The North Berwick Golf Club (West Links)
East Lothian, Scotland
Twelfth hole, 400 yards, Bass; Architect and course critic, Tom Doak, has long heralded the merits of North Berwick. In 1990, he wrote this regarding the classic dogleg, ‘ The 374 yard 12th is one of the world’s best examples of just how simple golf design can be: a generic dogleg left with a critically placed pot bunker in the nook of the dogleg and another just to the right of the green, which falls away to the left, giving every advantage to the player who hugs the corner closest. It would be very interesting to watch players attack this hole on several consecutive days, steering away from the bunker at first and then gradually starting to hug the corner more and more closely, until one day they make a fatal pull into the bunker itself and begin the process all over again.’ At the time, Doak rated the course an ‘8’ on the Doak scale but having studied it more during construction of his own Renaissance course nearby, he raised the grade to a ‘9’ in Volume 1 of The Confidential Guide, which was released in 2014. To put that in perspective only two Open courses score as high or higher. Indeed, across the United Kingdom and Ireland, less than ten courses received the same lofty grade from Doak.
Thirteenth hole, 385 yards, Pit; The drive is not dissimilar to that found on many links courses; the second shot is patently unique courtesy of the green’s tight placement on the other side of a three foot stonewall. Additionally, a sand dune pinches in the front left half of the green resulting in the course’s smallest target at 4,090 square foot. Getting close to hole positions near the wall is gallingly difficult, especially for the tiger who is unaccustomed to being so challenged with a short iron in hand. Those that come up short of the wall in two have a mess on their hands.
Fourteenth hole, 375 yards, Perfection; The author knows of no course with three par 4s in the 375 to 400 yard range that match the quality of the thirteenth, fourteenth and sixteenth holes at North Berwick. Holes of this length are crucial to the fabric of all courses because they are within reach of all players. Yet, how can such holes be challenging for the tiger? Look no further than North Berwick for three superlative – and diverse – answers. A big moment in the course’s evolution occurred when a) this green was moved from short of today’s cross bunkers and placed out of view beyond the ridge hard along the shore and b) the next hole’s tee was brought off that same ridge and shortened to a par 3.
Fifteenth hole, 190 yards, Redan; The term Redan is borrowed from the military and means ‘guarding parapet.’ When playing this much-copied hole, the key is for the tee ball to clear the parapet and stop quickly on the green. Almost all subsequent versions provide more satisfying visuals that allow the golfer to enjoy the path of his ball as it lands and begins a tantalizingly slow sweep along the high right to back left canted putting surface. Superlative examples include the fourth at National Golf Links of America, second at Somerset Hills, and sixth at Yeamans Hall but there is no disputing the original’s place in history as well as the mystery created by the ridge thirty yards short of the green. Interestingly, when C.B. Macdonald first played here in 1872, he would have experienced the hole as a par 4 of some 265 yards. By the time he returned in the early 1900s to study holes for the construction of his National Golf Links, the Redan had morphed into a one shotter of today’s length and had become the fifteenth hole. The rest is history, literally!
Sixteenth hole, 380 yards, Gate; A green that needs to be seen to be believed. After a drive over a stonewall (and a burn on certain days) the fun begins approaching the angled green – or greens – two upside down tea cups separated by a four foot valley. Trying to hit and hold it is one of the most fun shots in world golf. Recovery shots are equally vexing. Coming where it does near the end of the round when the nerves may be frayed, the hole is a real test of will. There are a lot of terrific sixteenth holes in the world over more dramatic land – Cypress Point, both at Cabot, Merion – but for pure entertainment, this one might be in a class by itself. Give Ben Sayer credit for boldly adding the wicked second hump. Even though the green is located in a field, the game becomes spectacular when played to such an intoxicating target.
Seventeenth hole, 430 yards, Point Garry (in); The author’s favorite type of finish has the penultimate hole significantly harder than the Home hole. Warren states, ‘Seventeen is frequently overlooked in a back-nine that’s bursting with world heavyweight champion golf. A basic description such as ‘semi-blind punchbowl green on a rocky outcrop by the Firth of Forth’ would be enough to whet most taste buds, but Point Garry (In) has a layer of subtlety and strategy that merits further analysis. North Berwick’s penultimate tee shot confronts the golfer with a sea of short grass mounds punctuating a washboard fairway. The top-third of the flag is barely visible in the distance, a fluttering silhouette against the massiveness of Bass Rock. The gradual climb to Point Garry seems much farther than its scorecard entry of 428 yards. Indeed, with a sporty wind and the rock-hard midsummer conditions switching up your angle of attack can be the difference between reaching the sanctuary of the punchbowl green in regulation blows, disappearing into a cavernous sandy trench, or a 100-yard return putt from below the first green. Yet another diagonal ridge fronts a green that is marginally more receptive when approached from the left. When the course is browned out, these kind of margins turn matches. If the ridge dictates seventeen’s strategy, ‘The Horse’ enforces it. Play to its right and the golfer risks their second being stymied by an abrupt ripple in the fairway. Flatter ground and a shorter carry to the green awaits left of the horse, but if you overcook the right-to-left on that line the beach awaits!’
Eighteenth hole, 275 yards, Home; Your heart would break if this course ended with a dull, conventional two shotter. Such is not the case and the opportunity exists for one more heroic deed on this half par hole. Played from an elevated tee, it is both short and bunkerless and can reward brute strength but if the ball fails to finish on the putting surface, a nervy chip or pitch of some sort awaits. The prying gazes in and around the clubhouse add to the drama. For the right handed player, finishing the swing strong and posting onto the left side is critical: hanging back and hitting a block won’t do as out-of-bounds looms right. As is generally true throughout the round, bold, attacking golf is encouraged. The author can’t help but dream of Seve Ballesteros playing here in his prime and what a treat it would have been to watch his brand of golf over these venerable links where imagination rules supreme.
Traveling golfers tend to worship courses of this ilk and a few like North Berwick, St. Enodoc and Machrihanish have crept onto GOLF Magazine’s World Top 100 rankings. That would place them in the top 25 in the United Kingdom. American GOLF Magazine panelist – and member – John Dempsey sums up his feelings this way,
What has always drawn me to North Berwick is that it represents exactly what I look for in a links. To begin with, it is near the sea, with the Firth of Forth and its various rocks and islands visible from nearly every point. The course is very pretty. Next is the variety and memorability of the holes. Even if you’ve only played the course once, you can’t help but remember the wedge up the hill on the short 1st, the magnificent view from the 11th tee, the stone wall protecting the 13th green, the wonderful Redan 15th, and the home hole that virtually begs you to birdie it on your way back to the course’s lovely little clubhouse. To me, a golf course is a special one if it makes me want to walk off the 18th green and go right back to the 1st tee looking for another game. North Berwick does exactly that. I don’t know of any course that combines great holes, great views, great times—and good old-fashioned Scottish quirkiness– as beautifully as the West Links at North Berwick. My membership there has been one of the highlights of my golfing life, and I return each summer to sample its joys.
What a great litmus test: the desire to go back for a second loop! Indeed, similar to The Old Course at St. Andrews, the Home green leaves the golfer staring at the starter’s hut and first tee wondering, ‘Should I?’ Comparison to The Old Course at St. Andrews is warranted on several other levels. First, they both begin and end in town, which is always pleasing. Second, the predominance of great holes falls on the returning nine. Indeed, for the author, the only stretch in world golf that can rival the run home from eleven on the Old Course is the final eight holes at North Berwick. Third, both front nines are full of underappreciated holes. Finally, both courses, as much as any in the world, require numerous rounds to gain even a faint idea of what is going on. North Berwick has not and will never hold The Open but on the plus side that will hopefully minimize tinkering. After all, its unique, infuriating features are what make North Berwick so compelling and most changes in modern times tend to be done with a view toward playability, a double edge sword. At over 6,500 yards, aside a windswept shore, the course is sufficiently long to be a serious challenge yet short enough to be walked comfortably in three hours. North Berwick is surely one of the most vibrant, telling museum pieces in the world and the perfect barometer for appreciating the game’s past and future. It is a living treasure to be cherished by golfers of all skill sets.
Ironically, the Brits tend to be harsher critics, sometimes dismissing North Berwick as a ‘holiday’ course. Evidently, some prefer the monotony of hay-lined fairways and brutishly long holes where only rifle straight shots suffice and power trumps finesse. Happily, such a view point is becoming less prevalent as more people cotton to the fact that golf is a game meant to stimulate the mind and improve one’s health. It is not meant to be an admonishment from a strict schoolmarm – life is too short!
Let’s leave the final words to Benjamin Warren who was so fortunate to grow up in North Berwick. He nicely summed up its allures when he writes: ‘Learning the game in North Berwick is a blessing and a curse. International golf teaches you that you live somewhere special but until you venture outside the town you expect all golf courses to have the beauty, shot values and community-integration you take for granted. You’ll quickly realise that your ground game is a potent weapon that will confound your partners and opponents. Even the least creatively minded golfer learns a trick or two lapping the West Links. The course frees up your mind to all the wonderful possibilities that exist in golf course design. I wouldn’t trade my time here for anywhere.’
Please note: the author wishes to thank David McIntosh for several of his insights and photographs in this profile.