The Best Links Courses in the UK&I

Links golf dominates the Golf Monthly rankings and our finest courses have a justifiable worldwide reputation. Rob Smith looks at the crème de la crème

Magnificent Muirfield has topped the rankings more than any other course (Photo: Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Links golf dominates the Golf Monthly rankings and the best links courses in the UK&I have a justifiable worldwide reputation. Rob Smith looks at the crème de la crème

The Best Links Courses in the UK&I

Golf’s foundations and roots are very firmly dotted along the coastline. A look at the Golf Monthly Top 100 (opens in new tab) reveals that no fewer than nine of the leading ten are links. Five of these are Open Championship venues, and the course that has been top of the rankings more often than any other is Muirfield in East Lothian. This is a supreme test of golf, kept in tip-top order. It has hosted The Open on no fewer than 16 occasions.

Over on the west coast, the Ailsa Course at Trump Turnberry (opens in new tab) benefited a few years ago from a major upgrade by Martin Ebert. It is now far more visually impressive while remaining a seriously demanding examination. On a sunny day, it is one of the most wonderful places to play golf. The internal views match the panorama out over the sea and to Ailsa Craig. The King Robert the Bruce course is also great fun, not quite so testing, and has some excellent new holes.

The seaside holes on the Ailsa Course at Trump Turnberry are sublime (Photo: Getty Images)

Perhaps the most famous course anywhere, one that is on more bucket lists than any other, is the grande dame of golf, the Old Course at St Andrews. Quirky, old-fashioned, never too narrow but packed with iconic bunkers and multiple double greens, it is the course where nerves, adrenalin and goosebumps will always impact the first-timer. From the Swilcan Burn on the opening hole to the Valley of Sin on eighteen, it is an atmospheric journey through golf’s greatest living museum.

The Old Course at St Andrews is the most famous links in the world; the ultimate must-play (Photo: Getty Images)

County Down - Worldwide Fame

If there was a prize for best course never to host an Open, it would almost certainly go to Royal County  Down (opens in new tab). It is also the most spectacular course in the Top 10, running through massive dunes, bordering the beach and surrounded by the Mountains of Mourne.

Royal County Down has a stunning location and is highly rated in most global lists (Photo: Getty Images)

Ask the Pros which is the most difficult course on the Open roster, and many will say that it is Carnoustie (opens in new tab). It is easy to see why, with out of bounds coming into play at key points, and the scariest closing three holes you will find anywhere. The Barry Burn beckons the golfer on 17 and 18, and who will ever forget the trouble Jean Van de Velde had on the closing hole in the final round of the 1999 Open. He certainly won’t!

Carnoustie has a fearsome finish so it’s best to enjoy the short thirteenth (Photo: Rob Smith)

England's Finest

England's highest ranked of the best links courses in the UK&I is also blessed with towering dunes. Royal Birkdale (opens in new tab) staged its first Open Championship in 1954 and now has a tally of ten. Unusually for such a course, it changes direction regularly, meaning the impact of the wind changes accordingly. It may be worthwhile playing from the yellows as the par is 72 here. It is a far stiffer 70 from the back!

Widely regarded as the finest course in the country, Royal Birkdale is simply superb (Photo: Getty Images)

The most northerly course in the Top 100 or Next 100 is Royal Dornoch (opens in new tab) to the north of Inverness. Its mystery has long attracted golfers from America and further afield, making it one of golf’s true pilgrimages. When the wind blows there is no hiding, but on any day it’s a wonderful place to play. Look out for the new 7th which runs parallel to and is a thrilling new version of its predecessor.

The long journey north to Royal Dornoch is a pilgrimage worth making (Photo: Getty Images)

Back on The Roster

Returning to the Open roster quite recently, Royal Portrush (opens in new tab) is a Harry Colt (opens in new tab) classic. It was already wonderful even before two terrific new holes were added in order to provide a greatly improved finish. Once again, much of the character is defined by the dunes, and the “short” 16th is one of the finest par 3s anywhere. This is a fabulous links on which you can run up big numbers but keep a smile on your face.

Royal Portrush, the only GB&I course not on the mainland to host The Open (Photo: Getty Images)

At Trump International Scotland, Martin Hawtree has created an instant classic. Heavily bunkered and very tough, it is an undeniable visual treat. Unusually for a links, every hole is distinct, different and memorable. It would be hard to think of a links with more variety, and the conditioning is first class.

Trump International Scotland proves that you can make an instant classic (Photo: Kevin Murray)

Keen golfers travel from all over the world to play the best links courses in the UK&I. They may come at a price, but the quality and the quantity on offer are unparalleled. We are very lucky to have them so close and accessible.

Rob Smith
Contributing Editor

Rob Smith has been playing golf for more than 40 years and been a contributing editor for Golf Monthly for over ten years, specialising in course reviews and travel. He has now played more than 1,170 different courses in almost 50 countries. Despite lockdowns and travel restrictions in 2021, he still managed to play 80 different courses during the year, 43 of them for the first time. This included 21 in 13 days on a trip to East Lothian in October. One of Rob's primary roles is helping to prepare the Top 100 and Next 100 Courses of the UK&I, of which he has played all but nine. During the 2021-22 review period, Rob has played 34 of the Golf Monthly Top 200. He is a member of Tandridge Golf Club in Surrey where his handicap hovers around 16. You can contact him at r.smith896@btinternet.com.