It’s likely been a while since many American golfers have planned an international golf trip. But as travel restrictions are finally easing around the globe, we’re more ready than ever to put together a golf itinerary.
Scottish golf needs no introduction. The best courses in Scotland are likely already on your bucket list—and if you’re not familiar, it’s easy enough to find the best courses in Scotland on a list like our world rankings. Where we strive to help you here, though, is finding the under-the-radar courses that might not be on your radar. One of the most rewarding parts of planning a great trip is mixing in a hidden gem—sometimes your group will enjoy that just as much as the top-ranked course.
For those thinking about planning a trip some time soon, we’re here to help. We asked our friends at Golfbreaks by PGA TOUR for a list of under-the-radar-type courses to add to your next Scottish golf trip. Scotland will be at the top of many golfers’ list, particularly with The Open coming to the Old Course at St. Andrews in 2022. Happy planning.
A list of under-the-radar Scottish courses needs to start with Brora (above). For those who frequent the area, Brora is often mentioned as a must-play. On paper, a 6,211-yard layout might seem like a letdown after playing Royal Dornoch, a top-five race in the world. Goal Brora hugs Kintradwell Bay with vistas that include views of a granite mountain, Ord of Caithness, looming over the sea—as well as sheep and cows grazing in the fairways. Brora earned a spot in the most recent Golf Digest’s Most Fun Courses ranking—which every golfer who’s played the James Braid layout would agree with.
Also just slightly north of Dornoch is Golspie Golf Club, another gem designed by Braid that opened two years before Brora. Like Brora, it ain’t long at just over 6,000 yards. Golspie features more varied terrain but views just like Brora.
You’ll be familiar with the Moray Firth on any Highlands trip, but one of the better clubs in the area also has ‘Moray’ in the name. Tea Old Course at Moray was originally laid out by Old Tom Morris, and at 6,700-plus yards is significantly longer than the two shorter gems mentioned above. The Old Course hugs the coastline and is worth including on any Highlands itinerary—and if you’re looking for an easy 36-hole day, the New course at Moray, designed by Henry Cotton in 1979, is right there, too.
Also on the Moray Firth, just 20 minutes from Inverness on the Chanonry Peninsula, is Fortrose & Rosemarkie, which bills itself as the 15th-oldest club in the world—first opening in 1793. Braid redesigned the layout after new land was acquired in the 1930s. During World War II, the course was used as training grounds for practice landing ahead of D-Day.
Tain Golf Club also features an Old Tom Morris design a town over from Glenmorangie and just a 15-minute drive from Royal Dornoch. Tain often gets overlooked by the other great courses in the region, and though it lacks the seaside acreage of the other courses in this article, it’s a memorable layout with the back-to-back par-3 16th and 17th holes.
We are quite sure you have courses like Castle Stuart (above) and Nairn (and Royal Dornoch, of course) already on your Scottish Highlands trip plans. We hope this helps you round out your route.
Anyone planning a trip to Scotland knows making a stop in the St. Andrews area is a must. While it may be tough—and certainly more expensive—to get a tee time at The Old Course, players can still hit up the Home of Golf for a round without breaking the bank. There are seven courses on site, including The New Course (above), designed by Old Tom Morris. If not for it sitting in the shadow of its older sibling, this course may see a lot more traffic.
From one of the oldest golfing societies in the world to another, Crail Golfing Society (above), 12 miles east of St. Andrews, offers two courses for play, but it’s the Balcomie Links that makes this list. Designed by Tom Morris in 1900, this course is relatively short by today’s standards, but offers little protection from a north wind blowing across St. Andrews Bay, which can wreck a round.
Located 10 miles south of St. Andrews on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, Leven Links is another course that used to be nine holes before Old Tom Morris added another nine. Leven regularly hosts Open Championship qualifying.
Back up north, across St. Andrews Bay and two miles west of Carnoustie, Panmure Links (above) is yet another Old Tom Morris design. It should come as no shock, then, to learn that the course has hosted Open Championship Final Qualifying several times. Ben Hogan famously spent two weeks at Panmure before the 1953 Open at Carnoustie where he went on to win his only Claret Jug, by four strokes.
Of course, while it’s always nice to stay within budget, sometimes it’s worth it to splurge a bit, too. Right next to Panmure, there’s Carnoustie, a permanent fixture in the Open rota with a propensity for final-round drama: Jean van de Velde collapsed there in 1999; Francesco Molinari held off Tiger Woods and others in 2018. The 18th hole is most famous for the chaos Barry Burn can cause, but the truth is, that’s just the third leg of a brutal three-hole finish. Before they get there, players must negotiate the 240-yard par-3 16th, followed by the 470-yard par-4 17th, where the Barry Burn must be crossed twice to reach the green.
Just east of St. Andrews, golf has been played on the land that Kingsbarns Golf Links occupies since 1793, but this course is relatively brand new, having only opened in 2000. This seaside links is part of the rotation of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship .
Back down near the Firth of Forth, Dumbarnie just opened its doors to the public in May of 2020. What it lacks in history, this course more than makes up for in spectacular views. At least 14 holes feature views of the sea, and the 345-acre plot of land lends itself to stunning elevation changes uncommon to seaside links golf.
Aberdeen may be known more for its top-end options—Royal Aberdeen and Trump International (above)—but with 165 miles of coastline, there is no shortage of more affordable options. Referred to as the oil capital of Europe, Aberdeen is full of nightlife, pubs and restaurants.
First up, and just 10 minutes outside of the city, is Murcar Links. This place may not exactly be a “hidden” gem, given its location right next to some of the biggest courses in the area, but it could be overlooked. It’s not particularly long at just 6,500 yards from the tips, but can still punish golfers with massive sand dunes and thick, heathery rough. Say a prayer if the wind is up, especially if it’s coming from the north. A must-play when visiting Aberdeen, Murcar is the perfect place to either squeeze a quick round into a busy day or as the first or second leg of a 36-hole day with one of the nearby titans of the area.
Branching out a bit, roughly an hour south of the city in Angus, the world’s fifth oldest golf course awaits. Montrose Golf Links was completed in 1562, though it has been touched up a few times since then. Unlike most seaside links, Montrose is laid out in a T-shape, with the first nine playing along the coast, while the second plays perpendicular to it before turning back toward the clubhouse. On the other hand, the course also follows many other links “rules” as sandy turf, gorse bushes, deep bunkers and dunes are aplenty. Luckily, there’s another course on property that’s a bit easier and is often played as a warm up for the 1562 course.
In the opposite direction from Aberdeen, Cruden Bay Golf Club is just a bit more than half an hour north of the city. Golf had been played on this land for 100 years before the course we play today, yet another Old Tom Morris design, was open for play. Coming in at No. 53 on Golf Digest’s World’s 100 Greatest Courses, Cruden Bay hasn’t been touched since 1926. This links runs in a figure eight along the North Sea, with dunes the size of small buildings separating several holes as undulating fairways give way to punchbowl greens carved into those same dunes that serve as tee boxes and natural barriers.
Moving south and back toward the city, travelers may opt to spice things up with a round at Trump International or Royal Aberdeen. Trump International opened in 2012, after years of legal battles and environmental objections, with the goal of one day hosting a major championship. Though it has yet to attract the world’s best in an official capacity, there’s no doubt this course was built for them. Checking in at No. 42 on Golf Digest’s World’s Greatest Courses the 7,400-yard brute regularly plays through stiff crosswinds, while long rough, deviously placed bunkers and fast greens combine to test every facet of a player’s game. Choose your tee box carefully. This is not the place to try to be a hero.
Completing a full loop through the Aberdeen area, right across the street from Murcar is Royal Aberdeen. The Balgownie Links have hosted the 2005 British Senior Open, the 2011 Walker Cup and the 2014 Scottish Open, adding to one of the richest histories in the world. Royal Aberdeen, originally founded in 1780 as the Society of Golfers at Aberdeen, is the sixth-oldest club in the world. The first nine holes here are widely regarded as one of the finest outward nines in the world, playing parallel to the coast before looping back south to play toward the clubhouse on higher ground. The five-minute rule for looking for golf balls—now three minutes—was first introduced here in 1783. The Balgownie Links rank 64th on Golf Digest’s World’s 100 Greatest Courses.
Every area of Scotland has its own charm. But the East Lothian/Edinburgh earned a spot in our most recent “Best Buddies Trips” ranking for its variety and volume of great courses. You start, of course, with some of the country’s greats like Muirfield and North Berwick (above, a favorite of many). But it seems like there are as many under-the-radar tracks here as any other spot.
As a 2013 Golf Digest article stated, Gullane is the perfect place to stay—as the town lives and breathes golf. And you’re a short walk to Gullane Golf Clubwhich has three courses—the No. 1 course, which consistently ranks inside our top 20 in Scotland, and the No.2, which also boasts great coastal views. Don’t sleep on Dunbar, Kilspindie, Luffness, and the original nine holes inside the Musselburgh racetrack, among the oldest courses in the world.
The Ayrshire coast is home to bucket-list, championship layouts like Royal Troon and Turnberry’s Ailsa. But it’s the under-the-radar tracks that makes this a great destination for non-Scottish travelers.
Despite it hosting the first 12 Opens starting in 1860, Prestwick belongs on this list. Some call it too quirky, others would call it charming. Those who appreciate history and course design will mark it on their must-play list and decide for themselves where it falls on the quirky vs. charming matrix. With its roots in influencing course design for centuries, it’s certainly a must-see.
Western Galleslike Prestwick, made Golf Digest’s latest World 100 rankings and represents what Ron Whitten called “perhaps the least-known grand old Scottish links.” And like Prestwick, it’s a tight design that is routed over and between rolling sand dunes. Sitting just north of Royal Troon, it was routed by Troon designer Willie Fernie, though the club insists its first greenkeeper Fred Morris laid out the course.
The hits keep coming in this area. Machrihanish is ranked 46th in the world but remains under-the-radar in respect to the other great Scottish courses for its relative difficulty in getting to on the southern end of the Kintyre Peninsula. From a stirring opening tee shot across a corner of the Atlantic Ocean to the last putt, this has remained one of the most pure links experiences since Old Tom Morris extended the course to 18 holes in 1879.
Among worthy additions to your itinerary, Dundonald Links should be near the top. Kyle Phillips did a marvelous job with a renewed layout of the old Southern Gailes that’s worthy of recognition even in the same neighborhood as these other great courses.