North Berwick’s West Links is one of the holy lands in the world of golf course architecture. All students of the game and its courses should make the pilgrimage at some point in their lives. It is the pinnacle of fun golf and the posterboy for quirk. Yes, it is famously home to the original Redan (No. 15), but it is also one of the prettiest links courses. Bass Rock and the ocean serve as glimmering backdrops for many holes. Although unconventional for its type in that it features houses, North Berwick is one of the purest links courses.
The atmosphere around the 1st and 18th holes at the West Links is close to what you will find at St. Andrews, but with a lower-key Scottish beach vibe. The golf course begins and ends on the edge of a holiday town. If you are driving from Edinburgh, you might have stopped 10 minutes shy of North Berwick to see the gate of the Honourable Company—or, if you are lucky, to eat lunch.
As you pass through the town of North Berwick and approach the bay, you will find the white fence that lines the double fairway of Nos. 1 and 18, an old stone clubhouse, and a few practice nets, presumably for American tourists.
But you shouldn’t worry about warming up; you can dribble one off the 1st tee and still probably get home in two. With the town behind you, the ocean on your right, and Bass Rock in the distance beyond the 1st green, you can expect 1st-tee jitters even if you are properly warmed up. Knowing that your journey across this special strip of Scottish coastline has begun will be enough to make you prone to topping your opening drive. Fortunately, North Berwick’s 1st fairway is more than accommodating to golfers overcome with emotion; it is as wide as a football field, and the hole itself is only 340 yards long from the tips.
During your round, you will hit across rock walls, the North Sea, and a few burns. And you will encounter some of the best and wildest greens in links golf.
All said, more than two thirds of North Berwick’s holes were legitimate contenders for our Eclectic 18. Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and literally every hole from from 11 to 18 would improve just about any course if swapped. At the same time, trying to pull off such a swap could get you thrown off many green committees. The fair police rarely abide the degree of blindness and eccentricity that you see on North Berwick’s best holes. Even C. B. Macdonald, when he created his Redan template, omitted the blindness, leaving that quirk to the people in East Lothian.
Although the Redan has proven more influential, North Berwick’s 13th is, to me, the ultimate in golf course architecture. The “Pit” hole is beautiful, fun, and strategic. Its unique hazards guard ideal angles, emphasizing the player’s execution and appetite for risk.
An ancient three-foot-high stone wall, inches from the right edge of the green, plays defense and provides endless entertainment. Running the length of the smallest green on the course, it obscures the putting surface and, paired with the gorse-covered dune on the other side, forms a narrow punchbowl—that is, the “Pit.”
The wall is set at the perfect angle, too. Diagonal to the line of most approach shots, it calls for a tee shot that hugs the left edge of the fairway, where two pots lie in wait. From that spot, you can work with the length of the green to land the ball safely over. The more you move to the right, the more precise your distance control must be.
The complications escalate around the green. If you hit the green in regulation, you will probably have a reasonable birdie look on this small putting surface. If, however, you fail to hit the sunken target, the wall will likely come into play on your third. And perhaps on your fourth, and fifth, and so on. As the saying goes, “Don’t argue with the wall; it is older than you.”
North Berwick’s West Links has the best sense of humor in golf. What’s funny about No. 13 is that the “better” your miss, the harder your up-and-down will be. If you are well short of the wall, for instance, you shouldn’t have a hard time lofting your next shot over it. If you miss long, you can take advantage of the punchbowl-like characteristics of the dune, or even use the wall as a backboard. But God forbid your ball finds itself in close proximity to those ancient stones. It could ricochet anywhere.
While the next hole at North Berwick, No. 14, bears the name “Perfection,” the imagination and creativity of the 13th that made it the first pick of our consensus draft when we put the Eclectic 18 together. If you are the type of golfer who might choose to play a shot because it takes a more fun route and not necessarily because it guarantees the best score, make your way to the West Links.