North Berwick West Links: the rite of passage introduction to Scottish links

The serene view from the 1st tee of the seemingly simple hole will beguile golfers unaware of the intrigue and excitement soon to follow.

Playing the ancient North Berwick West Links upon arrival to Scotland should be a required rite of passage for first time visitors. A course that exemplifies the very definition of links golf, it’s a foundational round upon which any golf trip to East Lothian, Fife, or Open Rota Quest can be built.

The Setting

The West Links possesses every important characteristic that any golf pilgrim wants to experience in Scotland: wind, sea, dunes, out and back routing, riveted face bunkers, wide playing corridors, and nary a tree in play the entire round.

All of that in a tidy package of less than 6,200 yards from the members tees, which is what visitors are generally allowed to play. It usually requires special permission from the starter to attempt to play the championship tees at North Berwick, which measure almost 6,600 yards or more.

There exists an abundance of great, world class golf courses located near North Berwick that are equally easy to reach by train, car, or bus. It stands out above the rest of its East Lothian brethren, save for Muirfield and the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, for its history, ancient routing, charms and character.

Wrinkled land, sunken bunkers, rock walls, dykes and burns, and enough wind to straighten a hog’s tail, all part of the package on the West Links.

The West Links (the proper title of the physical golf course) is jammed between the village of North Berwick and the Firth of Forth, the sea separating East Lothian from Fife. The sea, its dunes, and beaches come into play on six holes, most notably on the second hole.

Despite being largely flat or gently sloping land, tucked behind gentle three and four story tall dunes, there are breathtaking views of the water and the unique collection of islands located just offshore.

On the inland side of the course, beautiful cottages and estate homes sit on the high ground, enjoying what one would assume are splendid views of the golf course and the bay beyond the dunes. However, other than along the 18th fairway, there are no houses or roads that actually intrude upon playing of the course.

Hard to overstate how much the existence of even the smallest water hazard can amplify the challenge of a hole, like the par four 7th.

North Berwick may be the best, most famous golf course that is almost universally described, at least in part, as quirky. The charm comes from the course’s simplicity and the antiquity of the playing field, unyielding to the march forward of time.

The History

The West Links Course at North Berwick is an ancient links land, with organized golf having been played over what are now portions of the golf course since 1832. Rare among Scottish courses, there is no architect credited with laying out the golf course.

The course evolved from a 6-hole course east of the March Dyke, eventually growing incrementally as additional land was obtained, down the coast westward to form the modern layout in 1932. At some point, North Berwick was overrun with the golfing craze, and the town obtained and expanded the Glen Links course on the other side of town, which remains in operation today.

The men credited with laying out the various iterations of the West Links include golf professionals local to North Berwick, as well as the most famous of early golf pioneers, Old Tom Morris. As the course was organized in stages, the names responsible for the West Links include John Whitecross (1868), Morris  Dave Strath (1876),  Tom Anderson and James Lister (1895), and finally Ben Sayers and C.K. Hutchison (1932).

The Course

Part of the fun of North Berwick is that very subtle things end up making a huge difference, like here at the par three 10th green. Missing your target by a yard or two either direction can yield vastly disparate results.

The West Links follow a traditional links style routing, with the first eight holes playing away from the clubhouse, the 9th hole providing the transition from the inland to the sea, and the final 9 holes playing back to the clubhouse.

It’s an incredibly easy walk, even with some notable elevation changes within certain holes. While a particular piece of the ground may be rumpled or rounded, the land is largely flat or gently sloping, at best, as it is the transition from the town to the sea. The topography might best be described as tumbling and slightly pitched as the loop is completed.

There are several opportunities to get lost on the way around the course, and aiming at the wrong target during the round is a real possibility to one unfamiliar with the figure-eight routing.

The first three holes play out along the sea wall. The routing then crosses over so that holes number four through eight play against the inland property boundary.  The 10th thru 14th holes then play along the dunes and sea wall in the opposite direction, before crossing over to the inland side of the course again for the final four holes.

The inland land grows flatter on the front nine until one reaches the 10th tee, tucked high upon one of the fantastic dunes separating the course from the sea. Taking the panorama from the 10th and 11th tee boxes, it becomes obvious that the course was very much found rather than created.

The tee shot on the 2nd hole yields an incredible view, and reminded me of several decidedly modern golf holes I’d played.

While there is diversity among the types of bunkers (pots, riveted faces, flat bottoms with grass surrounds), they are almost all dug out rather than built up.  Being concealed and their bottoms below fairway or green height makes them truly hazardous from a strategic perspective, and allows them not to intrude or dominate the course’s sight lines, keeping attention alternately on the course’s vast horizon and its interminable quirks.

Featured Holes

After a relatively gentle opening hole, the West Links gives golfers a full dose of what lies ahead in the rest of the round from the second tee, providing one of the most spectacular views on the course.

The 419 par four, playing into the predominant wind, requires a nervy tee shot over the corner of the beach and Firth of Forth to the diagonally positioned fairway, or risk leaving a brutally difficult second shot.

Cut too much of the corner from the second tee, hugging too close to the coastline and risk having to play a second shot from the beach (as one of our group did). Bail out too far left and risk finding the long rough between the 2nd and 17th fairways, which would likely leave more than 200 yards to the green. It’s a brilliant test of execution.

The 6th green is a big, inviting target, but the need to clear the “Quarry” creates an opportunity to “try to do too much” with an otherwise simple shot.

The intimidating angle of a fairway situated diagonally from the tee box might as well be the template for the similar cut-the-corner holes found on nearly every Pete Dye-designed golf course, often mislabeled as Cape template hole. One beautiful quality of North Berwick’s second hole is that unless there is an angry sea or it’s high tide, wayward drivers can actually play a shot from the beach, leaving a realistic chance to save par.

That the second hole is reminiscent of golf holes found in more modern golf architecture represents another characteristic of the West Links, that features, or entire holes, feel familiar because they have been the inspiration for holes built elsewhere around the globe.

For instance, approaching the green of 139-yard par three 6th hole spawned feelings of famous Golden Age era holes that often show up on “best of” lists or Instagram photo arrays. Walking up to the green, Camargo Club’s famous par three template holes instantly came to mind.

The intimidating visual presentation of the short par 3 sixth hole, impresses the ancient quality of the West Links upon the golfer.

What at first appears to be a pushed up green at the 6th hole is actually a ground-level green from which the earth directly in front of the putting surface had been removed. The hole, aptly named “Quarry,” supports the notion that this may be one of the few entirely man made features on the course (I suspect for ancient military or commercial purposes).

The flat bottomed bunker fronting the green several feet below the surface must be carried, a strategic point complicated by the hole playing into the predominant wind. This puts pressure on golfers on an otherwise short, simple tee shot,  increasing the likelihood of pressing a bit, resulting in hitting into one of the other four bunkers situated on the left or right of the green.

The 509-yard par five 8th hole, the first of back-to-back par fives, presents a ribbon of fairway playing past the out of bounds fence way left, with a barely visible collection of evil, riveted face bunkers dotting the path all the way to the green.

There is more sand and more bunkers on the 8th hole than anywhere else on the course, but you have to look hard to find them ahead of time.

It’s the final hole played in the outward direction into the predominant wind; it’s a hole that would fit very well strategically and aesthetically on Carnoustie’s Championship course, on any links course in St. Andrews, or even on Fife’s south coast (Leven Links, Lundin Links, etc.). It’s a hole on which one must think before they hit, and poor execution will likely cost at least half a stroke, which sums up most of Scottish links golf.

As inspiring and memorable as the first nine holes of the West Links are, the course’s All-Stars populate the second nine holes on the way back to the clubhouse. The short par three 10th hole and long par five 11th hole provide immediate tests of managing the wind in the opposite direction from just survived on the previous 9 holes.

The short par four 12th hole is a test of either restraint and self-control, or an episode for adrenaline and execution. A vicious collection of bunkers on both sides constrict the fairway at the exact distance to which many players would prefer to lay up.

This forces a decision to try to drive past the bunkers, leaving but a pitch to the green, but bringing the bunkers in play from the tee, or laying much further back, creating a more difficult second shot into one of the course’s most segmented greens, undulating.

Taking on the wall, leaving a skinny angle to the green gives a player the best look at the 13th green.

The next four holes, numbers 13 thru 16, comprise perhaps the most famous, most quirky holes at North Berwick in ascending order of glory and uniqueness. The collection is in the running for best four hole stretch of golf anywhere.

The starting point of this great run is, simply put, the hole with the green behind the wall. Named “Pit,” the short par four 13th hole is framed by a long rock wall to the left of the fairway, separating it from the sea. However, the green is not on the same side of the wall as the rest of the hole.

Instead, the green is nestled down in the pit between a large grassy dune and the aforementioned rock wall, creates a punch bowl-like quality for the green.

At only 363 yards, playing downwind, driver is an aggressive, borderline unnecessary play that yields little advantage. The strategic risk-reward dynamic is in choosing how close to the rock wall one wants to play the second shot from, as the closer to the wall, the better the view of the green and the better the opportunity to use the contours of the pit to shape a shot. It’s a tremendously fun hole.

The Pit. One of the most unique green complexes and surrounds in all of golf.

The transition from the “Pit” to the 359-yard, par four 14th hole is a move from a partially obscured green to a hole that has both a blind fairway landing area and a completely blind green. Named “Perfection,” it’s an exceptional hole for putting a difficult decision to the golfer with less than perfect information.

The fairway, and its hazards, are obscured from the view from the tee by dunes, long grasses, and elevation changes. The pot bunkers that guard the right side of the 5th green will collect any shot that misses the fairway right from 180 to 220 yards from the tee, making a layup extremely challenging.

The fairway runs out with a hard downhill tumble, ending in two coffin bunkers at the base of a ridge, at 270 yards. The green is perched atop the low point of the ridge above the fairway, completely hidden from the fairway or the right rough. The forward pitch of the approach area means that landing an approach shot up to 35 yards short of the green will trickle down onto the putting surface, all out of the view of the golfer.

“Perfection” contains one of the world’s best blind shots, building anticipation to rush to see the result like no where else.

It looks fairly benign at first glance, but the subtle undulations and ridges create real opportunities and dangers on the Redan hole.

The long, par three 15th hole is the original Redan hole, one of the most famous, most copied, interpreted, and reproduced golf holes in the world. It serves as a true template, very much a foundational design within golf course architecture circles.

Strategically, the Redan hole presents a very specific set of problems that must be solved with little margin for error for each specific pin position. The green tilts from the front right corner to the back left quadrant, making the ideal shot one that lands on or near the front right of the green and rolls towards the center or back of the green.

There is a frighteningly deep bunker guarding the left side of the green that must be avoided. A large mound splits the area between the tee and the green, creating a valley in front of the green, which makes landing a ball short and running it up an extremely tough proposition. That mound obscures the view of the approach and the front of the green; the mound’s two bunkers, though rarely in play, provide an important visual intimidation mechanism from the tee.

After surviving the Redan hole, golfers are faced with a lot going on visually from the 16th tee. Walls, burns, out of bounds, it’s a lot to take in.

North Berwick’s Redan plays roughly 178 yards, which means that even with the wind at a player’s back, most players will be playing a middle or short iron.

The significance of the distance is that players must guard against a lower trajectory shot careening off the back or left side of the green, or approaching the green too fast and not getting the benefit of the green’s natural pitch and roll.

The hole exudes an understated genius quality in that none of the strategy, save for avoiding the deep left-side bunker, is obvious from the tee the first time around. While there’s nothing wrong with aiming for the middle of the green and hoping for the best on any Redan hole, the hole reveals a little more of itself with each subsequent look.

Concluding the West Links’ rock star stretch is the short par four 16th hole, on which there is nothing subtle or indistinct. Named “Gate,” the 16th hole requires a tee shot over a rock wall only a few dozen yards in front of the tee and a burn roughly 200 yards from the tee, all while minding the out-of-bounds fence along the entire right side of the hole.

Once those hazards are negotiated, to quote the yardage book, “the real test starts.”

Sometimes golfers must laugh to keep from crying; especially the ones near the 16th green at North Berwick.

To call the 16th green unique highlights the insufficiency of the English language as a communication medium, but suffice it to say, they don’t build them like that anymore.

Imagine someone wanted to bury an old-timey train passenger car diagonally at the end of a fairway, but quit halfway through the job, opting to cover it with sod instead.

Then, someone else cut and removed out a cross-section six feet wide from the middle of that half-buried train car, but did so at such an angle that the removed section was perpendicular to the fairway, not the buried train car remains. And it all was then left to decay naturally in the seaside winds and storms for at least a century.

That begins to describe the 16th green, but is insufficient to convey the feeling of seeing it for the first time. For golf architecture aficionados, it’s like a pushed-up Biarritz green designed and constructed by people overdosing on hallucinogens in the middle of a freakout.

The green is surrounded by closely mown turf (save for the narrow bunker guarding the left side), which gives a player options, like putting with a hybrid or fairway wood, in addition to wedges and a putter, in theory, to try to stop their ball on the putting surface if the green has been missed.

The reality is that the smart play is likely an effort aimed away from the flag if one is playing from a perpendicular either side of the green.

Somewhere up there, on top of that distant hill, lies the gigantic 17th green.

Like so many other parts of the North Berwick experience, the 16th hole gives a player an opportunity to perhaps play a shot that they have never conceived before, yet presents it in a way that could be useful in future rounds at other courses.

Though less remarkable and famous than the preceding handful of holes, the long, uphill par four 17th hole provides another opportunity to hit that elusive great shot to an unseen green, hidden by camouflage of the rolling terrain and elevation change.

The gigantic bowl green collects from nearly any angle or trajectory, so long as the player is bold enough to get the ball all the way to a point out of their vision, a common requirement of links land golf.

The West Links’ loop concludes in much that same way a round at the Old Course does, with a shot towards a gigantic shared fairway between the 1st and 18th holes, with a stately clubhouse in the background, and a road full of parked cars to the immediate right of said fairway.

There are plenty of great views and vistas from the West Links, but the 17th green may have the very best.

North Berwick is enigmatic in that way; the course is one of a kind, yet consists of so many elements that feel familiar because they can be found at other golf courses.

The Experience

A trip around the West Links ought to be required for first time golf visitors to Scotland, particularly those arriving through Edinburgh. It’s a short drive or train ride from central Edinburgh to the northern tip of East Lothian where the course sits.

Unfortunately for our group, it’s a ridiculously longer bus ride from central Edinburgh on those rare (we were told) occasions when the trains are on fire or otherwise broken down. The bus got the job done, but as in most things, you get what you pay for as far as quality of transportation.

There’s no Swilcan Bridge or burn, but the visual of the 18th fairway has a distinctly Old Course feel to it, with many of the same elements present.

The starter and pro shop staff were incredibly accommodating with our improvised itinerary. We were able to just sneak off ahead of a member match play tournament.

We didn’t know it was a match play event, so as groups started walking in around us beginning on the 12th hole. I was mortified that we were playing too slow and members were heading in around us in protest, so I was delighted to learn that their matches had simply concluded in less than 18 holes.

In addition to scorecards and yardage books, which I highly recommend purchasing, the course provides a Pin Location Card of the day’s hole locations and a small card of the local rules for every golfer, nice touches that instantly endear the club favorably before a single shot is struck.

It rained on us during our late October round for exactly two holes. From our approach shots on the 14th hole until our approach shots on the 16th hole, a nice rain/sleet mix left us scrambling to don our rain gear. That massive storm accounted for exactly half of the rain we saw on the golf courses of Scotland.

I’m sure the North Berwick Golf Club’s clubhouse is a lovely place to visit, and I regret that we didn’t take advantage of our member-for-the-day status. However sleep-deprived and starving, we headed into town to seek shelter from the omnipresent wind and sustenance for our bodies. The Ship Inn, though on the edge of comfortable walking distance from the West Links after walking a round, met our needs more than satisfactorily, with style and comfort.

North Berwick has it all. Fun, challenging golf. Beautiful sights of land and sea. All you could want from links golf.

The West Links course is a remarkable collection of golf holes, yet it is so much more than that. One could have a grand golf trip simply playing the West Links repeatedly until it came time to return home.

However, it is such a perfect course to begin a tour of Scottish golf, presenting natural and man made elements in ways that are copied or interpreted on golf courses around the world.

I can’t imagine ever traveling through Edinburgh, the capital of the Scotland’s Golf Coast, without repeating the pilgrimage to North Berwick.

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