Bagpipes rattled down the narrow, bumpy side streets. Butts Wynd gave way to The Scores. The bellowing tubes took a left at Golf Place. A boisterous chorus tailed behind, revelers belting out a slurred version of “Amazing Grace.” As the cacophony veered right onto Links Road, it finally caught me as I walked down the most important patch of land in the game.
The golf industry had landed at St. Andrews. The sounds, quarter-zips, trash and temporary grandstands with iconic splashes of yellow had once again taken over Old Tom’s home. The more permanent apartments, hotels and pubs had heard this tune a time or two over the last 150 years. The mess of excitement and drunkenness at the Open Championship can make your head hurt if not for the charm of the place.
In a few weeks, those stands would come down. The cheers would be replaced by the steady hum of the wind off St. Andrews Bay, the endless seagulls chirping above. A new set of tourists would arrive, their pilgrimage to actually play. Rory and Cam and Viktor would give way to the standard Sunday group of dogs and kids. And I’d be back home in the States. But not before heading west.
In a golf Eden where most players head east from St. Andrews to bag the big names, I was curious about the other direction. No courses with Royal designations. Hell, nothing more than nine holes at a time if I got lucky. My only plan was to avoid the footsteps of Arnie, Jack and Tiger. Book stays the day of, no tee times in advance. Would this backfire on me? Absolutely. But that was the point: I wanted to keep looking for what else was down the road.
As much as Crail, Elie and North Berwick called out, this trip was dedicated to finding courses I never knew I needed to play.
Lundin Ladies Golf Club County Fife
I am not particularly proud of some moments in my life, but this was the first time I’d been banned from a clubhouse. I’d also never had to hit a cut around 13th-century monoliths or had my ball land next to an actual defibrillator a member had left out there (oh, the metaphors to my game). The Lundin Ladies Golf Club—or Lundin Lady Links, as the locals call it—was full of surprises.
In County Fife, the home of St. Andrews, it’s nearly impossible to find an under-the-radar course. But not many get to this quaint nine-holer tucked behind the town of Lundin. Perhaps because it’s one of the oldest ladies’ golf clubs in Scotland, and men are strictly prohibited from the clubhouse. Upon our arrival, they gave the code to my wife in case she needed to use the locker room. Before I could even ask to look inside, the starter barked in the thickest of Scottish growls, “Nay, you’re not allowed in there! Camera and all! She is free to venture inside if need be; otherwise, there is a public restroom for you just behind.”
Aside from an amused “See how it feels?” look from my wife, not being allowed inside made me desperately want to get into that clubhouse. Never did.
As we made our way down the rolling fifth fairway, I could see over the homes abutting the course to the other reason why not many get here: On the far side of the bay sit the town’s two better-known courses, Lundin Golf Club and Leven Links Golf Course (once one and the same). On their seaside linksland, I could make out as many groups on one hole as on the entirety of ours.
The Lady Links is sandwiched behind little homes and rolling farms, away from the prime coastland and its more renowned neighbors. But its land is perfect for golf, with rock-hard fairways and plenty of hazards seen and unseen. Strongly struck 7-irons are bound for glory or an abrupt ending. The course plays flat, uphill, down and across its many features. It also plays fast, even for Scotland; we got off the first nine in just over an hour, with big grins and down only one golf ball from our limited supply.
Anstruther Golf Club County Fife
Our next target was Isle of Skye, 209 winding miles west. Then it wasn’t. We got a message from a friend and Broken Tee Society member and stopped 20 minutes into the drive for nine holes at Anstruther.
The course began as seven holes in 1891 and nearly closed after both the first and second World Wars, but the community rallied to keep it alive each time. It’s clear how tight a connection people in this town have with the golf course, and they’re especially proud of its claim to having the most difficult par 3 in the U.K.
Which, to be honest, is really a par 4. Known as Rockies, No. 5 is a blind shot over gorse on the right, with water, children playing and people walking dogs on the left. You must hit a floaty 240-yard cut into a slanted green. Any attempts at a right-to-left curve and you are on the craggy beach. I, of course, took the disaster route. A gentleman walking his dog remarked that I was “in a bit of a bind.” Thank you, sir.
On the final hole, we sat for a few minutes as beers were delivered on a shaky tray by an eager friend of our host. Every passing group held either a long-lost friend or a family member. Laughter filled the tee box, and when we decided to play, I proceeded to blade my 4-iron just short of the wall behind the ninth green. It was another bogey, but we made more friends than squares on the card.
Fort Augustus Golf Club Fort Augustus
Back in the car, and this time we were really going to Isle of Skye. Unless we didn’t. I’d always wanted to see it in person, with its jagged black peaks bolting out of impossibly green landscape. Its course is well respected, but not heavily trafficked, which aligned perfectly with our mission. Getting to the Isle requires passing the famed Glenfinnan Viaduct (which provided the backdrop for some iconic Harry Potter scenes) and Loch Ness on a series of winding roads through the Highlands. We decided to stop for gas and food on the south end of Loch Ness and noticed a little course called Fort Augustus. Once again, the Isle would have to wait.
At first glance, the course seemed unremarkable, tucked between the Caledonian Canal and a vacation community of faux cabins with heavily lacquered wood. The clubhouse, a simple, unmanned building, was more house than club. Then we discovered that the course was laid out in 1924 by Harry S. Colt, whom you may know from hits such as Pine Valley, Swinley Forest and Royal Portrush. Having seen a few courses with the mark of Colt, I braced for the work of a genius.
It began with a straightforward opener, then a semi-blind shot into the straightaway second. The third was about the same. It was challenging, but underwhelming, and I reasoned that this is probably why I’d never heard of the place—until I walked off the third green and realized that Colt really was a genius and I am most certainly not. It suddenly became clear how the course fit perfectly into the landscape and didn’t fight for extra attention. The routing expertly worked around the canal, which I didn’t even notice until the fifth hole, when my ball went careening toward a sliver of water through the trees.
The sixth onward is an entertaining series of holes that play up and down the slope of the property. You must cross through gates and navigate another blind shot. If you get lucky, you’ll spot a dog or two roaming. We did. As we headed homeward, we noticed just one other sign of humanity: a single jumping out on No. 1. Being in Scotland alone on a $20 Harry Colt golf course is something I didn’t know was possible. But I’m damn glad it is.
Isle of Skye Golf Club Isle of Skye
Back in the car, back to the winding roads. Forever west. We pulled into the course still gawking at the Isle’s majesty. There we found yet another locked clubhouse with sea views developers in the U.S. would do unspeakable things for. I stuffed the honesty box with my little yellow envelope and packed my rain gear. The summer heat snap that had covered the U.K. must have forgotten this quiet corner, and the clouds blowing in from the Isle of Raasay looked ominous.
The first plays toward the water in the shadow of Glamaig mountain. The routing takes you off to the east, then west, and finally brings you right back up the middle. It’s a nice mixture of long and short holes with a few bunkers dotted along the route. It took me the better part of seven holes and at least 30 minutes of hunting off the fairways to finally take heed of the wind and stop playing this course like a high-ball-hitting American.
We found a little cottage on the northwest finger of the Isle and made it in time to watch the rain charge in off the ocean. But rain comes and goes quickly here, and soon we were taking a walk under vibrant hues of orange and purple while soaking in the sounds of distant cattle and sheep. We decided against golf the next day in favor of hikes around the Isle. It was the right call.
Traigh Golf Course Arisaig
It was time to catch the Harry Potter train. Yes, it flew in the face of our anti-tourist mission. But we weren’t planning to ride it—just watch it chug through the countryside. To intercept it, we needed to backtrack a bit and hop the ferry between Armadale and Mallaig, which took us closer to Edinburgh and our flight home. When we arrived at the train station in Arisaig, we looked up the schedule and found we had a few hours before it departed. I got greedy for golf, and Traigh provided.
It’s a classic nine-holer tucked into what looked like a magical little cove. White sands and impossibly blue, almost turquoise water hugged the little green course that played along, around and on a hill. Within a few holes, I already knew it was one of the best, if not the best, nine-hole experiences of my life. The pace of play was ideal; an elderly twosome in front of me could have lapped me if they hadn’t been so polite. Punchbowls, blind shots, wind, hand-drawn yardage books and $1 Mars bars. Heaven.
I reveled in Traigh’s simple approach to our overly complicated game. My wife favored the beach and a book, sitting by the water with her feet in the cold Scottish sea while I got lost on the links. She snapped me back with talk of missing the train, so I hurried to finish my round. We weaved through local traffic, laughing about adding this silly cherry on top of our trip. As we pulled up to a yield, we saw puffs of smoke from the train. I gunned it toward them, with the Viaduct rising into view.