Alan McPherson

One man's impossible quest to play every course in Scotland—even the secret ones.
Alan McPherson/ Illustration: Tim Laing
Illustration: Tim Laing

Alan McPherson’s mission sounds simple: Play every golf course in Scotland. But he believes he’s stumbled onto a Sisyphean task. In a country roughly the size of South Carolina, Scottish Golf, the official body for the game, lists a remarkable 587 affiliated clubs within its boundaries. But there are more. McPherson has discovered dozens of unlisted courses on private land and has gone to great lengths to play them. He’s played nearly 670 courses and somehow his list continues to grow.

When did you get the idea to play every course in Scotland?

In 2010, when I was 60. In the public sector over here, you basically retire when you’re 60, and I had a reasonably generous pension agreement. I was previously the head of ferry operations for the transport sector of the Scottish government, which meant for many years I was going round the Scottish islands and I got a look at quite a few golf courses. When I retired I thought, “What the hell are you going to do now?” I took up caddying as a means of keeping fit and in my off time decided to play every course in Scotland.

How did the blog come about?

I began writing a short narrative about each course, mindful of the fact that it’s somebody’s home course. Not every course is one you’d necessarily want to play again, but I always understand that other people play there and it’s something for them to treasure. I’ve seen a number of courses I’d happily never play again, but there are others that don’t look great on paper and then you find that one or two holes are just spectacular. That’s what drives me. You never know what a course is like until you actually satisfy your curiosity and play it.

The reaction to the blog has been fantastic.

Oh yes. I’ve picked up quite a few followers and many have gone to some of those smaller courses as a result. It’s all very well playing the big championship courses, but you don’t need to spend thousands of pounds to find satisfaction and a well-maintained course. 

I live about 5 miles from Muirfield and the green fee there is £230. But you can play North Berwick, which is nearby, for about £100. And The Glen in North Berwick is about £55, so you can play 36 wonderful holes for much less. I think people in America will be familiar with the championship courses like Royal Troon, Turnberry, the Old Course, Royal Aberdeen and Muirfield, but they know much less about the smaller courses, which are much more playable in my view. 

Which of those courses surprised you?

So many. But there’s a little nine-hole course called Asta in the Shetland Isles, which is about as north as you can get in Scotland. Every two weeks, they reverse the playing order of the holes. So you play it clockwise for two weeks and anti-clockwise the next. One of the holes is just 54 yards long: totally blind shot over gorse, almost surrounded by a sea loch. Bear in mind Shetland is very exposed; you could be playing in 30 to 40 mph wind. So what kind of shot have you got to clear the gorse and water and find a green that’s maybe 20 feet long and 30 feet wide? 

That’s the joy. You go a long way to play an unheralded course—which, by the way, I think was £10 for the green fee—and you walk off saying, “Wasn’t that a lovely little golf hole?” There’s probably about 100 members, and they don’t get many visitors a year. The clubhouse is open—you can make yourself a cup of tea and such—and there’s an honesty box. It’s all taken on trust. You pay your fee, collect your scorecard and away you go.

You’ve also found some secret, unlisted courses along the way?

Scottish Golf gives official ratings to 587 courses, but I’ve already played 669 and there’s another 15 or so that I know about. The other courses I’ve found have no listings at all. You only find them by word of mouth, when you’re speaking to a local pro or player and you ask about private courses in the area. I’ve even got to the stage of using Google Earth to see where these places are and then going next door to a local bed-and-breakfast or hotel and asking for the phone number of the person who owns the private course nearby. 

And they let you onto their grounds?

Oh yeah! The common thing we’ve found is that golfers who are rich enough to own their private course are also fascinated by the game and our quest. Some don’t want us to reveal their names and locations to the world, but they’ll let us play because they’re impressed with the effort. Her Majesty the Queen actually has a private course on the Balmoral Highland Estate. Through an old business connection from my wife, we managed to get a game there. When we played we were under strict orders not to advertise that we had played it. So in the blog it refers to “a very private Highland golf course.”

Do you think you’ll ever be finished?

The reality is that I think it may never be completed. No matter when you think you’ve played absolutely every course, somebody’s always coming along and designing or redesigning another one. I’ve got a list of a dozen or so courses that I know are either in the planning and construction stages or nearly ready to open. I played a lovely links course on the island of Islay called The Machrie. It’s well over 100 years old, but it’s been redesigned completely in the last year. So I think I’ll have to go back and play it just to see what it’s like.