The North Berwick Golf Club (West Links)
East Lothian, Scotland
Of all the joys derived from playing over ancient links, what’s most appreciated by this writer are those obstacles and conundrums that don’t exist elsewhere. Therefore, rather than feeling old and musty, a course like North Berwick, where golf has been played for several hundred years, feels fresh and invigorating. Indeed, North Berwick is a stark and timeless reminder that the attributes that are most important to golf course design are ones that stimulate creativity rather than stifle it. After the dark period that covered the second half of the last century when golf course architecture veered down a soulless path of examination rather than enjoyment, North Berwick happily stands at the other end of the spectrum reminding the player that golf is a game to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Numerous factors go into making a course satisfying to play but getting that elusive balance between enjoyment and challenge is the trick. Time has shown that the most telling factors in determining a course’s worth are its setting, climate/soil conditions and collection of holes. North Berwick scores so uncommonly high on all counts that for many well-traveled golfers, it stands as one of their handful of favorites anywhere in world golf.
North Berwick is an exhilarating place to find oneself with or without clubs; the links setting is sublime and runs predominately west-east along the Forth coastline. An out and back routing with the ninth green at the far end of the property might sound a bit pedestrian but North Berwick enjoys the twist of being a loose figure 8 routing. The first three holes hug the coast before the golf darts inland at the short fourth. It returns to the shoreline at the eleventh green and the fourteenth green is as close to the beach as any hole in the United Kingdom. While the final four holes meander inland, none are the worse for it.
Eight holes are strung along the coast and on several of them (e.g. the 1st, 2nd, 14th) it is all too easy to deposit one’s ball onto the beach, so interwoven is the golf with the shoreline. Enchanting coastal views over the Firth of Forth to the lighthouse on Fidra and Bass Rock are afforded and the golfer is also frequently treated to the sight of numerous vessels, ranging from small fishing boats to clipper ships and massive frigates. Interior scenery is mesmerizing in its own right as it includes the massive ‘summer homes’ (a.k.a. mansions) which are part of the town that borders the southern perimeter of the course.
Even if the Old Grump is solely focused on the golf, the crumpled landscape and sandy soils are bound to bring a glimmer of a smile. After all, these are optimal conditions for golf and the cagey veteran has every option at his disposal over these fast-playing surfaces, from low bullets along the ground to high soft shots bristling with spin nipped from the tight fescue.
As for the holes themselves, the game’s most copied hole – The Redan – originated here but it is just one of many holes of abundant merit. The variety of holes is inexorably linked to the variety of obstacles: the beach, stonewalls, dunes, scandalously contoured greens, burns, bunkers more properly called pits, holidayers heading across the course to the beach, a parking lot – you name it, they are found at North Berwick and the golfer has to deal with them all.
Well, almost all, what is missing for the most part is deep, choking rough. There are no long, forced carries over thick sea grasses nor is the golfer likely to waste much time with his head down, hacking through tall grass in search of his ball. What a blessing, the pace of play is maintained. The starter’s hut proclaims, ‘A round of golf should not take more than 3 hours.’ Thus, the enjoyment of the game soars.
How does Berwick challenge the better golfer? Wind and the elements are always a factor in this coastal setting and the linksland guarantees few level stances. More particularly, like Pinehurst No.2 and St. Andrews, the principal answer is found around Berwick’s green complexes, which fit their holes perfectly. For instance, the short par four first hole’s green appears to be sliding off a cliff top. Respecting the par four third’s length, its open green is more approachable in a field. The medium length seventh green is over a burn. Trouble is proportional to the hole’s length. In addition to their positioning, the greens feature some of the boldest contours in the British Isles and treacherous hole locations like those close to the wall on thirteen, front left on fourteen, or front right on fifteen ramp up the challenge even for the very best.
According to the club’s informative web site, www.northberwickgolfclub.com, golf has been played here since the 1700s, beginning with people batting balls about the dunescape. The club was formed in 1832 and opened with six holes, all to the east of the March Dyke, the burn that crosses today’s third and sixteenth fairways. A seventh hole was soon jammed into that small parcel but proved to be of no lasting merit. In 1868, the club’s first expansion westward occurred and that marked the birth of the Redan green complex. In 1877, the course was again stretched west and became 18 holes, albeit less than 4,900 yards because the club’s property ended east of the burn that fronts today’s seventh green. Seven of the eighteen holes were under 200 yards and no one confused the course with one of the greats. Finally, Ben Sayer was given the go ahead in 1895 to build today’s eighth through eleventh holes over an expansive tract of land. Three of those holes are proper par 5s and the course was stretched to over 6,000 yards. Today’s 6,505 yard course enjoys the same configuration, so a version of all of today’s holes has been in play for approximately 120 years.
There was nothing static about the course’s evolution. Greens and tees have been moved as the club regularly adapted to changes in technology. Even the famous Redan began life as a two shotter (!) and the infamous second hump to the sixteenth green was makes the hole flourish wasn’t added until 1895. Whatever missteps were made along the way were invariably corrected and the course today is the best it has ever been. A slew of thought-producing holes greet the golfer, as we see below. For many, the collection of holes strikes the perfect equilibrium between being thoroughly engaging without ever bludgeoning the golfer into submission.
Holes to Note
First hole, 320 yards, Point Garry (out); The game gets underway quickly. The first and second holes are a microcosm of the challenges of North Berwick, alternating between quirk and convention. The first is eccentric, requiring as little as a mid-iron tee shot to lay up short of a public foot path that cuts across the fairway heading toward the beach. The approach is a blind short iron to a cliff top green that slopes savagely away from high left to low right. Perhaps, one could quibble that it would be better if this half-par hole fell later in the round? Given that there isn’t a practice area, it is too daunting for the tiger to attempt to drive the green with the first swing of the day. Later in the round after loosening up, the author reckons more heroic deeds – and disasters – would occur.
Second hole, 430 yards, Sea; As one of the more underrated holes in world golf, this classic dogleg deserves more recognition. Its tee is set high above the beach and the fairway follows the curve of the shore. Slicing one’s tee ball onto the beach is all too easy and the beach is treated as a lateral water hazard rather than out of bounds. Recovery from the beach is often possible making the hole even more engaging. If the golfer takes on the challenge of the dogleg, he is rewarded with a shorter and simpler approach. For those less daring (especially on a windy day from such an exposed tee), the approach might be a blind 3 wood from the adjacent seventeenth fairway. Golf architect Benjamin Warren, who grew up playing North Berwick, relates this story: ‘As I travel the world studying classic golf design, strands of North Berwick’s D.N.A. turn up in remarkable places. My most memorable discovery was in Japan. As my playing partners and I traversed the broad up-and-over landform to the first green at Tokyo Golf Club I sensed a familiar quality. Setting eyes on the Cape hole 2nd it became clear that I was playing a one-two combo straight out of the West Links playbook. My playing partner, noted Japanese golf historian Kazunori Ōtsuka, turned with a glint in his eye and said simply, “Kōmyo Ōtani was fond of North Berwick.” It was clear he’d waited a long time to share this nugget with a native of the venerable links. Never one to learn from my mistakes, I proceeded to bite off too much with my tee shot and came a cropper on Tokyo’s version of West Sands Beach.’ Yes, indeed, North Berwick is not only a blast to play today but it has shaped the direction of golf course design around the world.
Third hole, 475 yards, Trap; Visitors might be dazzled by the stonewall that crosses the fairway 100 yards shy of the green but members treasure this hole for its putting surface. Indeed, many contend it’s the finest on the course, which is just another example of why the Scots are universally acknowledged as having the world’s highest golf I.Q. An open approach to the front of the green gives way to a rumpled putting surface that is nothing more than an extension of the fairway. Random puffs, dips, and bowls make up the green and impart countless interesting hole locations like the particularly vexing one on the back high left plateau pictured below.
Fourth hole, 180 yards, Carlekemp; The Redan gobbles up all the attention as the one shotter, robbing any hope that the quartet of par 3s at North Berwick will ever get their just due. One knock on them is that they all fall into the relatively tight window of between 160 to 190 yards in length but they head in different directions so the statistically inclined need to bear that in mind before they sniff too loudly. Aside from length, they are remarkably diverse. For instance, the long, skinny, sunken fourth green is a wildly different target to the tenth, which sits on a plateau and falls away on all sides.
Sixth hole, 160 yards, Quarry; Though shorter at the time, what a beast this hole must have been at its birth in 1877. Armed with a gutta percha and hickory, woe befell the golfer who didn’t clear the pit that walls off the front of the green. A successful recovery from the abyss by splaying open the face of the equivalent of today’s nine iron would have been remote.
Seventh hole, 365 yards, Eil Burn; The original incarnation of this hole (the tenth at one point) had the green before the burn and indicates just how short some of the holes were. Ben Sayer moved it across the Eil Burn in 1895. Presumably, he also deserves congratulations for the green’s interior contours, which are some of the best on the course.
Ninth hole, 520 yards, Mizzentop; The course’s evolution over nearly two centuries was based on extending the course westward. Similar to Prestwick, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most recently added ground isn’t as rumpled as what was originally identified as being ideal for golf. Here is where the hand of man is most welcomed and indeed required. In the case of the ninth, two central bunkers dug out and created by man ‘make’ the hole. A golfer eager to reach the green in two attempts skirting them left to shorten his approach to the green, neatly tucked into a dune ahead. Alas, similar to the beloved ninth at Muirfield, just up the road, out of bounds lurks left and creates playing tension.
Eleventh hole, 545 yards, Bos’ns Locker; Some courses of this lineage suffer from playing corridors that are a bit too straightforward. Not here, where the playing angles are first rate, including the subtle ones found at this hole where a pair of right fairway bunkers guard the ideal angle into the long narrow green that best accepts shots from the right side of the fairway. The last sixty yards of the hole house three well-positioned bunkers whose effects are amplified by the short, tight running conditions. According to Warren, ‘The approach to the par 5 eleventh in an exacting challenge for the scratch golfer. With a following wind and firm ’n fast conditions, the key feature the golfer must utilise is a diagonal kick board ridge running eighty yards into the fairway from the green. Its re-directional properties must be employed if the golfer is to have any chance of holding the green surface with a long iron or fairway wood. The margin for error is tiny. Before the ridge lies a broad swale that is blind to the golfer and strewn with hummocks and bunkers that wait to deflect/consume the deficient stroke. Watching your approach careen out of the swale, skip left on the kick board and work slowly left-to-right towards the flag is cause for celebration. The seasoned West Links golfer knows the alternate outcomes only too well: overcook the right-to-left shape and a vertiginous pot bunker awaits short left; hit the ridge on the fly and you’re back in the swale; carry it too far or hit the dreaded straight ball and the flank bunker is your destination. North Berwick’s stretch features many more storied holes, but locals know that great matches and low rounds catch fire after a heroic approach at the eleventh.’