Set Sail on a Scotland and Ireland Golf Cruise

RCGS Resolute in the harbour with golfers in the foreground, Stromness, Orkney Islands. (Image: Boomer Jerritt/One Ocean Expeditions)

Host ship RCGS Resolute can accommodate 146 passengers. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

My cruise with One Ocean Expeditions was the golf adventure of a lifetime, with stops at Royal Dornoch, Machrihanish, Cruden Bay and other iconic links. But most unforgettable of all was my tee off at the fabled “lost course” of Askernish.

(Editor’s note: Sadly, One Ocean Expeditions has ceased operation since this article was published.)

They had me at Askernish.

Well, truthfully, I already felt certain One Ocean Expeditions‘ inaugural golf cruise of Scotland and Ireland would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Stops on the eight-day journey aboard RCGS Resolute included Royal Dornoch, Machrihanish, Ballyliffin, Cruden Bay and several more of the world’s iconic seaside links.

But for me the capstone of the itinerary was the opportunity to finally play the so-called “lost course” of Askernish, in the remote outpost of South Uist, the second largest island of the Outer Hebrides. I’d been fantasizing about a visit to the Old Tom Morris beauty ever since its celebrated resurrection in 2008 following an almost archeologically precise restoration.

Golfers preparing to tee off at Ballyliffin Golf Club, Ireland. (Image: Boomer Jerritt/One Ocean Expeditions)

One Ocean passengers prepare to tee off at Ballyliffin Golf Club in Ireland. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

We boarded ship in Dublin in early June to begin a trek that would take us north up the Irish Sea to Campbeltown on Scotland’s remote Mull of Kintyre. Here, we’d face the difficult choice of a tee off at historic Machrihanish Golf Club or celebrated relative newcomer Machrihanish Dunes. Next we would sail almost due west to Ballyliffin Golf Club at the northern tip of the Republic of Ireland. Then still further north to Askernish Golf Club in the Outer Hebrides before a stop in the Orkney Islands and a return to Scotland’s mainland by way of Inverness, where we’d play either Royal Dornoch Golf Club or Castle Stuart Golf Links. And our final stop before disembarking in Edinburgh would be Aberdeen and yet another tough choice, this time between Cruden Bay Golf Club and Royal Aberdeen Golf Club.

What red-blooded golfer could resist such a cornucopia of riches? Every one of these courses features prominently in any ranking of the top 50 links in the world.

My head was still spinning from the possibilities—and potential regrets—the next morning when I landed at Machrihanish Dunes, a David McLay Kidd design launched to fanfare in 2009 I felt compelled to pick because I had never played it. McLay Kidd, who is perhaps best known for having designed the first course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon, built a wonderfully natural links that looks and plays about a century older.

But all the while my heart was with my shipmates at nearby Machrihanish Golf Club, a course I had been fortunate enough to play twice before. Built in 1879 by Old Tom Morris, this wild and woolly links has been called “the world’s most natural golf course.” And no one who has visited will ever forget the spectacular first hole, known as The Battery. The windswept dogleg par four challenges golfers to carry as much of the ocean as they dare. In a poll conducted by Visit Scotland, the Battery was voted Scotland’s best opening hole, which says a lot considering the competition.

Nature watching by zodiak with One Ocean Expeditions, Scotland (Image: Boomer Jerritt/One Ocean Expeditions)

Options for non-golfers range from wildlife viewing to sea kayaking, sightseeing tours and wine tastings. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Even this early into the cruise the RCGS Resolute was beginning to feel like a second home to our golf-mad mix of mostly middle-aged Americans and Canadians, along with a contingent of about 20 typically gregarious Australians accompanied by their club pro. Launched in 1993, the 146-passenger, Finnish-built ship offers all the comforts, including cozy cabins, two stylish dining rooms that serve inventive and consistently excellent cuisine, a theatre-style presentation room, a fitness centre, as well as a sauna and steam room, Jacuzzi, and a salt-water pool.

One Ocean, a Canadian-based company previously focused on Arctic and Antarctic cruises combining tourism with scientific studies, expanded into golf in 2018 with a cruise of Canada’s rugged Atlantic Coast that included stops at world-acclaimed Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links.

Though the Scotland and Ireland cruise was just One Ocean’s second foray into golf, the young yet widely experienced crew (some had travelled to the Arctic and Antarctic half-a-dozen or more times) had apparently mastered the challenge.  Both we—and just as crucially, our golf clubs—were never late for a tee time.

Passengers eagerly congregated every evening in the bar-lounge for a slide-show presentation about the port and especially the course—or courses—awaiting our pleasure the next day. Led by affable Canadian golf pro Duncan Savage, who also offered emergency swing advice when required, the presentations ramped our excitement to a fever pitch.

With so much outstanding golf on offer, the trip became almost a highlight-reel whir of unforgettable experiences.

A particular treat for me was a long-awaited return to Glashedy Links at Ballyliffin Golf Club, Ireland’s most northerly links. A decade or so before this visit I had been chased from the Pat Ruddy-Tom Craddock masterwork by torrential rain and near gale-force winds. Now, under clear skies, I could finally appreciate the sweeping views of heather-clad hills and the silver-blue Atlantic. Named for imposing Glashedy Rock that sits offshore, this ideally situated links confronts golfers with cavernous revetted bunkers, tiered and sloping greens, and fairways that snake through massive and abundantly hairy dunes.

Cruden Bay links golf course in Scotland (Image: Cruden Bay Golf Club)

Magnificent Cruden Bay is an Old Tom Morris and Archie Simpson design where sand dunes tower as high as 60 feet. (Image: Cruden Bay Golf Club)

Cruden Bay proved an even bigger revelation later in the trip. I had somehow never played this magnificently dramatic links that now numbers among my favourite places in the world. Originally laid out by Old Tom Morris and Archie Simpson, Cruden Bay is golf on the grand scale. Sand hills tower as high as 60 feet above fairways that jump burns, climb dales and disappear into hidden nooks. When the rains lash and the winds howl, Cruden Bay becomes a cruel test of endurance. The Himalayan-like climb to the ninth tee—famous for its jaw-dropping outlook across the Bay of Cruden—could prove fatal to the unfit. But what a way to go!

Of course, by choosing Cruden Bay I had to reluctantly miss out on the Balgownie course at Royal Aberdeen, the sixth oldest club in the world. Balgownie is set on a prime stretch of linksland on the other side of the river Don from Scotland’s oil capital.

I also passed on Castle Stuart in favour of Royal Dornoch. Having already played Castle Stuart, a brilliant Mark Parsinen and Gil Hanse design overlooking the Moray Firth opened in 2009, Royal Dornoch was a no-brainer.

“No golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch,” pronounced the late Herbert Warren Wind, the eminent American golf writer. Unquestionably one of the world’s greatest courses, Royal Dornoch is set high above Dornoch Firth, on the North Sea about an hour’s drive from Inverness. Visitors like me who are lucky enough to arrive in spring or early summer are greeted by vast yellow swaths of blooming gorse framing holes that hug an inland ridge before turning toward the sea.

Old Tom Morris, who left his giant footprints throughout Scotland, laid out the original course in 1886. Gentle tweaking through the years has refined a layout that today seems to have emerged almost organically from the landscape. But what really sets Royal Dornoch apart architecturally are its signature raised dome greens, a feature that makes approach play especially challenging. Donald Ross, who grew up in Dornoch and served for a time as the club’s green-keeper and head professional, famously copied the style of his home course’s domed greens when designing Pinehurst No. 2 after he emigrated to the United States.

Royal Dornoch golf course golfer and caddy. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

A One Ocean passenger and his caddy at Royal Dornoch, a links that appears to have emerged almost organically from the landscape. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Exhausted after walking uncounted kilometres on the links, many of us chose to take a pass on the unheralded local golf course during our stop in starkly beautiful Kirkwall, capital of the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of mainland Scotland.  Cycling, hiking and sea kayaking were on offer, as well as a bus tour of the island.  Indeed, the few non-golfers in our group never lacked for options at any of the stops along our journey.

I chose a solitary wander through Kirkwall’s winding streets filled with craft and gift shops. A local treasure is imposing St. Magnus Cathedral, whose construction began in 1137, back when the Vikings still ruled the Orkneys. Many other passengers headed to Skara Brae, a Neolithic village and UNESCO World Heritage site first settled over 5,000 years ago.

By now I was a perfectly contented and almost sated golfer. The highlight of the entire trip had come for me the day before with our visit to Askernish Golf Club in South Uist, the second largest island of the Outer Hebrides, about fifty miles off Scotland’s west coast.

Yet another Old Tom Morris creation, Askernish has a long and almost mythical history. In 1891, Lady Emily Cathcart, a wealthy landowner, lured Old Tom north from St. Andrews to build a course that would impress her high-society guests. But after a few years of relative glory, the original 18-hole layout was slowly reclaimed by nature. By the early 2000s, only nine holes remained.

Enter Scottish golf-consultant Gordon Irvine, who toured the links when he visited South Uist on a fishing trip. Hearing the story of what had become an almost lost course, Irvine helped recruit famed English golf architect Martin Ebert, whose specialty is links courses, to restore all 18 of Old Tom’s original holes.

aerial photo of Askernish golf course on the Isle of South Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland (Image: Askernish Golf Club)

Reborn Askernish Golf Club in the Outer Hebrides is a kind of holy temple for everyone who loves the game. (Image: Askernish Golf Club)

Ebert used satellite photographs to retrace fairway contours, and then had his crew painstakingly sift and dig through the sand like archeologists to reveal long-abandoned greens. No pesticides or artificial fertilizers were used, nor was an irrigation system installed. The goal from the start was Victorian-era authenticity.

Unveiled in 2008, reborn Askernish is now a kind of holy temple for everyone who loves the game. Wildly undulating greens, rapid elevation changes through the formidable dunes, and humped fairways booby-trapped with the island’s apparently ubiquitous rabbit holes challenged and exhilarated me with every swing during my visit. Equally thrilling are the sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, especially from the elevated seventh tee.

But most remarkable of all, Askernish plays and looks almost precisely as it did in Old Tom’s day—and remains for me the most unforgettable port-of-call on the golf voyage of a lifetime.