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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.
The course was in magnificent condition having recently hosted the Amateur Championship along with Muirfield.
You are welcomed onto the first tee by the starter Sam Fox. No not the ex-page model, but an imposing and friendly man that gives you a briefing about how to play the course and a bit of history before you hit what is an imposing tee shot despite the width of the first fairway. The beach on the right is in your eyes all the time and the shot reminded me of the first at Machrihanish. I managed a four iron down the middle into a VERY strong wind and I was off!
Most of the front nine was played into this gale. This was the day for those that remember that play was suspended at the Open itself due to high winds. No such luxury for our fourball. The first three holes are special with the third being very difficult and playing well over the par of 4. The wall is first encountered here. Having had a lesson recently on how to play the boring low punch into the wind I was glad I had as I managed to go in a respectable number including a birdie on the 8th. 4,5 and 6 are tough holes playing longer than they appear even into the wind and the 7th is a very nice hole the burn catching me out. Back to back par 5’s for 8 and 9. The 8th being a beautifully crafted hole with a risk and reward option on the drive either side of the bunkers. The back 9 was back wind and proved just as hard.
The 10th was way shorter than the card even with the wind. I hit 8 iron and cleared the lot, it should have been a wedge! The 11th yielded another birdie after hitting a lifetime bunker shot from the left hand side greenside bunker that towers above you as can be seen on the photo on the web site. I managed to hole the shot and screams of joy were loud to say the least. The 13th I have to be honest I still don’t know if I like it or not. The wall cuts across immediately in front of the green and no matter how you play the hole the shot into the green is VERY difficult. What makes it doubly hard is that it has to be the smallest narrowest green I have encountered on a top class course. The photo does not give you the full sense of scale. Perfection follows and is a world class hole. Short but perfectly crafted with the sea waiting for anything long. Redan follows and the history does get to you. Yes it is hard to hit the green. My favourite back 9 hole then follows the 16th with the gully in the green. You could have fun setting the pin all year with this one. A tip though. If you have to putt through the valley IT IS A DEAD STARIGHT PUTT!! This is because of the design of the valley making it look like you need to read the putt with great care. It throws the ball one way then the other and it come out on the line you intended. Brilliant! Congratulations to m playing partner Phil who holed a monster from off the green here as well. The closing holes are just as good and the 18th gives a great view especially of the buried pro shop, visit and see what I mean.
In conclusion a great course in superb condition with a friendly welcome and clubhouse. I head a great day and to score under 90 in the conditions with THAT bunker shot will liv with me forever. If you call yourself a golfer simply play it!….AW
I've heard a few people criticise the opening hole but I quite enjoyed it. Anything right is on the beach and given it is only 328 yards long an iron may be the smart play here, particularly when the fairway is so wide. The green is perched up on a hill from the fairway level and this makes precision vital in the approach shot. The second hole is one of the best on the course and is a great "how much do you dare to bite off" hole with the drive having to cross the beach to land on the fairway. The one saving grace is that if the golfer finds the beach and the tide is out, then they can play the next shot from the shore. No matter how much of the corner is cut off the approach is still quite lengthy, adding to the difficulty of the hole. Number 3 also runs alongside the shore however this time an old wall must be first aimed at from the tee then cleared with the approach to land safely on the green. At 464 yards and the S.I # 1 hole this is another close examination to start off a round on the West Links.
The 4th is a nice par 3 that takes the course back inland and is very well laid out with a number of bunkers protecting the two tier green. The 5th is a mid length par 4 with the greens main protection coming in the form of hollows to the left and back - which my ball unfortunately came to rest in and made the chip back very tough indeed. The 6th hole is a short par three played across a large gulley and is anything short here is likely to roll back into the bunker built into the hillside - this hole is reminiscent of the 14th at Royal Musselburgh although the gulley is a little more severe there than at North Berwick and there is more danger in the form of bunkers on the West Links. The 7th, "Eli Burn" was another one of my favourites here with, as you may expect, a burn running in front of the green where the flag was tucked right at the front, bringing the water into play. At 354 yards a fairly decent drive is required to leave a short iron into the green. The 8th is one of the more straight forward holes at North Berwick and as a par 5 of under 500 yards it offers a reasonable chance of a birdie if the numerous bunkers on the hole can be avoided. The 9th is a fine tactical par 5 where the left side of the fairway offers the shortest route to the green but with OB on the left it also is the more dangerous path. A duo of fairway bunkers also make the golfer think about positioning their approach more than they otherwise might.
The sea comes back into view after the turn from the elevated 10th tee where the green is surrounded by five bunkers at the front and sides - longer is definitely better on this hole. The 11th tee is also elevated and with the wind at my back, and a favourable bounce or two, I was able to reach the bunker to the front left of the green in two which was no mean feat given the hole stretches to 550 yards. Although this good work was ruined when my next shot went through the sloping putting surface and found the cavernous bunker at the greenside. The Eli burn must be flown on the 12th, but due to its close proximity to the tee it doesn't really come into play on this slight dog leg of a hole. The 13th is one of North Berwick's quirkier holes with a wall guarding the front of the green, and with the flag tucked directly behind it any approach shot was difficult to get close to the pin. My absolute favourite on the course however, the 14th "Perfection", is a superb hole. The green cannot be seen from the tee, or even the second shot here and the target post provides the only indication of where the approach shot should be played to. The ridged fairway makes the approach all the more difficult to the flattish green which once again reunites the golfer with the beach.
The famous "Redan" is next and the extreme slope of the green makes holding the green a difficult task, particularly as most of the danger is not visible from the tee. Again, being longer rather than short here is preferable. The wall we encountered on the 3rd hole must again be cleared from the 16th tee but isn't really in play on this hole, unfortunately the OB all up the right hand side is and will catch any sliced drive. A burn crossing the middle of the fairway is just the right distance from the tee to suck in any tee shots and a decision must be made to either lay up or try to go over it from the tee. The green complex is another aspect that makes the West Links that little bit different from all the rest and the putting surface is split into to upper levels with a small swale in the middle, making landing the approach on the right side of the green all the more essential. The 17th green is positioned adjacent to the 1st green and a couple of decent strokes must be made to reach the elevated green in regulation although accuracy is again paramount here as the approach could quite possibly fall off either side of the hill if over or under hit. Like the 1st, the 18th has an extra wide fairway and at under 300 yards from an uphill tee box should be near enough driveable, particularly if there is a favourable wind. The bunkerless green lies infront of the grand new clubhouse and while it may not be the strongest finshing hole it offers golfers of all levels the chance to finish on a high.
The clubhouse has been renovated in the last couple of years and the facilities are exceptional inside while still retaining a classy feel befitting of such an historic golf club. I have to say that it was a real treat to play the West Links and I can't wait to return to play this truly outstanding course with it's fine views of Bass Rock and beyond. As a pamphlet that I picked up in the clubhouse quoted "To golfers everywhere, North Berwick is at least a name; the fortunate are those who know its charms at first hand" - a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. DM