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24 miles east of Edinburgh
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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.
North Berwick’s West Links has taken some time to evolve into the 18-hole course that’s now in play. Elementary golf – which was largely frowned upon by the local authorities – had been played on the ‘toune links’ in North Berwick since at least 1672, but it wasn’t until the foundation of North Berwick Golf Club in 1832 that a properly designated course was brought into play.
The ground used for organized golf extended only to the “March Dyke” which crosses the current 3rd and 16th holes and only six holes could be fitted into this small parcel of land, so that medal competitions were played over three circuits, allowing golfers to complete an 18-hole round. A seventh hole was eventually squeezed into this tight tract.
Moves to expand west, beyond the March Dyke stone wall, were made in 1868. Thanks to the Right Hon. John Nisbet-Hamilton, who owned the property, three additional holes were laid out – one of which was the famous Redan short hole – and this allowed one of the existing seven holes to disappear. Only two circuits were now required to play an eighteen-hole round.
Nine years later, further negotiations with the Nisbet-Hamilton family resulted in the course edging as far as the Eil Burn, with The Scotsman newspaper reporting that Messrs. Brodie (the Provost) and Whitecross (a member) had assisted David Strath (“keeper of the North Berwick green”) who in turn had received “hints given by Tom Morris on a recent visit.”
The course now comprised eighteen holes, but seven of them were less than 200 yards in length so another effort was made in 1895 to push even further to the west, giving the course an overall yardage of 6,095 yards. Modifications to this layout were then carried out under the supervision of Ben Sayers Jr. and C. K. Hutchison when additional ground was leased in 1932, stretching the course 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 delights of North Berwick is that you can play the course without being punished brutally by penal rough. The club prefers a round to take no more than three hours, consequently the rough is kept relatively short to speed up play. It’s not the longest links course but it’s sheer fun and a unique experience. You’ll need to negotiate stonewalls, deep bunkers, all kinds of humps and hollows and burns. You’ll also experience blind shots and you’ll need to hit out over the beach. North Berwick is genuinely entertaining.
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.
I arrived in Scotland at 7:30 AM. Some folks had suggested that I decompress after my flight, jet lag etc. WRONG – I was in Scotland for one reason, to play golf! I got my rental car and drove from Glasgow east past Edinburgh to my first appointment with destiny, North Berwick Golf Club (it is pronounced Berrrrrrick) As I was driving I was surprised by how slow people were driving in the left hand lane. I kept having to dart to the right to pass the turtles. Eventually, the ugly American figured it out. When I arrived at North Berwick (rated the number 12 course in Scotland and it is the 13th oldest golf course in the world), it was about 44 degrees, rainy and windy. When I checked in at the pro shop they were somewhat surprised that I was going to play. I said, “I just flew 3000 miles and for all I know this could be the best day weather wise for the whole trip.” He said ok and I asked about my caddy. The pro said that yes they did have me down as requesting one, but he wasn’t there, but he would call him. I only heard part of the conversation, but the caddy refused to come out and said something about stupid Americans.
Undaunted, I approached the first tee without trepidation and laced one right down the middle. North Berwick is a classic 9 out and 9 back paralleling the Firth of Forth. It was so windy my bag blew over several times.
Number 15 at North Berwick is the original Redan Green, often emulated and imitated by golf course architects worldwide. Redan is a French word. Originally it referred to a V-shaped angle in fortifications that was pointed towards an expected attack. One of the founding members of North Berwick, Captain Brown, was in fact a Waterloo veteran. (even though Waterloo is in Belgium) Another officer, John White-Melville, this time from the Crimean War, described the 15th (at the time it was the 6th hole) like the fortress, the redan at Sebastopol. It took almost a year and almost 100,000 lives before the siege was successful.
The great American architect, CB Macdonald, stole and applied the Redan concept shamelessly. He first utilized it on the 4th at the National Golf Links of America (NGLA). A famous quote of Macdonald’s from his book, “Scotland’s Gift: Golf”
“Take a narrow tableland, tilt it a little from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally and you have a Redan.”
CB Macdonald was truly a golf legend. At 16 he was sent to St. Andrews from Chicago. It was there that he learned golf from Old Tom Morris and then played in tournaments against Young Tom! He also was the first US Amateur Champion in 1895.
Most Redan holes are flanked by a variety of bunkers, usually on the left side. Another interesting feature is the frequent placement of raised earth to the right. This can create fortuitous bounces for less skilled golfers. The original Redan hole has a blind tee shot but the 4th at NGLA is visible. Many purists are of the opinion that the replica exceeds the greatest of the original. Regardless, the design is so timeless that modern architects continue to use it
Another interesting hole is the 16th, called the Gate. It has a long narrow Biarritz green and about 2/3’s of the way back it plummets about 3 feet all the way across for about 3 feet and then sharply rises back up about 4 feet. Surprisingly, I two putted.
The last hole is not slicer friendly with 3-4 story homes all along the right side, similar to number 18 at The Old Course. Prudently, I aimed a little to the left. I was surprised to see a twosome teeing off number 1 as I wandered down the fairway. I was searching for my ball and was just about to give up when I noticed what appeared to be a ball on the green. Turns out it was me, (that is how windy it was) I was so surprised, I missed the eagle putt. Yes, I did make the comeback birdie.
Upon completion I returned to the pro shop. The pro asked how it was, I said, “Cold, windy, wet, just about perfect.” He then laughingly said that 2 Canadians had just teed off. I said that I had seen them going down one. He said that originally, they had requested a tee time for the next day but when they heard that an American was out there sloughing around, they refused to be outdone by a crazy Yank.
My friend, Carlos, arrived in Scotland later that evening. For Carlos’s last day we went back to North Berwick. He heard me raving about it so much that he wanted a piece of it. In Scotland there seems to be a plethora of dogs. It was quite common to see people walking their dogs across the courses while we were there. On the second hole a dog actually picked up my drive and ran off with it. I am not sure if it had been trained to do that or not, but it did not look like a one-time event. I guess that is one way to save money on golf balls. On the third hole an older gentleman, without clubs, asked if he could walk along with us. We said sure, and he introduced himself as Stuart. We anticipated that he would join us for a hole and move along but he seemed to enjoy our company. We discussed many things, Stuart would tend the pin for us and encourage us along. We discovered he was a widower, who was very lonely. I asked if he was looking for a wealthy widow, but he said no, his preference would be for one who owned a distillery. He was a good companion for several holes and then suddenly on the 8th hole he was gone. We both wondered if Stuart was a ghost.
The weather was quite splendid when we started, but it started getting nasty at the turn. Los finished with a flourish by birdying the 18th. We then made our way to the clubhouse. I was adding up the scores and I was surprised and almost congratulated Carlos on a great round of 79. I caught myself, added the scores and validated that for Carlos’s last round in Scotland he broke 80 for the first time ever! They say you never forget your first time. I am now convinced that Stuart was a ghost whose purpose is to guide golfers to achieving their personal bests.
North Berwick West Links is magical. There are a hand full of holes here that are totally unique. The conditions are superb. This would be my 2nd most prioritized place for my only course to play for the rest of my life. Where as so many will discuss the attributes of so many of the great holes here, I love the 18th. It's pretty open, just outside of my wheelhouse for driving the green, and yet I always give it a go. What a way to finish. An absolute gem which requires you to visit over and over again.
I first played North Berwick in the early 90s and fell in love with the course. Living in Edinburgh I decided I must join and have now been a member for 23 years. It is still to me one of the most enjoyable courses anywhere in the World to play and one that I can never see myself tiring of. It’s also a great feeling to be able to take friends on and see their enjoyment in playing the course. In my view it is a very good test of golf but not as demanding as some of the tougher Scottish links courses (eg Muirfield, Carnoustie). The mix of holes is as varied as can be found anywhere including the need to navigate burns, walls, the beach and a swale in the middle of the 16th green.
Quirky, charming, unique, eccentric, but above all fun! NB has many unorthodox features that probably wouldn't be allowed on a new build course today, but playing this course you feel like you are exploring history - fun and interactive history.
I just love this course. It is helped by the fact I have always played it in dry summer conditions, but the quality turf and conditioning, as well as attention to detail on paths and tees mean this is the most "manicured" links course I have played.
The easy 18th also helps with the memories: it felt great to drive the green with a 3 wood on my last visit and finish with birdie. Also funny to watch my mate slice his tee shot OOB, bounce back on to the fairway off a car and also make birdie.
Special place - wish it could host a tour event.
This place is seriously special. Eerily similar 1/18 to St Andrews but actually better golf holes both of them. 1 has more substance to the 2nd shot, and 18 is shorter and driveable in most conditions with a green complex that makes you think twice about aiming for tight pins as around the green can leave some horrible up and downs to an elevated surface.
Other than that Holes 2/3/13/14/15/16/17 all really standout, and the rest of the course is all so good aswell.
And this is also a very playable golf course no matter your skill level. My fathers favourite course he has played, and right up there for me too. Also, the views are absolutely breathtaking and playing it in November we somehow got a still/1 club breeze sunny day and 14 degrees! Remarkable!!!
This is very much a course of two halves. Of certainly was the day we played. As with most links courses the wind was really up and going out we had wind in which made club selection almost hilarious and added huge fun factor. In contrast with wind with coming in meant you could crush the shorter par 4s. Great fun, great views.
An absolute joy to play. We had a couple of club wind which kept things interesting. I agree with the comments that it is an easy walk and anyone can play regardless of age and ability. Some very interesting holes, great views. Only downside a little overpriced.
Just such a great fun golf course. I was fortunate enough to play with a member which certainly helped me to find my way around. Its the sort of course you could quite happily play every day for the rest of your life.
What another golfer thinks about North Berwick says a lot about that person. Before I came here the first time many years ago, I thought it was just another venerable links course in Scotland. How wrong I was !
North Berwick arguably has one of the most interesting collection of architecturally unique holes found on a golf course anywhere in Old World. Yet, it is not a freak show, but a course that fits together well. And as important to me, you can play here with anyone from your 80-year old mother-in-law to your daughter’s boyfriend who plays off scratch and you will all have a good time !
So, I can think of many worse conversation topics while waiting for the fourball in front than what to think of the 1st and the 18th at North Berwick. Would the course be as good if they swapped places? Alternatively, has the other person played the 16th (Gate) with the pin on the back plateau (most have not) and what did you/would you think about it? A third topic might be: do you think the tee shot or the second shot is most difficult on the 14th (Perfection)?
You get it, this topic can easily last you all 18 holes without becoming too repetitive. In fact, the course planner for NBGC could easily qualify as “This Week’s Guest Publication” on “Have I Got News For You”, such is the cult following of this wonderful golf course.
Therefore, if you have not yet played here, do consider making a promise to yourself to go there when the opportunity next presents itself. And, try to play at least two rounds while you are there and pity the poor souls who rush off to tick another box on their golfing CV.
This course belongs in my very personal top five, probably together with Prestwick, The Old Course, Royal County Down and Royal St George’s. And, if I needed to drop one of them to make way for another it probably would not be North Berwick.
PS To my two daughters: any prospective boyfriend who likes this course is always welcome in the house :-D
Full of quirk, charm and ridiculous amounts of fun- North Berwick is a special course. A pretty much classic out and back links, the quirk is on display from the start, with a fairway shared between the 1st and 18th, reminiscent of The Old Course. The approach shot on the 1st is blind, and although in theory this should be an easier opener, it really isn’t!
The 2nd tee shot is memorable, as you tee off over the beach, and with the beach on the right it is very much in play for slicers. The 2nd & 3rd also introduce playing over a wall, something that becomes more prominent later in the round. 6 is a quirky par 3, followed by the par 4 7th. If you leave yourself a short approach you will have a downhill lie as you try and feather a wedge over a burn, this is an example of the strategy present throughout this masterpiece. 9 is a par 5 with a tricky centreline bunker and undulating green.
The par 4 13th ‘Pit’ is probably North Berwick’s most famous hole. The aforementioned wall runs in-between the fairway and the green, making players really think and is something you don’t really see at many other places! 14 is aplty named ‘Perfection’ and 15th is said to be the most copied hole in the world, ‘Redan’. Along with the 13th, 16th is my other favourite hole here. It has a crazy, ‘Biarritz’ style green, which you could spend hours putting on. The 18th plays back to town and the clubhouse, and although it has a massive fairway, you do not want to go right as you may hit your car in the car park- again very similar to The Old Course.
I’ve said before that The Old Course is my favourite course, but I really wouldn’t have North Berwick that far behind, and so for me there’s no doubt about its rating.