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
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
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
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,
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
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine