North Berwick West Links, East Lothian, Scotland: Are you sure Old Tom Morris done it this way?

A fresh look at Scotland’s North Berwick West Links in our first column from our international correspondent, Cincinnati Slim, whom we let out of the OneBeardedGolfer.com research bunker beneath The Greenbrier for a brief leave in November:

Despite the ominous skies, the views at North Berwick make a heck of a first impression.

Despite the ominous skies, the views at North Berwick make a heck of a first impression.

First of all, for an American visiting golf’s homeland for the first time, North Berwick Golf Club presents a very confusing start to the day. Unbeknownst to me, the clubhouse is where you change clothes and check in. That’s it.

The pro-shop is in an adjacent building and is there for very limited, specific purposes: for the purchase of clubs, balls, and other equipment.  And most importantly, perhaps, yardage books.

The starter’s house, in yet another building, is where I went to actually pay the green fees for a round of golf.  But because apparently they don’t like money, the starter doesn’t sell yardage books.  Instead, you have to amble back down to the pro shop to get one.

I really was only worried about where the holes were located because North Berwick so wide open, and the holes are generally in close proximity to each other, but the starter indicated that I shouldn’t have a problem with that.

For a course that looks wide open, North Berwick requires precision and exacts a heavy toll on inaccurate shots.

For a course that looks wide open, North Berwick requires precision and exacts a heavy toll on inaccurate shots.

I was a little disappointed that North Berwick doesn’t have caddies.  However, the staff did tell me they could have procured me a “townie” that knew the course, but I probably couldn’t have understood anything he said anyway, so I declined.

There were way more people than I thought would be out on a cold November day, including random dog walkers and joggers. Unlike elite, swanky golf clubs in the U.S., these courses seem to be open to all, including those not playing golf.

Everyone was friendly enough, including the chap I almost hit with a ball careening off of a cart path, as far as I could tell (I didn’t realize there was a language barrier between Yanks and Scots).

Speaking of which, for the life of me I’m not sure why they have cart paths; there were no carts at North Berwick West Links, but whatever.

I can't believe people live in a place where this is a regular and repeating occurrence. On purpose.

I can’t believe people live in a place where this is a regular and repeating occurrence. On purpose.

I encountered miserable weather for the first three holes, by American standards, causing me to question the wisdom of playing, but eventually the weather stabilized into predictably cold and windy conditions, or what the locals deemed “a fine day.”

The front nine at North Berwick plays “out” along the Firth of Forth, where the beach plays as one long gigantic hazard.  While a bit ominous strategically, the views of the crags and islands of Forth on the sea’s horizon are quite stunning.

The back nine plays back “in,” so the individual holes can play very differently depending on the direction of the wind at the moment.

If there is one distinct, most-memorable feature of North Berwick, other than the seaside vistas, it’s that some asshole built a stone wall in the middle of the golf course. The entire course.

The bane of my round. Seriously, who thought a giant stone wall was a good idea on a golf course?

The bane of my round. Seriously, who thought a giant stone wall was a good idea on a golf course?

They must have gotten a great price on the stone and the masons back in the day, because it’s a long goddamn fence. You’d think they would’ve hired some Irishmen to remove the fence at some point, but, whatever.

Also, given the cool, windy, and wet conditions, the greens rolled exceptionally fast, which I definitely had not anticipated.

Reminiscent of the Old Course at St. Andrews, the first and 18th holes share a huge fairway.  Such a vast landing area provides a little much-needed artificial courage on the first tee box, given the enormous but treacherous landscape.

The first hole was very short, but played directly into the teeth of the wind and the rain.

After the fact, I realized that there was plenty of room to the left and no reason to try to challenge the beach on the right, but without the benefit of a yardage book at the time, I put my approach into the Forth, took my drop and two-putted to start the round.

The Eil Burn separating the fairway from the green on the 7th at North Berwick may be the sneakiest hazard on the whole Isle of Great Britain.

This was a common refrain at North Berwick, as several holes have the green right up against either the beach or hazard, or abutting a wall or an out-of-bounds area.

The course had plenty of other tricks up its sleeve that a caddie or yardage book should have been able to warn me about.

For instance, the short par four 7th hole has Eil Burn hidden, laying in wait at the end of the fairway, eliminating the possibility of running an approach onto the green.

Make no mistake, North Berwick’s golf course is a ton of fun to play, even in adverse weather conditions.

Despite the fact that a round there involves all the same elements that any golf course is subject to (i.e., wind, water, elevation changes, turf conditions), playing a true links course like North Berwick is a real treat.

There were small victories, crushing defeats, and episodes of uneasiness and confusion throughout the round.

Two things: 1) genuine surprise to find footprints on the beach, and 2) no way that death-trap ladder is OSHA approved.

Two things: 1) genuine surprise to find footprints on the beach, and 2) no way that death-trap ladder is OSHA approved.

Nonetheless, as I headed for the homestretch, my goal of getting around in under 90 strokes was still plausible, if unlikely.

My epic struggle against golf and nature came to a head at North Berwick’s incredibly difficult final four holes.

Number 15 is the course’s famous Redan hole, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen.  From the tee, the long par-3 looks pretty straight forward…until one actually walks up to the green complex.

The hill in front of the green is actually a false front, with another valley and rise back up to the green lying between the tee and the green. No matter, I’d carried the mounds and thought I’d have a chance to get up-and-down.

Watching my debacle on the 15th green, these guys definitely deemed me a full-on wanker.

Watching my debacle on the 15th green, these guys definitely deemed me a full-on wanker.

My approach came to rest in a perfect spot to putt from just off the green, so naturally I decided to try to chip it up to the cup.

Two chips later, I’d run the ball 35 feet past the goddamned hole down the severely sloping from front to back green.

I was informed after the fact that this is one of the most copied golf hole templates in the world, but personally, I didn’t see anything that a few sticks of dynamite and a shovel crew couldn’t fix.

Similar to number 15, the 16th hole at North Berwick doesn’t particularly strike fear into a golfer’s heart from the tee.  Simply carry the burn dividing the fairway from the tee and take aim at the flag.  Simple, right?

Wrong.  The 16th hole’s massive Biarritz green complex, with a gully bisecting the raised putting surface, makes for some interesting short game decisions if one’s approach doesn’t come to rest on the correct tier.

The Biarritz green at North Berwick's 16th is beautiful, almost like a mirage designed to trick the mind.

The Biarritz green at North Berwick’s 16th is beautiful, almost like a mirage designed to trick the mind.

When I reached the 17th tee, the wear and tear of my Fear and Loathing in Scotland escapades finally hit me.

I was cold, wet, and tired, and my dream of breaking 90  just pooh-poohed itself with my double bogey on the Biarritz.  So, naturally, the 17th hole is where the lack of a yardage book or caddie becomes important.

Thus far, I’d been navigating the course solely on the little map on the back of my scorecard, which was difficult on the first tee and damn near impossible now that the card had all but disintegrated after 16 holes of on-again, off-again rain.

Somehow, I misread the little scorecard map, because I thought the hole was a dog-leg left. Wrong.

One snap hook later my ball was resting comfortably in the Firth of Forth (again), and I was dropping three from as far away from the green as I could without boarding a ship.

I've not yet played The Old Course, but North Berwick's 18th tee has to be every bit the knee-knocker as the Road Hole or the 18th tee shot.

I’ve not yet played The Old Course, but North Berwick’s 18th tee has to be every bit the knee-knocker as the Road Hole or the 18th tee shot.

Which, in retrospect, may have been better, because at least then I could’ve scaled the main mast and figured out in what direction the damn green was from where I was standing. Just a disaster all around.

Finally, on the 18th tee, my dream of breaking 90 was long dead, but the possibility of breaking a window or somebody’s skull was very much alive.

The 18th green at North Berwick is conveniently located at the intersection of “Don’t park there” and “This is why they sell you insurance with your round.”

Any shot even remotely right is endangers not only a decent score, but also the kindly townsfolk.  So, after aiming left and snap-hooking my approach just for good measure, I was able to get on and off the green without damage to anything but my pride.

Cold, wet, and wind shorn, I was happy to have played at North Berwick.  It was a golf round unlike anything I could imagine possible stateside.

Ever I had the opportunity to play it again, I would definitely purchase a yardage book.  The views of the sea and the Islands of Forth are incredible, and the true links golf experience is definitely one for the memory banks.

As I walked back to the car park, I was beginning to wonder if the Sun ever shone in Scotland.

As I walked back to the car park, I was beginning to wonder if the Sun ever shone in Scotland.

Even if I couldn’t understand anything anybody said to me the entire time I was there.

In a little twist of the knife, as I was walking off the 18th green, the weather gods, in their infinite magnanimity, granted me a stray ray of sunshine for the first time since I’d set foot in Scotland.

It’s okay, even under trying conditions, I’d been granted some tremendously breathtaking views during my round.  Enjoy a few extra snapshots below.

Despite Slim’s absence, the rest of the OneBeardedGolfer.com’s crack research staff was able to cobble together a few vital statistics on North Berwick Golf Club for your perusal.

North Berwick West Links Quick Facts

Not exactly the Ohio River we're used to in the Queen City.

Not exactly the Ohio River we’re used to in the Queen City.

  • The golf course at North Berwick Golf Club is properly known as the West Links, the result of several other golf courses that once occupied the adjacent properties, which are now lands upon which the course is maintained.
  • One of a few golf courses in Scotland that is so old that its exact origins are unknown, as golf at North Berwick dates to the rudimentary golf days when the sport was borderline illegal.
  • There is no architect, save The Almighty, credited with laying the Club’s initial holes. Only St. Andrews’ and Mussellburgh’s Old Courses are older courses still playing golf on original fairways.
  • The course was expanded to a proper nine holes around 1868, at which time the famous Redan hole was created.
North Berwick seems like a quaint summer sea town, with a train station just 5 minutes from the course.

North Berwick seems like a quaint summer sea town, with a train station just 5 minutes from the course.

  • The current 18-hole layout is a result of alterations to the course overseen by Ben Sayers in 1932.
  • The members (and visitors) tees at North Berwick measures to 6,420 yards with par at 71
  • North Berwick has three famous holes (with commentary from the North Berwick Golf Club history page):
  • The 13th (“Pit”). A short par 4 calling for an imaginative approach to a sunken green behind a wall. Take time to look west and enjoy the view to Fidra, thought to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”.
  • The 14th (“Perfection”). Legend has it that this hole is so christened because it requires two perfect shots to hit the green. It might also be because of the sublime view, this time to the Bass Rock, home to one of the world’s largest gannet populations.
Links courses seem to love blind shots, as the tee shot of the 14th hole pictured here required.

Links courses seem to love blind shots, as the tee shot of the 14th hole pictured here required.

  • The 15th (“Redan”). The original, copied many times. A testing par 3 played to a large, steeply sloping green. Beware the vast hidden gully to the right front of the green. The hole plays every inch of its length.
  • The West Links is regularly a qualifying site for The Open Championship when the Open Rotation moves to nearby Muirfield.
  • North Berwick Golf Club welcomes visitors and Green Fees for visitors vary seasonably from £45 – £105.
  • All 18 holes are individually named, and we have no idea what most of the names mean or their origins.
With views like this, how Slim played ultimately on this assignment didn't really matter much.

With views like this, how Slim played ultimately on this assignment didn’t really matter much.

  • The Club was open and happy to have Slim play in late November in miserable weather, so presumably, the course is open for play year round.  One should probably call first.
  • Gentlemen visitors must have an active handicap index of 24 in order to be allowed to play the West Links.  For ladies, the threshold is a handicap index of 36.

 

 

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