Scotland's Eastern promise

Irresistible appeal of these mighty links

Clive Agran
Mon, 21 Apr 2008

  View of Montrose Medal course


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Holidaying in Scotland is almost, but not quite, like travelling abroad. The Scots speak a version of the English language that's simultaneously both recognisable and unfamiliar. The newspapers are subtle variations on what the rest of us can read and it's the same with the currency in that it's both identical in value, yet different.

Strange vowel sounds, alien headlines and bizarre-looking £10 notes. All are part of the appeal of Scotland and even the topography is, perhaps an exaggerated version of what can be found elsewhere in the UK. It’s similar but dramatically different in a number of spectacular ways.

For these, and other reasons, travelling in Scotland combines the comfort that comes from the familiar with the irresistible appeal of the novel. It’s far enough away to be properly regarded as a legitimate holiday destination but close enough to home to enable your mobile phone to function on a familiar network - except on the golf course!

But what makes Scotland so attractive to the golfer is not simply the fact that it is stuffed with fabulous courses, which it is. Scotland is so special because golf is woven into both the physical and spiritual fabric of the country.

The hills and the headlands, the wind and the wildness all combine to create paradise for the passionate player. And just as important, you can walk down any high street in Scotland with a set of clubs slung over your shoulder and not feel in the slightest bit self-conscious. People won’t stare and the few that bother to look up as you stroll past are almost certainly only interested in what brand and model of clubs you're carrying.

Balcomie Links
Walk into any pub, club or restaurant and the chances are that golf is spoken there. Everywhere there are earnest discussions about lob wedges, the Ryder Cup, spike marks and how quickly Tiger Woods is losing his hair.

Although quite incapable of what some might describe as 'working the ball in the wind', I am irresistibly attracted to links golf. Frankly, I'm less interested in shot-making than I am in the scenery, soothing sea and bracing breeze, the appeal of playing an authentic links – as opposed to the growing number of manufactured 'links-like' experiences that are spreading faster than fusarium on untreated greens – is irresistible. So hold onto your bobble-hats because three out of my five choices are seaside courses.

Edzell's 17th

St Andrews is, of course, the Home of Golf and anyone who has ever wielded a driver in anger should make a pilgrimage to the Auld Grey Toon. And, as legendary Gene Sarazen said, 'all golfers should play the Old Course at least once in their lifetime.' Together with the New, the Jubilee, the Strathtyrum and the Eden, I could list ‘Clive’s Five’ without leaving town. However, in making my selections, I have tried to be a tad more adventurous and a wee bit more original. But I’m extremely conscious of the dozens of truly wonderful tracks that I’ve left out. Apologies to all of them and here’s hoping that I’ll be permitted to return to Eastern Scotland for another five some time soon.

18th and clubhouse at Edzell
Clive's Five Top Courses

The Medal course at Montrose is the fifth oldest in the world. Any club that dates from 1562 could be forgiven for being slightly snooty but Montrose could hardly be less exclusive and more welcoming. Run in the same way as St Andrews and nearby Carnoustie by a links trust, it occupies a precious strip of links land on the edge of town.

View across 8th and 13th at Kingsbarns
Of two lovely courses, the mighty Medal is a classic links, with its dazzling dazzling gorse, imposing dunes, springy turf and immaculate greens. It provides an exhilarating challenge from the moment you step on to the first tee.

A majestic course that bears many of the hallmarks of a James Braid creation. In 1933 he made some alterations to the original design and very little has changed since. With the Grampians acting as a beautiful backdrop, it is predominantly parkland but with stretches that have a distinctly heathland feel. Towering conifers help provide clear definition to many of the holes.

A river, a road and a disused railway add to the interest and place an even greater emphasis on accuracy. There are plenty of white 'out of bounds' posts, but even these unwelcome additions are outnumbered by the altogether more attractive red squirrels.

As if to prove that a course does not have to be centuries old to be considered a classic, there’s spectacular Kingsbarns just a few miles to the south of St Andrews. It has no members - an enormous plus which means you don’t have to worry about hanging your jacket on a peg normally reserved for the vice-chairman of the greens’ committee. Other little touches which impress include free range balls, a goodie bag given to every guest and complimentary sun cream on the first tee. Yes, sun cream in Scotland!

The hallmarks of an upmarket, American-inspired, quality golf experience are as unmistakeable as they are welcome. Even the time allowed between groups teeing off has been stretched to reduce the likelihood of hold-ups.

But all that wouldn’t count for very much if the course was not wonderfully spectacular. Given the stunning seaside setting, undulating topography and ideal soil, it would perhaps have been difficult to fail. However, those responsible, principally the architect Kyle Phillips, have undoubtedly produced something special which is surely destined to become one of the truly great courses of all time. The only downside is that it ain’t cheap but what’s £150 between friends?

Balcomie Links
While Kingsbarns is a course without members, it’s quite feasible in Scotland to have the opposite, members who have a collective existence quite separate from that of the course. And so it is that the Crail Golfing Society can proudly boast to be “The seventh Oldest Golf Club (1786) in the World” while the course on which its members play today, Balcomie Links, is not the one on which they began all those years ago. It’s not hugely important other than it does explain to the frequently confused visitor why the golf club and the golf course have different names.

And the legendary name associated with Balcomie Links is that of Old Tom Morris, who in 1895 designed the extra 10 holes that were added to the original eight to create what’s there today, another unforgettable course. Set on a narrow strip of duneland that hugs the shore on the easternmost point of Scotland just south of St Andrews, it’s a thrill from the exhilarating drive downhill off the first to the final putt way below the clubhouse on the last. In between are all manner of inspiring challenges that will delight every golfer fortunate enough to play this dazzling gem.

Don’t leave after your round without first having a drink in the clubhouse. Sit by one of the many picture windows that look out across the North Sea past Carnoustie and the Bell Rock to the north and St Abbs Head, North Berwick and May Island to the south. It completes a great experience.

Letham Grange
Although you will almost certainly be familiar with some of the courses I’ve already mentioned Letham Grange might still be news to you. It's a glorious parkland resort near Arbroath, about 15 minutes inland from Carnoustie. At its heart is the quirkiest, most eccentric and enjoyable hotel in the world.

The paint may be peeling in places but, if you want an unforgettable experience, take a break here. An imposing 19th century mansion has been converted into a country house hotel, which doubles as the clubhouse and loftily lords it over the surrounding estate. With several steep hills, some might find the Old Course a wee bit too tiring but there is the soft option of the gentler Glens course. However, the physical effort required to play the Old Course is richly rewarded with a succession of scenic and spectacular holes. Magnificent specimen trees and ornamental lakes inherited from what was clearly once a splendid estate, contribute enormously to your enjoyment.

Clive’s Five Top Holes

9th on the Medal at Montrose
Over 440 yards in length, this par-4 completes the front nine. Called ‘Jubilee’, you drive over gorse from an elevated tee avoiding trouble on the left and the out of bounds on the right. If you’re not chipping out sideways, your next shot will be a long one, invariably into the wind, between bunkers and mounds to a shallow but wide green. Good luck!

Kingsbarns' 12th hole
18th at Edzell
A spectacular climax to a thrilling course. The sweeping par-5 18th begins on a lofty tee, gently brings you back down to earth and finishes in front of a lovely, traditional, old clubhouse.

12th at Kingsbarns
Almost every hole at Kingsbarns is a gem but, after much agonising, my vote goes to the wonderful par-5 12th. The sheer beauty of this inviting hole, which runs along the coast, justifies the enormous green fee. With the sea on your left, dunes on your right and a wonderfully wide fairway in between, it’s orgasmic from the elevated tee to the equally elevated green. Whatever you score, you’ll walk up the hill to the 13th tee smiling.

14th at Balcomie Links
A gorgeous 149-yard par-3 called ‘The Cave.’ Unless you hit an unmentionable shot, the sea on your right shouldn’t come into play. Of much more concern are the five little bunkers that surround the green and ensnare any tentative shot. Be bold.

10th on the Old Course at Letham Grange
Called ‘Magungie Wood,’ it’s even harder to play than it is to pronounce. After walking up the path from the 9th green, you’ll arrive breathless on the tee. Take a moment to savour the fabulous view. It’s out of bounds to the left and right, so strike a long iron or modest wood down the middle. Your problems aren’t over yet as you now have to carry the lake to reach a wide and welcoming green. Beware the menacing bunkers behind

Clive’s Five things to do
after golf

Visit Edinburgh – a wonderful old city full of history and beautiful buildings. Much as I hate to admit it, even the shops are interesting.

Letham Grange Old course
Visit a whisky distillery – there are dozens scattered all over the place. Taste the samples generously offered but be sure to go after your round; never before!

Take a walk – although golf provides a wonderful opportunity to enjoy some beautiful scenery, sometimes you have to be a little more adventurous. If you want to ogle at a few fabulous courses on the way, take the Fife Coastal Path.

Go fishing – if you’ve had no luck on the course, perhaps you’ll hook into a decent salmon or trout. If not, there are worse ways of whiling away a few hours than standing on a river’s edge admiring the scenery.

Wander around St Andrews – irrespective of whether or not you play any of the courses in and around this wonderful city, you must stroll around its gorgeous streets, admire the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, visit the golf museum and soak up the atmosphere.




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