Golf was born in Scotland more than six centuries ago, and it has always been the number one dream destination on earth for a “Bucket List” golf trip. But while it oozes history, excellent new courses continue to be built, and several notable ones have opened in recent years, with more on the way.
There is no shortage of great courses to play across all of Scotland, but relatively few have lodging, and oddly, what is rarer than a new course is a new resort. There are far more choices for exceptional golf than exceptional lodging when visiting the Birthplace of Golf, and that is why Dundonald Links is such a game changer for golf travelers.
The location on the Ayrshire Coast is ideal, as this part of Southwestern Scotland, just 40 minutes south of Glasgow airport, is one of the richest for golf in the entire country. If you were to look down from the sky you would see several contiguous world class links courses bordering each other, usually separated by nothing more than a fence, inlet, or railway track, and Dundonald sits in the middle of a cluster that includes the two courses at vaunted Royal Troon, a World Top 100 course, frequent Open Championship venue and home to one of the most famous holes in golf, the Postage Stamp; Prestwick, another World Top 100, birthplace of the Open Championship and host of more than any course other than St. Andrews Old; Western Gailes, another stunner; and several less well known but standout “hidden gem” links such as Irvine, Gailes Links, and Kilmarnock Barassie (better known as simply Barassie), so close that I hit a shot onto the course while playing Dundonald, and it wasn’t such a bad shot. Most of these courses are within a 5-15 minute drive of the resort.
There are more than 40 golf courses in Ayrshire, and you could play a different one every day for weeks without a weak link, though in my mind Prestwick is the must play, ultra-quirky, ultra-historic, totally unique, full of blind shots, just one of my all-time favorite courses on earth, and I have played great courses all over the planet. Royal Troon and Prestwick are on any fantasy “A-List” Scottish golf trip, and as none of these courses have lodging of their own, Dundonald is the new ultimate home base. The resort even offers local stay and play links packages in partnership with its neighbors.
But while Dundonald Links is the first new links golf resort to open in Scotland in many years, and adds much need luxury accommodations and food to the area, the course itself is not new, which is a good thing. Golf courses take years to grow in and even the best new designs continue to improve for a long time after they open. This one debuted as Southern Gailes in 2003, the second course at Loch Lomond, a prestigious private club. It was designed by acclaimed architect Kyle Phillips, renowned for Kingsbarns outside St. Andrews, which many consider Scotland’s greatest course of the past 25 years. Phillips did another exemplary job here, and the course has hosted several Men’s Scottish Opens, and is about to put on the Women’s Scottish Open (July 28). Next year it will be the final qualification site for the 2023 (British) Open Championship.
After Loch Lomond sold the course, the new owners, a resort group based in Wales, decided to take a step back in history and go with the name of the original course on this site, designed in 1911 by Open Champion Willie Fernie, but razed for military use in WWII. During the pandemic, Phillips did some upgrades, the mature links course was reborn as Dundonald, and it is very good, a worthy addition to any Scotland golf trip. It plays firm and fast and is done in the classic style with holes set between ridges of rough and gorse, with some memorable and distinctive pot bunkers (avoid the “Cauldron” at all costs) strategically placed throughout, and a few holes where a wee burn (creek) comes into play, most memorably the dramatic finishing hole, eighteen. Because it is so convenient to guests staying here, it is easy to play 36 in conjunction with one of the local stars, or just squeeze in an extra warm up or cool down nine. Or you might just stay here for the entire day and go around twice – as soon as I walked off eighteen, I wanted to play it again.
Dundonald is a real deal Scottish links, but has better amenities than most, and while it is quite walkable and should be walked, buggies are available, unusual for this type of layout, while the motorized pushcarts have GPS displays built into the handles, a really useful touch for those who haven’t mastered the layout through repetition. They also offer caddies, the very best way to play golf. The charming halfway house serves up a savory pie of the day along with delicious sausage rolls, and fits well with the overall excellent cuisine the resort offers for every meal.
The course starts and finishes immediately outside one of the nicest modern clubhouses in the British Isles, the centerpiece of the new resort. At the same time Phillips was upgrading the course, the new owners poured $40 million into the clubhouse and boutique hotel. The clubhouse is a stunner, fitting the landscape beautifully and crafted from local natural materials, including the stone exterior and living green roof, while inside is wood walls, leather seating, and a one of a kind “aerial” display of antique golf clubs adorning the restaurant ceiling, something that draws stares and admiration from just about every visitor.
The ground floor of the clubhouse has a well-equipped pro shop, reception area for the resort, very nice men’s and women’s locker rooms each with steam and sauna, and an excellent state of the art gym. It is positioned as an attraction for pros when the resort hosts tournaments, but otherwise you will probably have it to yourself if you choose to visit post golf. I never saw anyone else in there, and staff seemed surprised that I used it.
Upstairs is the main restaurant and bar, which is brilliantly designed, divided into three distinct zones, one with white tablecloths for a fancy night out, one more casual for golfer’s lunch or laid back dinner, and around the bend, a red leather banquette bar area with pool table and the feel of a really cool bowling alley. You can sit in any section for any meal, and the same broad menu covers the whole place, with a very varied selection of causal (burger, fish and chips, etc.) and fine dining selections, with a big emphasis on local, natural and high-quality ingredients, and substantial changes daily. The nature of the resort is that many visitors will spend 4 or 5 nights (or more) while playing around the area, but eat here most nights, and it is perfect for that, as you can keep coming back without getting bored. I had breakfast daily, several lunches and several dinners, and the quality of the food across the board was outstanding. Prices are also very reasonable, normal for a good restaurant, not like the many fancy golf resorts where they get big expense account corporate groups and you are a captive audience, so they jack the menu prices crazy high.
They certainly don’t lack for drink either, with both commercial and local craft beers and ales, a deep wine list, and an enormous whisky selection, over 100 Scotches plus Irish, New World and Japanese offerings. Dundonald bought the world’s only remaining cask of 36-year-old Bunnahabhain 1980 Canasta Cask Finish ($125 per dram), and unlike many pricey rarities, it is so good and so distinctive that for whisk(e)y lovers it is worth trying. The cask anchors a separate whisky room, ideal for private meals. The resort also has a partnership with Glasgow-based Robert Graham 1874, one of the UK’s oldest whisky and tobacco merchants, and an independent bottler, and you can pre-order whisky and cigars and have them delivered to your room, a really nice touch.
The 22 suites are in standalone buildings radiating out from the clubhouse, with separate entrances, a privacy feature that has become extremely desirable since COVID. There are a couple of units each containing two individual hotel-style suites, each with luxury bathroom, living area, private outdoor terrace and large flatscreen HD television (they also have very good Wi-Fi throughout). The lodges each have 2,4 or 6 bedrooms surrounding a main living area with full kitchen and expansive couch seating (the six room also has a pool table). The lodges ring their own putting green, and have large outdoor decks. These are just absolutely perfect for golf buddy/foursome trips, as every bedroom has its own lavish en suite marble bathroom with heated towel racks and oversized rain shower, but they share lots of common space. This being Scotland, they also have a drying room with lots of hooks and racks and a washer/dryer, very handy for longer golf trips.
I have been to most of the top golf resorts in Scotland and Ireland, and I was extremely impressed with Dundonald Links. In summation, it has excellent, upscale lodging that is perfect for a Scotland golf trip, whether for a couple, foursome or four couples. It has excellent food with tons of choices and very high quality, and both the food and lodging are strong values. It has an exceptional golf course and immediate access to many other standout courses, including a couple of the world’s best. It is easy to get to, very well run, and has first rate facilities.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of all, especially at this strange time in our lives when just about every hotel and restaurant in the world is struggling with staffing issues, is how good the service is. From the pro shop to the bar to starter on the golf course, the folks at Dundonald are falling over themselves to be helpful, and it’s the kind of boutique place where you have the same bartender, same waitstaff and same front desk staff every day. You get to know them by name, and they get to know you. The resulting experience is deeply connected and deeply personal in a way that is sadly too rare in the hospitality industry, like a home away from home among some of the best golf in Scotland. Dundonald Links is fantastically comfortable and welcoming, and I would gladly return in a heartbeat.
In other breaking Scottish golf news, while I was visiting Dundonald, it was announced that Castle Stuart, an acclaimed Top 100 course at the other end of the country, way up in the Highlands, has been sold and is becoming part of the Cabot Collection. Cabot operates Canada’s best golf resort, Cabot Cape Breton, is getting ready to open a new and highly anticipated golf resort on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia in early 2023, and is developing two more resorts, in Revelstoke in the Canadian Rockies and west central Florida. Castle Stuart jumps ahead of these since it already has a great course and limited onsite accommodations, but the big news at the property, renamed Cabot Highlands, is the just announced addition of a second course, by Tom Doak of Pacific Dunes fame, and new accommodations, opening in 2024.
There have been good reasons to travel to Scotland for golf for centuries, and it just keeps getting better!