NORTH AYRSHIRE, Scotland - When I first visited western Scotland nearly a decade ago to play the trophy links of the region, a buddy and I had to stay in a wonky little bed and breakfast that felt more like sleeping on a stranger's couch than a luxury golf trip.
This spectacular slice of the country has always offered limited accommodations for traveling golfers, despite its legendary roster of links, notably past Open hosts Prestwick, Royal Troon and Turnberry. Golfers either splurged by spending big to stay at Turnberry (which is a good 45-minute drive to most area links) or were lucky to snag a room at The Gailes Hotel & Spa in Irvine or the newly rejuvenated Marine Troon next to Royal Troon, an experience GolfPass offers as a golf package. After that, good luck.
Darwin Escapes has stepped in to help fill the void, purchasing Dundonald Links in 2019 and embarking on a £25-million expansion to build new luxury accommodations and a clubhouse that opened last year. They are a game-changer not just for the course but the entire region. I spent nearly a week in June staying in both the hotel-style rooms and a larger six-bedroom lodge built specifically for buddy trips while playing six links within five miles, including Dundonald's modern marvel by Kyle Phillips that will host the Trust Golf Women's Scottish Open this weekend. The tournament, which has attracted its best field ever, will be televised on Golf Channel every morning Thursday through Sunday.
The world's best female players are in for a treat. Everything at Scotland's newest resort has been elevated exponentially, from the food in the clubhouse to the comforts in the accommodations and especially the conditions on the 7,272-yard course. Dundonald has rightfully taken a seat at the table with its more famous golf neighbors and can easily over-deliver on that dream Scottish golf trip we all aspire to take.
“Not only will golfers around the globe get to see elite players take on our award-winning course, but they’ll fall in love with our gorgeous setting and want to visit and play here,” Club Manager Ian Ferguson said in a statement. “Fortunately, with our new luxury hospitality additions, we are ready to embrace them and provide an unforgettable experience.”
When I first visited Dundonald nine years ago (see my story and photos here), I struggled to fall in love with the place. A temporary clubhouse and punishing links in solid (but not great) shape aren't exactly a recipe for success against such major-championship-worthy competition so close. I had the opposite impression this time around: Everything was first-class.
The difference is in a details. Take the 22 new, separate hotel rooms adjacent to the clubhouse, for example. They're equipped with a small entryway that serves as a warming/drying room for any wet gear. Brilliant! Out back, there are small patio sitting areas tucked into the dunes.
The impressive new clubhouse symbolizes a commitment to sustainability. It was created from natural materials and finished with local whinstone and a grass roof. The extra touches are what will captivate visitors - the diverse menu at the Michelin-caliber Canny Crow restaurant, the large steam room in the locker room, the hand-crafted table in the private whisky tasting room and the balcony overlooking the dueling 9th and 18th greens. It's a great hang.
The resort's 18 luxury lodges sit in a cluster around a large putting green less than a five-minute walk from there. All of the 2-, 4- and 6-bedroom lodges were created with golfers in mind, home to bag storage and drying areas, en-suite bathrooms, large living spaces and fully-equipped kitchen and dining facilities. My lodge sported a pool table and massive U-shaped couch around a large TV. One glorious summer evening, our group held a catered BBQ to savor the outdoor patios and setting sun.
Few courses have a history with so many twists and turns as Dundonald. There was an early course named the Dundonald Golf Club from 1911-1936 before the land was taken over by the military during World War II. It eventually returned to nature after the military left in the 1960s.
Phillips, who made his name designing Kingsbarns outside St. Andrews, brought golf back to the mostly flat site, routing a links that opened in 2003. It was built as a playground for well-heeled Loch Lomond members, giving them a links course to enjoy an hour from their very private parkland playground farther north. It's one of the few links that has hosted both the men's (2017) and women's (2015, 2016, 2017 and 2022) Scottish Opens.
Darwin Escapes, which also operates two courses in England - The Springs in Oxfordshire and the KP Club in Yorkshire - rehired Phillips for some recent tweaks that have improved playability and its overall appeal. A new halfway house even serves tasty haggis treats (just enjoy it and don't ask what it's made of!).
I love the course's varied hazards and looks. Most of the holes ramble through man-made dunes, giving golfers private playing corridors. Burns protect six holes, notably in front of the greens at no. 9 and no. 18. The 13th and 16th holes play parallel to railroad tracks adjacent to Western Gailes. Pot bunkers are parked everywhere your ball wants to go. Gorse bushes and pine trees mix and mingle as part of the unique ecosystem. A round costs £95 for visitors and golf packages start at £445 per person in peak season depending on what type of room, number of people, length of stay and where and how many times you play. Learn more here.
"From arriving at the entrance, we felt 'This is special'," reads a GolfPass review from October 2021. "The course was in outstanding condition. No preferred lies. No mud. No winter greens. I have never in 30 years seen a golf course in this condition, even in the middle of summer. ... One of the best days of golf ever."
More Special Experiences
A few unique experiences at Dundonald can take your golf trip into the next stratosphere. In addition to the golf BBQ, our group was treated to a cigar experience on the clubhouse balcony from Robert Graham 1874, one of the oldest whisky and tobacco merchants in the United Kingdom. Stephen Johnstone, its well-dressed owner, regaled us with stories and fine cigars.
The real magic, however, tends to happen in the whisky room, where Dundonald serves its one-of-a-kind 1980 Bunnahabhain Canasta whisky. Master Distiller Brendan McCarron walked us through a whisky tasting during dinner, highlighted by a dram plucked from the vintage sherry-soaked cask.
I'm no whisky expert, but I do know I enjoyed it and what came next. After dinner, Ferguson introduced a new bar game affectionately called "table golf", where every guest gets three chances to roll a golf ball to the edge of the table without it falling off. It might sound corny, but in the moment, this new "sport" created all the camaraderie, fun and memories that only a golf trip to a special place in Scotland can inspire. Dundonald is that place for me.