GOLFMAGIC'S Michael Smyth teed up on the Scottish Highlands earlier this month, playing three memorable links courses: Nairn, Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch. Here's how he got on...
A knock at Nairn is not to be missed
First up on my itinerary was Nairn Golf Club, a layout that nestles on the shores of the Moray Firth and one that was crafted from a Highland wilderness of gorse and heather. Founded in 1887, Nairn is now one of the best courses in Scotland and has hosted a large number of important championships.
The course itself generously opens with a straightforward par-4 right along the aforementioned Moray Firth before a cross ditch at two makes you think strategy before reaching the first short hole aptly named ‘bunker’ - a unique blind par-3 that had me relying on a my friendly caddie for the day.
The ninth, named ‘Icehouse’, required a drive between one of many gorse bushes on the left and well-positioned bunkers on the right to another slick green before passing the icehouse which was used to store the locals catch of the day.
Holes 13 and 14 were undoubtedly my favourites at Nairn, although they were somewhat off the natural curve of the land. The approach to 13 was a two-club gradient before the downhill par-3 14th had a beautiful colour contrast of yellow gorse, green links and blue sea water that, quite frankly, you will go a long way to match.
Nairn is a sturdy test of golf and a true championship links where we were made to feel like a member for the day. Great showers also, may I add!
Spaceships & dolphins aplenty
Castle Stuart is a modern day classic links that was opened in 2009 by American developer Mark Parsinen - he of Kingsbarns fame - with one of the most interesting design characteristics I have experienced for some time.
On arrival the white Art Deco clubhouse provided a commanding view of the Moray Firth for our bacon rolls before making our way to what must be the largest and most pristine putting greens this side of Nova Scotia.
The opening tee shot was quite unsettling with heavy gorse left and aqua awaiting anything right... but my, what a setting!
The second hole asks for a tee shot left or right of a well placed fairway bunker with an approach to what I can only describe as the first of many infinity greens.
'Eyebrow bunker'... have you heard of such a creation? Me neither. On pulling my approach to the third green I asked for the 'chicken stick' aka putter on approaching my shot. 'Nee putter' informed my caddie for the round, and boy was he right. The slope to the green was protected by well placed eyebrow bunkers that made you take a wedge. In a game so old it was great to see something so new.
Holes four through nine are played more inland but still have that feel of each being isolated which as we know is a trait of any great design such as Pine Valley.
The ninth stands out for special mention playing back to what now seems like a white spaceship of a clubhouse. Short in distance but treat it with the required respect. Drivable downwind - so the caddie said - I took the hybrid wedge option to a hidden plateau green that requires half a club more. Misguide this approach and you will be fighting for your bogey.
Heading home, the 10th takes you back along the Moray Firth and after a coffee with what looked like a wee dram working its way in alongside a sole sugar cube I thought I spotted a few dolphins but that could have just been the whiskey!
The 11th is a short, fun par-3, which played a wedge on the day. Long and left will see your ball in with the dolphins. Sensible play is middle of the green and enjoy the view of chanonry lighthouse before the testing stretch of holes ahead.
If the short 16th is considered a pick-up hole then you will duly need it as 17 is tough, long par-3.
The final hole at Castle Stuart, like a lot of the holes here, offers up interesting and different ways to play it which is one of the many appeals of the course - and that's regardless whether you're a Sunday hacker or Phil Mickelson who won here in July last year, the week before lifting the Claret Jug at Muirfield.
This is a fun golf course in a breathtaking and idyllic setting.
Remote & charming in equal measure
The design of Royal Dornoch is attributed to Old Tom Morris but the course was the home of Donald Ross, who was born and brought up here learning his trade, initially as a carpenter and then latterly as a greenkeeper and professional for the Club.
What Ross did was take all the design features he knew so well at Dornoch and replicated then many times in the United States. Ross was a talented architect using Dornoch as a base and this is why Royal Dornoch gets so many Americans visiting the course today so that they can see where his inspiration came from.
Notable design characteristics at Royal Dornoch are approaches into a turtleback greens. This was evident as early as the par-3 second when having missed the green, the succeeding chip shot was the toughest approach I had all round.
The walk to the third opens up to what is surely one of the best views in golf but don’t dwell on it too long as you have a tough stretch of par 4’s to negotiate. The last of these is Tom Watson's favourite, the fifth hole named ‘Hilton’, featuring an elevated tee shot before a short iron approach to another raised, narrow, contoured green.
The tricky par-3 sixth resulted in my first lost ball of the trip as it sailed into the gorse hugging the left side of the green. Face meet palm.
The 14th may have been the only hole without a bunker at Dornoch, but nevertheless 'Foxy' was one to remember with its superb crowned green well worthy of an index 2 ranking.
The 15th offers up a birdie chance if you can avoid the grass mound feature on the fairway and be sure to lean on your caddie for a line both off the blind 17th tee shot and approach to the last where a large gully guards the green.
Sipping an ale in the relaxed clubhouse post round it struck me that at just a touch over 6,500 yards and with such a varied length and challenging layout that this could well be the most natural course I've ever played. It's little wonder why Watson and some of the game's other greats continue to rave about this Donald Ross classic.
The Scottish Highlands are a golfing odyssey that any serious lover of links golf should come and play. Castle Stuart was a great foil for the more old and traditional Nairn and Royal Dornoch layouts. The courses were presented fantastically well and if you're to get the most out of your golf game on these testing links for the first time, be sure to order a caddie in advance as they will save you numerous shots, I guarantee you. If you're looking to settle any curiosity on what might be the best region in the UK for a golfing destination then this might just be top of the tree.
We based ourselves in Inverness which provided easy access to the airport and all three courses.
For more information: Kingsmills Hotel, Culcabock Road, Inverness IV2 3LP; 01463 237166