Ahead of his tenth professional appearance at the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open, Richie Ramsay took some time out to write this week’s Player Blog. From his home just 20 miles from Gullane, the Scot counts down his five favourite Scottish links courses, why he loves links golf and his first introduction to the oldest form of the game.
“Geez, look how far the ball runs”
That was my first impression of links golf when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I grew up in Aberdeen and played at a parkland course named Hazelhead. Each year there was a big junior tournament in the summer named the “Hands Across The Sea”. It was at Kings Links near the seaside and it felt like a Major to me growing up. It was my first introduction to a big regional event and I took it so seriously. It was a traditional links course and always played hard and fast in the summer. I couldn’t believe how far you could hit shots, how far the ball ran and the fact that if you landed a ball near the hole, it rarely stayed there. It was all brand new. I loved it. I loved it so much that I won that week and never really looked back.
The thing I love about links golf is the variety. The variety of shots you hit, the variety of course design, the variety of weather, the variety in how each courses plays day-to-day. One day you can be playing a hole down wind and getting close to green, the next day you could be hitting a fairway wood to the green. It’s so different from the majority of golf we play on Tour, with the hard, fast ground. You have to be smart with how you flight the ball and understand how it’s going to react when it hits the slopes. You have to use the ground and be creative in how it can help you funnel the ball in the fairway or around the greens. The course design makes you think about each and every shot. You can’t just get up there and it. It’s challenging but also very rewarding. There’s nothing in golf like the feeling of hitting a crisp long iron into a wind on a links course. You know if you miss it just slightly, it will get punished. The noise of the strike, the small crisp divot, the low ball flight, it makes you feel like Tiger Woods in his prime when you pull it off! It’s addictive.
I sometimes get asked what I think makes a good links course? To me, it’s the landscape. Sculpting holes between and through sand dunes takes real skill but can create such great visuals that a good links course will look rugged, challenging but beautiful all at the same time. The way links courses use the ocean and coastline is important and there’s plenty of examples of how to do that in Scotland. From old style courses like Prestwick and North Berwick to more modern links designs like Kingbarns, we’re spoilt for choice and blessed to have so many links courses on our doorstep.
The European Tour have asked me to countdown my top five favourite Scottish links courses, so let’s get into it.
Number five on my list is Carnoustie, home to this year’s Open. It’s a truly great test of golf and one of the fairest courses you’ll find. My first memory of it was watching Paul Lawrie win there in 1999. I remember the conditions were brutal and his amazing round on Sunday in the rain. I was 16 and at friend’s house and just about to leave to head home when Van de Velde was on the 72nd hole. Obviously things didn’t go well for him and there was a play-off. I ended up staying over and we watched the whole thing and all of Paul’s interviews after. It was great to see a local player win the Claret Jug and I remember jumping around in my mate’s house when he finally won.
The course itself is so pure, lots of slight dog-legs and subtle bunkering. I played there at the 2007 Open and remember thinking during a practice round “I’m not sure what all the fuss is about, it’s not that tough!”. Then on Thursday morning, I saw where they had put the pins and it completely changed the challenge of playing and scoring there. Padraig won that year and I actually played with him over the first two days. He didn’t actually play great but he was just so gritty. If he had a birdie chance he took it and if he missed a green, he got up and down. He knew where to miss it and limited his mistakes and it was a real lesson in how to play Carnoustie and win on a links golf.
Carnoustie probably has the best, and most challenging, finishing holes in The Open rota. Those last four or five holes are just immense. A round there is never over until you’ve holed a putt on the final green and that presents a real mental challenge throughout the round and especially on that closing hole. It’s a card-wrecker just waiting to happen.
Next up on my list is Royal Aberdeen. It’s where I grew up and played a lot of my links golf as a boy. I won the Junior Championship there and then won the Men’s Four Day Open as a junior as well. My US Amateur trophy is actually kept in the clubhouse and the club recently made me an honorary member, which meant a great deal to me. Safe to say I know the place pretty well!
The course is very challenging and has one of the best front nines in links golf anywhere (alongside Portstewart in Northern Ireland perhaps, what a spectacular front nine that is!). You tee off right by the clubhouse with the members just a few feet away in the bar watching, then make your way along the coast through the huge, towering dunes. It typically plays into the wind on the front nine and you definitely need to know how to flight your ball, as well as a good dose of patience. I remember shooting 72, one over, there as a junior and thinking it was probably the best round I’d ever played.
Turnberry is number three on my top five list. It’s somewhere I didn’t play a whole lot growing up as it so far from where I lived, but having played it a few times since it sticks in my mind. It is such an iconic links course. the visuals created by the dunes and the coastline are probably second-to-nine and I haven’t played it since the recent changes, but I’ve heard it’s just gotten even better. Every hole at Turnberry feels unique and almost like it’s own little course. The opening holes are relatively tame and ease you into the course, with the lighthouse and cliffs awaiting you at the turn. It’s a wonderful use of the coastline and you hit so many different types of tee shots and approaches, you finish and you just want to go back out and play it again.
The course and the property are positioned in such a beautiful part of the country as well. The hotel is perched up on the hill and you have breakfast looking out over the course and the coastline, it’s stunning. It’s a special, special place in Scotland and somewhere I always look forward to visiting.
Number two on my countdown is Muirfield, just down the road from this week’s Scottish Open. There’s so many courses along the coast in East Lothian but Muirfeld stands out to me as the best. The property itself is fairly understated with a quiet road to the gate and the land sitting between the town and the beaches, you don’t actually really see the ocean. But it’s the layout, the history and condition of the course that make it so special. It’s been home to see many great Open memories and winners through the years. Just look at the winners there and it tells so much about the quality of the course: Nicklaus, Watson, Trevino, Faldo, Els, Mickelson, it’s history is incredible.
The first few times I played it I wasn’t sure about the course. The condition was great but the layout didn’t really resonate immediately. I just remember the lunches to be honest! They are legendary and certainly didn’t disappoint when I was a young amateur. However, play the course a few times and you just fall in love with it. The course loops round with the front nine circling around the outside and the back nine weaving in the middle. Each hole plays at a slightly different angle and that makes it such a challenge. Most links courses will play out-and-back and you can settle into a rhythm of either playing into or against the wind. Muirfield doesn’t let you settle. Every shot has a slightly different wind direction and you need to know your ball flight and yardages to plot your way around. It’s a wonder of golf architecture and somewhere that will always stand the test of time.
And now number one, my favourite Scottish links course has to be the Old Course. It’s an amazing place. It has a real aura around the course and the town and I still get goosebumps every time I go. The first time I went was to watch the old Dunhill Cup as a boy. I remember seeing Tiger play for the US team there and seeing Monty and Gordon Brand Jnr play for Scotland back in 1990s. I would go with my parents and they would buy me a programme every year and it was basically my bible for the next twelve months, reading about the course and all the players. Now we get to play it every year at the Dunhill Links and it’s an honour to play it as a pro.
Every time I play there now I learn something more about the design and enjoy the course more each time. It’s all about the angles there. Go left off the tee and it might be an easier tee shot but it creates a tougher angle to get closer to the hole. Go right to try and get an easier angle and you have to take on the bunkers, that will destroy your scorecard if you go in them. It has a lot of “half par” style holes. Par fours that you can drive or get close and feel like you should make birdie and then a par four where you need to play safe and just try and make a par. There’s lot of birdies out there if you execute shots and it’s quite easy to get to two or three under par, it’s just about the balance between being aggressive and not missing in the wrong place. Go in one of the bunkers or miss a green in the wrong place and it’s so easy to make doubles and triples.
As for the history of the Old Course, it’s incredible and you can a sense of that from the moment you arrive. The first and 18th holes provide a natural theatre that creates an incredible atmosphere during an Open Championship. Anytime we get to play it competition, you just have to soak up and enjoy that walk down the last hole. It’s the same for anyone that plays there. If you’re a golfer and you’ve never been, you simply have to visit St Andrews and play the Old Course. It’s probably the most special place in the game.