BEST TIME OF YEAR TO PLAY GOLF IN SCOTLAND?
One of the key questions that any visitors face when choosing a Scottish golf vacation is the answer to the question of when? In other words, the choice of season or month, which means asking the question of what’s the best time of year to play golf in Scotland? The answer (as you might expect) starts with the words “it depends on ….. “. But leaving that qualification aside, Faraway Fairways takes you on a quick spin through the seasons in the hope of helping this decision along
What’s the best time of year to play golf in Scotland? – the Spring season
The spring begins in March and finishes at the end of May. This window will see you encounter a potential range of weather options. March can be quite a cold month still, but on the upside you aren’t likely to experience ‘getting on’ any of the courses you wish to play other than those which are closed to visitors (Royal Troon and Kingsbarns). Towards the end of the month the UK adopts British Summer Time, which means we get an extra hours daylight, with the sun setting at about 20.00
The first two weeks of April will see most courses offering ‘shoulder season’ green fees. These are typically 33% less expensive than the full peak season rate. Kingsbarns opens for play in April and Royal Troon begins to do so as well towards the end of the month. One little known fact about April is that it’s driest month of the year by rainfall in St Andrews
May is a warmer version of April, but most courses are now on their full summer green fees. Royal Aberdeen and Turnberry can hang onto their shoulder season however until the middle month. May is something of a trappy month in places for Carnoustie which hosts a series of traditional fixtures, and the St Andrews Old Course also has some significant block-out (particularly in the first week of the month)
What’s the best time of year to play golf in Scotland? – the Summer season
June is the start of meteorological summer but can sometimes be a little bit slow to kick into action. A day or so either side of the 20th is the years longest. This means the sun rises at approximately 04.00 and sets at 22.30 in the Highlands. You can work with seventeen hours worth of useable daylight throughout most of the month which permits you to play two rounds should you choose, or use the daylight to travel between venues in order to open the whole country up. If you’re able to break out of a nine to five mindset and take advantage of the extended daylights at this northerly latitudes, then you can add what amounts to about three days to a weeks golf package tour.
Be aware that the last week of June is also university graduation week in St Andrews. This pitches golfers into competition with the university for accommodation. Returning students and the parents of students tend to work on a more advanced planning schedule than golfers. They usually get the first jump on the town’s hotels. We should note however that even though the town tends to prioritise the university during ‘grad week’ it’s normally a good playing window for the Old Course of golfers avoid the week. We’ve also seen evidence to indicate that success on the Old Course ballot increases by 10% during ‘grad week’
A final consideration you’ll need to give towards June concerns where the respective Open Championship is being held for the year you’re looking at, and for that matter the Scottish Open too which is normally played the week before. Any course hosting the Open (mid July) will normally be shut for at least six weeks before hand in preparation. The Scottish Open normally closes a course for about four weeks.
July is the warmest month of the year in St Andrews. Play on the Old Course is busy. The middle of the month sees the school summer holidays begin which can start a ‘super peak’ season lasting into mid August.
Anecdotally the St Andrews Links Trust have previously told us that they think the first week of August is their busiest of the year. Warming summer air however has begun to introduce moisture into the atmosphere. Rainfall in August is surprisingly higher than you feel it ought to be.
August also means the Edinburgh Festival. If your proposed programme involves the courses of East Lothian (Muirfield, North Berwick, or Gullane) or the parkland courses of the capital, then you could have a problem with accommodation availability and price if you leave things too late. It’s certainly worth visiting Edinburgh during this period if you can, and if you’re able to secure accommodation at a price you can live with, then it’s a great time to stay there, but you need to weigh that against the cost of doing so. The Festival lasts for three weeks.
What’s the best time of year to play golf in Scotland? – the Fall season
September is the wettest month of the year in St Andrews, as indeed the fall is the wettest season, but it’s also responsible for some of the most sublime playing conditions too characterised by a warming sun and crisp fresh air. These conditions can be particularly prevalent in the Highlands, where the more northerly latitude tends to move the changing seasons forward by about three or four weeks. The majesty of the autumn at places like Dornoch, Nairn, or Castle Stuart, is enhanced by nature beginning to weave a rich tapestry of browns, ocre, and russet into the green landscapes.
The first two weeks of September in St Andrews are clear, but after that the Old Course closes to visitors until the first week of October. The members of the various St Andrews golf clubs know when the best time of year is, and the second half of September is theirs! The Dunhill Links Challenge (a European tour event that also closes down Carnoustie and Kingsbarns) takes place at the end of September which means that visiting golfers will need to wait until October before they can resume their battle
The first two weeks of October still see summer season rates being applied, but by the middle of the month of a lot of courses will move onto their autumn shoulder season rates (similar to those of the spring). Royal Troon closes for visitor play in early October, and Kingsbarns follows them a few weeks later at the beginning of November.
To some extent the allure of St Andrews in October owes a little bit to how the course interacts with the town. The Old Course leads away from the town and then calls you back in, as the streets of the town run alongside the closing holes to guide you home. The parallels with a ship on a sea and a lighthouse showing them the way start to become unmistakable as the lights of the hotels and bars begin to show the way. It can be an almost spiritual experience coming in after four hours of toil on the links knowing that a dram or two of the good stuff awaits.
At the end of October the UK adopts Greenwich Meantime and we lose an hour of daylight as the winter starts to come calling
What’s the best time of year to play golf in Scotland? – the Winter season
A surprisingly high number of courses stay open in the winter and the green fee is usually half the price by now, and the first half of November needn’t be dismissed from your calculations. Significant savings can also be found in the accommodation too. You will usually be required to use a fairway mat however, but your enemy to play is no longer availability on the tee-sheet, but rather weather.
Surprisingly perhaps, February is one of the driest months of the year by rainfall as the cold air has sucked the moisture from the atmosphere but however we try and cut it, we need to acknowledge that there is a risk of being wiped out. Perhaps the best way of handling winter golf is if you’re flexible enough to respond at short notice. Even the St Andrews tee-sheet is rarely filled during December, January and February. If you spot a favourable forecast, and can respond to it, you can certainly get some perfectly idyllic conditions for at least half the price that you would pay a few months later.
No appraisal of what’s the best time of year to play golf in Scotland however without finally addressing the St Andrews Old Course. Allow us to run through the dynamics of this and see if we can assist
What’s the best time of year to play golf in Scotland? – St Andrews
For many visitors their first point of interest is the St Andrews Old Course. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unfair to describe this as a fixation at times. Golf tour operators see this sort of enquiry all the time. It’s the one which concentrates solely on the Old Course to the point where everything else almost seems incidental background scenery. The sort of golfer who is doing this very often seems to consult to the St Andrews ‘busy days’ schedule, and draws up their short list of dates by simply looking for blocks of seven clear days where the Old Course is available. This might seem logical of course. It also runs a risk. What happens if a thousand other golfers have come to same conclusion?
Success on the Old Course ballot is a function of the ratio between supply and demand. That is to say 30 golfers chasing just 10 tee-times, are more likely to succeed than, 300 golfers chasing 30 tee-times. This poses both you and us as a tour operator a real problem. Allow us to illustrate using an example from August 2019
The general rule of thumb for August which Faraway Fairways have succeeded in extracting is “one in six, perhaps as high as one in seven in good weather”. Indeed, this daily strike rate estimate is backed up by some data that a hotel partner allowed us to have which put the figure at 13%. In 2019 however Faraway Fairways achieved a daily strike rate in August of 26%. What happened?
Some of our clients were on inflexible dates. They had to play in what looked like poor playing windows. These were days that had ‘block out’ in them, or clear days that were surrounded by other dates that were heavily blocked out. We applied for these dates, and our success rate was 40%. As the block out dates passed through the calendar and we began to hit ‘clear dates’ our success rate fell. On the clear dates we dropped to 13%
Overseas visitors in particular tend to plan long-term. It’s tempting to conclude that they simply harvested up the clear dates on the ballot and over-subscribed them to the point where the supply couldn’t meet the demand. It’s actually classic ‘game theory’. By all piling into the same windows, they collectively damaged each others chances. Dates which on-line appear as not being busy (no fixture commitments) became busy as a result of not being busy etc. A similar thing happened in the clear playing windows during May and June where daily strike rates collapsed.
The clearest windows aren’t always be the best shot you can take. What they do offer us is the clearest conscience instead. Allow us to explain what we mean by that as a golf tour operator
It’s very difficult to recommend that someone plays in week 1 if it contains some block-out, when perhaps the following week 2 is completely clear. Even if we have good grounds to believe that our prospects of success might actually be higher in week 1 as a result of competing golfers overlooking it and concentrating on week 2 instead, we still need to demonstrate we’ve done the right thing by the client. That’s a lot easier to do if we can point to a diary that has six clear days rather than three or four. Eventually we will fail of course making applications into sub-optimal windows. That’s the laws of averages, but when it happens we’re wide open to allegations of negligence.
So what are we suggesting then?
Don’t obsess on St Andrews, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that the ‘busy days’ diary is exclusively a supply-side report either. It equally predicts demand.
So are we seriously suggesting a counter-intuitive strategy of targeting windows with heavy block out instead?
No. Definitely not. Heavily blocked out windows are also unproductive.
What we’re trying to find is a ‘Goldilocks’ window’ which isn’t too hot, and isn’t too cold. Spotting such a landing strip is one thing however, knowing how it’ll perform though is little more than informed hunch.
To some extent, you own reaction to the busy days schedule is potentially quite a useful insight. If your eyes light up on a clear window, the chances are everyone else’s have done too. The sorts of pattern we might look for then are days where there is only 60-80 minutes blocked out but the all important psychological impact of a block-out report might cause a negative response in the reader that causes them to seek an alternative instead. A lot of this really does come down to understanding our prospective golfers are going to react to the diary
A couple of clear days mixed up with a few blocked out days can also be considered possible. Remember that we can always schedule expensive prestige courses such as Carnoustie or Kingsbarns against any blocked out day. This avoids any chance of the Old Course clashing with them, so the day lost to the block-out isn’t necessarily quite such of a loss after all if we’ve got a quality alternative in its place. Again, if people see two days out of six blocked out, they begin to retreat from that week in significant numbers, and especially if the preceding or following week is clear.
Overseas visitors can play in weekly blocks too. We believe that we’ve detected that the first two clear days after a run of blocked out days is often under-subscribed as players who’ve made St Andrews the primary focus of their plans are deterred from overlapping, and prefer instead to start a fresh clear week. If for example Monday to Thursday is blocked out, then there’d be a decent chance that Friday and Saturday will be under-subscribed as players choose to begin their trip on a clean Sunday instead.
In truth, there is a lot of good fortune involved with trying to second guess a ballot, and that’s before we factor good weather into the equation, which can of course bring the local golfer’s out to play. Perhaps the most important thing to do is not to become a slave to the St Andrews Old Course and to keep an open mind about the busy days. The dates which might look to offer us the best prospects don’t always end up doing so if they’ve been heavily over-subscribed.