The Independent Golfer

Styles of Golf Courses in Scotland

Bonar Bridge Golf Course, Scotland

Everybody wants to have the experience of playing Scottish Links Golf Courses. But that is not all there is to Scotland golf. Of the 112 courses described in this website, many are Other Styles of Courses, including Inland, Parkland, and Heathland.

Knowing about these styles, how they differ and how they play adds to the enjoyment of planning your trip as well as the thrill of playing the courses. The above links will take you to a brief description of each.

The Independent Golfer's Guide presents a detailed discussion of them, especially of "Links Courses" that many Americans have little experience with.

To look over an excerpt from the Chapter on "styles of courses" Click Here


Links Golf Courses in Scotland

Cruden Bay golf course Scotland

For most people, the defining quality of Scotland golf is that it is played on links courses. The links, that strip of ground with little agricultural value that stretches between the sea and the land and "links" the two, is where golf was first played and a links course is always selected to serve up the peculiarly Scottish challenge that is the British Open (even when it is played in England.)

The links golf course wants to be played to its fullest. It asks you to consider options, to think about the wind and the roll of the fairway, to inventory your bag searching for just the shot that would have the best chance for success in the conditions you face. It wants to present you with choices and deal out rewards and consequences commensurate with the chance you take and the skill with which you take it. The links course wants to be a complete test of the game. It wants you to thrill with the success of a good plan well executed and it wants you to feel the pain of a bad choice or a poor swing. Above all, it wants you to experience both the challenge and the freedom of playing golf as the founders of the game did, close to the sea and the elements with only their skill - and a wee bit of luck - to sustain them in their quest for a rewarding round.

Scotland golf on a links course must be understood as a system that perfectly integrates style of play with place. The place is a fortuitous combination of sandy soil, grasses and low foliage, weather and topography that combine in just the right way to reward a specific style of play that has developed over the centuries.

The hardy grasses that offer such a perfect carpet for the bounce and roll of golf balls are kept healthy by the same wind-blown, salt-laden spray from winter storms that keeps other, less desirable grasses from establishing themselves near the sea. These grasses, and the sandy seaside soils on which they grow, are keys to links golf in Scotland. Cropped close, fescue grasses make wonderful fairways that encourage tee shots to roll well and present excellent lies from which irons can be struck. Left to grow, they become beige, wispy tracks of rough in which errant balls may be found but from which clean recovery shots are almost impossible.

Caddienotes for Golf Courses in Scotland

Early Scotland Golf Courses Were "Mown" by Animals

An interesting demonstration of the effects of the grazing of different animals on links grasses is depicted in the photograph at the right that was taken on Handa Island on Scotland’s north-west coast. Here a naturalist set up three controlled grazing conditions.

The square in the center is surrounded by a fine-mesh wire fence that excludes all grass-grazing animals. The grass inside it is left to grow to its natural height that corresponds to the deep rough, or “heavy” found on most links courses.

The square on the left is surrounded by a very coarse-meshed wire fence. The openings are small enough to exclude sheep but large enough to admit rabbits. As you can see, the rabbits have kept the grass somewhat short, a characteristic length of the light rough of links courses.

Links Grass
The square on the right is defined simply by a rope which keeps people off but admits sheep as well as rabbits. You can see that their combined grazing efforts have cropped the grass down almost to modern fairway height. Here we see what the fairways of the 18th and 19th century Scottish links courses must have been like.

Sheep "Bunkered" First

Animals have had their influence on the way that golf is played in other ways as well. In golf’s early days sheep that were turned out to graze on the links land had the habit of “wallowing down” into the grass and sandy soil in an effort to seek protection from the cold winds blowing in off the sea. Rather than seeing these resulting sheep wallows as intrusive interference into their enjoyment of the game, early golfers just took the animal-made obstacles as part of the game, tried to avoid hitting balls into them wherever possible, and developed techniques for hitting out when the inevitable finally happened. Thus, sand traps or bunkers were born.

Sheep Wallow in Scotland

The Majestic Openness of Scotland Golf Courses

Finally, there is the added bonus of playing this style of golf in the majestic openness offered by the links setting. On the good Scottish links course the sky and its billowing clouds display the grand, all-encompassing sweep characteristic of the American West’s Big-Sky country. The sea is always close by, either directly in view or just yards off over the hummocks and mounds of the links. The wind, light or strong, always brings a clean and exhilarating freshness. Views from the course’s higher spots can be of expansive ocean, rocky shores, and rolling hills that shelter small towns from which distance has stripped their modernity, leaving a medieval heritage of stone fronts, steeply pitched roofs and church spires.

It is little wonder that Americans who know about Scottish links golf, who have experienced its challenge and exulted in the successes they have found, are willing to fly the Atlantic to get back to this game by the sea. We who have been there know the joy, the freedom, yes, and the frustrations, of a game that, once played, can never be forgotten.

Machrie Golf Course,Scotland

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Other Styles of Scotland Golf Courses

Strathpeffer Spa Golf Course

Not all Scotland golf is played on the links. In fact, of the 51 courses found in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that I describe here, only 22 are actual links courses. Fifteen courses, which label themselves “Parkland”, wander among beautifully manicured stands of old growth deciduous trees, are kept in garden-like condition by dedicated groundskeepers and often feature babbling brooks, ponds and even water falls. Other courses label themselves “Inland” and are laid out in rolling farmlands or meadows. “Heathland” courses are built inland but have soil that is similar to links land, being typically more nutrient-poor, sandy or peaty. These courses support more scrubby vegetation such as heather and gorse.

Style of Play for Scotland Golf

As to their style of play, parkland and inland golf courses are much closer to the feeling of a good American course than they are to links golf courses. They typically have a more manicured appearance. The fairways can be broader and tend to feature more wide, sweeping curves and less angled doglegs than do links courses.

As a result, golf on these courses can be more similar to what Americans are accustomed to than the links golf course. Most of my friends who travel to Scotland look for the excitement and challenge of links play. But, after a few days of focused concentration and battle with the elements by the ocean, they are happy to take a “vacation” from the links to lapse into the old and familiar and relax at a good parkland or inland course. These courses offer a delightful variation, often in magnificent mountain settings, and should be included in any well-rounded golf itinerary in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

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