My lifelong love affair with Scotland and its links courses

NCG’s editor Dan Murphy is an Englishman with Irish heritage. In a compelling essay he explains why he is happiest playing golf in Scotland.

It began innocently enough in the late 1980s. My dad and I were just getting hooked on golf and his job running a packaging company took him to various corners of the UK.

During school holidays, I would go with him, especially if it involved Scotland. It was my job to research a course for us to play after my dad’s meetings had finished. Which, in those days, involved reference books and maps.

One late afternoon in May half term, after a particularly dull couple of hours waiting in the car park of an Ayr industrial estate, we finally pulled into the car park of Kilmarnock Barassie. It was my first sight of a links course.

From memory, my dad’s green fee was £22 and mine a fiver. On the 1st tee, as the secretary watched on through the clubhouse window (visitors tended to be scrutinised as much as welcomed in those days) my dad topped one down the 1st and I caught mine heavy.

I followed that up with a corrected swing to show what should have happened had I managed to act on each of the 12 swing thoughts I was currently working on, and promptly took another piece of turf from the pristine tee.

I was mortified and my dad was fuming. Thankfully, the secretary left us to it, our domestic subsided and off we went into this strange new world of bare fairways, rock-hard greens, spiky bushes with yellow flowers and bunkers I could barely see out of.

I can still remember hole names like Lang Whang and Hame from that day and the thrill of watching my scuttling 5-woods running and running over the firm Scottish turf.

I was utterly taken with it, and the next time we came up to Ayrshire I managed to persuade my dad that there was a place down the coast that looked pretty special and worth a detour. It went by the name of Turnberry. Even in those days, I was developing a discerning palate.

Years later, I very nearly went – and really should have – to St Andrews University but at least took the chance while attending open days to get my first view of the likes of Ladybank, Leven Links, Downfield, Carnoustie, Monifieth and, naturally, the Old Course.

My abiding memory at the latter is of our Japanese playing partner who was unable to get a shot airborne. He lost at least two balls per hole in the gorse, never even bothering to look, so keen was he to get his camera out.

For me and my dad, who used to spend hours poking about in bushes, streams and knee-high rough searching for balls, invariably leaving courses with more ammunition than we arrived with, this was beyond our comprehension.

The first Open I attended in Scotland was at Turnberry in 1994. To this day, an Open only really feels proper to me when it is across the border.

• View the NCG top 100: Scotland’s best golf courses

I became a bona fide golf journalist in 2002, since which time I have been privileged to attend each and every Open Championship, with the exception of St Andrews in 2010, due to the unexpectedly early arrival of my first offspring.

I have spent much of the last 17 years hurtling around the British Isles in pursuit of completing various course rankings lists.

I have been beyond lucky – blessed is closer to it – to play the majority of courses on our shortlist for this ranking, many of them on several occasions.

I have gone from peering through the gates that guard the entrance to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – AKA Muirfield – to playing the course from the championship tees the day after the 2013 Open in the company of Tony Jacklin.

Dornoch general view

In 2004, I made the pilgrimage to Dornoch, which seemed impossibly far north at the time. I took a moment before leaving to survey the scene from that famous 1st tee, thinking I might never return.

I was there again as recently as September, on what I think was my eighth visit to the town.

I have played 54 holes in a day because it was the difference between playing Nairn for the first – and for all I knew only – time and missing out. I fell in love with Cruden Bay the first time I saw – or rather didn’t see – Blin Dunt, the long, blind par 3 over the shoulder of a dune.

 Prestwick

My opening tee shot at Prestwick was some sort of shanked/blocked/slapped 6-iron over the wall and on to the railway.

I played a par-4 in a storm at Western Gailes that I couldn’t reach in three shots let alone two. I once got a hole-in-one on the 18th at North Berwick. I’ve caught a ferry to The Machrie and a speedboat to Machrihanish.

This year alone, I have made nine trips north, taking in courses as far removed as Stranraer and Wick. All in the name of research you understand.

At the beginning of this season, I created a shortlist for this project with my fellow panelists. We settled on 126 courses we believed had a chance of making the top 100. That became 125 when Ardfin decided they did not want to be considered.

I took it upon myself as chairman to visit as many courses on our shortlist that I hadn’t played as possible, plus those that had materially changed since my last visit and others I simply hadn’t seen for a while.

It’s been as enjoyable as it sounds.

So what is it about Scottish golf that makes me so happy? Well, as a Yorkshireman, I find the Scots in many ways kindred spirits. I understand the rules of engagement when meeting for the first time. You have to prove yourself and you have to give it a little time. Respect is earned, and therefore worth something.

And then there is the style of so many of the best courses – unfussy, unpretentious, unadorned, honest and consistent. All qualities that I value highly when it comes to golf courses. And people for that matter.

At the end of this most special of years in my golfing life it only remains for me to say: Scotland, you’ve been amazing.  Thanks for having me. Or, as Robbie Burns put it: “Here’s tae us. Wha’s like us.”

• View the NCG top 100: Scotland’s best golf courses