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The 8 Best Golf Courses in Western Scotland

The grass is always greener on these fairways to heaven – Audubon certification, wild blackberry bushes and rare orchids included.

Royal Troon Golf Club, host of 2016 Open Championship

It’s swing time at Royal Troon Golf Club, host of the 2016 Open Championship.

Under a baptismal downpour on the 10th hole of the Loch Lomond Golf Club, I am reborn into the natural world. My friend Michael and I have played the first seven holes in the sun, but on the tee of the par-3 eighth hole, the wind changes direction. Down the throat of the loch, 30 kilometres northwest of Glasgow, a dark sky rumbles past the Ben Lomond peak. The sun runs for cover. A light rain begins to fall as we walk from the eighth green to the ninth tee, past Rossdhu House, the “clubhouse” that’s more Downton Abbey than driving range, and the pastoral gives way to wild burns, dense forest and ancient ruins. If the lochside front nine is Downtonesque, the back nine is Game of Thrones.

18th hole at Loch Lomond

The 18th hole at Loch Lomond takes players out of the bunker and into the mansion.

But maybe it just feels that way because after Michael and I both hit good tee shots on the 476-yard par-4 10th, the sky shudders and breaks in half like a shattered piñata. The cascade soaks my hair and face, pours past the collar of my jacket. Up by the green, a dozen ducks in the pond paddle away, unperturbed. I feel the same, as if I’m being washed clean of concern for my score, my game and the self-esteem so many golfers attach to how we “perform.” None of that is of any interest to me. In fact, the reason I’ve come to the rugged, less-golfed west coast of Scotland is to play courses like this one that embrace nature (and that are all within an hour’s drive of Glasgow). We watch the ducks for a few minutes and then keep playing, as wet as dogs giddily splashing in a lake.

The gilded salon at the Loch Lomond Golf Club

The gilded salon at the (private) Loch Lomond Golf Club is part of the game plan.

Halfway down the 12th tee, the piñata is empty. The sun pushes the clouds aside, and soon every leaf, every fern, every stalk of fescue is dancing with platinum light. The smell is Garden of Eden fresh – peat, pine, wild spearmint, wet earth. Michael and I tramp over to the forest on the side of the 12th hole and walk into the brush. We find a wild blackberry bush heavy with fruit and eat our fill. From then on, each step reveals a fresh glimpse into a sport that in its finest expressions doesn’t compromise the environment but worships it. (Loch Lomond is one of the few European golf courses to be Audubon-certified, a program in which courses must meet strict parameters for overall conservation practices, including how they use water, fertilizers and pesticides.)

Loch golfing

Hitting it off along the loch.

Not that you need to golf to commune with nature around Loch Lomond (especially given that the golf club is private). For a different perspective, I hike up into the highland west of the loch, ascending Beinn Dubh and Creachan Hill. I squish here and there into some boggy peat, passing through stands of oak and waist-high ferns. Near the top of Beinn Dubh, I rest on an ancient sitting stone. I can see practically to Glasgow and wonder for how many centuries hill walkers have been stopping at the same spot. The Trossachs range to the east stands out so vividly, it’s as if someone had supersaturated it for my benefit. The supersaturation continues at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel, where I cozy up in a chair by the fire and dig into Isle of Cumbrae mussels and grilled Argyll salmon, rinsed down with Kessog Dark Ale.

Loch Lomond; Prestwick Golf Club

Left to right: Hold the phone at Loch Lomond; a caddy at Prestwick Golf Club, Brian “the Lion” helps make your game a roaring success.

The day after hiking up Creachan Hill, I travel an hour south of Glasgow to the Ayrshire coast. I meet up with Donald Macdonald, the membership director from Loch Lomond, at the Dundonald Links. The club’s fully public course, Dundonald has already hosted the Scottish Ladies Open in 2015 and has more plans afoot. “Aye, it’s true,” says Macdonald as we tee off on the par-5 540-yard third hole, his favourite. A narrow burn runs down the entire right side off the tee before crossing over a fairway that canters up to a complex multitiered green. “We might end up hosting the Scottish Open here one day. The course is strong enough.”

Loch Lomond’s Rossdhu House

A birdie told us the bartending at Loch Lomond’s Rossdhu House is no bogey.

This leads us to the heated ongoing debate about the various courses around Scotland, the west coast versus the east. The siren call of the Old Course at St. Andrews means the majority of visiting golfers base their golf pilgrimages in the east, where they also have access to Muirfield, Gullane, North Berwick, Carnoustie, Aberdeen and Royal Dornoch. The west has sometimes been an afterthought, says Macdonald, but over the next few days I conclude this is a seriously missed opportunity – not least because the western gems are so close to one another. I only have to travel 80 kilometres between Loch Lomond and Turnberry, from north of Glasgow to south of it, to play two Open Championship courses (Royal Troon and Turnberry) and two courses that are good enough to hold it (Western Gailes and Loch Lomond). As an added bonus, the birthplace of tournament golf, Prestwick, which hosted the first 12 Open Championships (and 24 in all, the last in 1925), is literally a couple of hundred metres from Troon.

Prestwick

Gone clubbing: players of times past have left their mark at Prestwick.

Following Macdonald’s advice, I head to Turnberry at the southern tip of the Glasgow golf line. As hard as it is to credit Donald Trump, he knew a good thing when he acquired the course. Turnberry was great before he bought it and it will be great decades after he is gone. (And his impact there has been minimal compared to the turmoil surrounding the building of his new Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, on the east coast.) Turnberry is the Pebble Beach of Scotland, moving effortlessly along the Ayrshire coast. When I tee off on a blustery midday, the wind has picked up enough that by the time I hit the seaside stretch through the middle of the course, I’m getting more sea spray than rainwater on my face. That’s how close the holes run to the Firth of Clyde. I can see the stark outline of Arran island and Ailsa Craig offshore. (Most of the world’s curling stones are made with granite from Ailsa Craig.) From Turnberry it’s easy to reach Machrihanish on the Mull of Kintyre and Machrie on the island of Islay, both raw and remote, laid out centuries ago by giants of the game like Old Tom Morris.

While the west coast may not have the quantity of golf that the east does, it matches it for quality. Royal Troon, for instance, is the home of this year’s Open Championship. As I’m playing its famous 11th hole, the 483-yard par-4 Railway – it runs directly along the rail line leading to Glasgow – Troon seems severe, testing and rugged, something to do, perhaps, with the region’s blue-collar, industrial past and present. The tee shot on the 11th demands a carry over a thorny field of gorse. I hit my tee ball a touch off line down the right side, and the wind pushes it further toward the railway, where I see, with horror, an oncoming train. Luckily, or unluckily, my ball sails out of bounds before the train shoots past. My only consolation is remembering that in the 1962 Open, Jack Nicklaus had taken a 10 on this hole. Hacker! I beat that by a couple of strokes.

Postage Stamp eighth hole at Royal Troon Golf Club

The Postage Stamp eighth hole at Royal Troon Golf Club pushes the envelope.

Things don’t get any easier later that day. Western Gailes, four kilometres north of Troon, is a historic course on the old train line from Glasgow to Ayr. (It’s also 50 metres across the tracks from Dundonald.) There’s even a dedicated train station at the clubhouse, though it was last used in 1966. The course is modesty married to substance, so subtle is its footprint, so pure its routing. I have played here before and always thought it to be an architectural miracle; 300 metres at its widest, it’s crammed between the rail line and the sea. It’s the tightest great golf course in the world, which is probably why it has never hosted a major tournament; there just isn’t anywhere to put anyone. The dunes are compacted, but the native fescues, shrubs and gorse are plentiful and penal. I stop here and there on the back nine to wander about since the course has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and features a stunning assortment of flora, such as the northern marsh orchids near the 15th and 16th holes. But I don’t go too far afield looking for flowers while hunting for wayward tee shots; there are spots where the gorse is so evil, you can’t search for your ball for fear of puncture wounds.

The garden at Loch Lomond

The garden at Loch Lomond offers a manicured contrast to the rugged Highland surroundings.

I return to Loch Lomond on my last day and play a final round with Mark and Kris Gibello, former members of the club who now play mostly out of the Los Angeles Country Club. “There’s no formality here,” Mark tells me later as we sit in the bar sipping a pint. “No stuffiness, no sense of hierarchy.” For all its exclusivity, Loch Lomond is, like most everywhere in and around Glasgow, an astonishingly unpretentious place. The Hogwarts-like gate is a barrier in one way, but it also symbolizes passing through a portal to a different way of being, a way to be a golfer and a person in harmony with the planet. There’s an honesty in how the golf courses on the west coast organically occupy their terrain – from the spirit garden of Loch Lomond and the austere challenge of Troon to the architectural concord of Western Gailes and the rocky coastal beauty of Turnberry. “It all fits so perfectly,” I had said to Michael as we played the final couple of holes at Loch Lomond after surviving the biblical rains. “It’s like nothing else was ever meant to be here.”


Swinging in the Rain

Don’t let inclement weather stop you from reaching the final hole. Here’s the gear that will keep you warm and dry from tee-off to the clubhouse.

Rainproof golf gear

When the going gets squishy, the Ecco Biom Hybrid 2 GTX and Biom G 2 shoes (01, women’s), with yak leather uppers, keep feet dry, while the grippy outsoles ground you firmly on slippery greens. ca.shop.ecco.com

The official 2016 Ryder Cup team supplier Galvin Green uses lightweight Gore-Tex Paclite in its waterproof, breathable Aston and Anya jackets (02, men’s) and August and Anna pants (03, women’s). The unisex Aura Gore-Tex golf hat (04) features an extra-wide brim at the back to keep rain from pouring down the shirt collar. golftown.ca

Made with 100-percent Australian merino wool, the Merino V-Neck Sweater (05), from Canadian company Dunning Golf, a favourite of many male golfers, is a classic style on or off the course. On cool days, add the Lined Merino Wind Vest (06). dunninggolf.com


RELATED: 5 Things to Do in Western Scotland

Tags

ARGYLL AND BUTE     GLASGOW     GOLF     GOLF COURSES     NORTH AYRSHIRE     SCOTLAND     SOUTH AYRSHIRE     UNITED KINGDOM     WEST DUNBARTONSHIRE     WEST SCOTLAND    

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