The famous par three at North Berwick, ‘Redan’, derives its name from a Russian fort that British forces captured in the Crimean War. The previous hole is called ‘Perfection’ – because both the drive and second must live up to such a billing. The defensive features of the aforementioned Redan have inspired copies and tributes from designers the world over, and forewarned is forearmed. The most devilish, though, is yet to come.
The 16th hole features a green the like of which should not and could not ever be replicated elsewhere. It comprises, from front to back, a raised plateau, then a trough some five feet deep, then a similarly elevated, yet smaller, rear section.
All four sides of both parts of the green slope away from their central plateaux, encouraging the moving ball, whether propelled by a distant five iron, a chip or even a putt, to roll off and into a nearby hollow.
Even the locals have no foolproof method to avoid the possibility of amassing a card-wrecking score chipping from one side to the other. It is a bit like a particularly sadistic crazy golf creation – except this is for real.
These three holes encapsulate the irresistible appeal of North Berwick’s West Links, reputedly the 13th oldest club in the world and the second oldest – after the Old Course – still playing on its original fairways.
It is surely impossible for anyone who carries a love of the game to resist seduction by this combination of the unique, the unusual and the downright obtuse. For those unfamiliar with this area of golfing paradise, the region immediately to the east of Edinburgh must be visited at your very earliest convenience.
Within a short drive of the Scottish capital lie, to name but a few, Muirfield, Musselburgh, Luffness, Gullane (all 54 holes), Dunbar, Longniddry, the stunning new development at Archerfield and North Berwick itself. In fact, the West Links is not the only 18-hole course in this small seaside town, The Glen also being well worth a visit.
None, though, are quite like North Berwick. What began as a six-hole layout when the original club was formed in 1832 grew and grew until reaching something close to its modern form in 1895. Local clubmaker Ben Sayers refined the course in 1932 and what stands today, bar a handful of extended medal tees, has changed little since.
From the stern, stolid clubhouse, and the first and last holes with their shared fairway, to the way the course begins and ends in the town, the similarities with the Old Course at St Andrews are striking. This is a place, it seems, that has always lived hand-in-hand with the game, where golf is as much a part of daily life as the town street and parish church.
In recent times the club passed an historic motion to allow women the same membership privileges as the men, and that seems fitting since the course lies on land that has always belonged to the people and the town.
Because North Berwick features so many unusual holes, it can be easy to forget that there are also several more conventional ones. It’s true that the 12th green is adjacent to a wall that separates the putting surface from the rest of the hole (the advice of David Huish, the club’s pro: don’t argue with it, it’s older than you are). And the enormous 1st green, unseen from the fairway below, falls away to the rocks that in turn lead to the beach.
With stone walls, burns, deep bunkers, rocks, blind shots and some vicious green contours to contend with, it doesn’t have to be long.
But there are also honest holes such as the 2nd. Here, an elevated tee tends to foreshorten the distance to a fairway that lies across the corner of the beach and tempts the unwary into hitting on an overly aggressive line.
The risk-and-reward nature of the long 9th, meanwhile, is different again. Two bunkers split a wide fairway in two. Drive between the hazards and the out-of-bounds fence at the furthest end of the course and the green might just be within range in two. The safer, but much longer, route is to head right.
The tee on the short 10th (titled ‘Eastward Ho!’ reflecting that the homeward nine has just begun) offers a magnificent view down the links and of the Firth of Forth. It is one of several such vantage points from where the silhouetted granite form of Bass Rock can be admired, as can Fidra Island, the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Highlights on the way home arrive thick and fast. The 14th, ‘Perfection’, is particularly memorable. The drive does not need to be long but must be threaded down a valley to set up a completely blind pitch towards the sea. Apart from identifying the right line, the difficulty lies in judging the strength to allow for a kick down towards the large green. With just a wedge in a your hand, this is a strange experience.
Then comes the famous ‘Redan’, where the raised green is set diagonally across the line of play. The further to the left you go, the longer the carry over a pair of fearsome bunkers to the green beyond. The temptation is to aim over these hazards at the flag. A better idea is to play slightly to the right, ideally with a draw, and allow the contours to gather your shot back towards the hole.
After the headache-inducing challenge of overcoming the green at the 16th comes the only par four of over 400 yards on the back nine. The real challenge here lies in the uphill second which needs to be carried every inch of the way over the brow to the hidden green beyond.
The last hole is every inch a miniature version of the 18th at St Andrews. In theory, with a double fairway to aim at and measuring well under 300 yards it ought to be a doddle. But with parked cars lining the course boundary on the right and the clubhouse looming behind the green, it rarely is.
At little over 6,400 yards, North Berwick is not a long course by modern championship standards. But then with stone walls, burns, deep bunkers, rocks, blind shots and some vicious green contours to contend with, it hardly needs to be.
As recently as 2013, it was considered a sufficiently relevant test to host Final Qualifying for The Open taking place down the road at Muirfield. Yet that is hardly the point, because the West Links is so much more than a testing ground for the professionals.
With its crumpled, fast-running fairways and fantastic greens, it represents what links golf in its original form is all about. If you have not done so already, start planning now to make the pilgrimage to East Lothian to worship at this shrine of Scottish golf.
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