Scotland's secret gems of golf

Can't afford Gleneagles? No need to fret. The best course is probably one you have never heard of.
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The Independent Culture
YOU WANT to see art in Paris? You go to the Louvre; you walk past the Musee Rodin. You want to visit London? You go to see the Tower; you miss out Dr Johnson's House. You want to play golf in Scotland? You go to St Andrews and Gleneagles and you miss - well you just miss out, really.

The tried and tested route of golfing pilgrims worshipping at the Scottish shrines - the places where you can still see Americans in loud trousers with louder voices and the Japanese preparing to set out on a quick six- hour round - routinely includes the altars of Turnberry, Troon, Carnoustie, Muirfield, and the aforementioned St Andrews and Gleneagles.

In such places, not only will your golfing talent be rigorously questioned, so will your bank balance. Unquestioned fame is a monopoly. There is no Office of Fair Trading for golf, no "Offgolf", no government regulator to keep prices down for the devoted. You want to play the stars, you pays the earth.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. For the million golfers who visit Scotland each year to play the Royal and Ancient game (half of them from overseas), there are more than 277 courses to choose from. As with the number of bunkers at St Andrews, the number seems to depend on who you ask. Take away the six superstars and that leaves at least 271 courses, among them a large number of secret treasures that any other country would list in the premier league. And once you leave the holy trail, green fees plummet .

A round on the famous Old Course at St Andrews (if you are lucky in the daily ballot) will this summer cost pounds 72. But a few miles down the Fife coast, near the old fishing village of Crail, lies the sixth-oldest golf club in the world. For pounds 20 (pounds 25 at weekends) you can play an historic links course to treasure.

The Balcomie Links belongs to the quaintly named Crail Golfing Society, which was formed in 1786. The place has a certain tranquil quality about it; usually in immaculate condition and not suffering from overplay.

The links turf stretches along the coastline above beaches and rocks. You play along the coast or, in the case of the astonishing fifth hole, over the water. On a windy, sunny day this tight course will challenge your nerve every bit as much as the temple of the gods up the coast.

If you are content to try out St Andrews New Course, you can do so as part of a three-night golfing package at the Rufflets country house hotel, where Tiger Woods chose to reside on his first visit to the home of golf.

Photographs of Nicklaus and Trevino adorn the walls of Ann Russell's ivy-clad hotel, which has been in her family since the Fifties. The dinner, bed, breakfast and golf package costs pounds 347, reducing off-season to pounds 251.

The Ryder Cup player, Sam Torrance, who has travelled the world playing the game, said he could not think of "any other country in the world where you can find so many golf courses of such high quality, variety and accessibility ... and the game should be available to everyone at a price everyone can afford." Mr Torrance, I should mention, was born in Scotland.

The Scottish Tourist Board (0131-332 2433) has a special golf department, for more detailed information. An organisation called Golf Pass Scotland (0990 133206) offers a three-to-five-day discount card for the Highlands, Lothians and the Borders that can mean golf from only pounds 7 a round. You can book for the Balcomie Links on 01333 450686, and for Ruffletts on 01334 472594.