I got my first glimpse of the fairways of the 7th oldest golf club in the world whilst driving along the back road that leads north from Inverallochy and Cairnbulg. This stretch of golfing coast to the north of Aberdeen holds some of the oldest and most traditional links courses ever to grace the planet… and some newer ones too. Already it was looking like somewhere I should have played years ago when I lived in Aberdeen, and had a better handicap, but never quite made it. I’d had the chance though, like all “ifs and buts”: I was dating a local medical student at the time and could easily have arranged a game here with her friends, but life and university studies got in the way. Now, free from the commitments of work, I was here at last to make some new memories.
I love the history of the game. Stepping onto the first tee I looked back at the Club House and was reminded of how easily that can all disappear. The building suffered a catastrophic fire back in 2004 and the Club lost all its historical records and documents. Machrihanish can relate to this. Slowly, and with great help from the members and their Committees, the Club rebuilt itself and once again has a rich history to show and tell. Golf was being played here at the same time as Americans were celebrating their first Thanksgiving. The deft touch of James Braid sculpted an improved course from the humps and hollows of the marram-clad dunes, and in 1976 the full course was moved to the east of the Inverallochy road by creating a stunning run of holes along the line of the high dunes which protect the course from the North Sea. This left four holes “across the road” which were added to in the mid-90s to create the 9-hole Rosehill course, a completely different yet not easy-looking stretch of links.
This promised to be links golf at its best. More than half of the holes I was about to play had greens which seemed to have been dropped into natural amphitheatres, or popped right on the top of dune rises. Hundreds of small, marram mounds formed natural boundaries to uneven, narrow fairways and many connected to other holes only by hidden, manicured paths from green to tee. The wind coming off the North Sea to the east was unusual and was not helping either. The next three hours or so were going to consist of making shots that used the tightly-fescued sward to reach the target, trying to keep it low.
The 1st and 18th holes of the Corbie Hill course lie parallel to each other, benignly flat and sheltered behind the dunes from this easterly breeze, but not without their share of hazards. In the distance I could see the high dune tee of the 3rd hole, waiting to give me that magnificent 360-degree vista the Pro promised. Cream-coloured, hardy marram billowed all around me contrasting against the darker fairways, and the course was in magnificent condition. Greens and tees sat close by each other, befitting a links of this age and as I moved onto the 2nd I saw that, like many of his courses, James Braid was commemorated here with “Braid’s Bellows”. The humps and hollows of its climbing fairway grabbed my drive by design and sent it off into the rough. That par was gone.
The 3rd hole rose sharply to a table top green, and with my drive landing short in a perfect position I was left with a short pitch to the putting surface some 20ft above me. Cunningly, the green is cut towards the player down the slope and steep enough that the ball will never sit there.I thinned it. And made it onto the green top. Such is links golf, and a par was back on the card.
This par-70 course plays just over 6,300 yards off the whites but visitors are more likely to play off the yellows as I did. Every one of those 5,835 yards was proving to be a stern test of my golf. The course includes four par-3s, two par-5s and three long par-4s, the hole directions flipping back and forth, and across, the links providing endlessly changing conditions during my round. The blind shot to the 180-yard par-3 5th green was particularly challenging with my natural fade… how I would have loved to see my tee shot draw around the hill and run down to the hole. But the green slopes left to right, and Braid’s impeccably-placed bunker soaked up my 23-degree hybrid shot from the tee. No par once again.
The rising, twisting fairway of the par-5 6th hole and the doglegs of the 10th and 12th brought me, well over par, to the famous 13th hole which was the muse for the 9th hole of the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro. I’d always wanted to see how the original design shaped up with those images beamed across the world during Justin Rose’s gold medal winning performance. The fairway in Rio is wider, lusher and for the average golfer probably more forgiving. “Hillocks”, the original, demanded accuracy on the drive, skill on the approach and luck on the bounces to navigate the two perfectly positioned mounds en route to the pin. I tried to emulate the suggested pitch to the raised backstop to let it run back down to the hole. It ended up two feet away, but it was immensely rewarding to see the ball rolling back to me.
My favourite hole was probably the 16th – it reminded me of classic dune-terrain links, very like Royal Aberdeen, playing down a long, deep valley surrounded by the ubiquitous marram and demanding a straight drive and a creative pitch and run to get near the pin. Protected from the wind again, this hole lulls the player into a false sense of security, but my card was well and truly full of odd-looking numbers by then so my fairway-splitter of a drive was a pleasure on its own.
The crows, or corbies in the local dialect, gave these links its name and were my constant noisy companions as I made my way around the course, their mocking call as clear today as it was to those golfers hundreds of years ago who also couldn’t string two pars together in a row. Finishing my round on the flatter 18th, “The Bridge”, with the road and the OB to my left being incredibly safe from my fade, I could now count myself lucky to have been able to experience these exceptional links at last.
Words - Murray Bothwell
Photography - Ross Cooper
Film - Jamie Darling