Often when you plan for a long golf weekend you try to start out with a good golf course, then a better course, and then finish with the best course. But on a recent weekend trip to Scotland it didn’t work out that way; the three courses were simply best, best, and best.
Edinburgh and St Andrews are where most visitors start their golf excursions to Scotland but we ventured a bit further north to Aberdeenshire and found a bountiful of superb classic golf links. Flying into Aberdeen is easy, with good connections from most of Europe. And once in Aberdeen, you have dozens upon dozens of excellent golf within less than a 45-minute drive.
Royal Aberdeen Golf Club
First out this weekend was Royal Aberdeen Golf Club. The club is close to downtown Aberdeen, and less than 20 minutes from the airport, so even with a flight connection in Amsterdam we easily got there in time for lunch.
As you enter the clubhouse you are treated to a bit of history. To the right just inside the door is a small golf museum. One of the items on display is the original ballot box, a small wooden box with two holes with the words ‘Yea’ and ‘Nay’ inscribed. The Society of Golfers at Aberdeen, as the club was originally named in 1780, only accepted new members by voting. A single ‘Nay’ and you were not accepted!
Also on display is an original red jacket, the uniform you had to wear to play, complete with gilt metal buttons with the inscription ‘Aberdeen Golf Club’. This jacket remained popular all the way up until World War I. Quite a bit more formal than today’s breathable and moisture-wicking golf shirts, but not entirely inappropriate for the sometimes rough Scottish coastal weather. Beware of the Haar!
Once you have taken in all the history and entered the lounge, you get your first glimpse of the course. More than a glimpse, actually. When you sit in the lounge you are no more than 5 meters from the first tee, with only a panorama window separating you from the players. If you tend to have the yips on the first tee, don’t go into the lounge before your round! Make sure to stop after you play, though. Great food and great views.
The aforementioned first hole heads from the clubhouse straight down towards the North Sea. Once you complete it, you turn north along the coast for a magnificent stretch of holes. The first nine holes of the Balgownie Links have been called the best first nine in all of golf. We tend to agree.
The holes are in a classic links-style, with firm fairways and greens, surrounded by sand dunes and littered with pot bunkers. Sometimes you are sheltered among the dunes, sometimes you are higher up and exposed to the elements. The wind is always a factor, sometimes straight in from the sea, but more often you have a tailwind on the first nine that combined with the firm fairways produce impressive drives. If you can keep the ball on the fairway that is. If not, you’re in trouble. How much trouble? The five-minute rule for searching for your ball was invented at this club back in 1783…
All the holes are great, but the signature hole is the eight, a relatively short par three. It looks easy on paper, but the green is firm and protected by no less than ten bunkers. Add a bit of wind to the equation and you have a formidable challenge.
After the first nine, you make a 180 degree turn and double back towards the clubhouse. The back nine are on higher ground more inland. Maybe not as spectacular as the first nine, but in no way easy. The back nine are a few hundred yards longer, and now you are playing into the prevailing wind. You are also more exposed to the wind (and rain, in our case).
The last four holes are the best on this side, especially the 17th, a par three straight towards the sea into a multi-tiered green. Land on the wrong tier and you’re in trouble. The 18th is one of the most difficult par fours on the course, long and uphill. A worthy finish to a great course.
Read our full review of Royal Aberdeen Golf Club.
Cruden Bay Golf Club
About 45 minutes north of Aberdeen you find Cruden Bay and the Cruden Bay Golf Club, our second course of choice this weekend. However, our tee time was not until 11 AM, so we had time for some sightseeing and chose to visit the remains of Slains Castle, just north of the golf club. Actually, New Slains Castle, since this castle was constructed as recently as 1597 🙂 The castle had a prosperous time in the 19th century when a lot of celebrities visited, among them Bram Stoker. The castle is said to have been the inspiration for the setting of his most famous work Count Dracula. Today the castle is a ruin after the owner removed the roof in order to avoid taxes (there’s a tip for you), but the setting is still spectacular and worth a visit.
Arriving at Cruden Bay Golf Club you are treated to one of the best views in golf. The clubhouse overlooks the course, and a number of holes are right at your feet. Slains Castle is visible on the horizon, and the North Sea is right in front of you.
Most of the holes you see from the clubhouse are actually part of St Olaf, a nine-hole course, which is a nice course in itself, excellent as a warmup before playing the main course. The 18 hole course runs around St Olaf, and mostly in the dunes near the ocean.
The main course is quite an adventure. The first few holes give you just a taste of what’s to come. Firm and bumpy fairways, fast and often elevated greens. But there is no pattern. Each hole is special in its own way, with quirks and turns that are hard to predict the first time you play the course, and probably every other time too, given the changeable wind and weather. Holes that look easy when you look at the course guide turn out to have a bump here and gully there, just to keep things exciting for the unwary.
The real fun starts on the 4th hole. A long par four over a gully to an elevated green 196 yards away, with a distractingly beautiful view of Port Errol on the left. If you miss the green, par is hard to achieve, and if you hit the green it is not easy either, given the slopes and undulations. A great hole.
The three holes that follow may be the trickiest of all the holes on the course. The lack of heavy machinery in the 1800s meant that Tom Morris was forced to follow the land as it lay, and it is not always kind to golfers. Bumpy, firm, and sometimes exposed to the elements, with a burn here and there, these holes are a real test to the best of us. What a ride!
If you survived four through seven, things get a bit more benign but no less beautiful. As you climb to the 9th tee, you are treated to one of the best views in golf, overlooking much of the course. Take a moment to sit on the bench overlooking the North Sea and just enjoy the moment. If you belong to the Instagram generation, this is your selfie spot.
The back nine start out along the coast in true links fashion. One great hole after another. Notable is the 14th, with its “bathtub” green. You can probably guess what it looks like, and with a hidden approach, it is quite the adventure. The next hole is yet another adventure, a completely blind par three over the side of a sand dune. Wait for the bell, hit, and pray.
Things slow down a bit at the end with a couple of ordinary, but not bad, holes. Maybe it is all designed to lower your pulse rate before you enjoy that well-deserved pint in the clubhouse?
All in all, this is by far the most adventurous links course I’ve ever experienced. I don’t think you can find a course of this quality with so many exciting and different holes anywhere else in the world. Golf in its very purest form. Don’t miss it.
Read our full review of Cruden Golf Club.
Trump International Golf Links
The last course on our itinerary this weekend has been mired in controversy since its inception. Environmentalists think the land should have been protected, local residents feel wronged, and the person responsible for the whole thing is, shall we say, “controversial”. But in 2012 the golf course finally opened, and seen from a golfers perspective the result is stunning. “The world’s best golf course” as the owner himself modestly proclaimed.
We arrive at Trump International early on a slightly chilly but beautiful morning. The formalities are handled promptly, and we head for the first tee at 8 AM sharp.
In spite of the early tee time, we see no sign of any maintenance workers and find the course in absolutely perfect condition. How they manage to finish all the maintenance during the short October mornings is a mystery. It must require quite a large staff.
With six tees to choose from, the starter will size you up and accompany you to the right one. You’ll be wise to be modest and follow his advice; this is not a course to take lightly.
The first hole is a nice par five with a reasonably wide fairway to get everyone off to a good start. If you are a strong player, you can reach the green in two, so there’s a challenge for players of all handicaps. The green is elevated and moderately undulated, typical of what you’ll find on many of the holes to come. Not too difficult, but being elevated it prevents the bump-and-run game characteristic of many links courses. Instead, it favors the American style of high approach shots. However, this is the only “American” trait of the course; everything else is pure Scottish links.
When you reach the 3rd hole you get your first view of the sea and waves, and it’s a great one. A short par three, this would be the signature hole on many courses.
As you move along you find one hole better than the other. All are in a traditional links-style, some sheltered from the wind among the dunes, others with high tee boxes exposed to the elements and with great panorama views. After hole four you make the turn back towards the clubhouse, slightly more inland.
The second loop of nine holes continues in a similar manner. Notable holes are the 13th, the only hole that doesn’t run along the north-south axis. A beautiful par three, with great views of the North Sea and with a green well protected by bunkers. Another signature hole candidate.
Once you turn the corner after heading up the hill from the 13th green you are treated to a stunning but at the same time frightening view. The 14th fairway is far below, bordered by sand dunes and heavy rough. It all looks rather impossible. The course architect Martin Hawtree has really outdone himself in designing this hole. Is this the signature hole?
After our round, we headed for the clubhouse for lunch. The clubhouse is surprisingly unassuming. It is not lacking in any way, and it is beautifully appointed, but it is not particularly big. It fits in quite nicely in the surroundings, looking like it belongs and has been there for a long time, even though it only opened in 2012. The same goes for the restaurant and pro shop. The menu has everything you could ask for, service is prompt, and the food is first class, but it is not too much. The pro shop has what you need, and of course some branded luxury clothing, but again, it’s not over-the-top. Not at all the gold and glitter you might expect when you hear the Trump name, but actually rather tasteful.
On our way to the course, the local cab driver told us a story. His wife is a member of Cruden Bay, and she plays the Trump course regularly. Local residents play the course for only 40 pounds, and our cab driver says they regularly go to the clubhouse restaurant for dinner, as do their friends. Maybe Trump is finally making some friends in the neighborhood?
What would a trip to Scotland be without a visit to a local distillery? Turns out that right around the corner (well, 13 miles) from Trump International is the Glen Garioch whisky distillery. Glen Garioch is one of the oldest operating distilleries in Scotland, specializing in fine single malts. Being up here in the easternmost corner of Scotland it is a bit out of the way from the “mainstream” distilleries and can offer smaller and more personalized tours and tastings.
We took a very informative tour of the distillery and then took part in a tasting session, featuring several of the better single malts offered. The tasting session was well set up, with various foods to complement the whiskies. If you have read this far, chances are you are probably more of a whisky connoisseur than I am so I won’t try to go into any of the finer details but suffice it to say I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with what you find at Glen Garioch.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the food. You may be under the impression that British food is bland and boring, but things have changed in a big way. The kitchen in finer restaurants is now contemporary and modern, with both international cuisine and new variations of traditional Scottish fare. We tried three different restaurants, and were pleasantly surprised by each one:
– The Marcliffe, North Deeside Rd, Pitfodels, Aberdeen, www.marcliffe.com. Here we were greeted by the owner, J. Stewart Spence, a member of Royal Aberdeen. In addition to fine Scottish Beef and a large wine cellar, the hotel and restaurant also house an impressive collection of golf memorabilia.
– The Malmaison, Queen’s Rd, Aberdeen, www.malmaison.com. Very traditional on the outside and very modern on the inside, we had dinner in the Brasserie. Exquisite food and stunning views of Aberdeen.
– The Sandman Signature, St Andrew St, Aberdeen, www.sandmanhotels.co.uk. A new hotel in a historic building. We enjoyed a great meal in their Chop Grill and Bar, very hip and popular with the local in-crowd.
– Ardoe House Hotel, South Deeside Road, Blairs. Three miles from the city center, the hotel is a converted 19th-century baronial mansion, fully modernized but still in traditional style.
– Aberdeen Altens Hotel, www.aberdeenaltenshotel.co.uk, a more business-oriented modern hotel three miles from the city center, complete with a gym and indoor pool.
It was just a weekend sampler
If you have read this far, I want to remind you that we experienced all of this in just a three-day weekend. When you look back and sum up all the experiences it feels more like we’ve been on a weeklong golf vacation. Scotland and Aberdeenshire is really a dream destination for the avid golfer. The memories will last for… well at least a year before we have to do it all again. More great courses are waiting for us.
For information on all the courses in Aberdeenshire, visit golfaberdeen.com