Andy Mossack reviews some of the best of Aberdeenshire’s 50 plus golf courses and discovers some of the most dramatic views in golf.
In a county that contains over 50 world-class golf courses, you could be forgiven for not playing all of them during a visit. However, it would be criminal to avoid them entirely. But the truth of the matter is Aberdeenshire is frequently overlooked as a home of golf for many people touring Scotland. Her 160 miles of stunning beaches and dunes play host to some of Britain’s finest links courses, while inland amongst the forests, glens and rivers lie equally challenging parkland courses. None more so perhaps than Balmoral, the summer home of the royal family since 1852, where a magnificently manicured 9 hole course usually used exclusively by the royal family and members of the estate is now open during selected long summer days for us poor commoners to enjoy.
With so many excellent courses within easy reach, let’s take walk together around some of my personal favourites.
Royal Aberdeen Golf Club
Pride of place must go to Royal Aberdeen’s Balgownie Links, the 6th oldest golf club in the world having been founded in 1780 and given Royal patronage in 1908. At first glance, it is a relatively unassuming place, the old white clubhouse sitting almost coquettishly at the top of the car park. But venture inside and there is the distinct air of a gentlemen’s club about it. A lifetime of tradition, venerable members past and present, an impressive trophy cabinet and a comfy lounge more akin to a hotel than a golf club. The huge bay window is so close to the first tee it’s almost within touching distance and I remember standing there feeling eyes boring into the side of my head as I addressed the ball.
Smashing it downhill dead centre of the fairway felt triumphant until it hit a hump and made a sharp left turn. The perils of links golf. Still, at least the clubhouse audience was impressed.
This is some course, particularly the famed outward 9 through the dunes. The fairways may be full of humps and hollows, but they are immaculately turned out. There are challenges everywhere you look. The massive cavity just before the first green and the beach directly behind it turned my impressive drive into a 6 trying to play defensively. I made up for it with a joyous almost-birdie on the 3rd a 207-yard par 3 (236 yards off the championship tee) against the wind. Incredibly, I followed that with a wind-assisted par at the notoriously tricky 430 yard 4th stroke index 1.
Now following the coast, the course winds its way towards Royal Aberdeen’s signature hole. The famous 8th hole. This is a 147-yard par 3 which, depending on the wind, can be a long iron or a wedge. But it’s the ten bunkers that make this hole a daunting prospect, encircling the narrow green like hungry vultures waiting to feast. I was lucky to escape with a 5.
Balgownie’s back nine turns away from the coast swapping undulating fairways and huge dunes for blind tee shots and pot bunkers. It’s a geographic change but the tough challenges remain. I managed to scramble a par at the 12th, a tricky par 5 to a green with run-offs all around. A cheeky bump and run sorted that one out.
Finishing with two fours was heroic, particularly with the three-tiered 17th green and the out of bounds behind the 18th green.
Royal Aberdeen will exceed expectations. A spectacular example of natural links golf in all its glory.
Royal Aberdeen Golf Club 1 Links Rd, Bridge of Don, Aberdeen AB23 8DL
E: email@example.com T: 0044 (0) 1224 702571
Balgownie green fees: From £70 – £195 depending on the time of year.
Cruden Bay Golf Club
Hot on the heels of Royal Aberdeen, and equally as tough, is Cruden Bay’s Championship Course, another dramatic coastal links designed by the legendary Old Tom Morris and Archie Simpson back in 1899. Back then it was owned by a Scottish rail company who hoped to attract hordes of tourists by building a huge pink granite luxury hotel next to the course. Nicknamed “the palace in the sandhills” it was meant to catapult Cruden Bay into a destination for the fit and famous. Today, sadly, there’s no sign of the hotel which was demolished in 1952, but the original little clubhouse still exists next to the recently rebuilt first tee.
This is another golfing masterpiece that has understandably been denied the opportunity to host major tournaments because of the number of blind shots. Particularly the par 3 15th which is a blind hit and hope over a giant dune!
That said, it is a remarkable 18 holes using some serious elevation to offer up probably the best coastal tee panoramas you’re ever likely to see on a British golf course. Cruden Bay’s beach is simply huge.
By the time you get to the 4th tee, the quirkiness and genius of the course begins to show itself. This is a 196-yard par 3 running along the side of a harbour river leading out to the sea and against the wind. Anything left is wet, and anything too far right is out of bounds.
Then there is the 5th. A long 463-yard par 4 index 1 (509 yards off the championship tee). It’s an elevated tee atop a sand dune that needs a huge carry to reach the fairway. Not my finest moment losing two balls off the tee.
The 6th is another journey of discovery. A long par 5 with huge dunes on the right eventually leading to a wide burn defending a sharp dogleg left. Long hitters will be tempted to take it on for their second, average hitters may not make it over after their third.
Hole 8 may seem just a short par 4 at 250 yards but it’s squeezed between huge dunes to a plateau green. At last, we reach the 9th which is where you need to draw breath; not only from the long climb up but the visual treat which awaits across the bay.
After another dramatic blind tee shot from an impossibly high tee at the 10th you’re still weaving through giant dunes and recovering from the rarefied air. Once you reach 14 you’re running alongside the beach and provided you find the fairway you’re hitting a blind shot into a green nestling in a sunken valley. An absolute gem of a hole.
Another surprise comes with 2 par threes in succession. The aforementioned 15th and then another 172 yards across a yawning valley to a green sloping front to back.
The final surprise comes at 17 when you have a choice to land your drive on either side of a giant mound said to hold the remains of fallen Viking invaders at the Battle of Cruden Bay in 1012.
However you play, you’ll get your reward back at the new panoramic clubhouse where the fare on offer is superb, and you’ll be made to feel very welcome. (They even wrote my name on the blackboard for a welcome lunch).
Cruden Bay Golf Club, Aulton Road, Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire, Scotland AB42 0NN
Tel: 01779 812285 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Green fees from £65 – £145 depending on the season.
Balmoral Golf Course
Playing this course is such a unique experience, I’ve deemed it worthy of its own review. So, feel free to read my report on the Balmoral golf course here. Suffice to say playing in her majesty’s back yard, surrounded by monuments and cairns dedicated to former monarchs and legendary historical figures is a moment to savour. It is a 9 hole course but played twice; each hole has two quite different tee locations making up a worthy 18 holes of 4,825 yards par 67.
Green fees are £150 for a two-ball booking (£75 for each player) or £200 for a four-ball booking (£50 for each player). This entitles you to an 18-hole round of golf for a maximum of four players, scorecards, use of the club cabin and parking facilities and access to the grounds, gardens, exhibitions, gift shop and café. Admission tickets for non-playing guests available at a special rate of £6.00 per person.
The golf course is open for bookings on selected dates during May, June and July.
Balmoral Golf Course, Balmoral Estates, Ballater
Aberdeenshire, AB35 5TB
T: 013397 42554/42555 E: email@example.com
Stonehaven Golf Club
This is hands-down the most stunning location for golf I’ve seen in Britain. Yet, it is often completely overlooked by most golfing tourists simply because it isn’t a championship course.
Perched high on the cliffs facing Stonehaven Bay, the course lies directly over the Highland Fault Line which separates Scotland from east to west. So, you don’t have to be a geologist to know you’re going to face plenty of naturally tricky obstacles during your round. It’s only a 4,800-yard par 66 with seven par 3’s no less, but make no mistake, this has a touch of Pebble Beach about it. The 2nd Willies Fault and 7th Gully Cup in particular.
Sufferers of vertigo beware as you’ll be walking along a cliff edge accompanied with nothing but Dunnottar Castle’s ghostly ruined visage on the skyline and the North Sea battering the rocks below. It is, as their slogan suggests, Stonehaven is simply stunning.
Stonehaven Golf Club, Cowie, Stonehaven , Aberdeenshire, AB39 3RH
T: 01569 762124 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Green fees £46 – £65 depending on day and season.
Banchory Golf Club
The town is the gateway to Royal Deeside and naturally, the Dee is a major feature of the golf course which has a few holes running right along it. It’s a lush parkland course best known perhaps as the club where Open champion Paul Lawrie learnt his craft. It’s not a long course at 5,800 yards with six par 3’s but has more than enough about it to make this a really enjoyable day out.
Tempting as it may be to focus only on Aberdeenshire’s marquee courses if you’re touring the county, it would be a shame to miss this one out.
Banchory Golf Club, Kinneskie Rd, Banchory AB31 5TA
T: 01330 822447 E: email@example.com
Green fees £28 – £45 depending on day and season.
Tell me more about playing golf in Aberdeenshire
For more information on all the fantastic golf courses around Aberdeenshire, Visit Aberdeenshire has all the details for you. Plus stacks of information on what else to do all over this extraordinary county.
Bonnie Wee Golf organises luxury golf tours across Scotland and Ireland.