Golf Monthly Editor Mike Harris makes good on a promise to visit Aberdeenshire to play the tremendous golf courses to be found in the region.
For over a decade Contributing Editor Fergus Bisset has been encouraging me to go and stay with him in Aberdeenshire to sample the “abundance of fantastic golf courses” on his doorstep. Every time he put out the offer I replied, “yes, absolutely, I must do that,” and I meant it. I’d heard such great reports from all the members of the GM team who’d previously made the journey to the North East of Scotland and sampled the golfing delights on the coast and inland there.
But, circumstances and an ever-busy schedule prevented my intentions becoming reality… until this May. I was visiting St Andrews and managed to tack on some extra days that enabled me to travel the 80 miles or so north to Aberdeen. Plans were hatched and a three day, five course “Aberdeenshire golfathon” was coordinated. Fergus and I, together with Top 100 rankings pannelist Benj Nelson and colleague Jezz Ellwood (the latter joining us for rounds three and four) would play Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay, Trump International, Murcar Links and Banchory.
I arrived at Royal Aberdeen in time for lunch on the first day in glorious sunshine – it was to be a theme of the trip. Greeting Fergus and Benj in the car park and marvelling at the blue skies we strolled into the attractive whitewashed clubhouse for a swift round of pre tournament preparations and a bite to eat.
Spending a little time in the clubhouse at this grand old club is an experience in itself. The wood-panelled walls are adorned with an incredible array of artworks and historical golfing artefacts. Paintings by Scottish artist Stephen Shankland depicting former Royal Aberdeen member Richie Ramsay and a scene from the 2011 Walker Cup are particularly eye-catching.
From our comfortable seats in the Old Bar, we looked out onto the 1st tee and watched a few groups strike off towards the distant green. The flag seemed perched on the edge of the North Sea with a line of ships behind on the horizon, each sitting contemplating entry to Aberdeen’s busy harbour.
As we took our turn on the tee the anticipation of this long-awaited trip became reality. We fired down the fairway, darned close to it anyway, and our Aberdeenshire golfing odyssey was begun.
Although the club at Royal Aberdeen was founded in 1780 (the sixth oldest club in the world,) the move to the present site at Balgownie didn’t take place until 1886. The course has evolved over the years with early design work by Archie and Robert Simpson from Carnoustie, advice on alterations by James Braid and more recent changes by Hawtree and Company. Having hosted significant events over the last 15 years, including the Senior Open of 2005, the Walker Cup of 2011 and the Scottish Open in 2014, this is clearly a progressive club keen to keep pace with the modern game.
The front nine here is one of the most famed stretches of holes in golf and it didn’t disappoint. With an unusual wind blowing from the north and east, it was particularly challenging as we were largely firing straight into it on the way out. Fergus assured me that many of the testing par-4s on the opening stretch often require only a mid iron on approach but it wasn’t easy to believe; I seemed to be doing rather a lot of headcover removal as we forged on up the coast.
At the short par-3 8th the layout briefly turns back towards Aberdeen and you might have expected us to make the most of this respite. No sir. The narrow target protected by a horseshoe of bunkers requires a highly precise shot and none of us were able to deliver one, although we did have a chance to prove just how deft a touch is required around the undulating greens at Balgownie. Wouldn’t that be nice to have!
The 9th turns north once again, a very strong par-4 leading to the furthest point of the course. On the 10th tee you overlook the adjacent links of Murcar and we took a moment to consider what an incredible stretch of golfing coastline this is. Fergus told a story about a group of tourists who had reached the 9th green of Royal Aberdeen and, rather than turning back down the 10th, had accidentally continued up the coast by teeing off at Murcar’s 4th. I wondered if the tale was apocryphal but, on further investigation, it has apparently happened more than once!
We managed to find the correct route and turned to begin the back nine. With the wind at our backs and the ball running over the firm links turf, the going was a little easier. Royal Aberdeen has made an effort in recent years to make the course more playable for the average golfer and this has meant a thinning of gorse in some areas and a closer management of the rough, making it punishing but not unplayable. It’s a highly sensible approach to ensure the greatest possible enjoyment for both members and visitors. There is still plenty of gorse in evidence though and it was magnificently in bloom when we played, dazzlingly yellow and producing that gorgeous coconut scent that reaches you on the seaside breezes. The pace of play at Balgownie was excellent and we completed 18 holes in just over three hours. That’s how it should be.
It may not have the reputation of the front nine but the run for home features some superb holes – the tough par-4 14th, requiring a well struck iron to a narrow green, the superb par-3 17th with a three tiered green (I feel reluctantly obliged to mention that Benj made a fine two here) and then the supremely testing 18th that requires a long and precise drive with gorse on both sides and a strong approach to a raised green.
After putting out and shaking hands, we agreed we’d seldom experienced a more enjoyable, well-paced game over such a superb stretch of links land. To further increase feelings of exhilaration and camaraderie, the scores were tightly bunched after round one of our five round competition. I don’t need to say what the Stableford totals were but they were tightly bunched.
Day two saw an early start for a drive from Bisset Towers on Deeside back to the coast, further north this time at Cruden Bay. En-route we went through a bank of haar (sea fog, common on the coast here) that cut visibility to basically nil. We worried that golf could be a touch tricky. Thankfully, we broke through and found ourselves, once again in fabulous sunshine as we turned into the car park at Cruden Bay.
Still feeling a little bleary eyed, life suddenly leapt into sharp focus as we entered the lounge at Cruden Bay and encountered the simply incredible view down over the rolling dunes and the ribbons of fairways cutting through them. On the horizon to the left; the ruins of Slains Castle, an almost unreal structure like something from a horror film, I wasn’t surprised to hear Bram Stoker had stayed there while it was still inhabited and had used it as an inspiration for Dracula.
After a quick coffee, we headed to the first tee to begin round two. It’s an intimidating opening with a sea of gorse on the right side with the fairway sloping towards it. The gorse at Cruden Bay was spectacular, huge banks of it provide the backdrop on a number of holes but, although it’s prevalent enough to be beautiful when in bloom, it’s been well managed so as not to impact on play to an unfair extent.
The front nine at Cruden Bay features some exceptional holes; the par-3 3rd with the village and the sea on the left, plays to a raised green over a grassy hollow with dunes to the back and the right. The next is a magnificent par-4 carved between the sand hills and the 9th delivers one of the greatest views in golf (recently voted the very best in Scottish golf.) You climb to the top of the headland and stand amid the blooming gorse looking down upon the course and up and down the impossibly beautiful coastline. The hole itself has been recently remodelled and, according to Fergus, hugely improved. The 10th takes you back down to sea level on the other side of the headland and the holes from 11-14 are played on this section of links. A blind par-3, the 15th, takes you back round the side of the headland. It’s a hole that splits opinion but I like the quirky nature of it and the way the terrain has been used in a natural way – it’s memorable. And that’s what makes Cruden Bay such an enjoyable course to play. Yes, it’s maintained in great condition with springy fairways, meandering burns, undulations and raised greens but, more than that, each of the holes is different, unique and sticks in the mind. Even now writing this, I’m having no trouble remembering the 2nd for its plateau green, the driveable par-4 8th, to a green nestling in a ring of dunes, or the long par-4 17th with a knoll akin to a Pictish burial mound in the middle of the fairway. With the sun beating down and birds darting in and out of the vibrant gorse, there are few finer settings for seaside golf.
We enjoyed a hearty lunch in the clubhouse at Cruden Bay, completed some complicated scoring/handicap adjustments/bit payouts before making the short drive south for round three at Trump International Golf Links.
No course constructed in the UK in recent years has received such press coverage and interest as Trump International on the Menie Estate at Balmedie. Largely this has been because of the name attached to it but, within the golf industry at least, it has also been because most feel that was has been created over this stretch of dune land is one of the very best courses in this country. To say the least, I was excited to experience it for myself.
To take the edge off the nervous anticipation we completed, together with Jezz Ellwood who had arrived to join us, a swift round of pre-match preparations in the subtly tartan, surprisingly understated but extremely comfortable clubhouse.
We had a quick practice on the enormous, sprawling and immaculate putting green before heading to the tee. As we were playing late in the day, teeing off just after 3.00, it seemed as though we had the place to ourselves. In reality, there were a number of groups on the course but, as every hole is separated from the others by towering sand hills, the feeling is that you are being given a private viewing of this magnificent course.
And magnificent it is. There are no weak holes, this is a triumph of design from Martin Hawtree. Admittedly, he had some superb terrain to work with, but what he has created is hugely impressive. There’s a wonderful blend of long and short holes and, with both nines starting and ending at the clubhouse, the wind helps and hurts equally on both sides.
For a relatively new track, opened in 2012, it already has a feeling of maturity. The fairways are developing that links firmness and the greens are extremely true and fast-running. The holes flow through the dunes and pristine grass walkways lead from greens to tees.
It’s tough to pick out individual holes at Trump International as all have merit but some that particularly struck me included: the par-3 3rd where arriving at the green, the dunes part to give a wonderful view of the sea and the beach, just a few yards through the back of the putting surface; the par-5 10th, dog-legging up to a green surrounded by an amphitheatre of dunes; and the brilliant 14th where you drive from an elevated tee to a fairway tracing a valley between the dunes. I pulled my tee shot here and had to impersonate a mountain goat to play a shot back to the fairway. Clinging precariously to the edge of the dune I was given an almost vertigo-inducing sense of the scale of the terrain here.
The 18th at Trump International is a beast of a par-5 that can be stretched to over 650 yards. It features no fewer than 18 bunkers and water hazards on the left side. We played it at 586 yards and, with the wind behind, Fergus reckoned on being able to reach in two. I was three points behind him with one to play and, with a shot, fancied I wasn’t out of it if he was feeling gung-ho and over-assured of certain victory.
He did make it in two shots, in fact his second was too long and bounded through the green. I played more conservatively and, buoyed by Bisset’s misplaced over-confidence, hit a “shot-of-the day” third into with three-feet of the cup. Bisset, now rattled, found his ball lodged up a bank through the putting surface, he could only hack it onto the left of the green, leaving a long birdie putt. He raced it past, missed the return and left me to tap-in for a birdie and four points. He picked up one, we were tied and I won on best back nine. He didn’t speak until at least halfway down his second pint of Deeside American Pale Ale.
We stayed that night in the fabulously opulent MacLeod House on the Menie Estate. It’s a baronial lodge that offers real Scottish grandeur with great artworks, roaring fires, secret staircases and, of course, a tremendous whisky bar. The level of service is first class and the accommodation extremely comfortable and palatial, I could have played a game of badminton in my bathroom! The food in the clubhouse was excellent, Benj’s haggis bon bons won first prize in the taste test. The resulting night’s sleep was intense – 36 holes, a slap-up meal, a couple of fine single malts and an enormous bed saw to that.
The following morning required another early start. After an artistic, and perfectly cooked, full Scottish breakfast in the Trump clubhouse we travelled 15 minutes down the coast to our final seaside course – Murcar Links. Host to numerous top amateur and professional events, including the 2015 Paul Lawrie Match Play won by Kiradech Aphibarnrat, this is another tremendous and testing links course.
As with all the clubs we visited, we were welcomed warmly to Murcar and were given some useful pointers on the course by long-time head professional Gary Forbes. The Aberdeenshire courses are working hard to promote the area as a stand-alone golfing destination for groups from the UK and abroad and they are doing a very good job of it. They certainly have the product and the hospitality in place.
The front nine at Murcar Links is excellent. The first three are up-and down from the clubhouse and then, from the 4th, the holes play out along the coast to the 9th. These are great, challenging links holes demanding strong and accurate ball striking. That early in the morning, and perhaps not aided by the final whisky at MacLeod House, our ball striking was a little less than accurate and the points totals at halfway reflected that. But, despite struggling to score, we were all thoroughly struck by the quality of the holes and that’s always a sign of a great golfing stretch – the level of your play becomes irrelevant. Again, the dunes at Murcar were swathed in brilliant yellow gorse and the contrast of verdant fairways, yellow sand hills and azure skies was striking.
The northerly wind had continued and was helping us on the run for home at Murcar Links. Although, perhaps the lesser of the two nines, there are some great holes on the way in. The par-5 14th offers the chance of a birdie, but with out-of-bounds and a burn lurking right, it can also be a card-wrecker, the 15th is a fine par-4 played from a high tee amid the gorse to a slanting fairway with a burn at its end, the approach must be played over said burn to a raised green, the 16th is a fine par-3 played back over the 15th fairway and burn to a small target with trouble short and left (I feel reluctantly obliged to mention that Benj made an excellent two here – have I said that somewhere before?)
Designed originally by Archie Simpson and refined by James Braid, recent alterations by Graeme Webster have sympathetically enhanced the layout. It’s a tremendous course and one that we found in excellent condition. After finishing in yet more blazing sunshine, we considered just how lucky we’d been as we completed our post match debriefs.
One course left and it was Contributing Editor Fergus Bisset’s home track – Banchory. A different proposition from the first four, it’s an inland, riverside course in the heart of the small, attractive town of Banchory. Although no pushover, it won’t beat you up like the seaside layouts can. Banchory provides and excellent complement to the challenging, championship tracks of the Aberdeenshire coast.
Before playing Fergus told me that, with the recent employment of a new greenkeeper, a new Director of Golf and new caterer, the last couple of years had seen big changes at Banchory. The club has turned a corner and there is a real excitement about the future as all involved are striving to make it as good as it can be. I can confirm that they’re doing rather well. From our arrival to our departure, I was taken by what a friendly, positive and lively club this is.
We began with our usual pre-match preparations in Banchory’s stylish and welcoming clubhouse, we had a laugh with the bar manager about our epic “work trip,” and then devoured a brilliant lunch provided by new caterer Robert Ramsay. Fergus says Robert is earning a reputation for his excellent blend of golf club fayre and more refined cuisine and I can see why. We had a selection of “nibbles” including whitebait, chicken wings, chipolatas and more haggis bon bons. Aside from being rather delicious, there was enough to feed a small golf tournament – not bad for £8.50!
(Photo Credit: Kenny Smith)
Still in the sunshine, the course was just great fun to play. The holes are inviting, tricky but not daunting. This is a course that will suit players of all standards and I can see why Fergus enjoys being a member here so much. The surfaces are of excellent quality and the greens were running true. The new greenkeeper is clearly doing the right things. The views of the River Dee are lovely and there’s a real feeling of peace and serenity to be found on course here.
There are some great holes at Banchory and the six par-3s are the key to a good score. The 12th is a superb short hole with a burn running at an angle across the front of the green and waiting to catch any shot leaking right – it’s Banchory’s version of the 12th at Augusta, or is is the other way round?
Back at Bisset Towers we were left to reflect, over a bottle (or two) of Pinot Noir, on what had been a supremely successful trip. Yes, we had been lucky with the weather but also, I felt fortunate to have finally made the journey north and to have discovered just how good the courses that Fergus constantly harps on about really are. The links of Aberdeenshire are of outstanding quality and, if Banchory is anything to go by, the inland tracks provide a wonderfully picturesque and welcoming alternative to the seaside courses. Aberdeenshire is something of a golfer’s paradise. I certainly won’t be waiting another decade before returning.
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