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A day on the Old Course only strengthens its hold on a golfer's imagination.
A day on the Old Course only strengthens its hold on a golfer's imagination. (GolfPublisher.com)

Fresh off the links, a Scotland golf top 10

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND - After 15 golf-filled days I'm finally leaving Scotland. But my work isn't done. Not by a long shot.

It's like my old hockey coach used to say on the last day of tryouts: "Kids, this is the toughest part of my job ..."

As I pace my room at Rusacks Hotel in St. Andrews, overlooking the 18th green of the Old Course, swilling coffee by the Colombian sack and cursing the pitter-patter of rain that occasionally interrupts my train of thought, I try to sort out Scotland's finest, fairly and objectively.

(Writer's note: This list is limited to golf courses I played and reviewed on my trip. Perennial favorites such as Muirfield, Royal Troon, Western Gailes, Cruden Bay ... they'll have to wait 'til next time. I will be back. Oh yes, I will be back.)

1. Old Course, St. Andrews: Some say Royal Troon and Carnoustie are harder, and Kingsbarns has the better "links design." Prestwick Golf Club is the birthplace of the Open Championship. Some locals even say the New Course next door demands a wider palette of shot making.

All this may be true. But the Old Course remains the one course a golfer must play to truly discover the soul of the game. The grounds are magical. You catch a four-hour case of goose bumps. Your stomach churns as you tee off over the Old Course Hotel on the famous Road Hole. Your legs quiver as you discover your ball in the Hell bunker. And the large, firm, undulating greens must be putted to be believed.

2. Royal Dornoch Golf Club: There's a bit of mystery to Royal Dornoch, way up in the Highlands. International TV crews and majors-loving grandstand crowds don't venture this far north.

But those who discover Royal Dornoch soon realize they're playing perhaps the finest links anywhere. The rugged land is stunning, the design superbly diverse. It can be as challenging as Carnoustie and more dramatic than Royal Aberdeen's epic front side.

Many tourists do a three-day Dornoch-Brora-Nairn jaunt; the other two are most worthy, but I'd just as soon play Royal Dornoch all three days. I could play it for the rest of my life and be happy.

3. Ailsa, Westin Turnberry: Set atop rocky links land peering down at the sea, the Ailsa is the most aesthetically pleasing course on the list. The Ailsa Craig volcanic rock looming in the distance and the lighthouse that creeps closer and closer as you play the front nine are sights to see with your own eyes.

And when it's not baring its teeth for the Open, the Ailsa is relatively forgiving and playable - after all, this is a resort course, lying below the five-star Westin Turnberry.

4. Carnoustie: One of the flatter links courses in Scotland, but Carnoustie is no dullard. The back nine will beat you up, especially Nos. 14-18, four 440-yard-plus par 4s and a 230-yard par 3. Suddenly Jean Van de Velde's last-hole triple bogey at the 1999 Open doesn't seem like such a choke.

Even on the less forbidding front nine the simplest of mistakes can eat you alive. James Braid bunkering is in full effect. Long par 4s have tight landing zones littered with traps in bunches. Making par demands near perfection. Carnoustie doesn't give much slack, but it's one of the most enjoyable beat-downs you'll ever get.

5. Gleneagles, Kings: This 1919 Braid classic features his trademark heavy bunkering, but it's short enough for any golfer to have a chance at scoring well. The backdrop is the stunning central heartlands of Scotland, far removed from the windswept sea, and it's an enjoyable change of pace if your itinerary includes mostly links. No. 3's blind second shot over a hill will leave you scratching your head. The easily drivable par-4 14th will have you chomping at the bit. All of it is great fun to play.

6. Kingsbarns: Less timeless but more minutely designed, this recent addition to the St. Andrews area sets itself apart from the historic links up the street. Greens are incredibly challenging - certain pin positions demand nothing short of perfection - but landing zones are more generous and easier to identify.

The par-3 15th is a fine hole, playing across rocky shoreline with tall trees lining the left. The approach shot on the 18th is simply cruel, steeply perched above a burn, and the rough is mowed down short enough that you can watch your ball hit just short of the green and slowly roll 20 feet down into the drink.

7. Royal Aberdeen Golf Club: The front nine at Royal Aberdeen contains the most dramatic links on the list, a theater of large dunes, fierce winds and tall heather. The inland back nine is less memorable but a little easier, save for the par-3 17th, which plays straight down toward the sea. You could play this hole 20 times and not hit the same shot twice. Locals say Royal Aberdeen's length makes it a little more difficult than nearby Cruden Bay, but some holes are more open.

8. Prestwick Golf Club: Original home of the British Open, Prestwick lacks the length and room to host the modern spectacle, but it's still hosts the Scottish Amateur Championship and is a demanding test of golf.

Your first time around this Old Tom Morris jewel is a bit like searching for the light switch in a pitch-black cellar, but with the help of a caddie or member you won't be led too far astray. There are several blind shots, and scaling the dune in front of the 17th green only to discover the massive Sahara bunker is jaw-dropping.

9. New Course, St. Andrews: The New isn't "new," of course - it's been around for a century. It plays parallel to the Old Course, and the land and feel is about the same; the biggest difference is the New's comparatively small greens. The uphill 10th is the toughest par 3 among the two courses.

Pity the New Course - you can't even write about it without including its famous sibling in every sentence. The younger brother never gets any respect.

10. The Duke's Course: Attention target golfers: If you're tired of Scots taking all your money as they perfect the runner approach across firm, rolling fairways, bring 'em to the Duke's to get your money back. The course today is nothing like the Duke's of a year ago.

Purchased in 2005 by Herb Kohler of Whistling Straits fame, the Duke's sports rugged reshaped bunkers - easier to get out of than those on most traditional links - and an all-new closing four. The course does have move drainage trouble than its sandier neighbors, so try and catch it during a dry spell.

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGC.

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