No question The Old Course and the varied golf offerings in that area are a must play -- in tandem with sampling the unique characteristics of the broader St. Andrews community.
Yet, there's another area of Scotland for discerning players longing for an escape with golf adventure no less in overall appeal. The Scottish Highlands is located in the most northern area of the country. As the name implies the terrain is an intoxicating brew -- where mountains, rolling hills and coastal dunes intersect.
My longing to venture to this spectacular location had been on my bucket list for quite some time. Years ago a trek to the area would be an ordeal of involving time and sufficient patience. Roads were inconsistent in their overall condition and the length of the car ride -- roughly 5-6 hours from the St. Andrews area -- proved to be a deterrent. That has since changed.
Inverness, the region's largest community, is served by an upgraded airport and roads have improved thereby cutting drive times down considerably. My visit commenced after a short flight from Manchester. The best part of the Inverness airport is its utter simplicity and close proximity to all the centers of attention.
Castle Stuart in a short time has ascended into one of Scotland's premier places to play and will again host the Scottish Open in 2016.
CASTLE STUART ... My first round started with Castle Stuart -- two-time site of the Scottish Open -- and host again in 2016. Opened in 2009, Castle Stuart is just five minutes from the Inverness terminal. The course is the handiwork of Mark Parsinen and Gil Hanse. Parsinen -- was the main force behind the creation of Kingsbarns -- near to St. Andrews. Hanse is known in bringing to fruition the golf course which will host the sport at the 2016 Summer Olympics. At Castle Stuart the layout has more than sufficient room to handle all the needed elements of a first rate facility. There's a mega-sized practice facility and the layout works in two different loops -- allowing for any wind to constantly change direction and forcing players to make continuous assessments on club selection and shot trajectory.
Among the best holes is the devilishly short par-4 3rd. The elevated tee provides a stunning total view of the hole and the Firth of Moray. It's breathtaking. There's an opportunity for the strong player to make a play for the green from the tee -- but the entrance is sliver of an alleyway -- pull left and the approach is to a narrow shelf of a target from an area located below the putting surface. Miss too far right and a re-load may be in order. Castle Stuart is quite wide and allows for a more aggressive style of golf then what is often the case at many of the other links courses throughout Scotland. Both nines are well-matched in terms of challenge and the concluding is a solid par-5 closer ends the day on a high note with the right execution. Is Castle Stuart among the very elite courses in all of Scotland? In my mind, a possible top 10 but towards the rear of that line but still certainly a worthy play. www.castlestuartgolf.com.
Looking along the west beach of the town of Nairn. A Royal Burgh and Resort on the south side of the Moray Firth, east of Fort George.
NAIRN ... Approximately 30 minutes from the airport is one of the more interesting courses to include on one's golf itinerary. Nairn literally hugs the coastline of the Moray Firth on the outward grouping of holes. Among the better holes on the front half is the par-3 4th -- here you play back towards the water and the green is angled like a twisted serpent -- mounds and a series of bunker cause the target to shrink considerably when standing on the tee. The front is really a prelude for what comes with the inbound nine. Here the terrain is a bit more pronounced -- and the series of holes starting with the long par-4 12th and the sensational uphill par-4 13th followed by the plunging downhill long par-3 14th -- make for a rather stern examination. Nairn is not in the same classification as the Championship Course at Royal Dornoch or Castle Stuart but it is one that one must certainly be included on your golfing agenda when there. www.nairngolfclub.co.uk.
NAIRN DUNBAR ... Just east of Nairn is Nairn Dunbar and while the names are the same the quality of the courses stacks considerably more so with the former than with the latter. Nairn Dunbar opened in May 1899 and the land provides for a mixture of links and parkland holes. Nairn Dunbar has its share of lull moments but the quartet of par-3 holes is nicely arranged -- notably holes #3 and #8. There are also a series of good par-4's in the middle of the outward half -- commencing at the 4th. If you're looking for an added round that;s immediately in the Inverness area it's a good option to possibly include. www.nairndunbar.com.
The Championship 18 at Royal Dornoch is the most famous of courses in the Scottish Highlands and is generally included among the top five courses in the UK and among the top 15 in the world. Well deserved indeed.
ROYAL DORNOCH / CHAMPIONSHIP COURSE ... The 15th hole of The Championship 18 at Royal Dornoch is aptly named "Foxy" and frankly that word can easily apply to the magic qualities this fascinating layout so wonderfully supplies. From the opening tee shot to the final holed putt at the 18th hole the game is certainly on when playing here. There are a few courses in the world in which the term "must play" can be rightly applied -- The Championship 18 at Royal Dornoch clearly is in that rare company of elite courses.
The strength of the course starts immediately with the terrain -- hugging the Dornoch Firth and split with two distinct levels.The round starts on the high ground -- and -- at the midpoint descends along the coastline for a number of holes before returning to high ground for the stunning climax. In tandem with the stellar topography is the first rate routing. Every nook and cranny of the site is worked for maximum impact. Finally, the range of shots the player must hit runs the full gambit -- power and finesse each called upon time and time again. Being able to work the ball in both directions and marrying that to adroit shot trajectory will pay huge dividends -- the test if thorough, complete and uncompromising. The Championship Course has its roots with Old Tom Morris and was the center point in the development of Donald Ross -- the architect who rose to international acclaim after coming to America and designing some of the finest courses ever produced.
The strength of the course centers upon the vexing putting surfaces. They vary in width and length and often times include steep falloffs that can carry a "near miss" approach to a final resting spot much further away. One's short game skills will need the wizardry of Merlin to succeed. The two par-3's on the front side -- the 2nd and 6th -- are incomparable holes. The back nine features the aforementioned "Foxy" 15th hole -- a hole that shines immensely as only two purely hit shots will make the putting surface on this long par-4 -- and the green is no less a test with various movements and contours. The ultimate compliment for any top tier course is the immediate desire to play another round and have another go at it. The Championship 18 at Royal Dornoch does that in spades. www.royaldornoch.com
ROYAL DORNOCH / STRUIE ... The companion 18 is merely an appetizer for the main event. Struie doesn't contain the land attributes of its more noted big brother course -- most of it is dead flat. The course has been extended in recent times and two of the better holes are both long par-4's -- the 10th and 14th holes. Worth a play? Yes. Just keep in mind the difficulties in being located next door to one of the world's most endearing and compelling 18 holes on the planet.
A group of four golfers tee off at the golf course at Brora on the east coast of the Sutherland District
BRORA ... Located 55 miles north of Inverness and 25 miles from Royal Dornoch is Brora Golf Club. Like many fine courses in Scotland -- it's important not to make the quick error in believing a course just over 6,200 yards is a pushover. Far from it. Although the club opened in 1891 -- it is the work of James Braid, legendary golfer turned course architect who transformed the original course in 1923 to become what Peter Thomson, Honorary member and 5-time Open Champion called, "the purest links golf course in the world." There are a number of splendid holes -- my favorite is the stretch of golf starting with the 15th thru 17th holes -- all demanding par-4's. My favorite of the trio is "Plateau," -- the 16th hole. At just 345 yards the green is situated high above the fairway and it's crucial you find the fairway for an easier pitch to the small elusive putting surface. Brora provides a step back in time but it's challenge is still ever real in 2014. www.broragolf.co.uk.
Looking over the 11th green of the golf course at Tain
TAIN ... Located 9 miles south of Dornoch is Tain Golf Club. The handiwork of Old Tom Morris when only 15 holes were first created, Tain's design dates back to 1890 and is composed of links, park and heathland characteristics. The total yardage is just over 6,400 yards -- but skillful positioning is the watchword here. One of the more noted holes at Tain is the par-4 11th -- aptly called "Alps." Here you confront a blind approach that must fly over two mounds guarding the green. The mundane 1st hole should be swiftly forgotten as the rest of the course provides a combination of reasonable obstacles to overcome. Fun - not frightful golf -- is the buzzword here. www.tain-golfclub.co.uk.
The High Street, Nairn, Highlands of Scotland. Photo Credit: Paul Tomkins
Golfing in the North Highlands
The Dornoch Firth Golf Pass brings together five of the Highland's finest golf courses to offer an easy to book golf card for the visitor enabling great discounts to be taken throughout the year.
With a £40 Dornoch Firth Golf Pass you receive 30% off when you play Brora, Golspie, Tain and Royal Dornoch's Championship Links and Struie course.
The card can be purchased at any of the courses involved and many other attractions and accommodation providers in the area or you can visit their website and do it all from there. You then simply book your tee times direct with the golf club to receive your discount. Just realize that pass holders can only play the Championship 18 at Royal Dornoch after 2:00 PM.