I was delighted to contribute to the latest article on Golf Club Atlas – a tour of some of the more quirky golf courses in Scotland and Ireland – Roads less Travelled:
I guess most golfers have an ambition to play St Andrews, the home of golf. Scheduled to play Anstruther at 13:30 we had some time to spare so we drove the extra ten miles north and spent an enjoyable hour gongoozling at St Andrews’ first tee and the eighteenth green.
Much as I would like to play the Old Course, I have some reservations. I would feel obliged to use a caddy and I would imagine a continuous analysis of my fragile game by an old hand who has seen it all before, not least the incompetent hack. There is also the gallery, especially at the eighteenth where a wayward finish is all too publicly on display – and always remember Doug Sanders.
This good man cleared the Valley of Sin but, his ball ran through to the rough at the back of the green and found a testing lie which he wanted the ‘gallery’ to know about. Despite this he chipped to within feet of the pin – a fine effort in spite of the attentions of the man with a camera.
The final drawback is the cost – all well and good if you are in reasonable form but a recipe for certain depression if you are having a poor day. Nevertheless, I suppose it has its compensations – later that day when I parred the eighteenth at Anstruther, there was nobody present to admire my final putt, just my good buddy who slightly resented me adding salt to his wounds.
Anstruther proved to be everything I had hoped for – a fine course with some challenging holes, not least, the three consecutive par 3s at the southern end of the course. The first of these, the fifth – The Rockies, was deemed the toughest par 3 in Britain in 2007 by Today’s Golfer. Ian parred this on the back nine, something I feel obliged to mention 😉 And, yes, but for Covid, Anstruther would have been in the sequel.
Tomorrow we head south again – this time to Jedburgh, a course I have not played since it was extended to eighteen holes. If the sun stays out, it should be a fine finish to an excellent three days of escape.
First golf impressions are influenced by the weather and how well you play. The skies over Gifford were an unbelievable blue and the scoring surprisingly good. Consequently I consider Gifford to be a spectacular golf course. A parkland layout surrounded to the northwest by Blawearie Wood and in the lee of the Lammermuir Hills, it is well presented with large, immaculate greens. The Speedy Burn runs across the course and comes into play at the second, seventh, eighth and ninth holes. The small but tidy clubhouse could feature in George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces. At not far short of 6000 yards off the yellows with just three par 3s (6000+ off the whites) good distance off the tee will help post a reasonable score.
A nine-hole course, there is some variety on the back nine: the first is a par three whereas the tenth tee is at the edge of the car park – this being some 200-yards distant from the clubhouse where the first tee is positioned; the fourteenth par 3 is significantly shorter and easier than front nine fifth; the eighteenth tee is set back some distance in a small copse and turns the front nine par 4 ninth into a par 5. The narrow perspective from this last tee presents a challenging finish.
Had Covid not interfered with travel plans in 2020, it is almost certain that this course would have featured in the sequel – Golf in the Wild – Going Home. If asked what has been the greatest influence on writing the sequel, I would have to respond ‘Events, my dear boy, events‘ (H. Macmillan). As I head for Anstruther with my long time golfing buddy (Ian the L Plates – see book #1), I feel certain the same will apply.
The first print run of 1000 books has nearly sold out and so I have reached a decision point – reprint or make available online. I have always much preferred print media to e-books and it was this that motivated the high production standards for Golf in the Wild. It was the unknown book I wanted golfers to find on the shelf at Waterstones which would immediately inspire them to rush to the check-out. Not that Waterstones was ever persuaded to stock the book but, therein lies another story.
The sequel, Golf in the Wild – Going Home, is due for publication in September 2021. At the same time I will reprint the first book. With a gap in availability of several months, this seemed an opportune time to experiment with Kindle. After several frustrating hours with Kindle Create, I eventually decided to upload as a Print Replica which, in plain English, means that the content appears exactly as it does in the printed book format. Retention of the original formatting and imagery means it is a large download – more megabytes for your buck. The Kindle price is £3.49 in the UK, with equivalent pricing in other worldwide territories – Kindle Unlimited members get to read if for free.
Chapter 7 of the sequel will take the reader to Portmahomack golf course and the far eastern reaches of the Tarbat Ness peninsula. Despite its easterly location, Portmahomack is famed for its sunsets – uniquely on the east coast, it is a fishing village which contrives to face west.
My youngest has recently produced the image for the chapter heading which features a SEPECAT Jaguar, the British-French jet attack aircraft which was in service with the Royal Air Force and a familiar sight above Portmahomack in the 1970s. As luck would have it, I am in contact with one of the pilots who flew these remarkable machines – Wing Commander Chris Barker RAF (ret).
In the 1970s aircraft navigation systems were not as advanced as we might imagine and finding nearby Morrich More bombing range was assisted by Stevenson’s maritime creation, the Tarbat Ness lighthouse … “we would fly over the lighthouse to get a fix, the most accurate way to do so and find the target for the Jaguar. It had an early inertial navigation system which was prone to drift and which needed frequent updates”. As for that all-important variable, speed … assuming a direct track of 12 kilometres (6.5 nautical miles) from the lighthouse and a level attack (called laydown) at 8 nautical miles a minute, the time to reach to reach the target would be about 49 seconds. They were not hanging about.
You don’t have to be Inspector Clouseau to realise that, while Golf in the Wild is written as one long glorious journey of golfing delights, the reality is that it is ‘researched’ over several years and many different trips north. As I progress towards completion of the sequel, there has been a longstanding gap between Cullen and Blair Atholl. Heading north on an annual visit to Traigh, I had to take the opportunity to find the missing link. It was a half remembered conversation with our greenkeeper and club secretary, Neil, that went something like “have you not played Carrbridge, it’s first class” – the implication being that any itinerant golfer worth his salt could not possibly have passed it by. I confessed that I had not.
Neil was not wrong. Immaculately presented, a sensible length with nine very different holes and each one imprinted on my memory. And here’s the thing – clubhouse door to clubhouse door, give or take an inch or two, it is exactly half way between Cullen and Blair Atholl – 56.3 miles from Cullen to Carrbridge and 56.2 miles from Carrbridge to Blair Atholl. In every sense, this course was predestined for Golf in the Wild – Going Home.
A late afternoon round was played under ever changing skies but rain did not spoil the experience. I will save a full description for the book but these are some immediate memories:
- The first would be a fine introduction to any course – blind from the tee, I guess a long hitter might find the diagonal burn about half way along the fairway but, for an average Joe, it presents no problem. A neat wooden bridge, a ‘bell’ inspired by the J. Arthur Rank gong, it is a visual delight all the way to the green.
- At the second I clipped a drive an unusually long distance, assisted by a down-slope, it ran too far left towards the first fairway and the burn. From down there and probably elsewhere, what to do next had me perplexed. Protected by tall trees left and right, heavy rough and minimal fairway, the green is nestled in a dip out of sight. I could spend a life time trying to master this hole – every course should have one.
- The third is more straightforward but the fourth is protected by another burn which looks too easily driven. From an elevated tee the fairway heads down hill and slowly but surely, the once visible pin disappears from view.
- The fifth and sixth play across the top of the course – a birdie at the fifth at first attempt and a par at the sixth made for one happy golfer – modern course designers take note.
- The seventh and eighth are both from gloriously elevated tees – there is real satisfaction in the soaring, high-flying ball that descends in slow-motion to the centre of the fairway. The seventh green is on a plateau at more or less the same elevation as the tee so there is march down into the valley and a march up again. The bank in front of the green looks deceptively close so, sad to relate, I selected a mid iron and left myself too much to do with my second – a recurring problem. The eighth, a par 3, looks straightforward except for a house encroaching on the eye-line to the left. Which tolerant soul lives there, I wonder.
- And then to the ninth – a steep climb to another elevated tee with a fine view of the Carrbridge Hotel and the mountains beyond – it’s a tough finish. A dogleg, 231 yard par 3, the green invisible from the tee. As the final act to a golf course, it takes some beating; another hole I could take a life time to master. Carrbridge has it all.
The route for the first book determined itself. The 9-hole courses on the Scottish northwest coast are limited so, it was a simple task of joining the dots from Lochcarron, northwards to Durness. Returning south, beyond Perth, has been an altogether different proposition, there were simply so many choices. In the end, it came down to expediency – I have been lingering in the north for too long and I need to get home. There are fine 9-hole courses in the Scottish Borders I have played for years so, it seemed logical to return via familiar roads. I then realised there was a direct connection between my final destinations and roads didn’t enter into it – the Lauder Light Railway, North British Railway, the Border Counties Railway and the Hexham & Allendale Branch Line. I simply needed to board an imaginary train and I would be home, where ‘home’ is the old Allendale course at Thornley Gate.
Golf in the Wild – Going Home will visit the following courses, with many a diversion along the way: Reay, Wick/Reiss Links, Lybster, Bonar Bridge, Portmahomack, Castlecraig (closed), Fortrose & Rosemarkie, Covesea, Cullen, Rothes, Blair Atholl, Lauder, Melrose, Newcastleton and Allendale (Thornley Gate).
The eagle-eyed will spot a few 18-hole courses among this selection. In the case of the far north, this is simply because there are no 9-hole courses to play – and anyway, Reay and Reiss Links are suitably wild and simply superb.
The old course at Thornley Gate was only a half mile walk from the station, a good deal closer than the centre of Allendale after which the station was named (Catton would be more appropriate). This was a problem repeated along many stretches of these old lines – stations sited too far from the communities they served. When bus services were introduced, rail passenger numbers inevitably went into steep decline.
… to Roger and Cate! I have met a number of people determined to complete the Golf in the Wild Tour over a period of time and several journeys but this fine couple intend doing the lot in one trip. Their first project/holiday since retiring, the journey started in fine conditions under the bluest of skies – it is always like that at Allendale 🙂 The journey to Durness is scheduled to take three weeks with various detours and the possibility of returning in time for the Golf in the Wild Open on 12th June. Having seen Roger in action (playing off 11), he would be a serious contender! Many thanks to Neil, Ian, Malcolm and Mike C for making them feel so welcome – Allendale at its best.
… all things merge into one, and a road runs through it. With apologies to Norman Maclean.
At the northern end of Fortrose, turn right down Ness Road, signposted Chanonry Point and a single-track leads to the lighthouse and a shoreline dotted with optimists, staring intently out to sea, searching for dolphins. This is the road that cuts through the Fortrose & Rosemarkie golf course, hallowed undulating turf that has played host to golf since 1793. It is a fine stretch of links with arresting views from tee to green on every hole. For the casual visitor, it is difficult to pick out one special hole; they all are.
It is a reassuring coincidence that while the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror was in full swing, the British were building golf courses. As the French honed their guillotines to slice the gentry, we were commandeering the links to slice golf balls. This significant date is carved into the bank of the 18th tee, fully visible from the clubhouse, and styled in the manner of the Fovant Badges. The club proudly claims to be the fifteenth oldest golf course in the world; it is surprising there are so many which are even older.
From the road, the course appears to occupy a narrow strip of land between the town and the lighthouse but there is ample space on both sides and only the wildest of drives is likely to make contact with passing traffic. The exceptions are the 5th, a short par three at the top of the course that crosses the road, and the slightly daunting 12th & 13th where the narrow fairway is bordered by heavy gorse on the right and the road on the left. At the 13th, my drive crossed the road for a subsequent blind 9-iron over gorse in full bloom, onto the edge of the green. It was one of the few holes I parred on the back nine – my game is much improved by blind faith. The back of the 14th green is denoted by large white painted boulders – a strong hint not to go too long otherwise vehicular contact is more than likely.
For all its remarkable vistas, it is the 4th and 5th the top end of the course, nearest the lighthouse, that leave the most enduring impression; a shame, in some respects, that they come so early in the round. The signature hole, the fourth, Lighthouse looks innocuous from the tee to the uninitiated (stroke index 1, par 5 off the whites and a par 4 off the yellows). Those of us, middling golfers, who reach for the driver, seeking distance under all circumstances, will be in for a sad surprise. The marker post may offer an idealised line for the competent but it also coincides with a deep dip in the fairway and some unpleasant rough to the right. I got lucky, landed on an elevated path, took a drop from knee-height, of course, and then found myself with an inviting long pitch to the green. Anything long into the green and you are faced with a knee-trembling downhill putt while anything short is likely to roll off the front and into a severe dip. I threatened the pin, briefly, and then watched in despair as the ball rolled some distance off the green into the aforementioned dip. I was moderately happy to walk off with a six – I am not an ambitious golfer. The lighthouse provides the perfect backdrop throughout – designed by Alan Stevenson, it first came into service in 1846 and adjoins a collection of Egyptian styled keepers cottages.
To the right of the 4th green can be seen the tees for the 5th, a short par 3, Icehouse, which crosses the road and any traffic entering or leaving the Chanonry Point car park. The hardest hole on the course is followed by one of the ‘easiest’ at stroke index 17. There is rough almost all the way to the green which cosies up to the road and, at the back, there is the beautiful briny sea. To the left are a collection of buildings which include the Ferry House, once an Inn and home to the ferryman who plied the waters between Chanonry Point and Fort George. A passenger ferry operated until 1953.
I found the 5th green in one with a ‘perfectly’ executed pitching wedge – the subsequent 3-putt was not so cleverly executed. Worse things happen – as if to emphasise this point, Undiscovered Scotland tells this salutary tale: In about 1675 the point was where Kenneth Mackenzie or Coinneach Odhar, better known as the Brahan Seer, is said to have met his end. The Brahan Seer is often thought of as a Highland Nostradamus. When asked by Isabella, 3rd Countess of Seaforth, why her husband was late returning home he first prevaricated, but when pressed simply told her that her husband was dallying in Paris with a lady who was more attractive than the Countess herself. Coinneach Odhar’s reward was to be hauled off to Chanonry Point where he was burned to death in a barrel of tar. He overlooked the golden rule of seers, or consultants of any sort: first find out what the client wants to hear. It is difficult to think of a worse outcome – the 4-putt perhaps.
Laid out between the railway line and the River Garry, Blair Atholl has all the ingredients of a Golf in the Wild course – surrounded by high hills, 9-holes, an honesty box and, on the day I played, empty but for one other distant golfer. The course was effectively my own.
It is mostly flat – the elevated first tee is the high point of the course. The adjacent combined 3rd and 9th green are on the same level as the first tee, as is the clubhouse. The elevated fourth tee also plays down to what I would guess is their signature hole – a short par 3 with the castellated railway bridge behind the green.
Well maintained, tidy fairways and some very tricky undulating greens, it is a credit to the greens staff. My favourite hole was the stroke index 1, 7th – to the uninitiated it looks tight from the tee with hints of water hazards in the distance – a pond to the left and a stream in front of the green. It turned out they are too distant to be an issue for the average golfer. My unnecessary lay-up resulted in a double bogey. By contrast the 8th looks straightforward until you approach the green and realise there is an over-sized pond about thirty yards out. My best drive of the day came about six inches short of the hazard – after a long hot summer, completely dry.
The course finishes with a testing but very enjoyable par 5 to the elevated green adjacent to the 1st tee and clubhouse – a green shared with the third.
All in all, a very enjoyable experience which is almost certain to appear in Golf in the Wild II.