Inspired by the coverage of a pulsating Walker Cup match over the fabled links at Royal Aberdeen? For those prepared to make the trip north, there’s plenty more great golf in this far-flung corner of Scotland – Mark Alexander reports on what’s on offer.
There’s a buzz about Aberdeen. You can feel it in the air. It mingles with the whiff of success that wafts from the exhaust pipes of the town’s expensive sports cars. The Granite City is doing alright for itself, and for once the place is booming not simply because of oil.
Golf is the new prize with the likes of none other than Donald Trump raising the area’s profile with his £750 million foray into the North East’s golfing market. More immediately, Aberdeen has received a well-earned boost following the staging of the 2011 Walker Cup over the Balgownie Links of Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, the sixth-oldest club in the world.
The contest was the 43rd match between Great Britain and Ireland, and the rampaging USA team – which this year included the world-ranked No. 1 amateur, Patrick Cantalay – has won the last three matches home and away. With the pressure mounting on the home side, where better to settle an old score than over a classic links originally laid out by Archie and Robert Simpson and then re-bunkered and lengthened by the legendary James Braid?
The course itself, which runs to 6,900 yards and is played to a par 71, is revered for its opening nine holes with the testing par-three 8th acting as its signature. The layout is everything you would expect from a championship links with fast-and-firm fairways leading to generous greens. Whipping gusts from the North Sea provide the obligatory salt-laden blasts that add a little spice to the links experience.
That same wind defines a number of other courses that face the might of the North Sea. Indeed, the North East is home to some of the finest links – and inland courses – Scotland has to offer attracting not only aspiring amateurs and brash property moguls, but also discerning golfers with a taste for adventure.
Here’s a selection of Aberdeen’s finest.
Arguably the best on offer is Cruden Bay Golf Club. Designed by Old Tom Morris in 1899, this renowned links follows a figure of eight around a magnificent bay which at one end harbours a colourful collection of fishermen’s cottages while at the other golden stretches of sand play host to hundreds of seabirds. High above it all, on a northerly headland, is the sinister silhouette of Slains Castle, reportedly the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Unearthly residences aside, none of this is visible from the clubhouse despite its lofty position. Instead visitors are treated to a mouth-watering sight of pristine duneland stretching out towards the North Sea. It’s a sight that draws you nearer to the panoramic window as if somehow being closer to the glass would allow you to savour it more readily. If a view like that doesn’t get your golf juices flowing then nothing will.
Out on the course, it just gets better. Smooth, undulating fairways carved through deep gullies forged between high dunes create an immensely satisfying golfing experience. In fact it’s so good, it seems inappropriate to bring anything less than your best game. You can imagine my embarrassment when I discovered I’d left mine at home.
“It’s not the longest course, so placement and accuracy are key,” says Cruden’s former pro Robbie Stewart. “The seventh hole is the first time you’d take the driver out - it’s very much a strategic course. Once you’re out there you’ll see the undulations and doglegs. It really is quite a challenge.”
And he should know. Stewart gave up teaching in 2009 after 18 years on the job preferring to take a managerial role at the club instead. His best knock around Cruden was one off the club’s record of 64, so he knows what he’s talking about.
One of the first decisions he made as director of golf was to introduce a £70 daily fee for unlimited play, which is remarkable value bearing in mind there’s also a tasty Tom Simpson-designed nine holer to tempt you. Indeed, with a modest entry fee, excellent facilities and two golf courses to savour, Cruden Bay is everything you could hope for from a links experience. If you haven’t been, you’re missing out.
And while you’re there, you might want to check out Murcar Links, the Archie Simpson-designed course which was described by the founding members as “open and undulating, abounding in natural hazards”.
Twenty two miles south of Cruden Bay, Murcar clings to the northern fringes of Aberdeen, and yet despite its proximity to the city, has the feel of a country club surrounded as it is by farmland and ideally positioned on the coast. In fact, if it wasn’t for the modern clubhouse, you’d be convinced nothing has changed here since Simpson made his final tweaks over 100 years ago.
“It’s one of the beauties of Murcar,” says resident PGA professional Gary Forbes. “The natural dunes have never been tampered with. Also each hole is different – some are quite testing, some are pleasing on the eye and there is one or two that are relatively easy.”
After playing the course in benign conditions, I’m not entirely sure which holes he means, but he makes a good point about the diversity. Murcar is certainly a course to be reckoned with but it also presents a variety of tests that seem to vary in complexion on just about every hole.
The changing elevation and orientation of the course ensures gusts off the North Sea inevitably influence play from all directions. But the most has also been made of the land which provides shelter from the normally blustery conditions in the form of high dunes while exposed tee positions provide marvellous views along the seemingly endless coast. At one moment you’re playing on a sparse links fairway, the next you’re negotiating a dramatic gorge. If nothing else, Murcar is varied.
And it might become even more so if local golf course architect Graeme Webster gets the go ahead for major restructuring work on the ancient links. “There’s a series of changes we’ve proposed,” says the Scot. “The potential is there to make Murcar one of Scotland’s top links courses, which is where it should be.”
The local designer has already left his mark on the Aberdeen golf scene, most notably at Meldrum House which is a parkland course with more than a hint of exclusivity about it. Built on a 13th century baronial estate, Meldrum is a classy set-up with a 27-room country hotel, award-winning restaurant and an impressive golf academy.
The resort is completed by the 14-year-old championship course which fits into the historic landscape so well, it’s as familiar as a pair of old shoes – it just works. The fit is so exact that it would be easy to imagine the original owner, Philip de Fedarg (believed to be a Knight Templar) nonchalantly strolling towards one of the large greens, hickory (or broadsword) in hand.
As well as looking well beyond its years, the clever layout also successfully fuses playability and challenge with a keen sense of drama. This clever balancing act means visitors can enjoy their rounds just as readily as the members do week in, week out.
In many ways, Meldrum is what all resort courses should be with attractive holes defined by penal lakes and strategically positioned bunkers finished off by enormous greens that offer challenging pin positions for tournament play and straightforward access for the paying punters. “We wanted to create a course that was visually attractive where the risk and reward and the challenge was right out there in front of you,” says Webster. “Depending on the golfer’s ability, he would have the choice of what degree of challenge he was prepared to take on. Ultimately, we wanted it to be an enjoyable experience so that golfers felt good about what they had just played.”
He certainly achieved that. The course’s chameleon-like quality helped the resort land a three-year contract to host the reinvigorated Northern Open. Not bad for a course that honorary member Paul Lawrie berated in 2009 after a disappointing bounce match. The spat escalated until Lawrie and Meldrum went their separate ways. Looking at the greens today, it’s hard to work out what rattled his cage.
More generally, Aberdeen has a number of misconceptions that must be overcome if it is to attract visitors from far and wide. Admittedly, many of these notions stem from the city’s remoteness, but possibly a more tricky message to get across is the quality of golf on offer from both inland and links courses. Perhaps with the help of ‘The Donald’, Aberdeen will eventually claim its rightful place on golf's top table.
With holiday homes, private residences, luxury golf villas, a five-star hotel and golf academy, not to mention two championship golf courses, Donald Trump’s grand plan was always going to attract attention, and perhaps some criticism. But despite the legal wranglings, protests and unsavoury confrontations, the billionaire property developer has forced through his development – Trump International Golf Links, Scotland – and teed up on his property for the first time this summer. “This is a project I said was going to happen and it has happened. The land is so great – the course is emerging beyond all expectations,” noted ‘The Donald’. Martin Hawtree, the man behind the design, agrees with Trump’s assessment of the windswept property. “The site is certainly the most dramatic piece of links land I’ve seen,” he says. “It’s right up there with Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay, County Down, Portrush, Lahinch, Ballybunion, with a good few ingredients of all of them. It’s a tremendous piece of land.” Praise indeed. You can follow the development at trumpgolfscotland.com