Appeared in May/June 2006 LINKS
On the northern edge of Scotland’s East Lothian district sits Muirfield Golf Club, one of the sternest tests in the game—and one of the most private. Just 10 minutes to the east lies the town of North Berwick and its very public West Links. A shrine that lures knowledgeable golfers from all over the world, the West begins in the center of town, rambles out and back along the shores of the Firth of Forth, and is equal parts charm, beauty, challenge and fun. In short, it’s the anti-Muirfield.
North Berwick is 6,420 yards of authentic links golf, with varied (and often quirky) holes and irresistible views over the firth of imposing Bass Rock, May Island and the Fife coastline on the horizon. The club actually has two 18s, but the clifftop East Links is strictly holiday golf—pleasant enough, but nothing approaching the rich character of its renowned sister.
North Berwick was founded in 1832, making it the world’s 13th-oldest golf club. We’re inclined to think of the West as simply evolving over decades, with no golf architect to be given credit for it, but one individual should be singled out as its primary shaper: St. Andrean David Strath.
Following a contretemps over a rules infraction during the 1876 Open Championship at St. Andrews, Strath refused to play off a tie with Bob Martin and soon left town to take the greenkeeping job at North Berwick. (Strath’s brother Andrew was more successful in the Open—he won at Prestwick in 1865.) Within three years, as Geoffrey Cornish and Ron Whitten relate in The Architects of Golf, Strath formalized the course, expanding it from nine to 18 holes and skillfully shaping what is today the 15th, the world-famous Redan.
Strath had no prior experience in fashioning golf holes, and sadly, no subsequent experience, either. Only 29, he departed North Berwick in 1879 to seek healing from tuberculosis in Australia, but succumbed shortly after arriving in Melbourne.
Two other men figured prominently in the development of North Berwick: one a statesman, the other a player, teacher and club maker. The former was Arthur James Balfour, who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1902 to 1905. Balfour was captain of North Berwick in 1891-92 and a keen player. In his memoirs, he wrote: “I spent each September at North Berwick … in [rented] rooms which looked down on the 17th green and the first tee. I lived a solitary and well-filled life, playing two rounds of golf a day, and in the evenings carrying on my official work, and such philosophical and literary undertakings as I happened to be engaged on ….”
The other man was Balfour’s favorite playing partner, the colorful Bernard Sayers. Standing about 5-foot-3 and weighing a mere 130 pounds, “Wee Ben” gave lessons, played all the important tournaments (24 career victories in Scotland and England) and earned a reputation as a maker of fine, handcrafted clubs. Having worked briefly as a circus acrobat, Sayers was known to execute a series of handsprings and cartwheels on the green after holing a cross-country putt.
Cheerful, outspoken and possessed with a ready wit, Sayers was celebrated as golf professional to the royal family. He gave lessons at Windsor Castle to King Edward VII, King George V, Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria. He also made a set of clubs for King Edward, whom he first met at North Berwick. The King asked him on that occasion how Grand Duke Michael of Russia, another of Ben’s pupils, was progressing. Sayers candidly replied, “I am sorry to inform your Majesty that he is one of the keenest and one of the worst.”
The great links enjoyed by Strath, Balfour and Sayers is remarkably little changed
today, yet it continues to test modern players as a frequent Open qualifying venue. The challenges are an assortment of obstacles—dunes, burns, fierce rough, deep bunkers, blind shots and stone walls.
There are several memorable holes. The first is the 354-yard seventh, where the green is formidably defended by the Eil Burn in front, sand at the right and a boundary wall on the left. The second is the 510-yard ninth, a classic risk/reward test daring the player to save some 30 yards by slotting his tee shot into a narrow gap between the boundary on the left and a pair of bunkers solidly in the fairway. These two holes—along with the Redan 15th—were selected for The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes by George Peper.
On the inward side, a trio of consecutive holes must be mentioned. The green on the 365-yard 13th is blockaded by a low stone wall just in front and backstopped by a high sandhill. Delicately clearing the wall on the approach—rather like a high jumper slithering over the bar—calls for impeccable ballstriking.
On the 376-yard 14th, both shots are blind—the drive into wickedly choppy terrain with sand right and strangling rough left. The iron is then fired over a high ridge, the ball disappearing toward a bunkered, low-lying plateau green scarcely two paces from the beach.
Then there is the original Redan, the 192-yard 15th, one of the most copied holes on the planet. The name is a military term stemming from a defensive position the Russians took in the 1855 Crimean War against the British and French. John Whyte Melville, a veteran of that war and a former R&A captain, noted a similarity between the Russian defenses and North Berwick’s 15th green, which is set at an angle from the tee and slopes down to the left and rear behind a deep bunker under its left front flank. At the right front is a high shoulder and three sandpits. Depending on the wind and the hole location, the shot may call for a draw, a fade or a low, straight chaser that skips onto the green.
Charles Blair Macdonald, who strikingly simulated this hole at the fourth on his National Golf Links of America in Southampton, New York, discussed the Redan in a 1914 Golf Illustrated article he co-authored with H.J. Whigham:
“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 the Redan. At North Berwick, of course, all these things were done in the beginning by nature. The only original thing that the greenkeeper did was to place the tee so that the shot had to be played cornerwise, so to speak, instead of directly down the tableland.” Macdonald also is credited with fashioning the Redan seventh hole at the National’s neighbor, Shinnecock Hills.
Behind the green on the West Links’ par-4 18th is the comfortable stone clubhouse. Visiting players are most welcome here for a drink, a meal and some friendly chat about this links classic. For pure golf pleasure bred of diversity, challenge, proximity to the sea and the satisfaction of true shotmaking, few courses can equal North Berwick’s West Links. It is a course one could enjoy, day in and day out, for a lifetime.