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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.
Berwick embodies everything that is sublime about links golf. It's old - 10th or so oldest club in history - and played over ground that has plenty of rumples and swales and rises that create nothing short of delight when playing. Links golf involves a bit of chance here and there - a willingness to face whatever comes your way, knowing the strike was pure (if it was) and that the results will at least allow you the chance at reward. You must lay up on the 1st hole and play to an elevated green that is partially obscured. The 2nd isn't all that concealed - you just have to hit over the beach, though it is in play. You hit over an old stone wall on the 3rd, again to a green partially obscured - take what comes. Those first three holes set the tone for a marvelous adventure, facing wonderful views of the Firth of Forth and the five rock islands the starter will point out to you when you arrive. Walls are part of the narrative at Berwick, forming either lines and visuals that remind you of the history of the club/course and an enchanting time in the past, or outright obstacles to greens, though who wouldn't want to hit over a stone wall? The 6th is a typical links hole - not too difficult a shot if you strike it well, but deep pot bunkers on the sides and a large cross bunker in front await the imperfect shot and serve as just punishment. The 9th shows the use of center bunkers to force players to one side or the other down the fairway, a slight hint to make a decision and deal with the consequences. You turn and head back in, with the 10th again saying don't hit it too badly or you will suffer (golf is such a metaphor for life). The 12th-18th is as good as it gets anywhere in the world, with demanding holes that require consideration of your game that day and where you stand as a golfer. If it's into a stout wind on the 12th, can you even carry the burn? And if you do, can you carry the bunkers 60 yards short of the green? What a delight this course must be with old balls/clubs. And the 13th - just ridiculous. Can you hit the perfect shot over the wall, or should you play back and hope a pitch/putt brings a par? Who doesn't want to drop balls as close as possible to the wall to see how close they can hit it? Do you trust the caddie/yardage book on the 14th when you realize you can hit a simple punch shot over the hill that chases the ball all the way to the green? And the view that awaits you as you climb that hill? How many tee shots will you hit on the Redan hole - just to see if you can play it the correct way. Your view for the 16th is a row of wonderful old houses, backing a green with a middle swale and drop-offs all around it. Can you hit over the cross bunker on 17, into the wind? And the 18th - a straight way driveable par 4 that leaves you with the chance for a great memory, right at the door of the clubhouse. This golf course is perfection. Be dubious of anyone that gives it less than 6 balls.
North Berwick West Links looks so perfect on arrival that it’s hard to think of a better setting for a golf course. The course is laid out beside a beautiful sandy beach in what can only be described as a highly affluent area, so even without the clubs it would be a lovely place to go for a walk. But when you look out from the clubhouse to the course, the instant impression is that you’re somewhere special.
The first two holes are straight out of the top drawer, you play over the beach and cross naturally bumpy rock formations. A stone wall splits the fairway in two on the third, a feature that then reappears at other moments through the round, before the gaping bunker that sits below the green on the par three 6th being another memorable highlight of the front nine.
The holes leading into the turn don’t quite have the same character as to what came before, but this is only because the other holes nearer the town are just sublime. The patch that comes mid-round are still well crafted golf holes, but they just cover slightly inferior land. Even with that being the case, hole 9, Mizzentop is still a really strong climbing par five with two very well placed bunkers located to the front-right of the green protecting the obvious angle in.
Then comes the closing stretch; holes 12 through to 18 would have to be in the conversation when discussing the finest sequence of holes in world golf. 12 with its cluster of bunkers protecting the corner of the hole before playing out to the fence line. 13 and 14 then represent the best back-to-back holes I’ve ever played. The 13th “Pit”, with a stone wall diagonally crossing ahead of the green and 14, Perfection, the most breathtakingly beautiful hole playing over a rise before dipping over two bunkers and out to the sea. So many architectural features of the course have been borrowed and replicated elsewhere. The Redan at 15 and the Biarritz valley green at 16 will test the best with the flat stick. And whilst the club have made a mess of the changes to the 17th bunker, it’s still an incredible hole as you play to the high raised-top green.
To conclude your round, there can be no more nerve-racking hole than 18. What sort of maniac decided that the best place for a car park was tight to the right of the 18th fairway? “Bail left, bail left” is all I had in my mind. Thank goodness the fairway is as wide as they come, but God help you if you’ve parked your car in the heart of the kill-zone and suffer the misfortune of your windscreen coming face to face with the ball of some over-confident youth. Ah well, if you do, then at least every green fee comes inclusive of free liability insurance, and you’ll always carry the memories of having spent three to four hours on one of the best links courses in the game.
This is my favourite golf course in the Uk and in my Top 3 of all those I have played around the World.
To play North Berwick should be on everyones Must Do list. This is simply stunning links golf with almost the sea in view on every hole.
I'm fortunate to have a friend who is a country member at Tantallon Golf Club which shares the famous West Links with North Berwick Golf Club. We played it two days running, the first in a stiff breeze and the second on a very still morning.
This golf course is an absolute pleasure to play. Having ate in the Clubhouse which overlooks the course we made use of the chipping and putting area to fine tune our green approach shots.
The 1st tee is set against the beach and I played my 1st tee out of the course and several yards into the beach dunes. It isn't out of bounds so was able to play back in and then up a hill to a blind green. That was just the start.
The course plays out for 8 holes and then across for one before you turn for home and the wind was at my back for the final nine holes so scoring was good as it helped my average drives run so much longer.
Every hole is wonderful. I cannot think of a weak hole and each stands out in the mind, a sign of a top quality layout. Everyone talks about the Redan 15th green and the 16th with it's split green and gully running through it. The 13th wall hole is pure class.
Rather than write about every hole I implore you to go play it, you will not be disappointed. Historic , almost prehistoric in terms of golf design, if you don't enjoy this version of links golf I'll be amazed.
We stopped in town at at a pub B&B for £25 per man. Make a night of it and play this course twice, it's worth staying on for that. The Glen next door isn't as good but can make a trip to North Berwick an absolute delight
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.