Although golf has become Scotland's pride, the sport hasn't always been so well received. Monks around St. Andrews weren't applauded when they diverted themselves from a schedule of felling trees and praying to play gowff, and James I and James II rather churlishly issued edicts prohibiting its practice. Despite that, by the mid-1700s the game was firmly entrenched in Scotland and viewed as a bucolic oddity by Englishmen chasing hounds in the milder climes to the south.
Scotland has more than 440 golf courses, many of them municipal courses open to everyone. Some are royal and ancient (such as St. Andrews), others modern and hip. An example of a well-received relative newcomer is the Loch Lomond course in the Trossachs, established as a private club in 1993. Although they lie as far north as Sutherland, only 6 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, most of Scotland's courses are in the Central Belt, stretching from Stirling down to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Fortunately, you don't need to lug a set of clubs across the Atlantic, because many courses rent full or half sets. If you're female or plan on playing golf with someone who is, be aware that some courses are restricted to men only, while others limit female play to designated days. Despite this tradition-bound holdover from another era, women's golf thrives in Scotland, with about 33,000 members in the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association. The Ladies British Open Amateur Championship was first held in 1893. (The U.S. equivalent was first held in 1895.) Contact Mrs. L. H. Park, Secretary, Scottish Ladies Golfing Association (tel. 01738/442-357; www.slga.co.uk), for information on tournaments or finding women golf partners.
Sharing offices with the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association is the Scottish Golf Union, established in 1920 to foster and maintain a high standard of amateur golf in Scotland.
Any serious golfer who will be in Scotland for a long stay should consider joining a local club. Membership makes it easier to get coveted tee times, and attending or competing in a local club's tournaments can be both fun and sociable. If you won't be staying long, you might not bother, but remember to bring a letter from a golf club in your home country -- it can open a lot of doors otherwise closed to the general public.
Access to many private clubs can be dicey, however, particularly those boasting so much tradition that waiting lists for tee-off times can stretch on for up to a year in advance. You can always stay in a hotel (Gleneagles or Turnberry) that has its own course, thereby guaranteeing the availability of tee times. Or you can arrange a golf tour .
Abandon forever any hope of balmy tropical weather, azure skies, and lush fairways. Scotland's rains and fogs produce an altogether different kind of golf-related aesthetic, one buffeted by coastal winds, sometimes torn by gales and storms, and (in some places) accented only with salt-tolerant tough grasses and wind-blown stunted trees and shrubs such as gorse and heather.
Knowing a term or two in advance might help in picking your golf course. The Scots make a strong distinction between their two types of courses: links and upland. Links courses nestle into the sandy terrain of coastal regions, and although years of cultivation have rendered their fairways and putting greens emerald colored, there's a vague sense that eons ago the terrain was submerged beneath the water. Links courses are among the famous names in Scotland and include Royal Troon, Turnberry, Prestwick, North Berwick, and Glasgow Gailes. All links courses are on or near the sea. Upland courses, by contrast, are based inland and invariably consist of hilly terrain. They're usually drier and less windy than links courses. Nonetheless, it rains a lot in Scotland, so a sweater and rain gear are recommended for all courses. Examples of upland courses are Gleneagles, Loch Lomond, and Pitlochry.
Access for nonmembers to the country's maze of golf courses hasn't always been possible. All that changed in 1988, however, with the establishment of Golf International, 14 E. 38th St., New York, NY 10016 (tel. 800/833-1389 or 212/986-9176; www.golfinternational.com), which maintains a branch office in St. Andrews, the ivy-clad sanctum sanctorum of the golfing world. The company caters to golfers from moderate to advanced levels and, against hitherto impossible odds, will guarantee its clients starting times at 40 or so of Scotland's most sought-after courses, including St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Prestwick, and Gullane.
Potential clients, in self-organized groups of 2 to 12, produce a wish list of the courses they'd like to play. Starting times are prearranged (sometimes rigidly) with an ease that an individual traveler or even a travel agent would find impossible. Packages can be arranged for anywhere from 5 to 14 days (the average is about 7 days) and can include as much or as little golf, at as many courses, as you want. Weekly prices, including hotels, breakfasts, car rentals, greens fees, and the services of a greeter and helpmate at the airport, range from £1,069 to £5,288 per person. Discounted airfares to Scotland can also be arranged.
Other companies specializing in golf tours are Adventures in Golf, 22 Greeley St., 7 Medallion Center, Merrimack, NH 03054 (tel. 877/424-7320 or 603/424-7320; www.adventures-in-golf.com); Classic Golf & Leisure, 75-770 McLachlin Circle, Palm Desert, CA 92211 (tel. 800/283-1619 or 760/772-2560; www.classic-golf.com); ITC Golf Tours, 2428 Lewis Ave., Signal Hill, CA 90755 (tel. 800/257-4981 or 562/595-6905; www.itcgolf-africatours.com); Perry Golf, 1904 Eastwood Rd., Ste. 315, Wilmington, NC 28403 (tel. 800/344-5257 or 910/795-1048; www.perrygolf.com); and Tayleur Mayde Golf Tours, 21 Castle St., Edinburgh EH2 3DA (tel. 800/847-8064 in the U.S., or 0131/225-9114; www.tayleurmayde.com).
The Classic Courses
The Carnoustie Golf Links, Links Parade, Carnoustie, Angus (tel. 01241/802-270; www.carnoustiegolflinks.co.uk), has a par of 72. This 6,941-yard championship course requires the use of a caddy, costing £40 for 18 holes. As with most championship courses, electric golf carts aren't allowed, but you can rent a trolley for £4 per round (trolleys permitted May-Oct only). Greens fees are £115, and club rentals, available at the pro shop, cost £35.
The par-72 Old Course, St. Andrews, Golf Place, St. Andrews, Fife (tel. 01334/466-666; www.standrews.org.uk), is a 6,566-yard, 18-hole course. Golf was first played here around 1400, and it's billed as the Home of Golf. This fabled course hosted the 2000 British Open and witnessed history when Tiger Woods became the youngest golfer to complete a grand slam (and only the fifth golfer to ever perform the feat). In 2005, the Open returned to St. Andrews -- and Woods once again was its champion. Greens fees are £125, a caddy costs £40 plus tip, and clubs rent for £20 to £30 per round. Electric carts are not allowed, and you can rent a trolley on afternoons only, between May and October, for £3. Reservations must be made in advance.
The 18-hole Royal Dornoch Golf Club, Dornoch, Sutherland (tel. 01862/810-219; www.royaldornoch.com), 65km (40 miles) north of Inverness, has a par of 70. At this 6,514-yard course, the greens fees are £52 to £78 Monday to Friday and £58 to £88 on Saturday and Sunday (members only). Golf club and trolley rentals are £15 to £25 and £3 to £5, respectively. Caddy service is available for £35 plus tip.
The par-71 Royal Troon Golf Club, Craigend Road, Troon, Ayrshire (tel. 01292/311-555; fax 01292/318-204; www.royaltroon.co.uk), has one of the largest courses in Scotland, with 7,079 yards of playing area. The greens fees of £220 for a day include a buffet lunch and two 18-hole sets. For one round of play, a trolley rents for £3 and a caddy £35; club rental is £25 per round or £40 per day.
The Turnberry Hotel Golf Courses, Ayrshire (tel. 01655/333-000; www.turnberry.co.uk), gives priority at its 6,976-yard, par-70 course to guests of the hotel. The greens fees -- £45 to £135 for guests and £60 to £200 for nonguests -- include 18 holes on the Ailsa course and an 18-hole round on the less-desirable Kintyre course. For one round, clubs rent for £50 and caddy service costs £40 plus tip. If you're not staying here, call in the morning to check on any unclaimed tee times -- but it's a long shot.
A Warning for Beginners -- Neophytes unfamiliar with the rules of the game simply aren't allowed to play the country's most legendary golf courses. Many courses will want evidence of your familiarity with the game before you're allowed on the links. Depending on the setting and the season, this could include a letter from your club back home citing your ability and experience, or visual proof that you've mastered a basically sound swing and an understanding of golf-related etiquette.