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 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 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.
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.
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. 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.
Ask the Pros which is the most difficult course on the Open roster, and many will say that it is Carnoustie. 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!
England's highest ranked of the best links courses in the UK&I is also blessed with towering dunes. Royal Birkdale 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!
The most northerly course in the Top 100 or Next 100 is Royal Dornoch 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.
Back on The Roster
Returning to the Open roster quite recently, Royal Portrush is a Harry Colt 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.
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.
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.
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Rob Smith has been playing golf for 45 years and been a contributing editor for Golf Monthly since 2012. He specialises in course reviews and travel, and has played more than 1,200 courses in almost 50 countries. In 2022, he played all 21 courses in East Lothian in 13 days. Last year, his tally was 81, 32 of them for the first time. 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 seven and a half... i.e. not the new 9 at Carne! Of those missing, some are already booked for 2024. He is a member of Tandridge in Surrey where his handicap hovers around 16. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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