Last in a series
NORTH BERWICK, Scotland – When it comes to signature holes, the North Berwick West Links offers a selection – 18 of them.
There may not be another course in the world with more challenging, appealing and resplendent holes than on this 180-year-old layout. Like the Old Course at St. Andrews, North Berwick needs to be a must-play for any Scotland golf tour.
It’s spectacular, certainly enhanced by the bright, gentle afternoon when my son Bobby and I played it in late March. From the first hole’s elevated green abutting the Firth of Forth waterway to the drivable 18th, this is a course that can inspire. Standing out among the many signatures is the par-3, 190-yard 15th, the ‘Redan,’ said to be the most copied hole in the world.
“When the wind blows here, that’s its main defense. We’re just 6,500 yards from the metal tees,” said Chris Spencer, the managing secretary for the North Berwick Golf Club, the 13th oldest in the world. The club has been leasing the land for the course since 1832. It’s the third oldest course playing on its original site behind St. Andrews and Musselburgh Links.
The course is second oldest traditional links in the world. Like St. Andrews, it starts at the clubhouse and goes west – against the prevailing winds – for nine holes then swings back east favoring the wind for the nine in.
“If you can hold your score together four through nine,” Spencer said, “then 10 through 17 tend to be downwind.”
It’s a bit of a drive from Edinburgh northeast to the course, nearly an hour but quite worth the effort. When you stand on the first tee, just a few paces overlooking the wide, white-sand beach below, you see the four small islands in the Forth. The most prominent is Bass Rock, a 300-foot-high tower of volcanic rock. Across the Forth you see the rolling hills of the East Neuk of Fife. It’s stunning. You don’t want to tee off in deference to the views.
Arthur J. Balfour, a early 20th Century UK Prime Minister, former captain of the North Berwick Golf Club and recognized as “the father of English golf,” once wrote of North Berwick: “A tolerable day, a tolerable green, 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, and a clear course in front of him, the golfer should find no difficulty in dismissing all worries from his mind, and regarding golf, even , it may be, very indifferent golf, as the true and adequate end of man’s existence.”
Or, as another way of saying it, it’s a hell of an experience to tee it up here.
After taking on the uphill challenge of the first hole – with high vantage point to gather in the gorgeous views – we played the No. 2 ‘Sea’ hole, a 429-yard par-4. The crescent-shape fairway curves to the right and, according to the local rules, the vast beach is in play. That’s where Bobby put it, halfway to the lapping waves. He managed to get back to grass in one attempt but took a 6.
From there, the course takes you through an old stone wall that once restricted the course’s dimensions. You need to hit over that wall – or bounce through the opening – to reach the green. A nice old touch.
North Berwick is a course that prides itself, among other elements, for its par-3s. None of the four par-3s resemble each other. The first one you will encounter is the 161-yard sixth, the ‘Quarry.’ It’s in a bit of a valley with impenetrable gorse and bunkers on the left and mounds and bunkers on the right.
Two holes later at the 161-yard par-3 sixth, you hit from an elevated tee to an elevated green but there is a gigantic bunker that runs along the length of the green in front and another devious one to the left. I ended up with a par but my game was beginning to suffer from our week-long play.
As we made the turn back east on the 172-yard, par-3 10th, the tee box gives up a sweeping view of the water, the islands and a long perspective of the course.
The wheels came off for me at the par-5, 546-yard 11th hole, a slight dogleg left along the water. My drive was decent and so was my second shot but it motored directly into a bunker. I went from that bunker to another one left of the green. From that bunker I went to another behind the green and it took three shots to get out. Finally, I made an angry, nonchalant 30-foot putt to save a 9.
But both Bobby and I still had one last surge through a series of closing signatures. The 387-yard 13th is one of the more unique holes you will ever play. The green is protected by the stone wall. You have to wedge over it. My 190-yard approach was the best shot of my week. It hit a side hill behind the wall and caromed within 15 feet of the pin, though I didn’t know that until I could peer over the wall.
Bobby, who closed with three pars over the final four holes, hit a 300-yard drive on the 378-yard 16th while I couldn’t clear a burn – twice – a little over 200 yards out. The green has two enormous swales, one in front and one in back. You need to know that before your approach.
It was here that Tom Watson was once tossed off the course. In 1992 when the Open was at nearby Muirfield, he was staying at a hotel overlooking the 16th and watched from his room as golfers tried to negotiate the swales. He came out to play the hole a couple times but a marshal finally caught up to him and ushered him along.
Fifteen years later when the Senior Open was held at Muirfield in 2007, Spencer said he went to a reception and introduced himself to Watson as the North Berwick secretary.
“The very first thing he said to me was, ‘I’ve been thrown off of your golf course,’ ” Spencer said.
Bobby had his best shot of the week at the 15th Redan, a military term for fortification. This 190-yard par-3 looks like two big shoulders from the tee. You have to carry the entire length. If you fall short on a direct path to the pin, you’ll end up in a bunker well below a steep slope. The best approach is a draw over the right side, which is where Bobby took his. He finished with a par on one of the world’s great holes.
He had another par on the 17th, hitting a blind shot out of the sand about 140 yards over a ridge and within 15 feet of the pin.
The par-4 18th is just 277 yards. On a windy day, many golfers can reach it. Beware of slices, however, as there is a line of cars just right of the fairway. The golf course offers free insurance just in case you stray into a windshield.
When the winds are calm, this course can be tamed, just not by me. Trevor Immelman holds the course record at 63. V. J. Singh shot a 65 here. After a slow start, Bobby shot a 37 on the back for an 83.
After the round, it’s not so bad to order some refreshments at the clubhouse, original built in 1880 and renovated in 2008. You can reflect on your round while taking in the views once again. What that might do, however, is make you want to play it over again.