THE HIGH­LANDS

From Cas­tle Stu­art to Boat of Garten

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Scot­land has many shore­lines, but to my mind there’s none finer than that along the Moray Firth, in the north­ern high­lands of the coun­try.

Play golf on a sunny day at Cas­tle Stu­art, near In­ver­ness, and you’ll be daz­zled by the beauty of your sur­round­ings. Across the sparkling blue wa­ters of the firth are the head­lands of the Black Isle, to your left the mighty spans of the Kes­sock Bridge, and to your right the Chanonry penin­sula jut­ting out into the firth, home to one of sev­eral links golf cour­ses which adorn this coast­line.

Cas­tle Stu­art is a mod­ern links, home to the Scot­tish Open in re­cent years, and it’s re­garded by some as the re­gion’s jewel in the crown, hav­ing at­tracted and in­tro­duced many more vis­it­ing golfers to north­ern­most parts of Scot­land since it opened for play in 2009. It’s con­ve­niently close to In­ver­ness air­port.

Cas­tle Stu­art is sit­u­ated on one of the most beau­ti­ful sites in golf, com­pa­ra­ble to Peb­ble Beach, but not as dra­matic as Pin­na­cle Point. It’s unique in hav­ing been built on two dis­tinct lev­els, so the views are con­stantly chang­ing. The open­ing holes of each nine (in two loops rather than the tra­di­tional out and back) are played lower down along the shore­line, and then you climb back up to the higher ground to fin­ish.

With its wide fair­ways it ap­pears rel­a­tively be­nign, but ap­pear­ances are de­cep­tive. It was de­signed by Amer­i­can Gil Hanse, who was com­mis­sioned to build the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Games, and his greens com­plexes at Cas­tle Stu­art are ex­ceed­ingly awk­ward to play. Even the pros have been non­plussed at times. They look de­light­ful to the eye, yet miss­ing them in the wrong place can be cat­a­strophic. You need a vivid imag­i­na­tion, and a touch for un­con­ven­tional shots, to es­cape from their clutches.

Hanse has a flair for cre­at­ing dra­matic holes, and there are many that ap­peal vis­ually at Cas­tle Stu­art in the way they nat­u­rally fit into the land­scape. The short par-4 third is a clas­sic risk-an­dreward hole, a sliver of a green perched on a rocky beach, guarded by pot bunkers to the left. The par-3 11th, which plays from an el­e­vated tee di­rectly to­wards the wa­ter, is another beauty. The back nine is bril­liant; a stun­ning mix­ture of holes travers­ing the rolling ter­rain. The long par-3 17th, high above the firth, and the down­hill par-5 18th back to the club­house, par­tic­u­larly make the heart sing.

The down­side of Cas­tle Stu­art is the green fee. At £190 for 18 holes it’s ex­pen­sive in a re­gion where there’s ex­cel­lent value to be found. That’s be­cause it’s purely a ‘re­sort’ course, with no

mem­bers (it closes dur­ing the win­ter months). Nairn Golf Club, along the coast, is ranked above Cas­tle Stu­art among the top cour­ses in Bri­tain and Ire­land (both are be­tween 20 and 30), yet the green fee is a more re­al­is­tic £110. Cu­ri­ously, there is a deal in Nairn where you can play the town’s two cour­ses – the other is Nairn Dun­bar, and a fine links it is too – for £105, pro­vided you tee off dur­ing cer­tain times.

Nairn, de­spite or pos­si­bly be­cause of its rel­a­tive re­mote­ness in the High­lands, has al­ways oc­cu­pied a spe­cial place in the pan­theon of clas­sic great Bri­tish cour­ses. When I first vis­ited Scot­land, with lit­tle knowl­edge of what was worth play­ing, I turned for in­spi­ra­tion to a pub­li­ca­tion called the AA Guide to Golf in Great Bri­tain (1977). It con­tained es­says by var­i­ous golf writ­ers on “the top 50 cour­ses,” and I set out to play as many as I could. Some of those cour­ses are not even in the top 100 to­day, but Nairn has en­dured, and re­mained a favourite of mine since the day I first dis­cov­ered it.

Few golf clubs have found a home as per­fectly lo­cated as Nairn. It’s in a quiet culde-sac at the end of Se­a­bank Road, and the car park is shared by golfers and lo­cals go­ing for a walk along the ad­join­ing beach. In 1887 the Vic­to­ri­ans ev­i­dently didn’t share our love for seafront liv­ing, so the new golf club was granted land on the Moray Firth. You can stand in the club car park and com­fort­ably hurl a ball over the sea wall on to the beach.

The ter­rain is flat, and the first seven holes stretch their way along the shore­line be­fore loop­ing back in­land. The beach is in play on all of th­ese holes. You’ll search the world in vain to find any­thing like this in golf. This was a wilder­ness of whins and heather in days gone by, so you have a com­bi­na­tion of sea-washed turf and springy heath­land grasses. Gorse is an ever-present haz­ard. After play­ing 12 links holes, you sur­pris­ingly turn up­hill at the 13th into a heath­land val­ley, be­fore re­turn­ing back to links golf for the last four holes. Nairn’s greens are mostly flat, a plea­sure on which to putt and chip, yet there is suf­fi­cient va­ri­ety in their shapes to make them in­ter­est­ing. The orig­i­nal de­sign was ren­o­vated by James Braid, and any course as­so­ci­ated with him has ad­di­tional ca­chet.

The de­light of be­ing at Nairn ex­tends to the smart mod­ern club­house as much

as the course. The bay win­dows in the spa­cious lounge area, over­look­ing the first tee and starter’s hut, pro­vide glo­ri­ous views down the length of the course and across the firth. Be­fit­ting one of the premier mem­bers’ clubs in the High­lands, Nairn also pro­vides a fine din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, very dif­fer­ent though from those men’s lunches at the likes of Muir­field and Prest­wick. This is very much a golf club where men and women share the course and fa­cil­i­ties equally. Women mem­bers en­joy the 9-hole Cameron mashie course close to the club­house. In the last 15 years the club has hosted two of the old­est am­a­teur team events in golf, the Walker Cup and Cur­tis Cup, be­tween the re­spec­tive men’s and women’s teams of the United States and GB & Ire­land.

If you’re spend­ing time in the re­gion, Nairn has a 3-bed­room bun­ga­low avail­able for rent on the course.

The Moray Firth is at its nar­row­est along­side Cas­tle Stu­art, and it grad­u­ally widens out into the North Sea by the time you get to Lossiemouth, home to both the Moray Golf Club and Royal Air Force. Moray has sim­i­lar­i­ties to St An­drews. Two cour­ses, the Old and New, an 18th hole on the Old Course com­ing back into the town, and lots of golf holes stretch­ing out into the dis­tance. Both towns had RAF bases, but army reg­i­ments are mov- ing in at Leuchars near St An­drews, with Lossiemouth be­com­ing the main air­base.

If you’re in­ter­ested in close-ups of fighter jets in flight, and don’t mind the noise, then a day’s golf at Moray has ex­tra value. They come in low across the links while prac­tis­ing touch-and-go cir­cuits. It’s a plane-spot­ter’s de­light.

Lossiemouth is an at­trac­tive town, most of it built on a promon­tory by the mouth of the River Lossie. This is where Moray GC has its club­house, a grand old two­s­torey build­ing over­look­ing one of the finest 18th holes in the game. The club­house is on high ground, pro­vid­ing sweep­ing views of the sea and course. I found the mem­bers here among the most hos­pitable in Scot­land, friendly and wel­com­ing.

The 18th on the Old Course pro­vides an ex­cep­tional fin­ish to the round. If Moray had more holes like this it would be among the most ac­claimed in the Bri­tish Isles. On the 17th you’re among low-ly­ing nat­u­ral linksland; then you walk over to the 18th which is lined on its right side by a row of man­sions. They’re up on a slope, so don’t in­trude on the line of play. It’s a long par 4, with a rolling fair­way full of deep cor­ru­ga­tions. In fair weather a good drive sets you up for a mid- or long-iron ap­proach into an el­e­vated green that sits im­me­di­ately be­low the club­house. Deep bunkers

“MORAY HAS SIM­I­LAR­I­TIES TO ST AN­DREWS, HAV­ING AN OLD AND NEW COURSE, AND FIGHTER JETS.”

await left and right. This is a links chal­lenge for the mem­ory bank, and one that we played twice in the same day.

Moray is a full day’s golf, be­cause you need to play both cour­ses to get a sense of what it’s about. They are equally en­joy­able, fairly sim­i­lar – there’s a sense of déjà vu at times – and you only pay £90 to play both on the day: There are some fab­u­lous par 3s to ex­pe­ri­ence. My ad­vice is to be­gin with the Old, con­sid­ered the premier lay­out, be­cause not only is the first tee right by the pro shop, but dur­ing the day you will get to play 37 holes.

After lunch in the club­house we walked out to play the New, which has its first tee a fair dis­tance away. It also ends in the mid­dle of nowhere, but lo and be­hold the Old’s 18th is close by, so if no other golfers are in sight, you get to play it again at the end of the day. If you only want to play the Old, it’s £50 if you tee off be­fore 8.30am in sum­mer, em­i­nently good value.

Over­look­ing the 18th is the Links Lodge, a guest house run by golfers, another ideal base for golf in the re­gion.

The High­lands con­jures up a vi­sion of golf in the moun­tains, and there are good cour­ses in­land as well. Far and away the best is Boat of Garten Golf & Ten­nis Club, in a vil­lage on the River Spey. The road there from Nairn takes you over des­o­late moors, a re­minder that this part of Scot­land is largely a wilder­ness. It ad­joins the Cairn­gorms Na­tional Park, and on a clear day moun­tains are vis­i­ble from the course. On the first tee at the Boat, a par 3, you’ll hear the whis­tle of a steam train from the sta­tion, and out on the heath­land course you’ll see it chug­ging by, pulled by an en­gine be­long­ing to the Strath­spey Steam Rail­way based in Aviemore. It’s back and forth all day with tourists.

Boat of Garten, an orig­i­nal James Braid de­sign, is on the short side, un­du­lat­ing, quite a switch­back ride at times, with a fair share of blind shots, lined with trees and heather, and pro­vides a good deal of fun for £45, or just £30 if you play in the evening. Not only is it a scenic walk on springy turf, but you get to play a col­lec­tion of var­ied and chal­leng­ing shots. If you like it you can have a sec­ond round for £13.

Other good 18-hole cour­ses in the area are at Gran­town on Spey and New­ton­more. In fact, golf is plen­ti­ful around here. We stopped at an at­trac­tive moor­land 9-holer, Aber­nethy, where there was the un­usual sight of a blind par 3 where the aim­ing point was a hill­side war memo­rial. Only in Scot­land.

Cas­tle Stu­art.

The Nairn links is right on the Moray Firth.

The 18th hole on the Old Course at Moray Golf Club.

Boat of Garten is close to the Cairn­gorms Na­tional Park.

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