Scottish Golf has its places of pilgrimage but Global Golfer stepped off the beaten track and discovered that Aberdeen and the Grampian Highlands well worth the visit…
- From oil outpost to golf central
- Tame the Serpentine at Murcar Golf Club
- Play the 6th oldest golf course in the world at Royal Aberdeen
- The inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula at Cruden Bay
- 5-star luxury at the Marcliffe at Pitfodels
- Follow the Whisky Trail in Speyside
- The 80-foot boar crag at delightful Cullen
Oil outpost to golf central
The traditional image of Aberdeen as a hulking oil city with solemn granite architecture is changing.
Far from being an industrial outpost, it’s now the focal point of North East Scotland’s expanding golf tourism industry, centered upon the famous links at Cruden Bay, and Aberdeenshire’s 70 surrounding courses.
Any golfing trip to Aberdeenshire and the Grampian Highlands region should start in Aberdeen itself.
Known as the “Granite city”, its grey block architecture may darken your mood, but once you set out on the A90, past the Bridge of Don, you’re in golfing country.
The joy of playing Cruden Bay is best saved till last, so stop short of it and instead play the fine links at nearby Murcar, or neighbouring Royal Aberdeen, the sixth oldest course in the world.
Just 15 minutes drive from Aberdeen city centre, Murcar is a sensational natural links course and, were it not just down the road from Cruden Bay and next to Royal Aberdeen, it would surely have earned greater praise.
Founded in 1909, it is blessed with all the ingredients of great links golf in abundance.
Dunes and gorse
Elevated tees lead onto fairways that curl between sand dunes, gorse and heather and ever-present North Sea breezes only accentuate its considerable difficulty.
The course really enters its stride with “Pool”, the par-five fourth. At 489 yards, the accomplished player will already be entertaining thoughts of a birdie on the tee, but the greatest dangers lie greenside.
Signs of proud fishing heritage
Once you’ve hit two long shots past the derelict fishing boat in the rough – a sign of the sea trout and salmon fishing still practised beyond Murcar’s dunes – you must pitch safely to the elevated green.
Beware the 30-yard run off at the green’s front and the large riveted pot bunker at the bottom left.
Survive with a par and you’re immediately faced with the best hole on the course. At 162 yards, “Plateau” is a devilish par-three that will make you think twice or thrice about which club to hit.
Considered by the members to be a longer version of the ‘Postage Stamp’ at Royal Troon, you fire over a gully brimming with gorse bushes to a green hewn into a bankside.
Anything pulled to the left will scurry down the hill, leaving a terrifying lob-shot from 20-yards beneath the green.
A cowardly block to the right is treated with equal disdain by twin bunkers on the right that snarl at you from the tee.
Beware the Black Dog
If your round is going badly by the time you reach Strathbathie, the 155-yard par-three 12th, you could wander over to the nearby Black Dog firing range and hope to be caught in the crossfire. Otherwise, stay buoyant in the hope that you’ll fare better at neighbouring Royal Aberdeen.
Royal Aberdeen, or “ Balgownie” as it’s known, is the sixth oldest golf course in the world, having been established in 1780 as the “Society of Golfers in Aberdeen.”
Golf written large in history
Golf, however, appears even earlier in Aberdeen’s history.
The Register of 1565 called it an “unlawful amusement”, to be banned “during the time of sermons.”
Murcar and Royal Aberdeen are so close to each other, that one fourball of American tourists began their round at Murcar and ended it at “Balgownie”, scouring the locker room for their missing shoes.
At 409 yards, the first is one of the best openers in all Aberdeenshire. A downhill tee-shot must find a deceptively wide fairway which funnels play towards a green set against the backdrop of the North Sea.
This is but a prelude to a stunning links that features four of the finest short holes in Britain, culminating in the 182-yard 17th, with its two-tier green heavily bunkered at the front.
Sterling words by Bernard Darwin on Balgownie
The 18th deserves as much merit as a finishing hole as the first does as the opener, and none other than golf writer Bernard Darwin commented that; “it represented a huge gap in my golfing education not to have played Balgownie until now.”
For more on Royal Aberdeen, watch this video from our friends at GoGolfTV
After a good night’s rest in one of the city’s fine hotels, like the Marcliffe at Pitfodels – one of the leading five star hotels in Aberdeen – you may choose to rest your swing from buffeting sea winds and head inland to play some of the fine parkland courses around Aberdeen.
Stomping ground of an Open Champion
The A93 Braemer road is the route to take to arrive at Banchory, a delightful parkland course where 1999 Open Champion Paul Lawrie began his career as an assistant professional.
There is even a hole named after Lawrie, who hails from and still lives in Aberdeen. The 14th hole at 302 yards, was re-built on the site of the old practice ground where Lawrie spent hours honing the swing that captured the Claret Jug at Carnoustie in 1999.
Banchory is short at 5781 yards and is fit snugly into a mere 97 acres. The real delight is the six par-threes, including the 125-yard downhill third which sits in the shadow of “Scolty”, a vast monument atop a surrounding hill, built in memory of the local Laird in the 1900’s.
88 amazing yards – the “Doo’cot”
The club’s real signature hole comes later at Doo’cot, the 88-yard 16th, where a wedge must be deftly flicked over a near vertical grassbank to a tiny green.
Pigeons nest in the Doo’cot, the white wooden structure to the right of the green, which is almost as unusual as the hexagonal clubhouse that presides over the first tee and 18th green away to its right.
If Banchory is a testing course fitted into sparse acreage, then the Laird’s course at Inchmarlo Golf Centre – just a mile or so up the road – has made perfect use of vast acres of pine forest overlooking the Dee valley.
What began as a 30-bay driving range in 1994, developed into one of the most talked about golf developments in Royal Deeside.
Inchmarlo boasts 27 holes of golf, including a nine-holer for novice players, but the real delight is the Graeme Webster designed Laird’s course.
At 6128 yards, the course has the rare quality of making you feel as if you’re playing it alone.
There is no better hole than the par-five seventh. “Craiglea,” is 496 yards long and offers the best views over densely wooded hills, spanning down onto the river Dee and the waterworks, and the Grampians in the distance.
A well hit tee-shot gives the impression that it’s about to plummet over the edge of the earth and, while reachable in two, the green is protected by a waterfall and pond that encroaches on the front right.
Inchmarlo’s sad tale
The tale of Inchmarlo took a sad turn in 2013 when the complex was placed into provisional liquidation and new buyers sought for this excellent golf development. This unfortunate decline is symbolic of the wider economic challenges facing the golf industry in Scotland, which sadly now has too many golf courses at a time when people have less money, membership numbers are in decline and wet weather has become the norm in Northern European climates.
Global Golfer is keeping an eye on Inchmarlo’s fortunes and hope’s that a buyer can be found for this swathe of “galf” country in Scotland’s Deeside.
Stay awhile in Malt Whisky country
An hour and half’s drive from Aberdeen, in the heart of Speyside and Malt Whisky country, you’ll find the Donald Steel designed Ballindalloch Castle course.
Do not be deterred by the fact that it has nine-holes and 18-tees. Steel has converted acres of agricultural parkland into a masterpiece that is both challenging and fun.
The alternative teeing grounds on the second nine accomplish the architect’s goal of equipping each hole with a different perspective – and while only opened in 2003 – it feels as if it’s been there forever.
The greens are enormous which lends scope for a variety of pin placements on surfaces that run slower than you’d imagine.
The 4th / 13th is the most eye catching hole on the course and at 478 / 508 yards would appear an easy par-five.
Once you have negotiated an innocuous looking tee-shot across a burn, the hole turns sharply right and your second hangs over an 80-ft cliff looking down onto the distant green.
The change in elevation is alarming, but there is plenty of room for a true second to find the well bunkered green, providing you can settle your heart rate.
The remainder of the holes wind around memorable landmarks such as the banks of the River Avon (A’an) and an ancient ruined chapel.
All in all, an ideal golfing escape.
From Ballindalloch – if still fit to drive after a visit to one of the many Whisky distilleries – head North to the Moray Firth coast and some of the best links golf in Scotland.
Low flying objects at Moray Golf Club
At Lossiemouth, you’ll find the Old and New courses at Moray.
Play the Old first. Its par-fours are some of the toughest you’ll ever encounter, and if you can steady yourself amidst the noise of low flying tornado’s from nearby RAF Lossiemouth, you’ll rejoice in the 406-yard 18th.
Recognised as one of the strongest finishing holes in Scottish golf, you’ll do well to avoid the out of bounds right and find a severely elevated green beneath the gaze of the clubhouse.
From there, it’s a short dunt to Spey Bay near the town of Buckie.
Spey Bay is links golf taken back to its delightful basics and has some of the most enjoyable par-threes anywhere.
The 8th and 15th are two that will linger in your memory.
At 138-yards, number eight is called the “Plateau” and members refer to it as the hardest par-five in Scotland.
The tee-shot is glory or bust, as it will either hold the green or run down the sharp elevations at front or back, leaving you a virtually impossible recovery shot.
The 15th is a simpler proposition, but a gaping bunker at the front obscures your view of the flag and tricks you into hitting long into the gushing waters of the Moray Firth.
If you’ve failed the stern test, there’s always the homely hospitality and fine food at the Spey Bay Hotel to mend your spirits.
Once you’ve rested your bones at the Spey Bay hotel, a 20-minute drive through the traditional fishing villages along the Moray coast will take you to Cullen.
Boar Crag and creamy white Cullen Skink
With a par of 63 and under 5’000 yards, you might not be expecting much, but Cullen is perhaps the most enjoyable round you’ll have all trip.
Set along a stretch of sandy beach and with astounding views of Cullen Bay, the setting is idyllic.
The heart of the course lies in a sequence of four par-threes on the back nine that all feature Cullen’s signature landmark, the 80-foot boar crag.
The 12th and 13th are most exciting, played directly over this rusty red colossus to greens hidden from the tee.
If you managed to miss the boarcrag and made it back to the 19th, you might consider heading to the town for a bowl of “Cullen Skink”, the creamy fish soup for which the area is famous.
At the tip of the Moray Firth, head for home along the coastal road to Aberdeen and a much anticipated round at Cruden Bay.
If you have time, stop by and enjoy the exceptional golf at Duff House Royal and Royal Tarlair in Banff.
Cruden Bay is rated in the world’s top-100 courses by “Golf Magazine”, and the links is a mini-mecca for American golf tourists.
The 9th hole at 462 yards perhaps holds the secret to Cruden Bay’s popularity.
The view that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula
A stiff climb from the eighth green up “Hawklaw Hill” reveals a spectacular view down over the links and the Bay of Cruden to Slains Castle, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Depending on your constitution you may be left feeling that your blood is being slowly drained by this demanding 6395 yard course, but steel yourself for the memorable par-three 16th.
This 182-yard short hole appears simple with not a bunker in sight, but the hog’s spine short of the green will shoot the ball onto a downslope towards the “coffins”, grass bunkers, leaving a far from easy up and down for par.
If you’re keen to put the clubs away for the day, Aberdeen and Grampian has four stunning trails to keep you busy.
Scotland’s Castle trail, Malt Whisky trail, Coastal and Victorian Heritage trails all offer the perfect cultural balance to an intensive golf holiday.
One thing is certain, Aberdeen is beginning to break its mould as the “oil city”, in favour of a deserved reputation as a premier Scottish golf destination.
WHERE TO PLAY
Murcar Golf Club
Tel : 01224 704354
Yardage : 6287 yards, par 71
GF : £50 wd, £60 we.
Tel: 01224 702571
Yardage: 6415 yards, par 70
GF: £75 wd, £85 we
Tel: 01330 822365
Yardage: 5781 yards, par 69
GF: £22 wd/we
Inchmarlo Golf Centre
Tel: 01330 826422
Yardage: 6200 yards, par 71
GF: £25 wd, £30 we
Tel: 01807 500305
Yardage: 6417 yards, par 72
GF: £15 wd, £20 we
Moray Old and New
Tel: 01343 812 018
Yardage: Old 6617 yards, par 71
GF: £40 wd, £50 we
Yardage: New 6005 yards, par 69
GF: £30 wd, £35 we.
Tel : 01343 820424
Yardage: 6219 yards, par 70
GF: £20 Wd, £25 We
Tel: 01542 840685
Yardage: 4597 yards, par 63
GF: £15 wd, £20 we
Tel: 01261 812062
Yardage: 6161 yards, par 68
GF: £22 wd, £29 we.
Tel: 01779 812285
Yardage: 6396 yards, par 70
GF: £55 wd, £65 we.
WHERE TO STAY
The Atholl Hotel
Tel: 01224 323505
Loc : King’s Gate, West End Aberdeen.
The Marcliffe at Pitfodels
Tel : 01224 861 000
Loc: North Deeside Road, Pitfodels, Aberdeen
The Burnett Arms Hotel
Tel: 01330 824944
Loc: High Street, Banchory
Ballindalloch Estate Lodges
Tel: 01807 500 305
Loc: In the grounds of the Ballindalloch Castle Estate.
Spey Bay Hotel
Tel: 01343 820424
Loc : Spey Bay, Fochabers, Moray.
The Skerry Brae
Tel: 01343 812040
Loc: Overlooking the Old Course at Moray.
Scotrail and the Caledonian Sleeper
Tel: 08457 484950
Web : www.scotrail.co.uk
Tel: 08457 225333
From Glasgow or Edinburgh in around two and a half hours,
take the M9 north to Perth, then the A90 to Aberdeen.
Aberdeen Airport is situated seven miles north west of Aberdeen city centre and is accessed from the A96 Aberdeen-Inverness Road.
Access from European mainland via Zeebrugge to Rosyth Ferry (two-hours drive from Rosyth to Aberdeen).