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Western Gailes Golf Club: A Jewel of the Ayrshire Coast

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Western Gailes Golf Club, located along the picturesque Ayrshire coast in Scotland, is part of a stretch that includes three Open venues (Prestwick, Troon, Turnberry) and many other top tracks. Its origins trace back to the late 19th century when a group of four golfers recognized the potential for a links course on a narrow strip of land between the railway line and the Firth of Clyde. The earliest golfers would arrive by train from Glasgow to the south, disembarking to play on the natural, windswept terrain that would become the Western Gailes links.

Today’s golfers walk in the footsteps of many legendary players who have tested their skills on this revered course. Harry Vardon, a six-time Open Champion, visited the club in 1903, as did Gene Sarazen in 1923. More recently, stars like Gary Player, Tom Watson, Tony Jacklin, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, and Bubba Watson have all experienced its timeless challenge.

In this post, we’ll discover one of the most beloved links in Scotland, Western Gailes Golf Club, described as being full of “golfing goodness.” We’ll learn its origins and history, as well as its connection to the railway, and explore the course, its signature holes, and its characteristics. We’ll close with further reading suggestions and videos that will bring the course to life.

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Origins and History

The club was officially founded in 1897, with the initial layout ready for play by the spring of 1898 and the second completed in May. The first greenkeeper, known as “Mr Morris,” apparently no relation to Old Tom, is said to have been responsible for the layout. The “architect” remains unknown, but Tom Simpson and more recently Fred Hawtree, are also credited. The links were maintained in a minimalist manner, allowing the natural contours and native grasses to shape the playing experience. Small pot bunkers dug into the dunes, and the greens were often just mown sections of finer grasses. The course measured just over 5,000 yards in its early configuration, as golfers played the traditional gutta-percha balls and used hickory-shafted clubs.

The first clubhouse at Western Gailes was a modest structure built in 1909 at a cost of nearly £4,000. This building was the hub for the growing membership and hosted social events. As the popularity of golf surged in the early 20th century and more visitors came to experience the challenging links, the clubhouse underwent expansions in 1934 and 1961 to accommodate larger dining and locker room facilities.

Over the years, the course has remained largely unmodified from its original layout, with some reshaping being done by nature and some by necessity. As with many of the courses we have studied, it suffered damage during WWII. Wartime tank maneuvers resulted in modified 10th and 17th holes, while new 3rd, 4th, and 5th holes were designed to allow for an access road to Irvine harbor.

Throughout its early history, Western Gailes established a reputation as a demanding test of golf and a stunning example of traditional Scottish links design. The course was lengthened to over 6,000 yards by the 1920s, adding to the challenge. Western Gailes solidified its position as one of Scotland’s finest courses with narrow fairways surrounded by heather and gorse, holes framed by towering dunes, deep bunkers, rolling terrain, and pure greens.

The club’s rich heritage, preserved through old photographs, scorecards, clubs, and equipment on display in the clubhouse, is a testament to the enduring legacy of these revered links on Scotland’s golf coast. It has been home to many notable events, such as the Curtis Cup, British PGA, Senior Amateur, and Scottish Amateur, and a frequent site for Open qualifying.

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Did You Know?

The railway line that runs alongside Western Gailes Golf Club is an integral part of the course’s unique character and history. The Ayrshire Coast Line, which has been in operation since 1840, adds an extra challenge for golfers as they navigate their shots over or around the tracks. The presence of the railway is a testament to the club’s long-standing relationship with the local transportation infrastructure, as early golfers would arrive at Western Gailes by train from Glasgow when the course first opened in 1897.

The proximity of the railway to the course creates a unique experience, as players may occasionally need to pause their game to allow trains to pass, adding a distinctive element to a round at Western Gailes. While the railway is a feature of other courses in the area, such as Prestwick and Troon, this unique feature sets the course apart from other courses in the area and contributes to its enduring appeal.

The railway line also serves as a physical boundary for the course, with the entire links positioned between the sea and the tracks. This unusual layout, with the opening holes heading north before a stretch of nine consecutive holes played in the opposite direction along the coastline, is a defining characteristic of Western Gailes. While the railway link closed in 1966, the railway’s presence has undoubtedly influenced the course’s design and routing, making it a fascinating subject for golf architecture enthusiasts and students of links golf.

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The Course

The course plays to a par 71 at just over 7,000 yards, lengthed by about 300 yards over the past 25 years. The layout is unusual, with the opening holes heading north before a stretch of nine consecutive holes played in the opposite direction, with the sea on the golfer’s right. The rough provides an additional challenge, and getting out of position can make approaching the greens difficult.

Not known for its length or abundance of hazards, its defenses are bolstered by the imaginative design of the greens. Writing in his Golfer’s Companion, Frank Pennik said of Western Gailes, “Nearly half the greens lie in saucers or bowls, and so gather the ball, but as many are full of subtle slopes that neutralize any advantage.” Shotmaking is rewarded and a good approach requires careful planning, not at all a “target golf” scenario.

The short par-5 sixth is a vintage seaside hole, with a fascinating approach through a gap in the dunes to a green set in a dell surrounded by sandhills. The short 7th is among the great links par-3s you’ll find anywhere. It offers breathtaking views of Arran and the Firth of Clyde, played to a green set in the dunes, backed by the beach, and surrounded by bunkers. Other notable features include the burn that comes into play several times, protecting the 8th, 13th, and 16th greens, a blind approach to the 9th, and hogs-back green at the 11th.

The closing five holes head home along the railway. The unforgettable 17th, “Ridge,” is one of the most testing par-4s in Scotland. The hole stretches to 470 yards with numerous challenges. From the tee, you must contend with the railway and menacing fairway bunker. A ridge of heather blocks the sight of the green on the approach, where a huge hollow to the right makes for a challenging recovery. The home hole plays back toward the starter’s hut with a green that is well protected, with large bunkers well short of the green, making it play longer than it looks.

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Western Gailes Today

Western Gailes Golf Club remains one of Scotland’s most highly regarded links courses, consistently ranked among the top 100 courses in the world. The club has hosted many prestigious tournaments over the years. In recent times, Western Gailes was a Final Qualifying venue for the Open Championship from 2014 to 2017, as well as 2023. It has also been selected as a qualifying venue for the 2024 Open at Royal Troon, a testament to the enduring quality and challenge of the links.

We have seen how nature played a role in shaping the course’s evolution and it will likely play a large part in the course’s future. Recently, a large portion of the course was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. This designation is given to areas of land and water that best represent Scotland’s natural heritage in terms of their flora, fauna, and natural terrain. With that comes enhanced responsibility for maintaining the natural environment, resulting in a plethora of wildflowers growing around the course; most striking is the Northern Marsh orchids at the 15th and 16th holes.

Off the course, the club’s facilities have been continuously upgraded while retaining the welcoming atmosphere and historic charm. The clubhouse, dating originally from 1909, has undergone major renovations and extensions over the decades. The most recent improvements include an extensive refurbishment, a new golf shop, and updated bag drop areas completed in 2013.

Visitors can enjoy stunning views over the links and the Firth of Clyde from the clubhouse dining room. With its world-class course and warm hospitality, Western Gailes continues to provide an authentic links golf experience that connects players to the very origins of the game in Scotland.

Visit Western Gailes online at https://westerngailes.com

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PuttView Golf Books

PuttView Books are detailed yardage and green maps designed to help golfers save strokes, especially under tournament conditions. They offer precise visual representations of courses, including topographic slope percentages, fairway arrows for slopes over 4%, and a dual view of greens accurate to the millimeter. The books are printed on high-quality waterproof paper, sized to fit traditional yardage book covers, and are USGA legal. 

Customers praise PuttView Books for their stunning detail, stylish presentation, and the confidence they instill in decision-making on the course. With 30,000 courses represented, your home course is bound to be available, as is Western Gailes!

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Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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Golf Courses of the British Isles
by Bernard Darwin

Summary: “Golf Courses of the British Isles” by Bernard Darwin is a classic text that explores and celebrates the unique beauty and challenges of golf courses throughout the British Isles. Darwin, a revered golf writer and grandson of Charles Darwin, provides insightful commentary on the architecture, history, and character of iconic courses, blending personal anecdotes with expert analysis. His vivid descriptions transport readers to the very greens and fairways of famous venues, highlighting their natural beauty and the intricacies of their design. The book, illustrated with evocative drawings by Harry Rountree, remains a timeless tribute to the game of golf and is considered a must-read for enthusiasts of the sport and its storied landscapes.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Western Gailes
Western Gailes – Random Golf Club
Western Gailes – All 18

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