The lock-down has had some positives for me – with no golf and unable to ride motorcycles, I have been confined to the keyboard such that the sequel has made significant progress. Once south of Edinburgh, I have been forced to make up my mind about the route home to Allendale. A continuing fixation with abandoned railways meant that defunct railway lines more or less determined where I should go next – Lauder, Melrose and Newcastleton has been the result. I have played Lauder and Melrose on many occasions but Newcastleton will remain a mystery until the Scottish lock-down eases. In the meantime, this design for a new business card gives some indication of the likely cover design:
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.
It was a delight to meet the multi-talented Roxie Rogers from Nashville at Allendale GC this morning – artist, singer, designer, writer and avid 12 handicap golfer – https://roxierogers.com/
It was interesting to find out that Roxie became aware of the course from my article in the Northumbrian magazine which I think was published as long ago as 2016. These things have a shelf-life well beyond anything we imagine; more evidence that trying to understand the benefits and long term consequences of any form of PR is an almost impossible task.
Roxie and her partner increased the US footfall by 40% this year, following in the footsteps of the Dutton Brothers in May. This in turn has resulted in an interview about Golf in the Wild and Allendale at the US website, Golf Club Atlas. I will update this post with the link when it is published over the next few days. As Roxie, said – the world is just getting smaller and smaller.
I have just returned from the annual pilgrimage to Traigh for their Open on 27th July. It is a long way to go for a strokeplay competition and then come to grief at the second, so I was delighted that the club agreed to run a parallel Stableford competition. I supplied the ‘silverware’ and the inaugural Golf in the Wild competition was won by local player, Peter Fleming. My middle-order performance of net 72 and 33 points at least had the merit of not being a ‘no return’. It is always a delight to play at Traigh and this year was no exception, despite the drizzle and threatening clouds. Eigg, Muck and Rum remained out of sight for much of the day.
The weather at Killin on the way up was glorious by comparison and it was good to be back playing this splendid course, the original inspiration for Golf in the Wild. That was Friday, the Traigh Open was on the Saturday, so it was inevitable that we should find somewhere to play on Sunday’s return leg. With time running short, we pitched up at Comrie Golf Club for nine holes and what a splendid nine holes they were. This small course announces itself like no other I know. The New England style clubhouse squats among tall trees and the finely presented 9th green – it is picture-perfect. I had called in once before but, busy competition tees prevented me from turning out and it was this sight of the clubhouse and its surroundings which made me want to return. Would the course disappoint after the excellent first impressions – it did not.
The course is approached by a single track off the A85, adjacent to the village cricket ground with a suitably aged pavilion – the cricket club was founded in 1908, seven years after the golf club. On the day we arrived. a fair was in full swing with children bouncing on ‘Sammy the Snake’ while a Tannoy system was in full flow, broadcasting indecipherable announcements to the assembled masses. It would provide the soundtrack to our round.
The first, Betty’s Knowe, is a middle-distance, blind par 4 at 320 yards off the yellows, from a tee adjacent to the clubhouse. The second shot is also potentially blind into a tight green protected by trees on the left at the lowest level of the course. From here, the fairways tack their path diagonally up the slope towards Laggan Wood, the high point of the course being 160 feet above the first green. The easiest hole, Cauldron, the second, is a par 4 and while relatively short at 238 yards, the front bunkers are likely to catch the unwary. Quarry, the third and a par 3 would be straightforward but for the mountainous rough in front of the tee. Clear this and the elevated green runs straight and true. The fourth, The Pines, would be a no-nonsense 355 yard par 4, were it not for the aforementioned pines which stand too close and to the right of the tee box – negotiate these and it is an uphill drive to another elevated green. I managed a two-putt from off the back of the green so they must be of excellent quality. From the front of the green, there is an excellent view back to the clubhouse, a visual confirmation of just how far you have already climbed.
Above the 4th green is the tee for the par 3 5th, Happy Valley. An uphill drive into another elevated green protected by bunkers left and right, the degree of happiness to be derived from this hole being dependent on missing the sand traps. Another wonderful vista opens out once the 2-putt successfully finds the dark recesses of the hole. My golfing buddies were mightily impressed to see Lord Melville’s Monument on the distant tree covered horizon. Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville was the first Secretary of State for War and became the last person impeached for misappropriation of public money while in office. The monument is unique in its commemoration of a convicted felon – many a 21st century banker will take heart:
The appropriately named 6th, Monument, takes you, in three drives if you are good – two if exceptional, to the top corner of the course. A par 5 with a tight approach, anything right is blocked about by trees although one of our party proved it possible with a high pitch and two putt for a solid par. The seventh, Pulpit, is one fine drive to a sloping fairway, 120 feet below – left there is rough and trees but right, if you are long enough, is the relative safety of the 8th fairway. My natural tendency to ‘fade’ the ball found me on said fairway in the company of four ladies from North Berwick – my pin high shot to the 7th green, leaving a birdie putt from five feet would have impressed, had they bothered to look. My inevitable two-putt was less impressive. Two par fours, Johnnie’s Corner and Coney Hill complete a thoroughly enjoyable round. The test of a good course is ‘can I remember all the holes‘ and on this course the answer is a definite ‘yes‘ – every drive, every putt, every moment taken to admire the view leaves an enduring impression. I will be back.
… to meet the Dutton brothers, all the way from the US to play Golf in the Wild at Allendale. From left to right Jeff from Montgomery, Alabama, Mike from Brunswick, Maine and Andy from Wayland, Massachusetts. Once again the course was looking at its best – all credit to Neil, Ian and the weather gods. Pictured at our version of the Grand Canyon 😉
… 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.
The course, squeezed between Alnmouth’s main thoroughfare and the beach is a fine place to play the game and claims to be the oldest 9-hole links in England. Established in 1869, it was designed by the famous Scottish golfer Mungo Park, winner of the 1874 Open Championship at Musselburgh. The first five holes follow the shoreline before climbing up to the dogleg 6th – it is here, the course runs parallel with the Foxton’s par 5 16th, close enough to say hello to fellow golfers. The proximity of the courses is more than an accident of geography. The story is told on the Foxton’s website:
In 1905 the course (Alnmouth Village) was extended to 18 holes to obviate a certain amount of undesirable overlapping which occurred on the nine hole course. The extension completed under the direction of Willie Park went northward towards Foxton with the distances between holes on the new course constructed very considerably and requiring sterling golf. The opening ceremony of the new course was performed by the Duke of Northumberland and was followed by a challenge match between the international champions Harry Vardon and J H Taylor.
In the late 1920’s the Duke of Northumberland was approached and consented to lease a further piece of land in order to make a new 18 hole course. A survey of the land was made by Mr HS Colt the famous golf architect and his report was published in the Newcastle Journal on the 4th July 1929. The land surrounded Foxton Hall, one of the historic residences of the Percy family, which was to be used as the clubhouse. The adoption of the Foxton Hall scheme was reported on the 10th December 1929 with the new club to come into being on the 1st January 1930. The new course where we are today, was opened on the 9 May 1931, but sadly the 8th Duke of Northumberland died suddenly in August and was therefore not present to witness his vision.
In 1936 Alnmouth Village Golf Club was formed and took over the running of the old links. Since that time the clubs have maintained their historical links and still play a number of special combined competitions.
From a magnificent high-level tee, with a view that encompasses the full length of Alnmouth Bay, Coquet Island and beyond, the 7th returns the golfer to the sea-bound links, a descent of some 50+ feet. The ball stays air-bound for an eternity as it eventually plunges earthwards adjacent to the third green bunkers or beyond – an immensely satisfying drive!
A nine-hole course with such a fine location and history, it seems inconceivable that it will not find its way into the pages of Golf in the Wild, Going Home. It is just a matter of a small diversion as the reader is led back to Allendale.
Cullen Links, the shortest links course in Scotland, features in this video – Tourist Sauce (Scotland Golf): Episode 8, Cullen Golf Club – it provides a neat audio-visual explanation of why this unique and wonderful course will feature in the sequel to Golf in the Wild. The video must have been shot in high summer when the fairways were parched after that long-forgotten heatwave – when I played earlier in the year, it was all lush green:
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.