Picture perfect links golf in rich supply in Scotland

Kevin Markham discovers rich pickings on Scotland’s coastlines, east and west...

It was 6.15am and I was standing in the dunes behind Cruden Bay Golf Club’s fourth green. Cocooned between a long beach and a curling ridge of land which rises up above the course, it makes for a perfect links setting. It makes for perfect photo opportunities, too, which was why I was looking down on the fourth green. One problem — a trail of footprints stretched across the glistening dew, drenched green. A golfer had already been and gone.

Perhaps it was the irresistibility of a fine links on a perfect summer’s day that lured the golfer out so early, or perhaps he does it every day.

A golf course this beautiful would have that effect on anyone. Still, I was grateful Photoshop would erase his presence.

Aberdeenshire, on Scotland’s east coast, has been a popular destination for links lovers for centuries. The acclaimed Royal Aberdeen, to the south, is over 230 years old and is the eighth oldest club in the world. Its immediate neighbour, Murcar Links, was founded in 1909, and golf was first played at Cruden Bay in the 18th century. And then there’s Fraserburgh, further up the coast, which is even older than Royal Aberdeen.

It was the opening of Trump International in 2012, however, that put this coastline firmly on the American golfer’s radar. Located between Murcar and Cruden Bay, the ongoing controversies over its construction have ensued, but the course — and the region — remain centre stage.

Old Tom Morris created the original Cruden Bay layout with Archie Simpson, in 1899. It was revised by Tom Simpson in the 1920s. Between them, they created a beautiful, challenging and very playable course. Little has changed.

There are iconic holes, blind shots, burns and tidal streams, and a clubhouse boasting probably the best views of any club anywhere. It sits up high on the ridge and the restaurant and bar look down over most of the club’s 27 holes. On a distant headland sits Slains Castle, which has potent Irish connections. Here, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was inspired, following the Irish author’s visit in 1895. Dracula was published two years later. Almost 120 years on, I took photos of the sun rising over those castle ruins three days in a row… and each time I felt shivers down my spine.

The views are even better when you reach the ninth tee, which is higher still.

Rainbows appear frequently over the castle and the Scaurs Rocks which mark the furthest point of the course to the south. It adds a flash more colour to an already dazzling course. Any photographer could stand for hours on that ninth tee, waiting for the perfect shot.

Older still is Fraserburgh Golf Club, 25 miles to the north. The course hides its charms out of sight of the clubhouse but, once you reach the second, you will find a fluid rollercoaster twisting through sweet dunes. Greens are small, bunkers devilish and you can thank the prolific James Braid for this traditional links.

Fraserburgh is the seventh oldest course in the world and the oldest to retain its original name. Take a moment when you reach the third tee to see what lies ahead and to look back over the second green to the town of Fraserburgh. The town may be small but it is the largest shellfish port in Europe.

South of Cruden Bay lie two more impressive links, squeezed together like peas in a pod: Where Royal Aberdeen ends, Murcar Links begins. There is little to indicate where or how they are separated and a popular tale tells of Japanese golfers starting on Royal Aberdeen but finishing at Murcar. They called the police when they couldn’t find their car in the car park. The relationship between the two courses is closer still, for it was Royal Aberdeen’s Professional, Archie Simpson, who designed the distinctive and often enigmatic Murcar, in 1909.

It is entirely possible that Royal Aberdeen will host the Open Championship in the years ahead. It has the pedigree, the tradition and the course to do so. Much like Royal Portrush, destined to host the world’s oldest (and best) major in 2019, every visitor should take the time to explore the clubhouse. It is a treasure trove of history dating back to 1780.

For those planning a golf trip, fly to Aberdeen with Aer Lingus, pick up a car and head straight for the golf course… any golf course. Accommodation choices are plentiful in Aberdeen itself, or try the White Horse Inn in Balmedie. It is budget accommodation with a funky bar and restaurant, and it’s halfway between Cruden Bay and Royal Aberdeen.

In Cruden Bay, try the cozy Red House Hotel, with views over the second hole.

Aberdeen may have had to wait for Trump’s course to light the way for American bucket-listers, but for golfers keen to play traditional Scottish golf, this region will satisfy every links purist.

Western Gale

One of Scotland’s great golf advantages over Ireland can be found in Ayrshire, on the west coast: Over a dozen top quality golf courses lie within a few miles of each other, laid out next to the railway lines.

With high-profile names like Royal Troon, Turnberry and Prestwick, golfers can base themselves in one place and play the premium courses or any of those which lie just beyond the limelight’s grasp.

The west coast is also easily reachable from Ireland by both plane and ferry (Belfast).

Following my three days in Cruden Bay, my west coast golfing extravaganza started at the four star Marine Hotel, in Troon.

Not only is the hotel located right next to this year’s Open Championship venue but my room overlooks the 17th green.

The room next door is where Justin Leonard stayed during his 1997 Open win. The plaque in the corridor even lists his score (272). It is not hard to see why it’s considered a golfer’s hotel, although it goes well beyond that with views across to the Isle of Arran — home to seven golf courses — a spa and a swimming pool.

You’ll do no better than starting at Western Gailes, an enthralling out-and-back affair that should be on every golfer’s itinerary.

Numerous tee boxes sit perched up in the dunes, right above the beach. It flows so sweetly and is so beautifully presented that it reminded me of Waterville.

Little wonder then that so many golfers rate it the highlight of their visit.

That said, a trip to Prestwick and the birthplace of the Open is essential. Never mind the brilliance of the course — rippling greens, giant bunkers and several blind shots, including a par three named ‘Himalayas’ — the clubhouse is a museum to the game and you only have to ask to be given a tour.

I thought it might have been stuffy but even with that sense of tradition rolling through the corridors, and the dining and smoking rooms, it couldn’t be more welcoming.

Besides, the Head Pro, David Fleming, was at Carton House until a few years ago so there’s plenty to chat about.

I visited courses at West Kilbride, Kilmarnock, Dundonald Links and Irvine, but the road to the ferry port at Cairnryan offered two final gems: The Whisky Experience in Kirkoswald, which traces the drink’s history as well as selling whisky from most of the country’s 112 distilleries; and the luxurious Trump Turnberry, where recent renovations by Martin Ebert have been widely praised.

Certainly there are few more dramatic moments than playing the par three ninth with Ailsa Craig sitting in the ocean behind you and the lighthouse dead ahead. Equally dramatic is the green fee of £275 (€322)… so be sure to enjoy all of the five-star trimmings.

There is so much to recommend either Scottish destination that it might just come down to one magical moment… like arriving at Dundonald Links to find a young lad standing outside, playing his bagpipes in the pouring rain.

Where else but in Scotland?


Lifestyle

My sister Gabriella always says that during sibling whispers all I ever wanted was to be on stage.This Much I Know: Man of many talents Mike Hanrahan

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine offers guidance to a woman whose husband is controlling and belittling her.Ask a counsellor: ‘My husband is so controlling – what do I do?’

Peter Dowdall branches out to take a look at the mountain ash or rowan.Rowan berries show us how nature is stocking its larder for winter

More From The Irish Examiner