North Berwick is one of the genuinely fun golf courses of Scotland. Ancient stone walls dissect many of the holes, exposed rock surfaces on a number of the fairways, and stunning views frame large sections of the course. The town of North Berwick is charming in its own right, and the locals become part of the experience as they spill across the golf course onto the adjacent beaches. The experience of playing North Berwick is very memorable, and because of this, it has gained a cult following among many of the better travelled golfers in the world. It is rare to find a knowledgeable golfer who doesn’t love the quirkiness and design of North Berwick.
Four golf clubs play their golf over the North Berwick West Links, but it is North Berwick Golf Club that manages the course and serves as the major club in the area. I have been treated incredibly well every time that I have visited North Berwick Golf Club. A sign outside of the clubhouse reads, “Your green fee ticket entitles you to temporary membership of the North Berwick Golf Club where you will be made welcome by the members.” The membership and staff take on this creed wholeheartedly, making guests feel genuinely welcomed and at ease.
The North Berwick West Links are filled with character and exemplify the story of many historic Scottish golf courses. Organized play began on the links in 1832 with a course comprised of six holes. Land was acquired from one of the members in 1868 to extend the course to nine holes, with one of the new holes being the famed Redan. Course development then escalated with the same family allowing nine new holes to be built on their land, expanding the layout to eighteen holes. Many of those eighteen holes were very short, and a final expansion in 1895 gathered enough land for a course of respectable length. Ben Sayers oversaw routing changes in 1932 that established the layout seen today, albeit with minor changes. This amalgamation of design changes and course growth created something a modern course designer simply cannot replicate.
The start to the round immediately alerts golfers to the quirky and unique course that lies ahead. The blind green is marked by the white pole in the distance, and a long iron off the tee sets up an approach from the area of the exposed rock on the left. The beach runs down the right side of the hole and is in play as a large hazard. The green, also seen above, is deceptively large and offers an excellent view of the beach and the Bass Rock in the distance.
Hole #2 – 414 yards – “Sea”The 2nd hole hugs the beach and the white flag can be seen in the distance once the photo is enlarged (click on photo). Golfers can bite off as much hazard as they dare, but hearing the waves crash next to the tee subconsciously moves the aiming point further and further left.
Hole #3 – 460 yards – “Trap”The approach shot on the 3rd hole is the golfer’s first introduction to the ancient stone walls criss-crossing the course. Strategy is affected as longer golfers can get fairly close to the wall with their tee shot and the wall can be difficult to clear off the tight links turf. The wall is approximately 155 yards from the green, so laying well back from the wall leaves a lengthy approach.
Hole #4 – 168 yards – “Carlekemp”
This par 3 becomes even more difficult when heavy summer rough surrounds the green. The green complex is particularly interesting with an open entrance and well bunkered left and right sides. Because the putting surface is so narrow, a very accurate tee shot is required to hit in this green in regulation.
Hole #6 – 139 yards – “Quarry”The 6th is another strong one shot hole at North Berwick. A valley, or old quarry of sorts, lies between the tee and green with a deep bunker sitting at the bottom. The green is very large, and with the wind into our faces during our round, I hit my 175 club into this back pin.
Hole #7 – 344 yards – “Eil Burn”Longer hitters should be aware of this tee shot during the summer months. Long running shots can end up in the burn, which is just short of the green. I found this out during my first round at North Berwick, when I ripped a drive down the center and found my ball swimming in the burn. The best play is to lay back on this hole, leaving a full club into the green rather than a half shot flirting with the burn.
Hole #9 – 502 yards – “Mizzentop”The angle from which I took this photo does not portray the sharp dogleg left shape of this hole. Two bunkers guard the inside of the dogleg and deter longer hitters from attempting to cut off the corner. The raised green is heavily bunkered, but a backstop saves longer approach shots from running over the green. These holes at the turn were part of the later expansions on the course, and I really like them. That being said, they have different character from the original sections of the course. More specifically, holes 6-12 have a different, but not necessarily weaker, feel than the rest of the course.
Hole #10 – 153 yards – “Eastward Ho” The downhill approach shot to this well bunkered green leaves golfers particularly exposed to the wind. This is another great par 3 green complex at North Berwick. Although it was not initially apparent to any of the golfers in our group, the putting surface slopes from right to left. This heavy slope, disguised partly due to the raised green and bunkers, caused misreads and three putts in our group.
Hole #13 – 362 yards – “Pit”
The 13th is one of the most famous holes at North Berwick and is certainly one of the most photographed. One of the course’s many stone walls runs directly in front of the green, cutting off the fairway from the putting surface. The green is sunk, and a large dune frames the back of the green. This is one of the most distinctive holes on the course. A modern course could never get away with having a wall directly in front of the green. There is a real urge to drop a handful of balls and practice approach shots to this green while standing in the fairway. The photo above is taken from behind the green looking back down the hole.
Hole #14 – 358 yards – “Perfection” The 14th is said to have been named “Perfection” because it required two perfect shots to hit the green. With modern club and ball technology, the hole has become quite short, but two good shots are still required to hit this green. Bunkers stand in the fairway about 225 yards from tee, and a 135 yard approach is left in from that point. After hitting your blind approach shot at the white marker post, an amazing view is found at the top of the hill looking down at the green and the Firth of Forth beyond. In firm and fast conditions, a running ball landing short of the green is the best play.
Hole #15 – 178 yards – “Redan” The Redan hole is the last par 3 on the course. The hole is famously the most replicated hole in golf course architecture. A large number of the top 100 golf courses in the world feature a Redan hole, but the original stands alone. The Redan hole features a green that slopes from right to left and away from the player. Landing a shot on this raised right hand side will propel a ball down and left towards the heart of the green. Bunkers can be found short of the green and off the lefthand side of the green. There are many ways to play the Redan hole, depending on the pin position, which is one reason that it is such a great design. Once you begin to look for Redan layouts, you begin to see them on many of the great courses of the world.
Hole #16 – 360 yards – “Gate”The green at the 16th hole is the most unique green on the course. It is made up of two islands, with a massive trench dividing them. The photo above is taken from the rear island, and the pin can be seen on the front portion of the green. Both of the putting areas on this green are very small, and it is difficult to hold approach shots anywhere near the pin. The trench dividing the two sections of green is nearly four feet below the higher levels of the putting surface.
Hole #17 – 405 yards – “Point Garry (in)” The 17th is a fairly nondescript tee shot with the correct line being the Bass Rock seen in the distance. A single fairway bunker guards the landing area from which the blind approach shot is struck towards the large green. The red flag seen on the horizon line in the top photo is the 17th flag. The green is a bowl shape, sloping heavily from back to front and running off on the left side. Excellent views can be seen from this raised green.
Hole #18 – 269 yards – “Home”Some write off the finishing hole of the course as weak and short, but I find it to be part of the charm of North Berwick. It is reminiscent of the St Andrews Old Course’s finishing hole, with cars lining the right side, clubhouse in the background, and a “valley of sin” guarding the front of the green. The hole is certainly a birdie opportunity for longer golfers. Interestingly, visiting golfers are issued a card with the club’s insurance details to produce when they hit the cars lining the fairway. Thankfully our group went damage free on the last hole.
Many golf writers and other members of the media played North Berwick while visiting the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield. The response to the course was overwhelmingly positive, and their reviews and photos added to the following that North Berwick has gathered over the years. There are a number of unique Scottish courses that fall into a similar category as North Berwick, most notably Cruden Bay and Prestwick. These courses will not be hosting the next Open Championship, but after playing most of the great links courses of Scotland, my rounds at these unique courses stand out as some of the most memorable.