Golfing in Scotland – Part 1
A trip you will never forget
By BRUCE VITTNER
Imagine going back to the place where golf first began? Playing on courses that don’t seem like they have changed in over one hundred years. A place where golf carts (buggies) are basically non-existent.
Southern New England Golfer had the opportunity to visit the Highlands of Scotland as part of a FAM (familiarization) trip for tour operators and writers in October. What an experience! King James II banned golf in Scotland in 1457. The golfers were interfering with his archers who needed to practice to protect the homeland. It wasn’t until King William IV officially became the patron of the St. Andrews Society of Golfers in 1834 that golf became an accepted sport again.
The Highlands of Scotland encompasses 47 golf courses which include some of the greatest and most famous links courses in the world, and also many hidden gems that will test your skills and stay in your memory. “You could come back to Scotland many times playing courses that only the locals know about and have the grandest time without spending a lot of money,” said Neil Robertson of Golf Vacation Scotland.
Our visit began with a visit to Brora. It is in the northeast corner of Scotland and sits right along the North Sea. We had traveled overnight from Boston and by the time we reached our destination we were planning on a nap. The sight of the course changed our minds. Old Tom Morris, who is often called the “Father of Golf”, designed it in 1891. Morris was born in St. Andrews in 1821 and was a legendary golf champion, course designer and clubmaker. He started as a clubmaker and began working at St. Andrews as a youngster. He won four British Opens and became the greenskeeper at St. Andrews in 1865.
Morris had taken the train to Brora and laid out 15 holes among the dunes. Since the sandy soil was not good for farming, a golf course became the best use of the land. The natural grasses and fescues that had taken hold on the dunes became the rough for the course that Morris laid out. Colin Campbell of Thistle Golf Scotland said, “If you hit it into the high grasses you will definitely lose a stroke, but you’ll find the ball.” Famous Scottish golf architect James Braid redesigned and finished the 18 holes in 1923 that measure 6,110 yards and is considered one of the most natural links courses in the world.
As we walked the course we felt that nothing had changed in over 100 years. Hundreds of sheep grazed on the course and dozens of cows were munching on the grass around the perimeter. All the courses have springy bent grass that caused your ball to run after landing and Brora required many shots to be hit short of the green and roll on. The sea on your side, the dunes throughout the course, the animals, the local citizens walking along the seawall and the mountains in the background were so bucolic and certainly made you forget about your worries at home. Beware of the low electrified fence (to keep the sheep out) around each green and also the natural fertilizer left by the animals.
The upscale Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle was our venue for the second day. It was designed by Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie in 1994. Steel came to the States to design Carnegie Abbey in Portsmouth a few years later and the courses are similar. It sits right on the Dornoch Firth (Bay) and is a very demanding course at 6,671 yards. Par the short (120-yard) third, and your day is a success. The elevated two-tier green is almost impossible to hold when the prevailing wind is blowing, and there are large drop-offs on all sides. The view of the Castle in the distant is impressive.
The third day was a visit to Royal Dornoch. It was established in 1877 but laid out in 1891 by Old Tom Morris and is rated the 15th best course in the world by Golf Magazine. According to Eddie Gilbertson, owner of Golf Vacations UK Ltd., Royal Dornoch might be the best course in Scotland. The course sits two blocks from the birthplace of Donald Ross, world-renowned course designer born in 1873 who worked for Old Tom at St. Andrews and then moved to the United States at the turn of the century to claim his fame. Ross worked as a grounds crewmember at Royal Dornoch as a youngster.
You will need a wide range of shots to play the course. The first eight holes travel away from the clubhouse among the dunes and slightly away from the Firth. Score well here, because when you turn back and play along the sea, the holes get very difficult. The pot bunkers are strategically placed throughout the course (one that took me three shots to get out), and some require a ladder to get in and out. Most greens are elevated, and the springy turf causes your ball not to stay where it lands. The 445-yar par 4 14th is rated one of the top holes in the world. There are no man-made hazards but nature provides a few hillocks and dunes and Old Tom built the green on a plateau about 10 feet above the fairway. Tom Watson said of Royal Dornoch, “It was the most fun I’ve had playing golf in my whole life.”
We only sampled one inland course during our visit. Boat of Garten in Inverness-shire was a hilly course. Playing on it felt like you were on the moon. The undulations in the fairways were amazing. You won’t get many level lies, but it is a great test of your shot making. James Braid designed this course that is tree lined with the working Steam Railway on one side and the River Spey on the other. The course reminded us of northern New England courses with great views of the mountains.
The last few days of our trip were spent in Nairn. We played Nairn Golf Club and Nairn Dunbar. The Championship course, also called the West course was my favorite. The greens averaged about 7,500 square feet and were as fast and true as Wannamoisett Country Club. At 6,705 yards it is a true test, especially when the wind is blowing. The course hosted the Walker Cup Championships in 1999 and is the site of many Scottish national tournaments. Founded in 1887 and modified by Old Tom Morris, James Braid and Archie Simpson, the course travels along the sea for the first nine and back for the back nine. You won’t believe the view from the 158-yard par 3 fourth tee. You look out to the Moray Firth and a half-moon bunker that rises about 15 feet and extends across the front of the green protects the green. The gorse (prickly bushes called whin by the Scots) grows along most of the fairways, and it ate a few of my balls.
The other course in town, Nairn Dunbar, is also very challenging. It measures 6,765 from the championship tees and has many long par 4’s. The beautiful bridge on the par 5 tenth hole looks like it dates back hundreds of years.
I had the good fortune to talk with Iain Carson, superintendent at Nairn for the past 25 years. He was able to give me some insight into the grasses and care and maintenance of links courses. “We don’t have any water on the course, but we have a mile-and-a-quarter water hazard (the Moray Firth that runs along holes 1-7),” smiled Carson in the good-natured Scottish brogue that was so evident throughout the Highlands. “We fertilize the fairways about every five years. The fescue and bent grasses require minimal care and we use a dwarf ryegrass on the tees,” said Carson. The marvelous greens are cut to an average of less than 1/8 inch and are rolled daily. The acid sandy soil fairways are mowed most days, but the natural rough is only cut down once or twice a year. “The grasses are very slow growing,” commented Carson. He talked about the many pot bunkers in Scotland. “The reason they have grass fronts is to keep the sand in. The heavy winds would blow the sand away, and the grass (it is cut the size of bricks and placed into the front of the bunkers) holds the sand.
Because the firths in the Highlands are somewhat protected from the North Sea, most courses are open year-round. “We don’t close,” said Carson who was planning a vacation the next month in California and was going to play Spyglass, Cypress Point and San Francisco Golf Club and wanted me to mention that he offered reciprocal agreements with other superintendents in the States.
The cost to be a member at Nairn is 300 pounds (about $500). They have many international members, as do some of the other courses in Scotland. The prices for golf range from as little as 15 pounds to over 100 pounds. Your tour operator can fit a package that is just right for every budget.
Golf is a fabric of life in Scotland. There are over 500 courses in a country with about six million people. The Scottish people are so friendly and laid back. The choices of hotels, motels and guesthouses are limitless. We stayed at the Claymore House Hotel in Nairn for four days. Most places offer full breakfast with the room. Because we were there to promote Scotland, I’m sure we received the red-carpet treatment, but all the meals and service were excellent. Venison, Angus beef, and wonderful seafood were on most all menus we saw.
The Highlands of Scotland is home to the “Whiskey Trail.” Many distilleries are located throughout the area and tours and tasting of the single malt whiskey (we call Scotch) is a tourist’s delight. Walking is the number one recreation activity in Scotland, and you see people walking across and along the golf courses, most of which are public.
If you are planning to golf in Scotland, and I would highly recommend it, here are some tips. Dress in layers. We’ve all watched the British Open where players are dressed in warm clothing with toques even in July. The weather changes frequently and drastically. “You can get all four seasons in just a few holes,” laughed Neil Robertson as we bundled up for a snow squall and then had temperatures near 70 in a matter of minutes the day we played Boat of Garten. “Here comes the weather!” is a refrain you hear often from the locals, and it means it will be raining in a few minutes. But don’t fret, because every time it rained it got sunny soon after while we were there.
Make sure you bring a two-iron and learn to hit a low shot before you go. My high floating drives into the wind were always infield fly rules. Practice punch and run shots. We often were using a putter from 50 yards from the green. Chip in to hire a caddie. Their knowledge of the course and Scottish witticisms will be well worth the investment.
If you are going to be traveling around to different courses, it is wise to hire a travel company as an escort. Roy Anderson of McLaren Travel provided busses for our group. “It is so much easier to get around. My drivers know just where to go and can provide personalized service for any group size,” said Anderson. We found the drivers to be so helpful and efficient.
Many of the fancier courses require a certified handicap to play. Most times you are not allowed to play from the back tees. Kirsty Loudon of Golf Vacation Scotland said, “Par for women is usually a few strokes more than for men, and the women’s tees are very fair at most courses.”
Your tour operator will help you with all this information. Most tours require you to get your own flights. British Airways serves all of Scotland, and many other airlines offer flights. Fraser Cromarty of Golf Highlands can be reached by email at frasercromarty@golf highland.com, or contact any of the tour operators listed below the story for a Scotland Golf trip of a lifetime.
Dove Jones of South Carolina, a long-time member of the Golf Writers of America, and a person who has spent many a fortnight in Scotland, will review other parts of Scotland in our May 2004 issue published on April 25.