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Ayr on a Shoe String
Keith Ging

Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes the perfect golf trip. For some, it has to involve resort courses in foreign climes where good weather is virtually guaranteed. For more hardy souls, there is nothing to beat a lengthy tour covering hundreds of miles with a different stopover every night and a different type of challenge every day.

But for real perfection, consider this. Take a budget airline flight to an area containing possibly Britain’s greatest concentration of first-grade links, including three Open Championship venues. In my own case, this amounted to £4.99 – yes £4.99 – for a one-hour, 300-mile journey.

Next to no travel is involved once you get there, making a one-day, dawn-to-dusk, reasonably-priced 36-hole trip from the other end of Britain perfectly feasible.

In fact, as you walk out of the airport, the first course to stage the Open is visible across the road in front of you, right next to the railway station.

Its neighbours stretch back-to-back for miles up and down a glorious stretch of coastline. Prices range from £15 for a round at an exceptionally good municipal course to £135 for a day ticket at one of golf’s truly great clubs. Furthermore: the natives are renowned for their hospitality, there is a vast array of good restaurants and pubs, and you will find excellent accommodation starting at around £20-£30 a night.

If the budget is not a problem, just down the coast is one of the world’s finest hotels costing rather more. Should you feel the need for a taste of night life after a day spent slaving over a hot golf course, the bright lights of an extremely lively city are 30 miles up the road. And after you have holed your final putt of a memorable trip, you can fly back home for as little as – wait for it – £1.99 if you have booked far enough in advance, taking the price for the 600-mile round-trip air tickets from southeast England to the grand total of £6.98.

If that sounds like your perfect golf tour, too, then look no further than the hallowed links of Ayrshire in southwest Scotland, less than an hour’s drive from Glasgow. Here are names to stir the blood.

Right opposite the airport that shares its name is Prestwick, designed by Old Tom Morris, home of the first 12 Opens, a living link with the origins of the game and renowned for its terrifying first tee-shot hard up against the wall that borders the railway line, its vast, sleepered bunkers and its baffling blind holes. All around these ancient dunes lies an aura of tradition and history, and the player is left with the overwhelming sense of walking in the footsteps of golf’s most revered figures.

Right next door is Royal Troon, one of the current championship venues (the dates for your diary next year are July 15-18) and home of both the longest and the shortest holes on any Open course – the 577-yard 6th and the tiny but deadly 8th, the 126-yard Postage Stamp. It was here that former champion Gene Sarazen played one of the most celebrated shots in Open history when,at the age of 71, he holed-in-one with a 5-iron. Be sure to make your score on the outward half here, for the inward stretch presents one of the most formidable finishes in golf.

All around this pair of jewels in the dunes lie other courses of a purity to bedazzle the links lover, among them Glasgow Gailes, Southern Gailes, Irvine Bogside, Prestwick St Nicholas and Kilmarnock Barassie. That’s not to mention about 100 more of various types throughout this corner of Scotland. And if it’s a real bargain you’re after, there are two ways to achieve outstanding value for money. Multi-venue passes starting at £60 for three days and £90 for five days give access to some of Scotland’s best courses, while an astonishingly small fee will gain you entry to one of the region’s golf weeks, involving several rounds of genial but serious competition for a number of trophies.

One of the finest links on the Ayrshire coast is Western Gailes, a classic layout just two fairways wide for virtually its entire length beside the shore. It’s one of the final qualifying venues whenever the Open is played in this area. Certainly the quality of its undulating fairways, velvet greens and deep bunkers is the equal of any championship course, and it is held in such regard that it is frequented by the world’s top players in the run-up to the year’s third major as the ideal preparation for the special demands imposed by links golf.

To complete the perfect trip, it is often a good idea to save the best till last. And if there is one way to sum up the Ailsa Course at Turnberry, it is simply that. The best. Only superlatives can do justice to this magical place and the sheer glory of its setting, the breathtaking sweep of its impeccable fairways to superb rolling greens high above the spectacular coastline, and the severity – yet unquestionable fairness – of its challenge. In all of golf, there is nothing to surpass the inspiring beauty of a brilliant blue day at Turnberry, which now boasts another thrilling 18 holes in the marvellous Donald Steel designed Kintyre course.

And if the wind gets up or the rain comes down?

Well, that’s all part of the test on a great links. Between its start and its finish beneath the white gleam of its world-class hotel (recently ranked the second-best golf resort in the world by Condé Nast Traveler magazine in the United States), the incomparable Ailsa Course serves up an experience never to be forgotten. But there is one particular section more than any other that haunts the mind long after returning to the ordinary world.

From the par-three 4th hard by the beach, the player will be aware of a heightening sense of drama and anticipation as he battles his way along the desperately difficult coastal holes to the 11th, with the near-mystical presence of Ailsa Craig far out at sea a constant companion. This sense reaches a climax at the 9th, with its nerve-racking tee-shot over the rocks and crashing waves under the gaze of the worldfamous lighthouse.

Surely the most focused of golfers – perhaps even Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus themselves during their legendary ‘Duel in the Sun’ at the 1977 Open – would find it impossible to avoid breaking off from their game for a moment and gazing at such majestic scenery.

As one of my playing partners put it: “This is like the cathedral of golf.”

And that has to be worth a pilgrimage.

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