Ayrshire Coast at Centre Stage in Scotland

Dundonald Links Scotland (Image: Dundonald Links)

Kyle Phillips-designed Dundonald Links hosted both the men’s- and women’s Scottish Opens in 2017. (Image: Dundonald Links)

Scotland’s Ayrshire Coast is still basking in the memory of epic back-to-back seasons that included two Scottish Opens, the relaunch of Trump Turnberry Resort, and Henrik Stenson’s thrilling victory in the 2016 Open Championship.

 

(Last updated March 2019.)

Has any golf destination ever enjoyed a hotter run than Scotland’s Ayrshire Coast, home to Royal Troon, Trump Turnberry, Dundonald Links and hallowed Prestwick, birthplace of the Open Championship?

Royal Troon hosted the unforgettable final-round confrontation between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson in the 2016 Open Championship, regarded as one of the most thrilling ever played. That season also saw the ballyhooed unveiling of the revamped Ailsa course at Trump Turnberry Resort, part of an estimated US$189-million makeover of the iconic 192-room luxury property acquired by the U.S. president in 2014.

And 2017 was almost as exciting. Dundonald Links grabbed the spotlight by hosting both the men’s- and women’s Scottish Opens, tournaments that grow more popular and attract stronger fields every year. Mickelson used his victory in the 2013 Scottish Open at Castle Stuart as a springboard to an even more magnificent performance the following week in capturing the Open at Muirfield.

Set on the Firth of Clyde in southwest Scotland, the Ayrshire coast—from West Kilbride in the north to Girvan in the south—offers an almost uninterrupted stretch of linksland as fine as any in the world. Alongside Royal Troon, Prestwick and other bucket-list courses, the region’s roster of 47 courses includes lower-profile but highly regarded seaside links, as well as parkland jewels affordable for travellers on tighter budgets.

Prestwick GC 17th Hole (Image: Prestwick Golf Club)

Prestwick Golf Club has hosted 24 Opens, including the first 12 ever played. (Image: Prestwick Golf Club)

Ayrshire is steeped in history, with links to William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. The clay and thatch cottage where Burns was born in 1759 is now a museum in the village of Alloway.

Many visitors make nearby Glasgow, Scotland’s largest and most vibrant city, their home base. The monumental Victorian buildings in the heart of this once gritty but now burgeoning metropolis have been sandblasted to their original glory. Street musicians rock out from every corner of a downtown boasting fashionable shops and a blooming cultural life.

Glasgow essentials include a shopping spree on Buchanan Street, a grandstand seat at a Celtic or Rangers football match, and a tour of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the most visited museum in the United Kingdom outside of London.

Even closer to most of Ayrshire’s golf courses are the popular seaside towns of Ayr, Girvan, Irvine, Troon, Largs, and Prestwick. Troon, an upmarket town filled with stylish restaurants and inviting pubs and guesthouses, is a particular favourite. The wide, white beaches offer stirring views of the Isle of Arran and Ailsa Craig, and the busy harbour is home to Ayrshire’s fish market.

But for golfers, Troon’s most irresistible attraction is Royal Troon Golf Club, founded in 1878 and revered as the site of nine Open Championships. Golf architects Willie Fernie, James Braid, Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Frank Pennink have all left their marks on a dry and running links where the first nine holes are set entirely alongside the sea.

Willie Park Sr. Open Champion 1860

Willie Park Sr. won the first-ever Open Championship at Prestwick Golf Club in 1860.

Royal Troon is home to the evilly bunkered Postage Stamp, at 123 yards the shortest hole in Open Championship golf. Best for jittery first-timers to emulate the veteran calm of Gene Sarazen, who at the age of 71 aced his tee shot in the first round of the 1973 Open. Sarazen then holed a bunker shot in the second round for a birdie. Without once picking up his putter in two rounds, Sarazen played the Postage Stamp in just three strokes.

And it was at Royal Troon that Arnold Palmer won his second Open Championship in glorious style in 1962. Palmer, whose commitment to the Open helped rejuvenate golf’s oldest major tournament, personally recorded three of only six rounds under 70 during the entire championship.

Other victors at Royal Troon have included Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson, Justin Leonard and, of course, Stenson, whose record-tying final-round score of 63 helped him best a frustrated Mickelson by three strokes.

Normally, the host course of an Open Championship has the spotlight all to itself. But sharing the headlines with Royal Troon in 2016 was the rebranded Trump Turnberry Resort, set on a magnificent headland looking toward Ireland across the Firth of Clyde, about an hour’s drive southwest of Glasgow.

Donald Trump interrupted his presidential campaign to officially open Turnberry’s almost completely redesigned Ailsa course, the host of four Open Championships.  Most memorable among those Opens was the ‘Duel in the Sun’ between Jack Nicklaus and eventual winner Tom Watson in 1977. A close second was Watson’s heartbreaking playoff loss at the age of 59 to Stewart Cink in 2009.

Royal Troon Golf Club (Image: The Open Championship)

Royal Troon hosted the unforgettable final-round confrontation between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson in the 2016 Open Championship. (Image: The Open)

Easily the most anticipated of all the changes made to Ailsa was the transformation of the iconic par-four “Lighthouse” hole into what Trump with typical immodesty calls “the most spectacular par three in the world.” From the championship tees, the hole plays 248 yards downwind over the cliffs to a green set to the right of the lighthouse. The lighthouse itself has been reborn as golf’s most unique halfway house, complete with a sumptuous two-bedroom guest suite.

Even Trump’s harshest critics acknowledge the brilliance of architect Martin Ebert’s redesign. Applause has also been earned for the extensive changes made to the beloved red-roofed grand hotel that sits on a hilltop overlooking Ailsa and its rebranded sister layout, the King Robert the Bruce course (formerly the Kintyre course), which has also been redesigned by Ebert.

It’s easy for visitors to snicker at the paintings and numerous magazine covers featuring Trump’s image on display throughout the resort. But Turnberry hasn’t looked this good since the hotel opened in 1906. The main foyer, lobby bar and dining rooms have all been lavishly and elegantly refitted under the direction of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.

An Open Championship and a US$189-million redesign of one of the world’s most famous golf resorts are tough acts to follow. But Dundonald Links gave it a heroic try in 2017 by hosting both the men’s- and women’s Scottish Opens, won respectively by Jon Rahm and Lee Mi-hyang.

Opened in 2003, this Kyle Phillips design, a 30-minute drive from Glasgow, looks, feels and plays about a century older. Phillips moved tonnes of earth while routing his holes through low-lying dunes and bringing a twisting burn into play. Perhaps most cleverly, the American architect sculpted a massive dune to hide a nearby paper factory from view.

A far more mature beauty, Western Gailes Golf Club, sits just across the railway tracks from Dundonald Links. Founded in 1897, Western Gailes is a wonderfully natural design that wends through dunes on a spit of land by Irvine Bay. Some greens fold as if organically into the rumpled landscape, with others protected by sentinel-like dunes.

Harry Vardon shot a 68 in a tournament at Western Gailes in 1903, a remarkable accomplishment considering the whipping winds and rain that often bedevil golfers. Today, the links is regularly used as a final qualifying course for the Open Championship.

Dundonald Links and Western Gailes, together with Royal Troon and the Ailsa course at Trump Turnberry, belong in any ranking of the world’s outstanding links. But like every leading golf destination, Ayrshire is also rich in less heralded, though still highly recommended, courses. Gailes Links, Barassie Links, Irvine Bogside Golf Club, West Kilbride Golf Club and Prestwick St. Nicholas Golf Club are all excellent courses that live in the shadow of the big guns.

Then there’s the granddaddy of all Ayrshire courses, Prestwick Golf Club. Full of blind shots, crazy bounces and other quirks, Prestwick has hosted 24 Opens, including the first 12 ever played. Willie Park Sr. won the first one in 1860, besting a field of eight top professionals. Designed by the immortal Old Tom Morris, who won the Open four times at Prestwick, the course features six of his original greens, as well as three original holes.

Though no longer in the Open rotation, Prestwick is still a must-play for everyone who loves the game.

 

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