So, a lot has changed in the last year and out of change comes opportunity. For years, I’ve been trying to persuade my friends to change the annual golfing pilgrimage from San Roque to a Scotland golf tour. Not an easy task as the sun in Spain is of the warm variety (generally) and the golf is great. The trip to San Roque has been a fixture in the calendar for 23 years (give or take a few sporadic trips elsewhere). But it should be an easy sell. Scotland is the home of golf, proper golf – that of the Links variety. On a personal level, it’s a big risk to mess with a trusted formula. The pressure is on.
So, having managed to fit in a trip to St Andrews previously (the Graceland for golfers) now is my chance to spread their golfing wings. The difficult second album. More pressure. So here is the game plan for this year. It’s not Ayrshire, nor East Lothian (both locations that I would go to at the drop of a cap). It’s not Machrihanish or the Islands (I’m saving that one). It’s a Highlands Golf Tour. A journey less travelled, but filled with absolutely incredible golf.
The itinerary for our Highlands Golf Tour
Day 1 – Royal Aberdeen
So the first course on our trip to hold the Scottish Open. Arguably hugely underrated. Many say that the front nine is the finest stretch of golf holes in the UK. Don’t assume that the back nine are disappointing though. It’s a great test of golf, with the added benefit of adding a “Royal” to your list of courses played.
Day 2 – Trump International
It’s worth setting the controversy that comes with the Trump to one side. The golf is amazing – set amongst some of the most spectacular dunes in Scotland right next to the beautiful Balmedie beach. The par 3’s are brilliant. You may have seen photos of the 3rd, but they are all equally exciting. Bring your crampons, as the tee for the par 5 18th is possibly the highest I’ve ever played from (and at 651yds off the tips, the elevation is welcome).
Day 3 – Cruden Bay
Arguably a touch of golfing marmite, some love Cruden Bay, others don’t. I am firmly in the former camp. It’s in a beautiful location, and is a thoroughly original test of golf. Yes there are some blind shots, but that isn’t a problem in my mind – after all if Prestwick can get away with it…
Day 4 – Nairn Golf Club
So full disclosure here, I’m a member at Nairn and as such am completely biased. Nairn is the place I’ll play my last round of golf (given the choice). It puts a jaw aching smile on my face every time I stand on the first tee.
Recently benefiting from a revamp from Mackenzie & Ebert instigated by a forward-thinking Captain, Nairn is a fabulous place. The setting and the views are spectacular, with the Moray Firth never more than a good hit from the hole you’re playing. I’ve played from the beach on a good few occasions, so worth booking a tee time when the tide is out if you’re a bit wayward. The greens are amongst the truest in Scotland and the routing is intriguing.
Day 5 – Castle Stuart
20 minutes up the road from Nairn is one of my favourite courses on earth. Another venue for the Scottish open, and one of Gil Hanse’s masterpieces. I’d always argue it’s better than Kingsbarns to be a bit provocative (don’t get me wrong, Kingsbarns is awesome – it’s in my top 10).
It took me about 5 visits to work out the secret to Castle Stuart. It’s a second shot course, and the design features (infinity greens, false fronts, and well placed bunkers) make for a thought-provoking round. There is an intriguing variety of holes. Great par 3s, challenging par 4s, short par 4s and one of the finest finishing holes in Scotland. The reception in the clubhouse is better even than the spectacular view you can enjoy whilst imbibing a bacon sarnie. It’s the second last course I’d play before joining Old Tom Morris.
Day 6 – Fortrose & Rosemarkie
Golf in Scotland is part of the local community, and F&R is a perfect example of that. Located on a promontory that juts out into the Moray Firth. With a lighthouse at its farthest point and dolphins that turn up like clockwork on the tides, the course is more about its authenticity than the fact that it’s an Oscar winner. It’s just great fun – the sort of course where you could take a half set and mess around with some creative golf shots rather than follow the usual formula.
Day 7 – Royal Dornoch
If Dornoch wasn’t quite so far North, it would be on The Open rota. In fact, the R&A shouldn’t use its geography as an excuse. It’s brilliant. The setting and routing are difficult to surpass, and when you’ve finished your round you can smile at the fact that you’ve just played a truly world class course. Bring your putting game, as the greens at Royal Dornoch are a challenge. Every hole is unique, and it’s worth listening to the starter when he gives you tips on which holes to play for a landing zone rather than pure distance.
Day 8 – Brora
A short hop north of Royal Dornoch is Brora. This is a must play course in any trip to the Highlands, with great views, undulating fairways and an intriguing mix of holes. It strikes the perfect balance between golfing challenge and playability, and is the sort of place that encourages you to play well. It’s not a pampered golf course (golfers share the fairways with the local cow and sheep population) but it is in fantastic condition.
So there it is. My proposed Highlands Golf Tour for my friends and I. If we’re going to do it, I didn’t want it to be a rushed job. I want to soak up all that the Scottish Highlands has to offer, rather than just a long weekend.
I’ve been organising our group golf trip for 23 years and I have to say, I’ve never been more excited for it to happen.
Final Top Tips from Andy
- Give yourself time to enjoy a good meal in the club houses of all these courses. It should be compulsory in my mind.
- During the summer, the days are long. Golf at 10pm is a real treat, so getting 36 holes in a day is very very doable.
- Take time to enjoy some of the other things that can take in. The drive is fantastic, with some big hills and amazing vistas. There are multiple distilleries en route including Glenmorangie and Dalmore. Most do tours and tasting and are well worth the small detour.
- In the summer, the weather in this part of Scotland is good. It’s not wet like the West coast, and there are zero midges.
- Take time to fit in a few of the less well known courses, especially if you want to fit in more than 18 holes in a day. Check out some of the other courses en route: Cullen, Moray, Fraserbrough, Forres, Peterhead, Duffhouse Royal, Covesea, Portmahomack, Tain, Golspie.
- Enjoy the drive. The route along this Highlands Golf Tour is spectacular.
- Links golf isn’t the preserve of low handicappers. All of these courses can be enjoyed by any golfer, as long as you know one end of the club from the other.
Blog Post by YGT’s Andy Whatley