A Scottish Golfing Odyssey.

‘There’s a magical sunset that makes the firth glow purple – people call it a religious experience.’

It’s the birthplace and spiritual home of the sport – and for most people, Scotland is synonymous with St Andrews and the Old Course. But for Chris Tabbitt of Travel Impresarios Golf, the rugged rolling coastlines and stunning fells of northern Scotland offer a truer reflection of ‘The Land of the Brave’, and boast some of the finest golf courses in the world:

‘Most people want to go and play the Old Course. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus would both say that it’s their favorite golf course in the world. But when you play it through for the first time it doesn’t really resonate with you […] Until you play it two or three times you don’t actually learn about the intricacies and the brilliance of the course […] The first hole at St Andrews is a dead flat hole of about 365 yards, with nothing in the way. It’s the proverbial goat field that you play in Ontario and pay $49 for a round. There’s nothing – and yet at the same time it’s the most nerve wracking tee shot of your life […] When we ask people what their favorite course is, yes the Old Course has this amazing experience [surrounding it] but the actual course itself is not one that people will often consider their favorite.’ 

In search of world class golf courses that are not only brimming with authentic Scottish character but also memorable and rewarding to play, Chris guides his travellers further north into the stunning natural beauty of The Highlands:

‘It’s really two regions in the north – Inverness and Aberdeen. Our favourite trip is taking people up there, it’s actually a little bit cheaper and you play more world top 100 golf courses than you do in any other region of scotland.’ 

‘You fly via London and arrive right into Inverness, and five minutes from there is Castle Stuart It was originally the dream of an American who brought in architect Gil Hance, and they built this beautiful golf course which is now regularly in the world top 50 […] It’s one of the few golf courses that has a driving range, which is always an issue in Scotland. So it’s great – you get off the plane, you have lunch, you change, you stretch, you’re going to go and hit some balls, and then you’re right into it.’

Before that however – there’s two important things to know.  Because in Chris’s experience, golf in Scotland is quite unlike its North American counterpart in the following important respects:

‘Firstly, Golf is every man’s game in Scotland. It’s not for the rich and privileged like it is in North America. You don’t have the grand entrance gates and the exclusivity. Secondly, it’s raw, and the whole idea of playing in Scotland is dealing with the elements of wind and rain and hard ground, which brings us to playing on links courses – which we don’t have.’ 

‘A links course is essentially rediscovered land. It’s land that was once underwater and has since receded – that’s why it has a sandy base. And that’s why when it rains it can soak in the water and dry quickly. This means that it’s really hard, so you play a different game.’

‘In North America if we’re 100 yards out we’re going to get out our wedge and throw it high up in the air and hope it lands on the green. Whereas frequently in Scotland you’ll just take a 7 iron and do a little hockey slapshot along the ice, and let it roll up to the green […] If the wind’s coming off the ocean you’ll actually hit the ball out onto the ocean and let the wind bring it back onto land. It takes some trust on that one.’ 

From Castle Stuart it’s a short one hour drive to Dornoch – a quiet, sleepy town of only 1600 people, nestled along the northern shore of Dornoch Firth. Despite it’s diminutive size, the town is a literal treasure trove for golfers, with a truly breathtaking links course and two spectacular hotels only a stone’s throw away from the fairway.

‘One’s a four star called the Royal Golf Hotel which is amazing, and then what may be the nicest golf hotel in all of Scotland is called Links House. They are both literally 25 yards from the first tee of Royal Dornoch. It’s the only golf course in Scotland where we say: we’re going to book two tee times for you  – and you can thank us later.’ 

‘We like people to play on the day of arrival because then you actually get over your jet lag easier and you sleep well that night. And then the next day, Dornoch does not allow any foursomes until 10:30am which actually works out quite well because if you’re jet lagged you’re not going to be up and at it when you’re coming from North America.’ 

‘You play your round there and  have the afternoon to poke around town […] There’s the church where Madonna got married, there’s a little museum on the history of Dominic Ross – a famous architect […] Lorne Rubenstein – the golf writer at The Globe and Mail and Score Magazine – lived there for 6 months and wrote a book called A Season In Dornoch. For anyone who goes on this trip, we’ll send them this book. People read it and get jealous thinking wouldn’t it be great if you had six months of your life and you could just go and play a world top ten golf course every day, and all you had to do was walk to the course!’

The following morning, a forty minutes drive heads north across the fells to the fishing village of Brora – home to a classic James Baird golf course that’s overlooked on many itineraries. Brora is a hidden gem that Chris’s guest rave about, boasting a small clubhouse, rugged natural beauty and abundant local ‘company’: 

‘It’s nine holes this way, and nine holes that way. And of course it’s all walking – like everything is in scotland. There’s no halfway house and what’s so cool about this place is that it’s just you, the ocean, the wind, cows and sheeps. There are sheep everywhere! They help keep the grass low on the fairways and an electric fence keeps them off the green.’ 

‘It’s just a fabulous experience, as we always get the first tee time of the day there which is 8am. So they can play that. Half way between Brora and Dornach […] there’s a great little fish and chip shop which is very basic, but it’s the experience people want to have when they go to the UK. And then we do the 2:30 tee time at Royal Dornoch for their second round.’

Playing the same course twice may raise eyebrows at first, but the second round at Royal Dornoch is the signature of Chris Tabbitt’s Scottish odyssey, and regarded by many as a ‘religious experience.’ Playing so far north means the sun set’s close to 11pm, and the result is a second round played out in the midst of spectacular atmospheric conditions, the likes of which are to be found nowhere else in the world:

‘There’s a magical sunset which makes the Firth glow purple. You have this yellow gorse bush, and the green grass, and the blue ocean – with this purple haze above it, and that’s why people call it a religious experience […] It’s absolutely gorgeous – never mind the incredible golf course. And so everybody is thrilled to play it twice. Playing in the afternoon gives it a slightly different experience and without a doubt it always comes away as their favourite golf course on this trip.’ 

Buggies are few and far between in Scotland – and available only for those with the necessary medical certificate. So if 36 holes is too much in one day, or if it’s a couple’s trip with varied requirements, Chris recommends the stunning Dunrobin Castle and its acclaimed falconry displays, as well as the nearby GlenMorangie scotch distillery. And on the following morning, a 9:30am tee at nearby Nairn then sets up a scenic three hour drive to Aberdeen in the afternoon:

‘You always want your long drives after your round and not before […] We get these beautiful mini coaches  – big captain seats, tables, mini fridges. So you’ve played your round, maybe have a quick nap but mostly you’re playing cards, drinking beer and you’ve got the music going and it’s really fun […] Between Nairn and Aberdeen you’re going through the whiskey trail so if guys are into doing a distillery visit  and have done the 36 before in Dornach or they don’t have time to hit Glenmorangie we’ll do something around 4:30/5pm on route, to break up the three hour drive with a visit to one of the many many distilleries around there.’

After a well-earned night’s rest in Aberdeen there are three world class golf courses – all within a short forty minutes drive. One is very old and traditional, another more recent and contentious, while the third offers a completely unique golfing experience:

‘Royal Aberdeen [is] always a world top 100, some call it the best front 9 in the world, and of course on the ocean. […] You have to wear a suit and tie if you want to go in the clubhouse and so on. That would be our third favorite.’

‘Then we have something that we call ‘Balmedie’ – and we do that because the official name is Trump International […] You probably remember when he was building that a few years ago that there was lots of controversy – buying land from farmers and so on, one guy refused to sell so he’s right by the parking lot. It’s a really hard golf course because of the huge dunes and the fescue, so that any balls that go off the fairway are just gone – don’t even look, it’s a waste of time.’

‘One thing that I think everyone will appreciate is that when you approach the first tee there’s a stand with a little plaque that says ‘Welcome to trump international, some call this the best golf course in the world – Donald J Trump.’ Just too funny.’

‘It is worth playing – it has more of a North American feel, again with a great driving range. It’s got a halfway house and it’s really well conditioned – it’s a good golf course. We just don’t like calling it Trump and we don’t even like giving money to Trump – we call it Balmedie and leave it at that.’

‘Cruden Bay [..] is a perennial world top 100, and it is AMAZING. It’s in my top three favorite golf courses in the world. There are holes there that you won’t find anywhere else, including a blind par 3. You go up and over hills and over creeks – just crazy holes that are so fun and so different that it would never be designed and built today. There is a list you can find which is the top 100 fun courses and it’s always top five.’ 

With the option of one last round at Carnoustie, an hour and a half away on the mouth of the Barry Burn, the bright lights and majestic beauty of Edinburgh caps off  an unforgettable journey through the beating heart of rural Scotland:

‘We always like to do our final nights in Edinburgh just so it gives you a chance to see it and be part of it. You can do a big night out there, and then on the next day fly home. Most trips fly out of North America on Friday night, arrive on Saturday morning, and they fly home on the following Saturday or Sunday – that turns out to be 7 or 8 rounds in 7 or 8 days. 

Edwin Tubb
edwin@homestandsports.com