Golf in the Kingdom of Fife is the game’s ultimate pilgrimage. The Old Course at St Andrews is, of course, the star attraction but the sheer scale and variety of the options for visiting golfers is remarkable. St Andrews itself boasts no fewer than seven championship-standard links while many, many more fantastic challenges are just a short drive from the ‘Auld Grey Toon’.
Old Course, St Andrews
Par 72, 6,721 yards
The Course: Strip away the heritage and history and the Old Course can seem a fairly straightforward challenge. In serene weather a low score is possible but the ancient links bares its teeth when the wind blows. Yardages are rendered meaningless, putting on the enormous shared greens becomes all about feel and the most innocuous-looking bunkers become ball-magnets.
Highlights include the course’s only two par threes, the 8th and 11th, while the long 14th is a strategic masterpiece. The golden rule is to stay out the sand – Tiger Woods didn’t find a single bunker in four rounds of the 2000 Open Championship and won by eight shots.
Signature hole: The 17th – The Road Hole. With railway sheds, out-of-bounds, a road, a stone wall, the devilish Road Bunker and a subtle, narrow green to negotiate, par is a triumph here.
What makes it special? As you walk up the 18th fairway, pause for a moment at the Swilcan Bridge and survey the scene, just as every great golfer who ever played the game has done.
Balcomie Links, Crail Golfing Society
Par 69, 5,861 yards
The Course: Don’t be fooled by the lack of yards – this terrific little course, perched on a small pocket of land jutting out into the North Sea, is no pushover.
The lack of length can be explained in part by the number of par three holes. Balcomie has six of them and they’re all tricky, particularly if any kind of breeze is blowing.
In the right conditions, big hitters who flirt with the shoreline can drive the short par four 4th, and another carry over the beach is required at the long, tough 5th.
The 13th and 14th are back to back par threes which are terrifying and enchanting in turn, while the closing loop of four holes offer a chance to finish with a flourish.
Signature hole: At the par three 14th, you’ll tee off from high ground to a small, tiered green surrounded by bunkers and beach.
What makes it special? A round at Balcomie Links is simply tremendous fun. It’s always in wonderful condition, the views along the Fife coast are superb and the variety of holes means there is never a dull moment.
Scotscraig Golf Club, Tayport
Par 71, 6,669 yards
The Course: An intriguing mix of links and heathland, Scotscraig has been a regular final qualifying venue when the Open Championship is held at nearby St Andrews.
After a gentle start, the rugged 4th is the first of several testing par fours in the front nine. After the turn, the challenge becomes tougher still with narrow fairways and well-protected greens. The raised green at the short 13th requires careful distance control while the par five 14th is an eagle opportunity – or a potential card-wrecker.
The round is completed with two short but tight par fours, which again place a premium on accuracy off the tee.
Signature hole: At 366 yards, the 4th should be straightforward but the raised green falls away sharply on all sides and will only accept a well-struck pitch. Get it wrong off the tee and all sorts of trouble awaits.
What makes it special? Scotscraig’s combination or links and heathland is unusual – but somehow it just seems to work.
The Golf House Club, Elie
Par 70, 6,273 yards
The Course: The quirky links at Elie is terrific fun in calm conditions – and an altogether more serious proposition when the wind blows.
The front nine includes several short par fours which are in range of a well-struck tee shot but fierce bunkering, sharp undulations and subtle greens offer stern defence.
The par four 9th can be brutal but is followed by a charming sequence of seaside holes, including the terrific dog-leg 12th, where the golfer must decide how much beach to carry for the best approach to a well-guarded green.
The course finishes with another short par four which, fittingly, is another test of feel and wits rather than strength and length.
Signature hole: The beautiful 11th, squeezed between the shore and rocky outcrops, is the shortest hole on the course but devilishly hard in any kind of wind.
What makes it special? Elie is a real shotmaker’s course. Imagination and touch, rather than length off the tee, are required to build a good score.
Lundin Golf Club, Lundin Links
Par 71, 6,371 yards
The Course: After a stunning opening shoreside stretch, the course heads inland and incorporates some parkland-style holes before finishing back among the dunes.
The first tee, perched atop a sand dune by the beach, invites one of the most appealing opening shots in Scottish golf and a terrific run of beachside holes culminates in the spectacular 4th.
Moving away from the coast brings several changes of elevation and water comes into play, too, noticeably at the short par four 7th, where a menacing burn guards the green.
The course reaches its highest point at the par five 11th where, unusually for a seaside course, woodlands need to be negotiated.
The 18th, with its long, narrow green wedged between the dunes, is an appropriately tough finish to this demanding course.
Signature hole: The 4th. A hooked shot will end up on the beach. The approach, usually a long iron, must carry a burn and avoid fierce bunkering.
What makes it special? Lundin Links is tough all the way through but what sets it apart is the variety of the challenge.
Ladybank Golf Club, Ladybank
Par 71, 6,754 yards
The Course: A testing heathland layout which winds its way through forests of pine and silver birch. Ladybank is arguably the best inland course in Fife and has hosted final qualifying for the Open Championship and European Tour events.
The layout puts a premium on accuracy. A tee shot just a few yards off line can be blocked out by the trees, while deep bunkers and relatively small greens add to the menace.
The par five 7th, snaking through the woodlands, is a real test of strategy, as is the dog-leg 9th.
Another dog leg awaits at the par four 16th, where only a perfectly-positioned tee-shot allows the golfer to attack the pin.
Signature hole: The 9th, a par four which sweeps gently from right to left, presents all sorts of options from the tee. A big drive over the trees on the left leaves a short pitch. A more conservative shot leaves a long approach through a funnel of woods.
What makes it special? In a land of windswept links, Ladybank is an entirely different but equally beguiling challenge.
The Dukes Course, St Andrews
Par 71, 7,512 yards
The Course: Opened for play in 1995 and remodelled extensively 11 years later, the Dukes is a challenging heathland layout which commands stunning views across St Andrews and beyond.
The Dukes puts an emphasis on long and straight tee shots – it is one of the longest courses in Scotland from the tips – and there are several excellent driving holes, such as the 7th, 13th and 14th.
The layout finishes with back-to-back par fours which are among the most testing on the course and are capable of destroying a perfectly good score.
Signature hole: The short 3rd is a picturesque but dangerous par three, carved out of mature woodland and with a green surrounded by cavernous bunkers.
What makes it special? Despite its relative youth, the Dukes is a testing layout which feels as if it’s been part of the St Andrews landscape for generations.
Kittocks Course, Fairmont St Andrews
Par 72, 7,191 yards
The course: The Kittocks is part of the Fairmont golf complex at St Andrews Bay, just outside the town, and makes the most of its seaside location with several cliff-top holes.
After a sedate opening, the course springs into life on the tee of the 7th, a majestic par four which sweeps downhill to a green perched on clifftops above the North Sea. Players must negotiate the shore at the 10th, a dog-leg par four which can be in range from the tee for the very bravest, before facing a monstrously tough closing stretch.
The shore comes in to play again on the 16th and 17th before the golfer turns inland to face the 18th, an uphill par four to a green in a natural amphitheatre underneath the clubhouse.
Signature hole: The 17th runs along with cliffs to the right until, just short of the green, the coast takes a big bite out into the fairway requiring an all-or-nothing approach to a small putting surface.
What makes it special? The string of clifftop holes near the finish.
Torrance Course, Fairmont St Andrews
Par 72, 7,230 yards
The course: Like its sister Fairmont property, the Kittocks, the Torrance Course at St Andrews Bay is set on a spectacular cliff top location but it plays more like a true links than its neighbour.
Receptive aprons which allow for low-running approach shots and steep-sided pot bunkers are a common characteristic.
The par five 3rd, which requires a long drive and an approach over water, is the standout hole on the front nine while the back nine is noticeably longer and features several tough par fours. Notable among them is the 10th, which is threaded through rolling hillocks to a shallow green, and the 16th, which spills down towards the clifftops.
Signature hole: The 11th is the shortest hole on the course, backed by a stunning view overlooking St Andrews.
What makes it special? The designers have resisted the urge to fit in one or two eye-catching holes along the cliff-tops and instead focused on creating a challenging layout that will stand the test of time.
Kingsbarns Golf Course, Kingsbarns
Par 72, 7,224 yards
The course: A stunning modern imagining of what a links course should be, in an unforgettable setting, Kingsbarns has established itself as one of Scotland’s top courses since opening in 1999.
The course is typified by clever bunkering and sharp changes in elevation, nowhere more apparent than the short par four 6th. The green is in range from the tee but the drive must carry a steep plateau and avoid a sequence of deep pot bunkers.
There is a similar risk/reward theme at the 12th, a par five which curls round the sea shore. A long second shot to the green must carry beach and sea to reach its target.
The dramatic 18th, which requires a pitch over a fast running burn to a well-bunkered green, is a tough finish.
Signature hole: The par three 15th, set on an outcrop with the sea on three sides, is an unforgettable one-shotter.
What makes it special? Quite simply hole after hole of stunning links golf.
Eden Course, St Andrews
Par 70, 6,250 yards
The course: The unpretentious Eden course lies in the shadow of three more illustrious neighbours but there is plenty enjoyment to be had from a round here.
The front nine heads down towards the banks of the Eden Estuary and features a pair of charming short holes at the 5th and 8th. The five 9th, with its narrow fairway and strategically-placed pot bunkers, is an exciting short par five.
The back nine is also short but tricky. Unusually for a links course, the main defence of the greens at both the 14th and 15th is a pond, while the long 16th and the sweeping dog leg 17th would not be out of place on one of the neighbouring championship links.
Signature hole: At the par three 15th a pond will claim any underhit tee shots while four devilish wee pot bunkers will swallow up anything wide.
What makes it special? Chasing in a quick round at the Eden is one of the unexpected joys of a visit to St Andrews.
Castle Course, St Andrews
Par 71, 6,759 yards
The course: The Castle Course, which sits on high ground to the south of the town, is the newest addition to the St Andrews Links group of courses – and easily the toughest.
The hallmarks of the Castle layout are generous fairways, penal bunkers and heavily undulating greens which can shred nerves even when the wind is not blowing.
Golfers get an early taste of what to expect at the 3rd, a par three with a billowing green. The wind will dictate which of the back-to-back par fives at the 4th and 5th presents an eagle opportunity, while the cliff-top run of holes from 7 to 9 is unforgettable.
Players return to the shoreline at the spectacular 17th while the closing hole, a dog-leg par 5, is a suitably dramatic finish.
Signature hole: The 17th, requiring a carry over a yawning seaside chasm, will live long in the memory.
What makes it special? The sheer drama of the challenge. The Castle Course is a golfing rollercoaster.
Jubilee Course, St Andrews
Par 72, 6,742 yards
The Course: Spare a thought for the Jubilee Course. In any other Scottish town it would be cherished as a rare gem. In St Andrews it’s hardly given a second look.
This is unfortunate because the Jubilee is a classic links, and a real ball-striker’s course, with a strong emphasis on accuracy from tee and fairway.
The outward nine has some fine holes, not least the short par 4 8th, but the course comes into its on the homeward side. The 12th is a sporty par five which rewards bravery from the tee, the 15th and 16th are par fours shoe-horned through sand dunes and the green at the 18th is perhaps the best-guarded on the entire course.
Signature hole: The 15th is a short par four which can almost be driven in the right conditions. But the small green, perched on the side of a sand dune, is a very hard target to hit.
What makes it special? The Jubilee’s subtle qualities become more apparent as the round evolves. The more you play it, the more you like it.
The New Course, St Andrews
Par 71, 6,625 yards
The Course: ‘New’ is a relative term at St Andrews. This course was laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1895.
The New Course, a traditional ‘nine out, nine back’ format, is a hard-running links with relatively small greens and plentiful amounts of gorse to snare an imperfect shot. The benefits of keep the ball low to the ground, particularly when the wind is up, become quickly apparent.
The first big test is comes at the 6th, a long, bunkerless par four with an undulating fairway which must be found. The 9th is a long par three to a partially-hidden green flanked for its length by the Eden Estuary.
The 11th and 14th are short but testing par fours, the 17th is a par three which can require a driver or three wood in windy conditions, while the 18th, playing back towards the recently-added Links Clubhouse, is a strong finishing hole.
Signature hole: The 9th is the kind of par three which will can only be found on a links course.
What makes it special? The New Course is the archetypal ‘out and back’ links course. It’s a fairer – and some locals would perhaps even say better – test than its famous neighbour.