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THE serendipitous nature of travelling is one of its lures, never knowing what each new day may bring.

Take my trip to Irvine in Ayrshire: one day I was just a nobody, one of hundreds thronging the fairground on the town’s moor as the annual Marymass Festival – a celebration of Mary, Queen of Scots’ visit to the area – reached a sun-kissed climax.

The next I was making my international debut for Scotland against Sweden at nearby Irvine Bogside Golf Club where I halved my match in rain-lashed conditions with Goran, a district heating engineer whose expertise in piping water might have been used to prevent the greens from flooding.

Okay, I quickly returned to being a nobody after this dalliance with international sport. But the presence of seven Swedes and a Finn was testament to the hold which the area, the birthplace of the Open championship, has on the imagination of golfers worldwide. And the fact that I, a Sassenach, was invited to align myself with seven Scots in this friendly contest illustrates the welcome extended to outsiders by those lucky enough to live in ‘the Home of Golf’.

While Royal Troon, Turnberry and the historic Prestwick – which staged the inaugural Open in 1860 – are the jewels in south-west Scotland’s crown, it is a crown which would require a monarch with a particularly large head, for there are nearly 100 or more, of varying standards. Many golfers visit in groups and hoteliers such as Andy Tremble of Harbourside Golf, my convivial host, and Wilson Smith of the Golf Hotel, provide packages tailored to meet individual needs, using Irvine as a base for as many days’ golf as time and budget allow.

The essentials which need establishing are which courses to play, where to stay and with what regularity the 19th hole will be visited. To ensure there are no concerns about drink-driving – that is driving on the area’s roads, not its fairways – both Andy and Wilson offer return transfers, not just to your arrival and departure points, but the courses, too.

It is difficult to set off in any direction in this area and not encounter a golf course. Troon, for example, has no fewer than three municipal courses which unfurl from the one clubhouse – Darley, Lochgreen and Fullarton. My views on the links of Darley are coloured by the fact that I reached the turn here under par, gross, for the first time in my golfing life – and then birdied the 10th to stand two under. An adventure with a gorse bush and burn on a later hole saw my dream of breaking par unravel.

Here your driving must be straight for whins and broom – not to mention the occasional gorse bush – stand sentry on nearly all Darley’s fairways, waiting to ensnare the errant tee shot.

This was an enjoyable beginning to my visit, but it could not be described as a visual delight, flanked as it is on one side by a housing estate, whereas Belleisle in Ayr, ranked by many as one of the best municipal courses in Britain, certainly is. Five-times Open champion James Braid laid out this parkland course in the woodlands of Belleisle Park and if  you have the good fortune to play it, as I did, in glorious sunshine, then you can allow the setting to compensate for any deficiencies there may be in your swing.

There are no giveaway holes, as you would expect of a track used for Open qualifying, and a particularly tough finish will threaten anyone who thinks they have Belleisle beaten.

Somehow the demanding 427-yard par-four 15th is rated the course’s third easiest hole, the drive at the 16th has to negotiate a burn some 200 yards or so from the tee, and the same burn has to be crossed for the 142-yard par-3 17th.

The final hole, a 503-yard par five, again demands a carry of some 200 yards if you are to avoid a wide fairway bunker after which the hole drops some 20ft or so. A memorable climax to a memorable course.

Glasgow Gailes was my third port of call, and before you question my sense of direction, let it be known this was built as the Killermont club in Glasgow’s seaside course. Again its architect is a former Open champion, Willie Park Junior, although Mother Nature should get an honorary mention as co-creator. To tread the heather-lined fairways, which were in full bloom, and the immaculate greens is to be reminded why golf is more than just taking the occasional (okay, numerous) swishes at a little white ball.

The terrain on the approaches to several greens gives the impression that a giant has taken a sledgehammer to them in a fit of pique, and sometimes the pin positions demand that you work out these contours before playing the bump and run shot integral to links golf. It is the game’s equivalent of working out the angles of a particularly difficult snooker and immensely satisfying when you get it right.

Similar challenges await at Irvine Bogside, a club situated between the town and the river, which has provided three Scottish amateur champions all born in houses bordering the course – Hamilton McInally (1937, 1939 and 1947), James Walker (1961) and John Cannon (1969), a triumvirate offering proof that the skills needed to regularly navigate this course will stand you in good stead wherever you play.

Irvine is unusual in that it has just one par five and only two par threes. Five of the par fours are over 400 yards, but don’t imagine the shorter ones offer any less of a test.

The 358-yard third, for instance, has a yawning chasm in front of it which will swallow any approach shot which comes up short.

And the 279-yard fifth, Sandface, has a wide bunker at the bottom of a steep slope which almost appears to sneer when it gathers a drive. You’ll regret it if you have to play a blind, uphill second to the green from in here.

If you want to allocate less of your budget to accommodation and more on golf, then the Marina Inn on the harbourside might be your choice.

Rooms are clean if a little spartan, but the welcome is warm, the breakfast sets you up perfectly for a day’s golf, and the singing at the weekly session of karaoke is probably marginally more bearable heard from your room than it is in the bar.

If you are happier to spend a bit more, then try the Harbourside, Golf or Thistle Hotels, all of which offer more luxurious accommodation and friendly service.

Time constraints meant I was only able to take my eyepiece to four of the area’s jewels, but they were of sufficient quality to suggest the area has no discernible flaws where the golfer is concerned.

And when I return – which I surely shall – I will take up Wilson Smith’s offer to take me on his Flybridge Cruiser to play the much-vaunted Machrihanish, a 160- mile drive from Irvine, but just 31 miles by water under Wilson’s captaincy.


Published: December 3, 2005

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