The West Links at North Berwick Golf Club is an immensely enjoyable golf course, located on the Firth of Forth with stunning sea views across to Craigleith Island and Bass Rock. The equivalent of Turnberry’s “Ailsa Craig”, Bass Rock is a huge volcanic lump, rising up over 300 feet from the Firth of Forth. It’s the closest seabird sanctuary to the mainland and home to 80,000 nest sites; approximately 10 per cent of the world’s population of Atlantic Gannets stay here.
This is a course that is extremely close to the origins of golf. It’s the thirteenth oldest golf club (founded in 1832) and the third oldest course in the world still playing over its original fairways. Only St Andrews (Old) and Musselburgh (Old) are more senior.
The original architect is unknown. We do know that North Berwick started out in life as a 6-hole course and was extended to 18 holes in 1877, as reported in the The Scotsman on 2nd February that year: “In the preparation of the new links for play a good deal of work required to be done in the way of levelling, cutting, turfing; but the operations in all their details have been directed by Messrs Brodie (the Provost) and Whitecross (North Berwick member)… these gentlemen had the assistance of David Strath, who is now keeper of the North Berwick green; and through his advice, as well as some hints given by Tom Morris on a recent visit, the available ground has been made the most of.”
Around the turn of the 19th century the course was stretched out to a little over 6,400 yards. There are two reasons why North Berwick is such an enjoyable course: 1) the land is raised above sea level, affording those excellent views 2) it has a superb collection of holes, a number of which have been replicated at other courses the world over.
The 15th is one of the world's most famous holes. It’s a par 3 measuring 190 yards, called “Redan” (a military term meaning “guarding parapet”), and is the most copied hole. Bernard Darwin referred to this hole in his book, Golf Courses of the British Isles: “a beautiful one shot hole atop a plateau with a bunker short of the green, to the left, and another further on to the right, and we must vary our mode of attack according to the wind, playing a shot to come in from the right or making a direct frontal attack".
One of the many beauties of North Berwick is that you can play the course without being punished brutally by penal rough. They like a round to take no more than three hours and consequently, the rough is kept relatively short to speed up play. It’s not the longest links course in the world but it’s sheer fun and a unique experience to boot. You’ll need to negotiate stonewalls, deep bunkers, all kinds of humps and hollows and burns. You’ll need to hit blind shots and you’ll need to hit shots out over the beach. Fantastic stuff.
It’s not often that we thank politicians, but in this case, we should take our hat-off to golf mad former Prime Minister Arthur J. Balfour, immortalised as “The Golfour” by Punch magazine. He was once captain of North Berwick and took every opportunity to popularise golf.
According to golf historian Archie Baird, Balfour once said: “a tolerable day, a tolerable green and a tolerable opponent supply, or ought to supply, all that any reasonably constituted human being should require in the way of entertainment. With a fine sea view in front of him, the golfer may be excused if he regards golf, even though it be indifferent golf, as the true and adequate end of man’s existence.”
So, what are you waiting for? If Arthur liked North Berwick, then surely you will too.
Fabulous old course with the "wall hole" and a superb little 18th.
Lots of great holes and a good battle in the wind.
Well worth a visit.
Amazing, amazing, amazing!
Truly amazing course, you practically never leave the coast line by more than a hole, with spectacular ocean views the whole round and a real challenge, i'd highly recommend playing here. Just an incredible links golf experience
After playing as our first links experience almost 10 years ago we were dying to return to the West links. That day was incredibly enjoyable but slightly dampened (literally) by a brutal hail fuelled finish.
So after all feeling we'd had some unfinished business we've just played again and thankfully the only thing to blow us away this time was the course.
As the article says this is pure golf, and an exquisite club. From the welcome you receive to the handshake goodbye, it just doesn't get better than this for sheer enjoyment. The first hole epitomises what's to come, a relatively free drive and then short but demanding second uphill to a fortress green which looks almost like it could be a land attached mini bass rock.
The course is great fun but still has teeth and depending on wind direction can be exacting.
On this occasion an easterly breeze meant the second and SI 1 third holes played tough, each of them require solid drives, the former over the beach to a dogleg right fairway. If you chose caution and hit it left there is plenty of room but chances are you'll be blocked out by huge undulations in the fairway, exceptional design rewarding you for taking on the corner!
The 4th hole starts a collection of wonderful par 3s, much is talked about the redan 15th but both 4 and 6 are also great holes, requiring mid to long irons, the latter having a huge bunker short and a shot over a crater.
The 7th is a short par 4 with a fairway that slopes down the the green, and the burn, a lay up to the brow of the hill and a short to mid iron in is the best approach.
The next string of holes encapsulates what Berwick is about, getting the most out of the land rather than sticking to convention. We go 5,5,3,5 in terms of par, this is the place to do your scoring! Each of the 5s are different, and encourage a free swing from the tee. The latter two place the premium on the approach, miss the 9th short at your peril and the 11th has a wicked bunker right of the green, you will be well below the surface should you find it and the wind never helps your bid to extricate yourself!!
From here the course gets better and better with a series of unique and wonderful holes that need to be played rather than described. It's impossible to pick a favourite so just enjoy them.
I would say this is predominantly a second shot course, you need get it off the tee for sure but your iron play needs to be crisp and if it is you should score well.
The only disappointment is that the round has to finish. This is simply brilliant golf and I cannot wait to come back.
Oh boy, can you give six balls to a course where the green conditions were the poorest among the nine tracks we played on a trip to Scotland this past June? After a few months of thinking... the answer is yes! It's the only course of those nine where I can clearly remember the majority of the holes, and the stretch from 12 to 18 is absolutely fantastic.
The clubhouse attendant (thank you for the tour of the members room, very generous!) did inform us the greens were poorer on the day than the norm, which I do hope, because especially #13 was quite soft and very pock-marked. However, I'd play this course with a smile even if the greens had been hollowed tined!
Due to its location the 13th green gets less sunlight on it than others hence it is almost always the softest green on the course. You are correct though that the greens were/are softer than the club would like. After a recent STRI report the club will commence a much more aggressive coring/tining program over the next couple of years.
I had the huge pleasure of playing the course in mid September, it had recovered from the summers heat wave but still played firm and fast, the turf wonderfully firm and rewarding a well struck shot. I played in a 2 club wind from the west which made the first 8 holes tough but still enormous fun, coming home from 13 inwards it’s hard to imagine a better sequence of holes. The greens were fast and true and but held the ball. I thought the course pretty generous from the tee, hard to loose a ball unless you hit a real wild one, it’s very much a second shot course into the fantastic green complexes. I was paired up with a couple of other solo players, they both had caddies whose generous and friendly advice proved invaluable. Add that to the warm welcome received from the secretary and it’s hard to imagine a better place to play links golf in its truest form.
A single round has been enough for North Berwick West Links to become my favorite place in golf, ahead of other illustrious courses such as Royal Dornoch, Royal County Down, Brora or Cruden Bay.
Very different reasons contribute to that conclusion: the atmosphere of the club, elegant, but not overly exclusive, its history, the perfect communion with the city, the landscape and, especially, the personality that exudes the course.
As for my experience, what promised to be a disastrous day of golf became one of the most unforgettable days on the links: the morning of June 14th awoke with a pleasant breeze of more than 50 mph that, in any other case, would have discouraged us from any type of activity. In fact, we were able to advance the our tee time due to the numerous cancellations.
These circumstances, as it cannot be otherwise, conditioned the round and the way of appreciating the course, especially the first 9 holes, in which the wind against prevented any strategy other than mere survival. In addition, the ball should be marked on the green when we thought it should have stopped, as it never came to rest.
As an example, in the 4th hole, a par 3 of some mere 150 meters I had to play a full and low drive that managed to reach the green for my first par.
As it is imaginable, in he back 9, the most interesting part of the coursed, the problem was the opposite, since the ball seemed to never want to stop in the fairway.
However, this did not prevent me from savouring the most extraordinary sequence of holes I have experienced in golf, from the 13th, the famous The Pit, to the end.
In the 13th, it became more mandatory than ever to hug the bunkers and the stone fence with the drive, so that the second shot could be able to come near the flag, because otherwise, only a ball bouncing before the fence could rest on the green.
The 14th is also a hole of exceptional beauty, with an extraordinary and blind second stroke over a hill towards a green that embraces the beach, one of the most beautiful spots in the whole world of golf.
The 15th, Redan, impresses by its dimensions and by the extraordinary slope of the green, although, on that day, it was no more than a 9 iron downwind.
When we were thinking there were no more surprises left, the 16th hole stroked us again with its extraordinary Biarritz style green, almost impossible to hold even with a putter for my second shot, no more than 25 yards from the green.
The 17th is another strong and tough hole, to give way to the 18th, which may be indifferent due to its length and lack of obstacles, except for the oob to the right, but which, perhaps for this very reason, participates in the magic of the described sequence of holes.
Finally, once the round is finished, nothing better than going upstairs the clubhouse to enjoy some well-earned pints and take a little longer to enjoy such a special place. In my case, I could have continued until the end of the day.
M.M.A., Barcelona, Spain.
Don't go here, don't play here, don't visit the town! I want it all to myself. This is the most fun course in the world. The history is fantastic and the membership is wonderful. I have been playing here since 1990, the more you play it the better it becomes. Please stay away!
If Muirfield is regarded as the King of East Lothian then North Berwick is undoubtedly Queen.
Sometimes words cannot accurately describe a course and do it total justice, you just have to go and experience it for yourself in order to get a proper flavour of the place. The West Links at North Berwick is one of those.
It’s an eccentrically brilliant links golf course. It's beyond quirky. It is one of the oldest (and best) in the World and is like no other. I can’t recall any other course that has 18 so vastly different challenges like North Berwick has. Mouth-watering doesn’t even come close to describing it.
North Berwick has hosted many championships but I don’t see it as a ‘championship’ course... it’s better than that.
Having co-hosted the 2010 Amateur Championship and final qualifying for The Open in 2013 there’s no question that it provides a true test to elite golfers, however, unlike many courses geared for top-level play North Berwick offers challenges that can be enjoyed, savoured and remembered for a lifetime by golfers of any standard.
Holes like the first, third, 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th are played with such a smile on your face that the uniqueness of them will leave a forever lasting impression. The spellbinding nature of these holes set North Berwick apart as one of the World’s best and unquestionably most delectable places to play golf.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Ed, I totally agree with you. This place is really special! And it will last in the mind for a very long time. I had my perfect golf experience there. It started when the secretary gave me a very friendly welcome and showed me the clubhouse. The Display Panel showed my Name as guest for the day. The starter paired me with a nice member and then the journey started in sunshine and a slight breeze. The holes are almost all so unique, you're just proceeding your round wondering what is coming next. Although I got totally lost on some holes like Pit an Redan, it was also possible to have some Feelings of success, like playing a par on Gate. After the round we went in the clubhouse to have a drink at the bar and enjoy the view of the 18th fairway. The member gave me the advice to visit Muirfield and Renaissance Club in the afternoon. They were Hosting the Boys Amateur Championship that week. So I went there and walked both course which was the perfect complement for my morning round in North Berwick. I cannot think of a better day in golf!
North Berwick West Links is a proper true links course from start to finish. The starting and finishing hole have the most classical set-up thinkable, reminding me of the St Andrews set-up: leading you out of and back in to the village, in front of the clubhouse. The remaining holes play alongside the friendly shore, west of the village. The course does not have the dramatic elevation changes and views of the East Links, but the 18 holes are definitely of a higher (golfing) standard then at its easterly sibling.
Due to the age of the West Links - and the minimal alterations to suit the modern golfer - it has some funky holes & blind shots, giving it the quirkiness of a links course. The turf is also the real deal: proper links turf from start to finish.
Much has been said already about the famous - most copied - short par 3, the walls used as obstacles on the par 4's and the green with a lower ridge, splitting it in two, and it is all true and there to be enjoyed. Maintenance is at a very high standard, but the greens were not the best greens we have been putting on during our trip.
But one way or the other, the course did not charm me all the way. Maybe it was the almost mechanical way the course is fully packed with fourballs from dawn to dusk, maybe it was all the waiting during the round, maybe it is the commercial feel around the whole course when compared with other links courses, who will tell.
Being - without a doubt - one of the best courses west of Edinburgh, I would rather spend my day at a links course less commercialised.