of the game? Do old favorites find their way onto new itineraries or do we forge ahead toward the unknown in search of our next favorite course, one that perhaps we never knew existed?
We attempt to answer more than a few of these queries in Episode 133 of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast as co-hosts Mitch Laurance and Darin Bunch welcome David Connor, golf public-relations manager for VisitScotland, now in its 50th year promoting tourism to a country seen as Nirvana to golf purists. In addition to the many professional golf events Scotland hosts each year, 2019 will see the Solheim Cup come to the country for the first time — to be played at Gleneagles in September.
“We are blessed with this great golfing history,” Connor says as the podcast begins with a discussion about why Scotland ranks atop most golfers’ must-visit lists. “We obviously believe we have the best golf courses. And we know there are great golf courses everywhere around the world, but what they don’t have is that authenticity and that history that we have to know that when you come and play golf over here, you’re playing in the footsteps of every great golfer who has ever played the game. And that just sends shivers up and down your spine whenever you tee it up at any of these great historic courses.”
When it comes to maneuvering the challenges of where to go and what do to with limited time on a Scotland golf getaway, the first step is to figure out which parts of the country you want to tackle — Ayrshire in the southwest (Prestwick, Turnberry, Royal Troon); the “islands” including the Kintyre Peninsula (Machrihanish), Islay (Machrie) and Jura; East Lothian west of Edinburgh (North Berwick, Muirfield, Gullane); the Kingdom of Fife (home to the famed St. Andrews courses plus Carnoustie just a bit farther up the road); Aberdeenshire (Cruden Bay, Royal Aberdeen); the Highlands and northwest (Royal Dornoch, Brora); and then there’s Central Scotland with golf in and around the lively metropolitan cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
“It’s one of the great strengths of Scotland … multiple regions of great golf,” Connor says. “And something we try to get across to people when they are coming over here is to not just see it as a once-in-a-lifetime trip. … Rather than rushing the entire length and breadth of the country to play every great golf course that you’ve ever heard of, just concentrate on one or two specific regions.”
“If you want to go spend your entire trip in one region and not spend your entire life on the road, you will find plenty of golf courses to play and plenty of things to go and see and do away from the course as well.”
PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES
You’ll also need to think transportation. Ideally, the best way to travel through Scotland is by coach with a friendly driver and guide (like our friends Colin and David Harris of the Luxury Coach Company and Bonnie Wee Golf). But if you don’t have money for a tour operator in the budget, there are other options. First, you can rent a vehicle and learn to drive on the other side of the road (or the “proper side” as those in the United Kingdom call it). Or you can utilize mass transit as much as possible with trains running through many of Scotland’s golf-rich regions.
“The train lines were the reason golf tourism in Scotland took off,” Connor says, “because if you think, way back when, when these golf courses were popping up all up and down the coast, the only way to get there back in the day was by horse and cart or by walking. And the train line really opened up these courses to so many more people.”
Rail service is available to East Lothian and, perhaps more famously, Gleneagles Resort, where “the train literally stops outside its front door.” And when it comes to Ayrshire, the train line might be the best golf-view transportation known to man, with each stop an easy walk or quick taxi ride to some of Scotland’s most historic and iconic courses.
“I’m not sure there’s a train line anywhere in the world that passes so many golf courses, literally one after the other,” Connor says. “And it’s not even just on one side of the train — it’s on both sides, you feel surrounded. I did that journey a few months ago for the first time ever in my life, and I was blown away by the sheer number of courses that you pass.”
LOOK BEYOND THE BUCKET LIST
When it comes to choosing golf courses for your Scotland itinerary, here are just a few that perhaps get overlooked in favor of the country’s more famous big brethren: Crail and Elie (outside St. Andrews); Dunaverty (Kintyre Peninsula); Cullen and Fraserburgh (north of Aberdeen in the Nairn-Cruden Bay area); Tain and Brora (in the north near Royal Dornoch); Prestwick St. Nicholas and Glasgow Gailes (Ayrshire); and the East Lothian courses Dunbar and Kilspindie (the latter of which Connor says was “the most fun I had on a golf course last year”).
“[Kilspindie] is the perfect golf course, I think, to play either as you’ve just come off the flight and you’re looking for an introduction into what golf in Scotland is all about or if you’re looking for something that isn’t going to beat you up — it’s not a 7,000-yard monster. It’s full of variety, full of great shotmaking holes and has a really friendly membership as well.”
And Kilspindie is just one of many courses waiting to be discovered, Connor says. The list goes on and on as you dig into the country’s 600 golf courses.
“I think that’s one of the things that really does set Scotland apart from, dare I say it, the links of Ireland, which is a wonderful golfing destination with some great courses. But after you kind of scratch the surface of their top-notch courses, there’s maybe not as much strength and depth underneath those. I think Scotland’s real strength is that you scratch the surface underneath the championship courses that we’ve all heard of and you’re left with what are truly world-class golf courses that if they were in any other country in the world, they would be classed as probably some of the best courses in that country.”
BUDDY TRIPS AREN’T JUST FOR BOYS
While so much of the country’s tourism focuses on the plethora of attractions, the VisitScotland team is also working to battle age-old golf-travel stereotypes. The new #HerScotland campaign is aimed at shattering the notion of buddy trips being just for the guys.
“It’s something we’re really proud of and something we’re very passionate about, given that way back in day our country gave birth to this brilliant game,” Connor says. “I suppose it’s still a bit sad that it’s seen as a male-dominated game. Thankfully that certainly seems to be changing, and we’ve seen a number of brilliant initiatives out there to encourage more women to take up golf, which we think is great.”
“But then we felt that we needed to take that a step further. Once they’ve taken up golf and once they feel confident playing and they are playing with friends, we need to encourage them to get out traveling and going on golfing holidays with their friends. There’s no greater holiday than spending seven days with your friends, traveling around a region, playing golf, having a drink, enjoying great food — it just seemed to us a no-brainer. We see groups of guys coming over, why aren’t we seeing the same number of women coming to Scotland?”
To help boost the number of women golf visitors (currently only 12 percent), VisitScotland is helping dispel such myths as the country being a place primarily for highly-skilled golfers and the impact of inclement weather (“Yes we have rain and we have wind, but we also have beautiful sunny skies and beautiful days as well,” Connor says). And, most importantly, they want women travelers to know how much there is to do away from the golf courses.
“Golf in Scotland is for everyone,” he says. “That’s how the game was founded back here — that was the founding principle of golf clubs up and down the country. We just want to get more people in general here playing golf, but certainly more groups of women. And if they want to bring the husbands, that’s absolutely fine.”