Travel Spotlight: How to nail a "bucket list" golf trip to Scotland
The Birthplace of Golf
Golfing in Scotland... A mandatory pilgrimage to the birthplace of the sport for anyone that plays the game. You've seen the iconic images from the Open Championship venues and heard stories from anyone that has made the journey that there is nothing quite like it. And that is true. The very mention of the trip conjures visions of small groups sitting in a cozy pub after a round played in wind and rain drinking aged scotch while laughing over the trials and tribulations of their day.
Scotland is a golfing destination...a mecca if you will, that has to be experienced in person to be properly understood. Executing this trip properly requires some planning and organization, but it is likely easier than you think. Sure, you can sign-up with one of the many professional touring groups and they will shuttle you around the country to and from the ubiquitous "Top 10" lists. It is easy and it is seamless. But it is also can be akin to loading up onto a cruise ship and believing you had any semblance of a cultural experience on your travels. Scotland is at it's best when you are with your friends on an adventure. The following suggestions and examples from a personal trip, which was easily the greatest buddy trip of my life. It was planned and organized well in advance and completely on our own without a travel guide or a booking agency. Not only did we save a chunk of change, we also felt like we had an authentic experience.
A group of 4 or 8 people is ideal for this vacation for a number of reasons ranging from ground transportation to the advanced booking required to lock in tee times. Plus golf is best played in foursomes. Pick the people to you want to spend time with to go with you and ones that really love golf. This is a unique trip in that you spend almost all waking hours and sleeping hours with the people you are traveling with. There will be time in the car, time on the course, time in the hotel, time in the pubs and potentially even time on the airplanes. We had a group of 8 on our adventure and everyone got alone fabulously. It didn't hurt that we are all lifelong friends, avid golfers and all on a celebratory group 40th birthday trip though.
Scotland is much more spread-out than most people realize due to the winding roads and lack of 4 lane highways so it is best to narrow your trip down to 1 or 2 of the main golfing regions. Don't try to play all of the courses on your bucket list on 1 trip. It is nearly impossible and will require a TON of driving. You want to spend your non-golfing time in the pubs and in the towns and not on the road. Scotland has 5 primary golfing regions and it can be more than 5 hours of winding, poorly signed roads between some of them. We probably did a little more driving that we should have and on our next trip (oh yea, 100% we are going back and soon) we will focus on narrowing our circle a bit.
These are the regions from experience that I think are perfectly fine to combine and play on a single trip without getting car sick and/or annoyed at the travel times:
- Ayrshire/West Coast and East Lothian
- <Ayrshire/West Coast and St. Andrews
- East Lothian and St. Andrews
- East Lothian, St. Andrews and Northeast
- Highlands and Northeast
A few of the great tracks in each region (there are obviously so many more too):
- Ayrshire/West Coast - Macrihanish, Turnberry, Western Gailes, Dundonald, Prestwick, Royal Troon
- East Lothian - Muirfield, North Berwick, Gullane No 1 and No 2, St Andrews - St. Andrews Old Course, Carnoustie, Kingsbarns, Crail
- Northeast - Cruden Bay, Royal Aberdeen, Trump
- Highlands - Royal Dornoch, Castle Stuart, Brora, Tain, Nairn <
Now, "Bag Tag Barry" will want to hit up all the big name courses so if he is in your group it is important to explain the importance and pure enjoyment of playing some of the funky hidden gems near the Open Championship venues too. There is a North Berwick for every Muirfield and a Prestwick for every Turnberry out there. Picking a favorite course over there is almost impossible. I had previously assumed that the courses would run together visually since we were only playing links golf courses and that they would look similar.... I could not have been more wrong. I am still astonished at the diversity of these courses. No 2 were even remotely alike.
Most people go to Scotland in the summer when the days are the longest and the weather has the potential to be the nicest. But I think the shoulder season is ideal because you are battling less crowds and you still get enough daylight to play 36 if you want. We went in mid-September and we had mid 50s - mid 60s every day and sun most days. But don't kid yourself, bring good rain gear and plan for pants and layers. Plus, what is a Scotland trip without some gale-force winds and some rain? It is all part of the experience.
Figure out the regions you want to focus on and book the most important golf rounds first. The Old Course at St. Andrews is closed each year in mid-September so we planned our trip around Muirfield and we will get to the Old Course on our next trip. Also, keep in mind if you want to include The Old Course you have to play an additional round on one of their other St. Andrews courses which is mandatory.
Once you have the most important rounds booked you can start to fill in the rest of the schedule. We booked Muirfield first, 15 months prior to our trip, and given how hard it is to get a tee time there, I was not surprised at how few spots were available then (I could write a book on my day at Muirfield given it was one of the best days of my life). After Muirfield was locked-in we booked our rounds in East Lothian and St. Andrews area since we knew we would be hunkering down over there for 4 days. We based out of Edinburgh and booked a loft on Prince Street in the Newtown neighborhood. It gave us less than 1 hour drive to each round of golf on that portion of our trip. The thought was a little nightlife, some good dinners and an urban setting would be a fun stretch of the trip during our downtime. We reserved rounds at Gullane No 1, North Berwick and Kingsbarns to go along with Muirfield. Some were 18 hole days and others were 36 hole days. I had thought we would be beaten down after all of the golf but honestly we could have played more. It is just so much fun playing these courses that you just get into a groove mentally and physically. I'd play all of those courses again, and I'd also hunker down in the town of North Berwick or Gullane for a smaller-village, pub-heavy accommodation option next time. While the nightlife was fun in Edinburgh, let's be honest... 40 year old men are better suited around a fireplace in a pub with an 18-year old scotch and in bed by 9pm.
After dialing in our golf in the East Lothian/St. Andrews area we moved over to the Ayrshire area and reserved tee times at Turnberry, Royal Troon and Prestwick (2 ball morning rounds). In Ayrshire we booked a pretty incredible castle in West Kilbride overlooking the Firth of Forth that was once occupied by William Wallace apparently. This place was spectacular and provided a really unique historical experience. It also was close to all 3 courses we played in that area.
Against all logistical recommendations and suggestions we decided to try to squeeze Royal Dornoch into this vacation because it was on everyone's list of bucket list rounds. It is so far from the rest of our trip and mandated a 5 hour drive but the town and the course are just so good I am glad we did it. But that is the last time we drive 5 hours for 1 course, ha. You can do an entire trip of golf just in the highlands and we will do that in the future for sure because the area is just so beautiful and scenic.
Apparel packing suggestions from the travel guide I put together for our crew that were helpful:
- Apparel - If you can do laundry at houses rent you won’t need to pack too much clothing, or you can send out for laundry service in most central areas as well if you don’t mind the expense and want to pack less.
- 2 pairs of golf shoes (Incase they get wet and also to give your feet a break from day to day).
- 2 rain jackets and 2 rain pants (It gets wet over there and that stuff won’t dry as fast as you think).
- 14-16 pairs of underwear (You will be showering a few times a day most days between golf and dinners).
- Sport Jacket, button down shirt, pants, dress shoes and tie if you are playing at Muirfield or Prestwick on the days they allow guests to play 36 and eat lunch with the members. This is a very special experience if you can get a reservation. Don’t embarrass yourselves. Something tweed or wool for the jacket and a decent pocket square for god sakes. One outfit will work for multiple lunches if you are playing a few of those 36 hole lunch days.
- Causal clothing for pubs travel days etc. If you have long car rides sweatpants are nice for those. Plus 1-2 outfits for dinners out.
- Golf pants - You really won’t be wearing shorts out there unless it is the middle of July and hot. Not all courses allow you to wear shorts so factor that into it. Bring 3 -4 pairs and you rotate them if you can do some laundry.
- Golf shirts
- Golf sweaters or light tops (t can be warm enough for just a shirt but having some sweaters is always nice).
- Base layers (You will be taking layers on and off regularly, weather changes quickly and severely in Scotland on the coast).
- Golf socks/athletic comfy socks (lots and lots of long walks on this trip).
- Winter hats. If it is not raining, it is still windy and it gets chilly (bring 2 to rotate them if need be).
- Golf Hats. They will help with the rain. People also wear bucket hats there as they are great in the rain. Keep the umbrellas in the US. They turn into a rolling spiked tumbleweed in the wind there.
It is not a cheap trip, it should be done for at least 7 days to beat jet lag and it is never easy for anyone to jaunt over to Europe for a buddy vacation trip so make the most of it. Put time into planning the trip, mix up the variety of courses you are playing and enjoy the experience. You only get one go-round in life. If you love the game, there is nothing that can compare.