1. St Andrews
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that St Andrews is top of my list – and always has been.
You feel a sense of atmosphere when you stand on the first tee there. You can picture Young and Old Tom Morris teeing up in the exact same spot. St Andrews has plenty of history, which is why it’s The Home of Golf.
Other courses have been tweaked quite extensively, but St Andrews is basically the same as when it was first opened. One or two changes have been made down the years, but they’re only extensions of the existing course. That’s what makes it so authentic.
St Andrews is very underrated. It’s a fine course – it needs to be played in the wind like all seaside courses. The bunkers can be unplayable and you’re up against huge double greens, so it poses a great challenge to any golfer.
St Andrews has the widest fairway in the world but when you play there in the Open Championship – and every pro will tell you this – you’re still nervous that you’ll do something stupid. You shouldn’t go out of bounds, but plenty of golfers have over the years – just look at David Duval at the 2000 Open. So, you shouldn’t be deceived by its openness.
When the pins are put in certain parts of the green, there’s only a very small part of the fairway that gives you perfect access to the flag. That’s the part of the course that you must know.
It’s very moving when you play there because it’s so atmospheric and the course is superb. The town itself is beautiful – it’s got a bit of everything.
So, St Andrews should be top of every golfer’s bucket list.
When you play at Muirfield, you realise what a fine and scenic course it is. You can see over the coast to Fife, and you’re playing at one of the country’s most exclusive courses.
A Muirfield membership is called The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and is older than an R&A membership. Muirfield members were the first rule-makers in golf, so the members see themselves as belonging to something quite special. That’s why there’s a rivalry between them and R&A members.
Muirfield itself is certainly special – I was there when Jack Nicklaus won his first Open Championship in 1966. He built a golf-course community in Dublin, Ohio, and called it Muirfield Village – that’s how exceptional he thinks it is.
It’s always produced terrific winners. Moments like Phil Mickelson’s thrilling finish to snatch the 2013 Open Championship spring to mind – I was doing radio commentary for the BBC at the time, and that always sticks out in my mind. Nick Faldo also won the Open Championship there on two occasions. It’s Nick’s type of course because there’s a premium on accuracy rather than length, which played into his hands.
It’s not the type of course that someone like Dustin Johnson could overpower. The fairways are very, very narrow – you stand on the first tee, and you can hardly see where the fairway is! It can be intimidating.
You also have the impenetrable rough, the large, fast greens which are always in great condition, and a constant stiff breeze coming off The Firth of Forth to contend with.
These factors pose a serious test for any golfer, so it’s a unique experience.
3. Royal Cinque Ports
This inclusion may surprise some people, but Royal Cinque Ports is a fantastic course. I play it regularly because I know a few members there. It’s a two-hour drive from where I live, and it’s a little bit off the beaten track, but it’s well worth making the journey.
It holds the distinction of being a qualifying course for the Open Championship and has hosted the tournament a couple of times. With a stronger infrastructure, it could still host the Open Championship today.
Royal Cinque Ports is a true links course. You play against the wind on the way out and with the wind on the way back, or vice versa depending on the weather. It can play quite easy if there’s no wind, but more often than not there’s a breeze blowing.
The fairways are wide open but fast and bouncy, and the greens are undulating and in superb condition all year round.
It’s a well-designed course and a really good test of your game.
4. Royal St George’s
The people at Royal St George’s might not like me putting Royal Cinque Ports ahead of them, considering the two courses are round the corner from each other, but I can’t leave it off the list.
As we know, Royal St George’s regularly hosts the Open Championship and will host it again this year. Some iconic golfers have won there over the years. I shared a house in Sandwich with Sandy Lyle the week that he won the Open at Royal St George’s in 1985. We only actually lived about 100 yards apart at Wentworth at the time, and I played the final day. We had a great party when we got home!
Every hole at Royal St George’s points in a different direction, which is unusual for a seaside course. The traditional layout of such a course is straight out, straight in. You start at the 1st, you get as far from the clubhouse as you can until you get to the turn, and then you start heading back. That’s the template for the likes of Royal Lytham & St Annes and St Andrews, but Royal St George’s is different, which makes it so difficult to play on.
It’s been improved a lot over the years – more tees have been put in, and more length has been added – so it continuously poses different challenges. Some of the fairways are rolling and are very challenging, and some of the greens are quite big. The design of Royal St George’s is its biggest selling point.
It’s another course that’s situated in a beautiful part of the country, so it ticks all the boxes of what you’d want from a great golf course.
Carnoustie is a long, tough test, and not for the faint-hearted!
When you think of Carnoustie, you think of great players like Ben Hogan. He only played at our Open Championship once, in 1953, and won it at Carnoustie. He even has a hole named after him (the sixth, renamed Hogan’s Alley)! Coming from Scotland, I was brought up to revere Ben Hogan, because he won the Open at such an iconic course.
You think of Gary Player winning there and Tom Watson winning his first-ever Open Championship. Then you think of the Jean Van de Velde collapse in 1999! Who could forget that?
His episode shows how tough Carnoustie is, particularly on the finishing stretch. It’s the only course on the Open rota to finish with water. When the Barry Burn river comes into play at the 17th and 18th holes, you know you’ve got a test on your hands. Even the slightest misjudgement can put you in trouble. It doesn’t matter how you play around the course – you know you’ve never won at Carnoustie until you come off the 18th.
Many golf courses need a gust of wind to make them tough, but Carnoustie is demanding enough without wind.
6. Royal Birkdale
Where do you start with Royal Birkdale? This is another course that’s teeming with history.
You think about the many Open Championship winners there over the years – Peter Thomson, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Pádraig Harrington, Jordan Spieth – and you think of the Ryder Cups it hosted in 1965 and 1969. The fact it’s hosted so many major tournaments over the years is testament to its longevity and Championship credentials.
I played my first Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale in 1969 and was the youngest golfer to represent Great Britain in the Ryder Cup, so I’ll always have fond memories of the course on a personal note.
Like Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale is a tough course even without the wind. It’s carved out of high dunes and there isn’t a bad hole on the course – each one tests you in different ways. The first hole used to be a respectable par-5, and now that it’s a par-4, it’s considerably more difficult. They’ve also made the green on the 17th tougher and more undulating.
It’s a fascinating course and one that I would recommend to any golfer.
How could I leave out my home course?
The other golf courses I’ve listed are seaside courses but, to me, this has always been the UK’s best inland golf course. There aren’t many tough inland golf courses in the UK, but Wentworth is one of the few, which is why it’s so special.
Every golfing great has played the West Course at Wentworth, from Tiger Woods all the way back to Ben Hogan. It’s also hosted the BMW PGA Championship since 1984, and it hosted the World Match Play Championship from 1964 to 2007. There are two reasons for this – firstly, the demographics, because it’s near London, and secondly, because it’s a very long and tough course.
Wentworth embodies everything that’s good about a golf course in southern England. If we put aside what a great golfing challenge it is, it has tall scotch pines and plenty of heather, and it’s always in good condition. It’s scenic – with rhododendron and azaleas, like Augusta. It’s got everything you could want, and it’s a fine test of golf.
Although it’s a Harry Colt-designed course and still has a lot of its original features, it’s also evolved architecturally. The trees have been replaced and new bunkers have been added, so the pros really like playing there.
Somebody who visited Wentworth once told me that they play a lot of corporate golf days, and that whenever they tried to take their golf day to Wentworth it was over-subscribed. This tells you everything you need to know.
8. Sunningdale Golf Club (Old)
Sunningdale is only a mile from Wentworth, and the two courses are very similar in many ways.
Sunningdale’s older than Wentworth, having been founded in 1900. It’s got a decent history, and it’s hosted many events over the years including the British Masters, Walker Cup, and Women’s British Open.
The course isn’t as long as Wentworth, but it’s still very scenic and relaxing. It’s full of pine trees, which are always in excellent condition, and it has more heather than Wentworth. The heather can make it a difficult challenge for golfers, but not overly so.
Even though it’s a members-only course, I’ve always found it to be much more welcoming to visitors than others of this type.
In a nutshell, Sunningdale has a nice ambience and is a very pleasant place in which to play golf.
9. North Berwick
North Berwick is particularly close to my heart. When I was growing up, I used to play there a lot in the winter. Being by the sea, it was one of the few frost-free courses in the local area. You could always depend on North Berwick being open!
I used to play in the Scottish Boys’ Championship there – it was the home of this championship when I was growing up, so it has a great legacy.
It’s a quintessential seaside golf course. Like Muirfield, it’s situated along the shores of The Firth of Forth, and has fast-running fairways. You play the first 10 holes as far from the clubhouse as possible, and you come in for the last 10. It’s that straight out, straight in format that I mentioned earlier. If you’re playing against the wind going out, you’ll have a downwind coming back.
North Berwick’s got some very quirky holes. The 15th is a blind hole – you just aim your second shot at a huge marker post and hope for the best! It finishes with a par-4 at the clubhouse, which has always been a tough hole to finish with. You know that if you finish with a 4, you’ll lose some distance in the field.
I don’t get up to Scotland very often anymore but, if I ever do, this is a course I would like to go and play.
10. Swinley Forest
I consider this course a hidden gem because it’s overshadowed by three nearby courses (Sunningdale, Wentworth, and The Berkshire Golf Club), but it deserves more recognition than it gets.
In many ways, Swinley Forest is an amalgamation of these three courses. It’s a beautiful Harry Colt-designed course which contains plenty of pine trees, azaleas, rhododendrons, and more heather than on any golf course you could imagine. It’s very picturesque, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it rivals Augusta in beauty.
It’s not too tough to play – it’s a challenge to keep your shots straight but, if you can hit the fairways, you’ve got a good chance of getting pars and birdies.
Swinley Forest is the perfect course to visit with a friend. I don’t think the members even have competitions – it’s quite unusual in that respect.
It’s just a pleasant place to play and well worthy of being featured in any list of great golf courses.
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