Golf is the most contradictory of games. You hit down in order to launch the ball up. You face away from the target when lining up your shot. And more often than not, you calm yourself and slow down your demeanour in order to hit it farther.
It comes as no surprise then that at the home of golf, a wonderful “contradiction” arises – that of courses built over a century and a half ago sitting side by glorious side with those that have just opened their gates to open play.
ENDEARING EAST LOTHIAN
Last year’s Open Championship at Muirfield directed eyes around the world to East Lothian, a suburb of Edinburgh by the sea. Little is known about this coastal area along eastern Scotland, but it is one that is populated by some of the most historic courses in the UK. In the town of North Berwick, the North Berwick West Links has its roots in 1832 when the club was founded. True to the likes of links courses in that era, North Berwick blends the town with the sea in a rippling undulation of golf holes that are at times quirky, and others simply marvellous. Those who have had the opportunity to play the Old Course at St Andrews, or Prestwick Golf Club where the first-ever Open Championship was held, will recognise this characteristic as they drive up to North Berwick, park their cars along the road, and take the few steps to the first tee. But unlike many traditional links courses in Scotland, North Berwick sets itself apart by offering great views of the sea on many of its holes. Right from the start, and through many of the ones on the front nine, the British North Sea is in constant view, bringing in stiff breezes that will guide errant balls into one of the course’s many bunkers. In the distance, the island of Bass Rock appears from the water like a white outcrop from the sea. You may think that its colour is from the stone from which the island is formed, but it is actually from the world’s largest colony of gannet that have made their home there.
The stunning view of Bass Rock, and Lamb Island next to it is the same one enjoyed by dukes, lords and ladies, princes and princess and even King Edward VII himself through the turn of the twentieth century. Many consider it the “Biarritz of the North”, and an extract from a local paper in 1903 wrote: “On the links this week at one moment there were, in the course of play, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House of Commons, four Members of Parliament, two Bishops of the Church of England, three eminent Professors, a Field Marshall, two Generals and a Tibetan explorer!” But luckily, you won’t have to be from that part of society in order to enjoy this wonderful course. Like most clubs in Scotland and the UK, the course is open to visitors on certain weekdays, and if you’re visiting from overseas, all you need to do is to write in for a tee time.
Once on, you’ll quickly realise that they don’t design holes like these anymore. While most of the first half of the course requires good shot making, and being able to handle the wind from the sea, the thrills really begin from the 342m, par-4 14th. Once you’ve found the narrow fairway here, you need to thread your blind shot between (or over) two bunkers set 90m from the hole, onto a green that is hidden from view abutting the sea.
North Berwick’s 15th is the world renowned Redan Hole, a design that has been “copied” more often than any hole on any course. The par-3 is tough one that stretches to 170m from the tips, with a green that slants away from the line of sight, and a deep bunker in front of it. The classicism of the design is timeless, and the strategies of playing the hole can range from the conservative (laying up to the right and chipping up), to the sublime (going for the flag and hoping for a towering shot that lands on a dime).
The finishing hole is a most charming one where the town of North Berwick forms a backdrop to your adventure. At only 253 metres, this par-4 is virtually reachable from the tee. And if you make it over the furrows of turf protecting the front of the green, you can imagine that your shot will certainly impress golfers leaving the car park to the side, and approaching the club for their very own stint at playing this ever so memorable course.
Archerfield Links is only a few minutes down the road from North Berwick, but a few lifetimes away in terms of history. The record books have it that golf was played on the land where Archerfield now sits through the second half of the 19th century on what was only a 13-hole course. In 1910, Ben Sayers was called upon to extend this to 18 holes that noted golf writer Bernard Darwin said was “the most enchanting short course in the world”. However, during WWII, the grounds were taken over by the Ministry of Defence. Fifty years of decline ensued until Caledonian Estates, an Edinburgh company owned by Kevin Doyle, purchased it. David Russell was commissioned to design two golf courses there, as part of a 55 million pound development that included the refurbishment of Archerfield House and the construction of 100 luxury homes.
Opened in 2004, the Archerfield Links is now a members club along the exclusive lines of England’s The Wisley and Queenwood. Just driving up through the estate, passing the heritage Archerfield House along the way, up to the clubhouse affords a majestic air that evokes contemporary times.
The clubhouse is a work of restrained luxury, blending traditional elements with the conveniences and clean lines of today’s architecture.
Certainly, the al fresco F & B areas wouldn’t have existed a hundred years ago in Scotland, but today, they are as welcome (on a nice summer’s day, of course) as a gin and tonic after your round.
Archerfield’s Fidra Course remains the layout that most would want to play. There is a nice mixture of holes here, combining ones that meander through the pine forest, with those that are more reminiscent of Scottish links. The trees lining the fairways on the front nine protect against the wind, but once round the turn, they give way to great views across the Firth of Forth. From here, you can see Fidra Island with its distinctive lighthouse and whitewashed stonework.
This was the place that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write his famous book, Treasure Island.
Archerfield opened its second course, Dirleton, in 2006.
With two courses, a fantastic driving range, and great facilities, it comes as no surprise that the establishment is a favourite among corporations looking for a golf outing – and possibly a venue for a future Open Championship qualifying tournament.
AMAZEMENT IN ABERDEEN
UP north from Edinburgh, Aberdeen has made major golf news in recent times. Donald Trump ruffled more than a few feathers when he bought a track of land just outside Scotland’s major port city to build Trump International Golf Links Scotland.
While he made no friends along the way, he made up for it by introducing to Scotland not only its latest golf course, but also one that holds a candle to its traditions while injecting a touch of class that is pure “Don”.
Arriving at Trump International’s modest wooden clapboard clubhouse, you wouldn’t think for a moment that this was “a house” that Don built. But credit to the indefatigable property magnate, the sensibilities of the building that houses a small pro shop, and a small but elegant restaurant focuses all attention to the Martin Hawtree course.
Many say that with the property piece of land, all a course designer needs to do is to not screw it up. True that Trump secured a gorgeous property that sits right next to the sea, but Hawtree managed to squeeze every ounce of quality out of the dunes to give the world possibly golf ’s best new course over the last few years.
Many of Hawtree’s holes sit between towering dunes that offer some sense of protection against the winds that are typical of courses in the area.
At the tee boxes, the fairways, bunkers and even greens of each are laid out before your eyes, like a painting of an artist.
Very often, you may feel the views are unreal – such is the surreal marriage of man’s design and nature’s folly. Nothing was spared in building this remarkable course.
Every patch of turf is immaculately laid and maintained. The greens are like velvet, and the bunker sand so smooth you would think management employed goblins that hide in the high gorse that come out to rake the bunkers after each golfer vacates the hole. Even the walking paths have been carefully considered. These are probably the first ones that are laid with pristine turf that blends with the green of the course. Uncannily, it is a solution that not only pleases the eye, but makes walking from green to tee an absolute joy.
Trying to find a signature hole on Trump International is like deciding which Scotch whiskey is your favourite. There are just too many good ones to make a reasonable choice. The fourth hole, a 515m par 5, is a glorious three-shotter with water trailing along the right side, and a battalion of bunkers guarding the fairway from your layup on the third shot. And the par-4 12th is a strong 415m layout that moves ever so slightly to the right with long grass to either side to thwart your drive.
Trump International’s par 3s are as dastardly to par, as they are awe-inspiring to behold. The green on the 167m gem at the sixth is partially hidden from view, and the greenkeeper can give you a nightmare if he tucks the flag to the left where a slope can distract your shot. The 209m 13th is a more open-looking hole, but no less easier. Four bunkers protect the putting area, which you are not likely to hit unless you’re
adept at hitting a long iron or hybrid. Trump International has only been opened a couple of years but talk is already in the air regarding whether it can hold an Open Championship. There is little doubt that the quality of the course is up to the challenge. And the Don would be more than happy to oblige.
While Trump’s course is still in its infancy, barely 13km down the road towards the city of Aberdeen, Royal Aberdeen Golf Club has had more than its share of golf history. Established in 1780, this is the sixth oldest club in the world. On the Balgownie Links course at Royal Aberdeen, golfers began hitting gutta percha balls around with hickory shafts in the early days of the game. And credit to the timelessness of Archie & Robert Simpson of Carnoustie’s design, the Balgownie course hosted the Walker Cup as recently as 2011.
From the tee box on the first hole, the out and back design of the Simpsons (James Braid worked on the bunkering after the initial construction) is as classic as dimples on a golf ball. The 6,295m (from the tips) course runs up and down over some two miles of rolling dunes, with many of the holes providing glimpses of the bay and Aberdeen’s rugged coastline. In fact, playing many of the holes, one can imagine their influence on Hawtree as he worked on Trump’s masterpiece further north on the A90.
Indeed on the par-5, 510m second hole, the way the fairway winds between high grass, and in between high dunes gives you an idea of the basic elements that the Trump International designer may have alluded to – if not paid homage to – when he devised the fourth at Trump International.
Given that Balgownie hasn’t really gone through any “modernisation”, you can expect that some anachronistic peculiarities do exist. “Blind” shots from the tee, with fairways hidden from view, do come up now and then – like on the seventh, a par 4 that stretches 391 metres, and on the short, 323m par-4 10th where you need to tee off over a mound to find the fairway.
It’s been over 230 years since members of The Society of Golfers at Aberdeen established their presence at this club. At that time, only 25 members were to be admitted, and they had to be residents of Aberdeen. Of course, times have changed, and so has the demands asked of one of Scotland’s premier links courses, and most historic of clubs.
Back in July, the grand dame played host to The Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, the default warm-up tournament to the British Open won by Englishman Justin Rose. Rose beat some of the world’s best with the characteristic white stucco clubhouse at their backs, the North Sea beckoning to the fore, and technology’s latest discoveries in their hands. It was another classic reminder that the course on which they battled is more than two centuries in the making, and counting. That’s Scotland for you.
Beach Road, North Berwick,
East Lothian, Scotland EH39 4BB,
Golf Green, Dirleton,
Scotland EH39 5HU,
Golf Links Scotland
Menie Park Lodge, Menie Estate, Balmedie, Aberdeenshire,
Scotland AB23 8YE
Balgownie Links, Bridge of Don, Aberdeen,
Scotland AB23 8AT