If you go to Scotland, everyone will later ask if you played the Old Course at St. Andrews (standrews.org.uk, 01334-466666), and for good reason: It's golf's most famous course and a surreal experience to play. So if you've never been there, be sure to book it. Unfortunately, it's not like you can call the pro shop and reserve a tee time. Even locals have to enter a daily lottery to get on. For a premium, you can book a round and hotel through the Old Course Experience [oldcourse-experience.com, (888) 552-5632], which is a St. Andrews-based golf tour operator staffed with people who know their stuff. They can secure tee times, shuttle you from the airport, arrange dinner, etc. And they're locals, so they're loaded with connections. It's like having a best friend in town. At the Old Course, hire a seasoned caddie who knows all the course nuances and history. Afterwards, explore the charming, three-street town of St. Andrews, which is a five-minute walk from the course, and Kohler-owned Old Course Hotel (oldcoursehotel.kohler.com, 01334-474371).The Carrick boasts elevation changes, plenty of water and outstanding course conditions.
Next, it's time to try the brand-new Castle Course at St. Andrews, which is destined to be among the world's top-rated and most difficult courses. Part of the St. Andrews Links Trust, it sits on 220 beautiful acres on a cliff above the North Sea. There's plenty of elevation changes and hidden fairway undulation along its 7,118 yards, as well as huge greens that roll slower than they look. Views are spectacular. The strong gusts will surely make this a challenge for all golfers, even considering the wide fairways. There's only one tree on the entire course—out of play behind the first green. The stunning 17th and 18th holes look as if they could be cut and pasted to become Pebble Beach's 19th and 20th holes: They're dramatic, susceptible to wind and require shot precision to avoid sailing into the water. Your final shot descends to a double green (shared with No. 9), a tribute to the Old Course's similar feature.DeVere's Cameron House is a 200-year old manor offering five-star accommodations.
While there are other famous courses to play in Scotland—including Carnoustie, Royal Troon and Muirfield—some lesser-knowns are worthy of playing and easier to get on. One not to miss is Machrihanish Golf Club (machgolf.com, 01586-810277), an "Old Tom" Morris design established in 1876. Lying along the Atlantic, the Spartan course dishes out all you can handle. Perpetual winds swirl along the narrow, undulating fairways leading to small, multitiered greens. Miss the fairway (and you're bound to), and you'll need to negotiate shots from the thick and long grass (or is it wheat?) that locals call "rough"—if you can find your ball. Beware: The rough is so thick that you can easily hurt your hands on your downswing as it stops your swing on a dime. Another warning: Getting to Machrihanish is a journey. You can either drive the several hours along the very street for which Paul McCartney wrote "The Long and Winding Road," or you can hire Loch Lomond Seaplanes —a pricey yet worthy endeavor—to fly the 30 to 45 minutes from many Scotland locales. Is Machrihanish worth the travel hassle? Brad Faxon slept in his car out front, just to get a chance to play it several years ago (then scored a remarkable 65).The Castle Course at St. Andrews is bound to be a classic.
An ideal place to close out your trip is at The Carrick (devere-hotels.com, 0845-375-2808), an 18-hole gem that opened last summer near Loch Lomond. The outstanding 7,082-yard layout was designed by Canadian Doug Carrick, and features flowing terrain, elevation changes and some water. The lake views are mesmerizing, and the course is meticulously maintained. The clubhouse boasts a state-of-the-art spa and casual restaurant/bar, and is a five-minute shuttle from DeVere's deluxe Cameron House, which is a recently upgraded 200-year-old manor with five-star service, food, bars and accommodations. And it's just a 15-minute cab from the Glasgow airport, to boot.
Scott Kramer is a veteran golf writer located in Dana Point, Calif.