For the discerning golfing tourist, the UK’s coastline offers myriad options for links golf, with various clusters to explore. But for its unique blend of storied Championship courses, hidden gems and timeless sunsets, it is hard to beat the west coast of Ayrshire. We golfers normally associate the phrase “West Coast Swing” with a familiar pattern of PGA Tour events through California in the early spring, but after a quick sojourn to the west coast of Scotland, this particular enthusiast is smitten, and looking forward to next year’s Open Championship at Royal Troon.
We drive there from London, though the flights and sleeper train are equally viable options, and on arrival the welcome at the family owned Waterside Hotel in West Kilbride couldn’t be warmer. The staff check us in quickly, in order to spend more time talking to our touring dog, and these themes - of happy and helpful staff and a relaxed attitude to their canine guests - are recurrent in our short stay north of the border.
Tired and hungry, we stroll on the gorgeous fine sand of the adjacent beach, then retire to the hotel restaurant, where the menu blends fresh produce with haute cuisine. The watermelon, feta & olive salad is tremendous, but the real difficulty lies in what to choose, for it is all appealing, with fresh fish and locally reared beef among the options. And in the nautical-themed bar, we watch the sunset across the sea with a G&T to hand, the gin selected from a range only matched by the variety of Scotch.
In the morning, after a quick bout of beach yoga, a short drive down the coast brings us to Dundonald Links, whose 18 hole course was radically redesigned by acclaimed architect Kyle Phillips in 2003. Ranked 100th in the UK, it was the venue for a dramatic Scottish Open in 2017, but four years later, further finishing touches had been applied by Phillips, along with a major development plan for the clubhouse and accommodation, funded by the new owners, Darwin Escapes. The postage stamp 11th hole, all 120 yards of it a battle of wits and the wind, is worth the entry fee alone, but the modern Dundonald is a sterling test from start to glorious finish, and will surely continue to gather acclaim.
The result is a venue whose facilities match the fine quality of the golf course, and the eco-lodges dotted around the far reach of the property provide a perfect retreat for the windswept golfer; think Soho House decor but with a world-class links outside the door. As the sun disappears, we relax in the clubhouse, whose first floor bar has elements of the history of this slice of golfing real estate hanging from the ceiling, and we inspect the hickories and old course maps in between supper courses.
It is a wrench to leave this place, but a great continental breakfast sets the tone for another exciting day, and just a few minutes later we are in the car park at Western Gailes, whose links lies just the other side of the railway line from Dundonald. Once serviced by its own station - “GAILES”; the defunct sign hangs in the clubhouse - this course regularly hosts Open Qualifying, and on a day like today, with the wind off the north-east, it would be a test for any golfer.
It is hard to pick out specific holes at Western Gailes, for the routing contains no weak points and boasts an endless variety of interesting shots and challenges. But Tom Doak described the 6th and 7th - “Lappock” and “Sea” - as “truly world class golf holes”, and he is right, of course. Alongside these are some fantastic greens and tightly mown surrounds, some of the best views in golf, and a traditional clubhouse that simply reverberates with laughter.
As we leave it is clear that some are lingering over lunch, but with the links before them through vast windows, and fine service in the timber-clad Dining Room, no one could blame them. In an area rich in golfing pedigree, Western Gailes is a delicious surprise; somewhat of a hidden gem.
We stop for a pint in the Old Loans Inn, on the outskirts of Troon itself, and are charmed by the vibrant atmosphere in this golf-themed tavern. As plates of food pass by, it is hard to resist eating here, but we are due at sister property The Gailes Hotel in Irvine, so we tear ourselves from the comfort of these leather armchairs and brace ourselves for another dose of dog-welcoming, which duly commences on arrival.
Part of a complex that includes its own Toptracer-equipped driving range with PGA coaches on site, this is luxury accommodation in the heart of the west coast golfing scene. Next door is Gailes Links, formerly known as Glasgow Gailes and the 10th oldest golf club in the world, whose course was redesigned by no less a figure than Willie Park Jnr (of Sunningdale & Huntercombe fame) in 1911. But a major draw of The Gailes Hotel and its location are the many non-golf benefits of staying here.
A well-equipped fitness suite on site and wonderful Si! Spa are the perfect way to build an appetite and relax, and we take full advantage before another lavish dinner in Coast Restaurant & Bar. After another day in the sea air, we sleep like the proverbial logs, and it takes the promise of a hearty breakfast to escape those fine cotton sheets and stretch our legs and those of the canine in the morning. Quickly getting accustomed to this level of adoration, Betty receives another dose of fan club adoration as we check out and then it is off to Prestwick, home of the Open Championship.
It is hard to work out what to say about Prestwick, for this historic club and course can claim an unparalleled place in the game’s development. Even if the golf course were ordinary, the warm welcome and the staggering attention to detail with which the club quietly celebrate an extraordinary past would still deem it an essential outpost to explore. But the course is as far from ordinary as anything on the planet, so the superlative clubhouse experience is eclipsed when you set foot on the first tee, and face the age-old, nerve-shredding demands of the opening tee shot, with the railway station a few feet to your right.
And for the next three hours, Prestwick is a rollercoaster of a golf course - architectural nuance blended with true links conditioning in the centre of a wonderful set of dunes - and the primary feeling after surviving a thrilling climax to the course is that one wants to simply turn left, and go again. But the lunch - and the Dining Room itself - are equally legendary, and so when several hours later we emerge back into the fading light, there is this determination to come back to this neck of the woods again, and soon. To once again take a West Coast Swing, and next time include some of the other marvellous attractions that this coastline offers.
For within easy reach of the places we’ve stayed are an endless supply of interesting experiences waiting to be had. Bird-watching, seal-spotting, hiking, island hopping. Distillery visits, cycling tours, castles. We’re here for a long weekend but it could take months to fully plumb the depths of this area, whose attractions would more than meet the demands of any family.
But I am a golfer, and this is a golf website, so I shall justify my next trip on the grounds that not only do I want to - need to - revisit these haunts, but also one or two of the other chance-of-a-lifetime golf courses in the vicinity. Royal Troon, Turnberry. Prestwick St Nicholas, Barassie and Kilbirnie, to mention just a few. I called this a “West Coast Swing”, but on reflection this should be “Swings”, for this is surely the first of many such pilgrimages to this wonderful area. Until the next time…
The Waterside Hotel, Old Loans Inn and The Gailes Hotel & Spa are owned and operated by the Simpsinns Group, a family business. For details of their exceptional Stay & Play packages for golfers click here.
Royal Troon will host its 10th Open, the 152nd, from 14th - 21st July 2023. Final qualifying venues to be confirmed.