After a two-hour drive from St. Andrews, we squeezed into the last parking spot on the road that borders the 18th fairway at the North Berwick Golf Club at 11:45 a.m. We were fairly confident that any sliced shots from 18 would clear the car, and that any passing cars would likewise be able to clear our rear bumper, but we were definitely vulnerable on both sides.
As we stretched our legs and put on golf shoes, a local man walking his dog struck up a conversation, asking where we were from and where we’d played, and telling us about his dog. The dog, it turns out, used to have drug-sniffing duty at a prison. On one occasion, after his retirement, he fixed himself next to a North Berwick laborer who was out for a smoke. The worker asked: “What’s wrong with your dog?” Our friend replied: “What are you smoking?” The conversation ended quickly.
The difference between North Berwick (pronounced BEAR-ick) and St. Andrews was pretty much summed up in the details of our arrival. The Old Course and the town of St. Andrews have managed to remain charming, but they are undeniably tourist attractions for golfers and non-golfers alike. In St. Andrews, you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with another American than an avuncular local walking past your car as you change shoes.
The North Berwick Golf Club, founded in 1832, is a central feature of and source of pride for the prosperous town, which has many residents who commute to Edinburgh, but the historic club is not a draw for the casual traveler looking to snap a picture of someplace famous. It’s about the golf.
Despite its rich history and stunning links course, the club is utterly without pretense, and the people couldn’t be more welcoming. If you get a caddie, it’s likely to be a member looking to pick up some exercise and a couple of extra quid. Visitor tee times are available Monday to Friday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.; Saturdays from 3 to 6 p.m.; and Sundays from noon to 6. Greens fees April through October are £85-115, or about $140-190. For more information, visit northberwickgolfclub.com.
After a sandwich with Chris Spencer, the club’s managing secretary, in the upstairs bar and grill, which offers grand views of the course and the Firth of Forth, we headed to the first tee of the West Links, where Dr. Peter Keeling, the club’s captain, met us. Both of our hosts played off a 5 handicap, so we paired up for a friendly, no-stakes match — Chris and I vs. Brad and Peter.
Berwick starts with a bang. Like St. Andrews, No. 1 and No. 18 share a fairway, so there’s plenty of room to miss left. To the right are the ocean and the beach, which is in play everywhere at North Berwick. After a tee shot down the left side, we needed short irons into a very elevated green sitting on a cliff. All four of us were on in regulation and made two-putt pars.
The most striking views are out to sea, where rocky islands come into view. Bass Rock, white with the tens of thousands of gannets and other sea birds that live there, is to the east; Craigleith is directly north of the first hole; and Fidra, which is said to be one of the inspirations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, is to the west. (At right, the view from 10 tee, with Bass Rock in the distance. Click to enlarge.)
The beach also runs the length of the right side on No. 2, a 414-yard par 4, but it was the third where we first encountered the course’s most distinctive design element, an old stone boundary wall, about three feet high. (Golf has been played on this land for hundreds of years, but not always in the present layout.) The stone wall runs the width of the fairway on No. 3, a 444-yard par 4. A good drive will land within 20 yards of it, leaving an approach shot that must clear the wall on its way to the green. It’s not a particularly difficult shot, but hitting over a wall on purpose is a new and somewhat exciting proposition.
On No. 4, a par 3 that shares a tee box with the 15th, things started to go wrong for me. I hit an ugly pull off the tee and skulled my second into deep grass. It was gone, putting me out of the hole as far as our match was concerned. I picked up and was granted a “double” on my card that should’ve been even worse. I was basically along for the ride for the rest of the nine, making bogeys and others as Chris carried me in our match.
After going out in 43, a number that would’ve been higher if not for the charity of the scorekeeper, I strung together some pars, but Brad and Peter took the lead in our match.
On No. 13, a 362-yard par 4, the wall comes into play again in a most interesting way. It runs parallel to the left side of the fairway, but the green is on the other side of it. You have to land your approach just over the wall to hit the green, and mis-hits or weak fades could end up snookered against the stones. I got my shot onto the green and managed a long two-putt. (At right top is the view from the fairway, with the flag barely visible to the right of the players. Below is a view of the green. Click to enlarge.)
No. 15, a par 3, is the original Redan hole, copied many times around the world. Course architect Charles B. Macdonald, who is famous for his Redans, described the style this way: “Take a narrow tableland, tilt it a little from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally and you have a Redan.”
The 15th at North Berwick is well bunkered and usually demands a carry to the front right of the green. My shot was left of the flag but managed to stop in good position for a two-putt par.
The 16th and 17th are both challenging par 4s, and the 18th is a drivable par 4 that is reminiscent of the 18th at St. Andrews, only shorter. Directly behind the green is the grand old clubhouse, not quite as imposing as the R&A, but still a striking building to come home to. (That's it at right. Click to enlarge.) My drive was just short and left of the green, and I putted from the fairway, leaving myself about eight feet for birdie. I pushed it and settled for par, giving me 38 on the back. Quite a way to finish, and Chris and I won the match.
We had a great time on another charming and playable links, but I knew that we’d only seen one side of North Berwick. We had challenging winds but not the 60 mph gusts that sometime buffet the place. We had intriguing pin positions, but there were many more to choose from. We had played most of the length, but not the championship tees, which are only for members on their competition days.
"You could play this course five days a week for the rest of your days," Spencer said as we walked up the 18th fairway, "and never get bored."
He was right, and as we headed for the Edinburgh airport Novotel to finish packing for our Friday morning flights, I envied North Berwick’s members and their access to the ever-changing, quirky old links.
Final notes on North Berwick: The club also has a nine-hole par-3 course for juniors. Adults are only allowed if accompanied by a junior, and the greens fee is only £2. The course is lined with grand Scottish mansions, some of which have been partitioned into flats, as well as the imposing Macdonald Marine Hotel and Spa, a beauty with excellent views of the course and the water. For more information and photos of the course, check out this excellent review on golfclubatlas.com. For maps and satellite images, see Google maps.