I’ve always had a love of golfing history. Even when I attended Aberdeen University but couldn’t play during my time there, I knew I was surrounded by some of the oldest links in the world and that, sometime in the future, I would get to play them.
The excitement was therefore palpable when, many years later, I drove through the cobbled streets of historic Old Aberdeen past my old digs, along King Street and out over the River Don looking for the 6th oldest golf club in the world. It would be the first of a number of visits to Royal Aberdeen Golf Club and its Balgownie links, often in the company of a business contact in the Oil industry, but not always to play its incredible championship course: I also walked the dunes with him, following the best of the best during his Club’s hosting of the British Seniors, Scottish Open and the Walker Cup.
Finding the Club was my first challenge though. Carefully picking my way up Links Road between the residential parked cars there was no hint of what lay at the end of the street. Suddenly, the houses stopped and the horizon and eastern sky rapidly expanded. Beyond, through the stately small, white-walled gate lay the impressive Clubhouse on the hill. Nothing can prepare you for the grin that spreads across your face that first time you arrive. History was calling.
As befits a Club dating back to 1780, the hallowed dark wood halls of its Clubhouse are full of golfing history and are incredibly well maintained and presented. This attention to detail followed through onto the course. The medal tees for the championship course, a smattering under 7000 yards, are marked using local granite boulders and are tucked tactically into high points in the dunes and amphitheatres of coconut-smelling gorse. My Aberdonian grandfather was a skilled granite mason; another smile.
We played off the yellows, and at only 300 yards shorter than the whites it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the course. It’s still a par 71 and a classic Scottish links layout featuring sandy dunes and dramatic plateaus. The opening hole, a par-4 at just under 400 yards, stretches away from the Clubhouse windows and takes you down a narrow fairway between bunkers with a cross-valley approach to a plateau green. I found a good lie, and somewhat nervously floated my first 6-iron of the day onto the green. A good start and I make par on its subtle slopes.
The greens are smaller than other courses I have played in the area, so getting round here safely is all about accuracy. Balgownie's front nine are acknowledged as the best in the world, every one slightly different, and broken up by amazingly rich turf and lovely rolling fairways. Hugging the high cliffed dunes on the way out, the course plays through some tight valleys of billowing marram grass and is always at the mercy of the weather. I concentrated too much on the view from the second tee, out over the sparkling North Sea to my right with the oil rig supply ships moored nearby, and not the ravaging wind off my left. Reload. This early par-5 of 500+ yards with expansive fields of marram waiting to catch the sliced drive quickly helps focus the mind.
Royal Aberdeen’s ability to deliver memorable holes from each tee is well known and many remain lodged in my memory. The beautiful par-3 8th hole, surrounded by 10 clean-cut revetted bunkers, sits at an awkward angle for the wind, facing south-east and makes you think carefully about club selection. I found one of the five linear bunkers to the green’s left, and it found me wanting that day. Luckily, it was matchplay so we agreed to move on fairly quickly.
The risk-reward of the front nine’s wild, dune-defined undulations move you into a flatter and elevated back nine. A combination of ditches, dykes, mesmerising putting surfaces and first-rate links turf makes each hole great fun. There is only one blind drive on the whole course at the 10th and although visually this half of the card is slightly less impressive than the front nine, the golf remains exciting.
As we stood, late afternoon, on the tee of the mighty par-4 18th looking into the sun, and being buffeted by the prevailing wind, I had already lost the game to a combination of local knowledge, great chat and stunning views... but I had gained so much more. That sense of history, and the obvious skill of the Carnoustie brothers who sculpted these links from nature’s best back in 1887, was laid out all around me.
The lack of pressure no doubt helped my final drive, keeping it straight for once but rising steeply in the “breeze”. The 18th fairway is peppered with bunkers, one of James Braid’s deft touches to maintain a classic links course yet enable it to compete with the modern game. I stayed clear of them all, and of the manicured islands of gorse and OB on my left. At 428 yards this hole is not much shorter off the yellows than it is from the tiger tee and I managed to salvage some of mygolfing reputation by ultimately reaching the green in three on what felt like the most difficult hole on the course. I had left myself a monster downhill putt though, and managed to eventually walk off with a six, a deep sigh of contentment and a smile from ear to ear.
I would definitely be back.
Words - Murray Bothwell
Photography - Stuart Kerr