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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.
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.
Played it for my first time in what is apparently not the prevailing wind. Today it was a howling easterly that really shortened up the outward 9. The first hole is a sign of things to come…6 iron, blind wedge up the hill, doing well to keep it on the green. The 2nd was straight down breeze and I was 20 yards short of driving it. Before you accuse me of pumping my own tires up, just for comparison the 11th back into it went drive, 3 wood, 4 iron just to get pin high. The turf was hard and fast running and the greens in pretty good knick, although not the best I have seen in my week of East Lothian golf.
The outward nine is probably the more interesting although I don’t want to sell holes like 13/14/15 short as they were crackers as well. I particularly liked the 9th – maybe one of the more typical golf holes on this atypical course.
It falls short of 6 balls as it is just a bit too quirky. If this course was down on the Northumberland coast with no other course within 30 miles I reckon it wouldn’t have the following it has. I like it a lot but something a bit too smug about it. Warren from Aust
An absolute joy and the a step back in time. Love the quirkiness. Proper links turf and some great holes (2, 3, 11, 15, 16) 18 is a stunning tribute to the Old Course St Andrews and provokes a similar “good to be alive” moment, no matter how you are playing.
One of the defining features of the North Berwick West Links are the stone walls that are throughout the course. In several instances you have to hit your shots over the stone walls. On the 13th hole, a stone wall protects the green. If you hit your shot to the right (wrong?) spot on this hole you will have to either chip or putt off the green through an opening in the stone wall. It is a lot of fun.
The sixth hole is also a very good one. It is a short par four where more likely than not you will be hitting your second shot from a downhill lie, over a small burn to a green that slopes down to the burn.
The 16th hole, close to The Marine Hotel, which looms over the course from a promontory nearby, has one of the most interesting greens you will ever encounter. The green is bisected by a gully which creates two distinct tiers that are separated from one another. If your ball is on the wrong side of the gully, you will have a miniature-golf style putt. Think it's silly? It's not, it's a blast.
Horace Hutchinson captured the essence of North Berwick and it still rings true today - "It is an exceptionally good school in which to learn the art of approaching." Clearly, at 6,420 yards, driving is not of paramount importance, but hitting good and often creative approach shots is.
North Berwick, like Prestwick, does have some weak holes, most notably the first and finishing holes. Its detractors will tell you that it is not a good test of golf. No doubt, these detractors have never played the course when the wind is up, which is the real defense of links courses.
There are few places in the world to play like North Berwick that are magical and will inspire you to keep going out again and again to play.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
I've read a handful of your reviews on this site, and you must be that hardest man to please in golf. How can North Berwick only be 4 balls?