In the corridors of nearly every exclusive American clubhouse hangs a poster of an old Scottish Links. You?ll see the likes of St Andrews, Carnoustie and Muirfield, but it is an Aberdeenshire links by the name of Cruden Bay, and its 70 surrounding tracks ? that holds an unexpected place in the hearts of America?s golfing elite.
So you might ask ? why? The answer is simple. In a region known for the world?s only Malt Whisky trail, you?ll see almost as many golf courses as people.
For the starting point to our little jaunt we chose Aberdeen itself. Known as the ?Granite city?, its grey block architecture might not raise your spirits, but once you set out on the A90, you?re firmly entering into golfing country. It?s wise to save the best till last, so abandon thoughts of continuing on the coast road to Cruden Bay and instead pull up at nearby Murcar, or neighbouring Royal Aberdeen, the sixth oldest course in the world.
Just 15 minutes drive from Aberdeen city centre, Murcar is an awesome natural links and, were it not just down the road from Cruden Bay and next to Royal Aberdeen, every self-respecting player would be familiar with the name. Founded in 1909, it?s blessed with all the ingredients of great links golf. Elevated tees lead onto fairways that curl between sand dunes, gorse and heather and the ever-present North Sea breezes only add to its considerable difficulty.
The course really enters its stride with ?Pool?, the par-five fourth. At 489 yards, it looks like a serious birdie fest on the card for any low handicapper. But the green is a tricky customer happy to hurt any hap-hazard attack.
Once you?ve hit two long shots past the derelict fishing boat in the rough ? random ? you?ll need to pitch to the elevated green. Beware the 30-yard run off at the green?s front and the large riveted pot bunker at the bottom left.
Get away with a par and you?re immediately faced with the best hole on the course. At 162 yards, ?Plateau? is an evil little par-three that will make you think twice about which club to pull out the bag. Considered by the members to be a longer version of the ?Postage Stamp? at Royal Troon, you fire over a gorse-filled to a green set into a bankside.
Anything pulled to the left will work its way down the hill, leaving a lob-shot from 20-yards beneath the green. A cowardly block to the right is treated with equal disdain by twin bunkers that eat your ball and leave with little chance of an unscathed recovery.
If your round is going badly by the time you reach Strathbathie, the 155-yard par-three 12th, you could wander over to the nearby Black Dog firing range praying to be caught in the crossfire. But don?t there?s lots more fun and games to be had back on the course.
Royal Aberdeen, or ? Balgownie? as it?s known, is the sixth oldest golf course in the world, having been established in 1780 as the ?Society of Golfers in Aberdeen.?
Murcar and Royal Aberdeen are so close to each other, that one fourball of American tourists began their round at Murcar and ended it at ?Balgownie?, scouring the locker room for their missing shoes.
At 409 yards, the first is one of the best openers anywhere. A downhill tee-shot must find a generous fairway which funnels play towards a green set against the backdrop of the North Sea.
Stunning ? yes but just a taster of what?s to follow. The course features four of the finest short holes in Britain, culminating in the 182-yard 17th, with its two-tier green heavily bunkered at the front. The 18th is just as memorable as the first testing you right to the end.
After a night to relax in one of the city?s top hotels, like the Marcliffe at Pitfodels – you may choose to rest your swing from buffeting sea winds and head inland to play some of the parkland tracks around Aberdeen. The A93 Braemer road is the route to take for Banchory, a beautiful parkland course where 1999 Open Champion Paul Lawrie began his career manning the shop as an assistant pro.
There?s even a hole named after Lawrie, who hails from and still lives in Aberdeen. The 14th hole at 302 yards, was re-built on the site of the old practice ground where Lawrie spent hours honing his swing.
At under 6,000 yards, Banchory definitely feels short as it?s fit snugly into a mere 97 acres. The fun comes with the six par-threes, including the 125-yard downhill third which sits in the shadow of ?Scolty?, a huge monument on top of a surrounding hill, built in memory of the local Laird in the 1900?s.
The club?s real signature hole comes later at Doo?cot, the 88-yard 16th, where a wedge needs to be carefully flicked over a near vertical grassbank to a tiny green. Plenty of pigeons nest in the Doo?cot, , which is almost as unusual as the hexagonal clubhouse that looms over the first tee and 18th green away to its right.
If Banchory is a testing course fitted into a tiny area, then the Laird?s course at Inchmarlo Golf Centre ? just a mile or so up the road ? has made perfect use of huge acreage of pine forest overlooking the Dee valley. What began as a 30-bay driving range in 1994, has become one of the most talked about golf developments in Scotland.
Inchmarlo boasts 27 holes, including a nine-holer for beginners, but the real delight is the Graeme Webster designed Laird?s course. At 6128 yards, it has the rare quality of making you feel as if you?re playing on your own.
The best hole is the par-five seventh. ?Craiglea,? is 496 yards long and offers the best views over densely wooded hills, spanning down onto the river Dee and the Grampians in the distance. A well hit tee-shot gives the impression that it?s about to plummet off the edge of the earth and, while reachable in two, the green is protected by a waterfall and pond on the front right.
From one new golf development at Inchmarlo, head straight to what is arguably the latest and best. An hour and half?s drive from Aberdeen, in the heart of Speyside and Malt Whisky country, you?ll find the Donald Steel designed Ballindalloch Castle course.
Don?t be deterred by the fact it only has nine-holes and 18-tees. Steel has converted acres of agricultural parkland into a masterpiece that?s both challenging and fun. The alternative teeing grounds on the second nine give each hole a different perspective – and while only opened in 2003 – it feels as if it?s been there forever. The greens are massive giving the greenstaff plenty of pin-placement options.
The 4th / 13th is the most eye catching hole on the course and at 478 / 508 yards seems an easy par-five. Once you?ve negotiated an innocuous looking tee-shot across a burn, the hole turns sharply right and your second hangs over an 80-ft cliff looking down onto the distant green.
The change in elevation is alarming, but there?s plenty of room for a sold second to find the well protected green. The remainder of the holes wind around memorable landmarks such as the banks of the River Avon (A?an) and an ancient ruined chapel.
From Ballindalloch ? if you?re still fit to drive after a stop at one of the Whisky distilleries ? head North to the Moray Firth coast for an altogether different golfing experience.
At Lossiemouth, you?ll find the Old and New courses at Moray. Play the Old first. Its par-fours are some of the toughest you?ll ever play, and if you can concentrate while the noise of low flying tornado?s from nearby RAF Lossiemouth, you?ll love the 406-yard 18th. Regarded as one of the strongest finishing holes in Scottish golf, you?ll do well to avoid OB right and find a severely elevated green beneath the gaze of the clubhouse.
From there, it?s a short drive to Spey Bay near the town of Buckie. Spey Bay is links golf ? back to basics and has some of the most enjoyable par-threes anywhere. The 8th and 15th are two that will hang in your memory. At 138-yards, 8 is called the ?Plateau? and members fondly refer to it as the hardest par-five in Scotland. The tee-shot is win or bust, as it?ll either hold the green or run down the sharp elevations at front or back, leaving you a virtually impossible chip back
The 15th is a simpler prospect, but a gaping bunker at the front obscures your view of the flag and tricks you into hitting long and away to a water grave in the Moray Firth. If you?ve failed the stern test, there?s always the friendly atmosphere in the homely bar to console you..
Once you?ve rested your bones at the Spey Bay Hotel, a 20-minute drive through old fishing villages along the Moray coast will take you to Cullen. With a par of 63 and under 5?000 yards, you might not be expecting much, but Cullen is perhaps the most enjoyable round you?ll have all trip. Set along a stretch of sandy beach and with astounding views of Cullen Bay, the setting is breathtaking.
The heart of the course lies in a sequence of four par-threes on the back nine that all feature Cullen?s signature landmark, the 80-foot boar crag. The 12th and 13th are most exciting, played directly over this rusty red rock to greens hidden from the tee. If you managed to miss the boar crag and made it back to the 19th, you might consider heading to the town for a bowl of ?Cullen Skink?, the creamy fish soup for which the area is famous.
At the tip of the Moray Firth, head for home along the coastal road to Aberdeen and your final destination – Cruden Bay. If you have time, stop by and enjoy the golf at Duff House Royal and Royal Tarlair in Banff.
Cruden Bay is 23 miles from Peterhead, itself an exciting and underrated course, but dwarfed by Cruden Bay?s awesome reputation. Consistently rated in the world?s top-100 courses by ?Golf Magazine?, the links is a mini-mecca for American golf tourists.
The 9th hole at 462 yards perhaps holds the secret to Cruden Bay?s popularity. A short climb from the eighth green reveals a spectacular view down over the links and the Bay of Cruden to Slains Castle, the inspiration for Bram Stoker?s Dracula. The 182-yard 16th appears simple with not a bunker in sight, but the hog?s spine short of the green will ping your ball off onto a downslope leaving a tough up and down for par.
WHERE TO PLAY
Murcar Golf Club
Tel : 01224 704354
Yardage : 6287 yards, par 71
Green Fees : £50 wd, £60 we.
Tel: 01224 702571
Yardage: 6415 yards, par 70
Green Fees: £75 wd, £85 we
Tel: 01330 822365
Yardage: 5781 yards, par 69
Green Fees: £22 wd/we
Inchmarlo Golf Centre
Tel: 01330 826422
Yardage: 6200 yards, par 71
GF: £25 wd, £30 we
Tel: 01807 500305
Yardage: 6417 yards, par 72
Green Fees: £15 wd, £20 we
Moray Old and New
Tel: 01343 812 018
Yardage: Old 6617 yards, par 71
GF: £40 wd, £50 we
Yardage: New 6005 yards, par 69
GF: £30 wd, £35 we.
Tel : 01343 820424
Yardage: 6219 yards, par 70
Green Fees: £20 Wd, £25 We
Tel: 01542 840685
Yardage: 4597 yards, par 63
Green Fees: £15 wd, £20 we
Tel: 01261 812062
Yardage: 6161 yards, par 68
Green Fees: £22 wd, £29 we.
Tel: 01779 812285
Yardage: 6396 yards, par 70
Green Fees: £55 wd, £65 we.
WHERE TO STAY
The Atholl Hotel
Tel: 01224 323505
Location : King?s Gate, West End Aberdeen.
The Marcliffe at Pitfodels
Tel : 01224 861 000
Location: North Deeside Road, Pitfodels, Aberdeen
The Burnett Arms Hotel
Tel: 01330 824944
Location: High Street, Banchory
Ballindalloch Estate Lodges
Tel: 01807 500 305
Location: In the grounds of the Ballindalloch Castle Estate.
Spey Bay Hotel
Tel: 01343 820424
Location : Spey Bay, Fochabers, Moray.
The Skerry Brae
Tel: 01343 812040
Location: Overlooking the Old Course at Moray.