Golf as we know it began on the shores of Scotland some half a millennium ago and spread quickly to Britain, while the Brits brought it to Ireland in the 1800s. Today there are over 2,000 courses in England, some 550 in Scotland and 500 in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that, all together, service nearly a million native golfers and countless visitors attracted by the history and the quality of the game in the region.
It is impossible to do justice here to the richness of the golf experiences to be had in Great Britain and Ireland, but a brief survey will give a sense of the incredible riches. Among the storied courses of Scotland, pride of place goes to St. Andrews, where the standard of 18 holes was established, and the Royal and Ancient, which has served as the worldwide steward for the game for more than three centuries. The Old Course at St. Andrews has for years shared with Prestwick and Royal Musselburgh the privilege of hosting the game's most prestigious competition, The Open Championship. Mention must also be made of two other bastions of golf history and tradition, Muirfield and Carnoustie. And this just scratches the surface; there are countless superb Scottish courses; indeed, a player could remain within an hour's drive of St. Andrews and play a different fantastic course every day for two months without running out of new and thrilling experiences.
England's renowned inland courses begin with Berkshire, Sunningdale and Wentworth near London, and include West Hill, Woking and Worplesdon, the so-called "W Courses," as well as Berkshire and Surrey. Wentworth is home to the BMW Championship, the main event on the European Tour, and serves as the Tour's headquarters. Nor is England without its links: when The Open has been held outside of Scotland, it has come to Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham near Blackpool, or to Royal St. Georges. Other important British golfing regions include Liverpool's "Golf Coast," the Norfolk coast, home to Hunstanton and Royal West Norfolk, Saunton Sands and Burnham and Barrow to the west, and to the south Broadstone and Ferndown.
The Republic of Ireland boasts three of the finest links courses anywhere, Lahinch, Ballybunion and especially Portmarnock, where the Irish Open has been held 19 times, as well as the Walker Cups. It was Arnold Palmer's course at the K Club, however, that was home to the greatest achievement of the Irish golf establishment in recent years, the 2006 Ryder Cup. Northern Ireland's outstanding courses are Royal County Down and Royal Portrush; the latter was home to Ireland's one Open Championship, in 1951, an honor that it will enjoy again in 2019. There are in addition countless charming little links scattered about the island's coastline.
In terms of players, Scotland has produced some of the greats, including pioneers like James Braid, though the most famous today is probably Colin Montgomerie, who was the leading European player in the 1990s, with 31 European Tour wins, and led his team to victory in the 2010 Ryder Cup. Among so many fine English players, Nick Faldo stands out as a onetime Official World Number One with 30 European Tour wins and 6 majors (Open: 1987, 1990, 1992; Masters: 1989, 1990, 1996); Faldo has also gone on to a successful career as a course designer. And as far as younger players go, there are few as exciting as Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who plays on both the PGA and European Tours and has been ranked as the Official World Number One; his major wins include the 2011 US Open, the 2012 & 2014 PGA Championships and the 2014 Open, he is the only European to be victorious in three majors and one of only 3 players (along with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) to do so before his twenty-sixth year.
Looking to the future, the game in Great Britain and Ireland is expected to continue to grow in terms of the number of players and golf tourists. Relatively few new courses are planned, however; the industry has yet to recover fully from the 2008 economic crisis, and there appears to be at the moment something of a glut of courses, and some have even closed. In any case, the region will always be the traditional heart of golf, and the allure of the classic courses will continue to draw visitors.