A treasure in beautiful Banffshire, the Ballindalloch Estate is home to a captivating castle and gardens, a pioneering distillery and a superb golf course designed by Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie.
But, thankfully, I was spurred back into action by an email from the current custodian of the Ballindalloch estate Guy Macpherson-Grant. He’s a pal of my wife’s cousin and had heard through the grapevine there was a golf journalist living just over the hill. He suggested I headed across for a round of golf and a look around the castle and distillery. Golf, history and whisky – three of my favourite things – it wasn’t a tough sell.
I arrived on the first really warm day of this year, the sun was peaking through as Jessie (wife) and I made the stunning drive into Banffshire. The road from Tomintoul to Ballindalloch via Tomnavoulin and Glenlivet is one of the most beautiful you’ll find. Heather topped hills, the sparkling waters of the River Avon (pronounced A’an) as it meanders towards its meeting with the Spey, forests and fields populated by Highland cows and (at this time of the year) frolicking lambs, we were in high spirits by the time we arrived at the gorgeous wee clubhouse at Ballindalloch Castle Golf Club.
A former farmhouse, the traditional whitewashed building has been renovated and turned into a comfortable and classy clubhouse, staffed daily from 9am to 5pm. The standard to which the building has been fitted gave me an inkling of the level of care and attention to detail that I was going to find at Ballindalloch: Tartan carpet, golfing pictures on the wall, enticingly comfy sofas offering views out towards the course and, the obligatory, well-stocked bar… It’s the sort of place one could happily spend an hour or two dissecting triumphs and tribulations on the fairways.
And it was towards (with luck) the fairways that Guy and I headed. He’s been back at Ballindalloch for 18 months now and, together with his wife Victoria and three daughters, is clearly intent on making a great success of the various projects on the estate and welcoming as many visitors as possible to the lands his family have called home for 24 generations.
Guy told me he hadn’t swung a club for almost a year before proceeding to spank one away up the fairway on the par-5 1st. I wondered if I was being set up and my suspicions were not assuaged when I had to stand off my drive as a Roe buck scampered across the fairway just in front of me. “Was that planned?” I asked before hooking into the rough. As we walked down, I suggested we didn’t play for money but just enjoyed the day and the course.
Laid out and opened for play in 2003, Ballindalloch Castle golf course is a nine-hole track with two sets of tees on each hole – in most cases these deliver quite a different prospect, meaning you face new challenges the second time round.
The first thing that must be stressed is that this is a proper golf course. This is no pitch and putt, it’s no amateurish piece of golfing architecture. This is an excellent design (as you would expect from Steel and Mackenzie) and it has been properly constructed. The fairways are shaped and sweeping, the green complexes have been cleverly thought out and the greens themselves are of high quality – firm and fast, even early in the season. The head greenkeeper Muir clearly does a fine job to maintain the track in great condition, working with help from Guy’s father who is a keen golfer and was a driving force in the construction of the course here.
From the back pegs the two nines measure 3,299 yards and 3,196 yards for a total of 6,495 yards against a par of 72. As I said, it’s a long way from being a pitch and putt.
The first three and a bit holes are played on a plateau before the par-5 4th drops down to the valley floor and towards the banks of the Avon. The 4th is a great hole, played on two levels. The tee shot must find the fairway at the top of a ridge before the second is fired off towards another section of fairway some 50 feet below – it’s a great fun shot to hit (and to watch) as you see its entire flight as it drops, hopefully, towards the short grass…