Sam Cooper: My Scotland links Dream 18

Sam Cooper: My Scotland links Dream 18

"I want every hole in its proper place, I want four par-3s and four par-5s – and the catch is that I don’t want you to pick any holes from the top 20 courses on the list. There’s no point in you exploring all the courses in Scotland just to come back and tell us about great holes on St Andrews Old Course and at the likes of Muirfield, Carnoustie, Dornoch, and Royal Troon."

Oh dear – thanks for that, editor. I guess that's part of being the NCG Top 100s course ranking team.

Building an eclectic 18 of holes in Scotland is tricky at the best of times, but not having the Open Championship venues and other big-name links golf courses to choose from was an added challenge.

Fortunately, Scotland is blessed with greater depth than almost anywhere. Hopefully there’ll be some you haven’t heard of...

1st: Brora (Par-4, 296 yards)

Set your sat nav for the far north and be rewarded with James Braid’s masterclass in restraint. Simple golf that shares its rumpled landscape with grazing Highland cows and horses. The bunkerless opening hole is driveable, but please don’t try anything rash with your tee shot.

2nd: The Machrie (Par-5, 503 yards)

best Scottish links holes

Doglegging around a stream that hugs the left side, the 2nd at The Machrie offers all the space in the world out right – but every yard you bail away from trouble adds to the difficulty of the next. Stand up boldly to the tight line and you’re one more shot away from setting up a two-putt birdie.

3rd: Machrihanish (Par-4, 372 yards)

best Scottish links holes

Mach’s 1st is the obvious choice, so naturally I opted for the sensational 3rd. Playing towards the Paps of Jura and the crashing waves behind the green, the hole trips and tumbles over the ridges of this most dramatic dunescape.

4th: Irvine (Par-4, 289 yards)

best Scottish links holes

The Ayrshire railway line is mere yards from the green, making you think twice off the tee. Playing out right feels safe, until you have to play a delicate pitch up the steep hill towards the putting surface and waiting railway tracks beyond. A test of nerve and accuracy, not strength.

5th: Shiskine (Par-3, 211 yards)

best Scottish links holes

On the Isle of Arran, the waves and sea birds provide the encouragement to find the distant green. A direct shot that comes up short is deflected by a ridge – plan well and use the land to your advantage.

6th: Panmure (Par-4, 413 yards)

best Scottish links holes

A no-brainer. Panmure is great and the hole on which Ben Hogan famously practiced before his 1953 Open victory is the pick of the bunch. To find the green in regulation takes nothing less than two strokes the Hawk would have quietly approved of.

7th: Askernish (Par-4, 485 yards)

best Scottish links holes

The first six holes at Askernish are nice, but the run from the 7th slaps you in the face and laughs. The most rambunctious land, unashamedly raw and made for golf. It’s a par-5, really, but if you’re counting your score you’re in the wrong place anyway.

8th: Kilspindie (Par-3, 165 yards)

For me, the most picturesque hole in East Lothian. If it weren’t for the ancient railway sleepers, you’d think the green must collapse into the sea. It’s not a long carry over the beach - which, in true Scottish fashion, is in play - but it is a memorable one.

9th: Monifieth (Par-5, 538 yards)

The drive plays up to the edge of a dune before the land drops 20 feet to Sandy’s Flats, then rumbles on again to the green. No one can tell me who Sandy was but it’s these idiosyncrasies that provide charm.

10th: The Renaissance (Par-4, 409 yards)

best Scottish links holes

Beyond their peerless links of Muirfield, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers own some of the very best undeveloped links land in Scotland. Nearly 10 years ago, neighbouring Renaissance Club acquired a section of it and went on to build an exceptionally beautiful par-4 on the water’s edge.

11th: Prestwick St Nicholas (Par-5, 502 yards)

There is only one par-5 on this under-the-radar links, and it’s a cracker. Sadly, most travelling golfers just play the more famous links in this historic town, but St Nick’s is full of quirk and fun and should not be overlooked. There are half-par holes aplenty at what is a relaxed and welcoming club.

12th: Southerness (Par-4, 417 yards)

best Scottish links holes

One of the first holes I wrote down. I love it. Southerness is a classy, strategic links with some of the finest vistas in Scotland. The 12th is the highlight, a mid-length par-4 sweeping to the right and a green that’s clinging on to the banks of the Solway Firth.

13th: Fraserburgh (Par-4, 340 yards)

best Scottish links holes

The Hillocks is the most appropriately named hole on this list. A fairway tiptoes around this fabulous hazard. Two guard the front of the green, making it blind unless approached from the right angle.

14th: Crail (Par-4, 144 yards)

best Scottish links holes

Playing downhill, the green is wide but with a shallow back shelf. The front half pitches back towards a sleeper clad bunker at an alarming angle. But don’t just club up, the bunker shot back down the green from long is even worse.

15th: Durness (Par-5, 454 yards)

best Scottish links holes

OK, I’ve cheated slightly. Durness is only nine holes so this is technically the 6th – but I challenge anyone to not go out for a second loop, which also makes it the 15th. This cape hole around the banks of Loch Lanish isn’t the linksiest hole but the challenge and setting mean it’s one of the most memorable.

16th: Montrose (Par-3, 232 yards)

best Scottish links holes

Those with a keen eye will note I’ve picked plenty of ‘half par’ holes, and this is no different. The way the green sits angled to the right, guarded more by the rippling topography than the two bunkers – it’s definitely a par 3.5.

17th: Peterhead (Par-4, 307 yards)

Like nearby Fraserburgh, one the trophy hunters heading to Aberdeen might miss. Another similarity is in navigating the shaved hillocks short of this remarkable green. Driveable with a rush of blood to the head.

18th: Moray Old (Par-4, 407 yards)

Playing back into the RAF town of Lossiemouth, the green is set just below the old stone clubhouse beyond a roller coaster of a fairway. One of the great closing holes.

I haven’t included anything from Dunaverty, a new entry this year and a course I love. Any hole from the 4th to the 16th could fit into a list like this.

In the far north east of Scotland, Tain’s 11th and half a dozen from Golspie could have made the cut - including the pictured 16th.

best Scottish links holes

Murcar, in Aberdeen, has some contenders and so too does Luffness, a classy links that the purists will fall in love with, in East Lothian.

Another unique place is Fortrose & Rosemarkie. The 4th and 5th there are wonderful.

Maybe I need to have another go…

My scorecard might not be of ‘championship’ yardage, but I think you’d struggle to play a more enjoyable and varied round of golf. For me, this is far more important.

‘Half par’ holes are a recuring theme, as are quirky holes oozing character. It’s a journey around the entirety of Scotland’s mainland, as well as a couple of ferry hops.

I think if I were to repeat the exercise with Scotland’s top 20 courses, it wouldn’t yield a more enjoyable course – and that is the true testament to Scottish golf. With the biggest of big names, it’s easy to trophy hunt.

But next time you’re planning a trip to the Home of Golf, venture off the beaten track and prepare to be amazed.