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Highland Golf

Tom Cates recounts his latest golfing tour round the delights of the scottish highlands

Posted Apr 30, 2009 by Tom Cates

tom cates

Something slightly different this week.  I thought I'd take the opportunity to talk a little about a fantastic few days I have just spent playing the great game up in the very North of Scotland.  Now this great golfing country has always held a special place in my heart, for it was on the links of a windswept Gullane back in 1987, that as a 13 year old, I fell in love with the game.  Over 6 glorious, mostly rain free summer days, I battled, sliced, topped and hacked my way over some glorious links courses.  Under my father's eye, (I'd discover in time this eye might fall in the "non-expert" category!) he'd tell me to keep my head down, and not swing too hard, and then keep my head down some more.  What he failed to understand was that to a young boy now bitten by the bug, I was desperate to try and see where my latest all-time best shot was heading.  I was always going to be lifting my head...
On a few occasions since, my father, brother and I have headed off for a few days, usually in spring time, to take in some golf.  We've been to Gullane, France, Wales and then last week back to Scotland.  Using the smokescreen of asking the wives and a sister to join them to get 4 days of golf in, my brother got busy, and using time he should have been training cadets with, decided that Dornoch was the place to be headed.  We could fly into Inverness and then play Royal Dornoch, Tain, Brora and Nairn.
So we did.  And it was stupendous! Breathtaking, beautiful old links courses.  Steeped in tradition and each different in their own way.  Of course Royal Dornoch and Nairn where the best two, a long way clear in difficulty than the other two, but both Tain and Brora were proper courses and well worth the visit.
We started in glorious sun on the Monday morning at Tain.  Desperate to get underway early my brother, using his military training superbly, had as usual the first "players" car into the car park.  We lopped 30 mins off our start time with the still bleary eyed pro and we were on our way.
Tain is not the most difficult of tracks.  Fairly short, the benign conditions ensured it wasn’t going to pose too many questions.  However it had an interesting layout.  The greens were subtle and some excellent holes ensured an enjoyable round.
The Tuesday had us up early again and heading north to Brora.  The conditions were very different.  Once again we were the first car into the car park, though this time the filthy weather was more responsible than the time.  The wizened old pro eyed us with a look of amusement but sent us on our way with a cheery smile and word of advice about playing for the centre of the greens.  Just moving it forward was going to be tricky on some holes!  With the persistent rain turning into a real downpour on the closing 6 holes, Brora could have become just a drenched march back to the clubhouse. It is a testament to the holes and course that this didn’t happen.  Yes it was miserable, and yes I spent much of my time under a brolly with my head down, but the few glimpses I did take in were memorable.  As was the clubhouse experience.  Ordering a burger, a sandwich and a baked potato with "tuna mayo, beans and cheese, please" for my marathon-training brother (he did 4 hrs 55 minutes with a knackered knee, for the record), no doubt still ladened down after a huge plate of food!  The bill came to £11, but the chef who had taken our order looked at us like we were mad to have been out and, being extremely hospitable, decided that £10 was more than enough.  Quality!  As were the three 17 maybe just 18 year olds lumping cash into the fruit machine.  Brought back a few memories!
The weather on Wednesday was magnificent.  And we were playing Royal Dornoch. Proudly sitting in the top 100 courses in the world, this majestic links was to be savoured.   With a cloudless blue sky and baking sun adding to the ambience we set off in a stiff breeze.  The first 8 holes head out in a classic fashion, then you turn and come back.  It is simply awesome.  The beauty is off the scale, the lay-out natural, it is both testing and teasing and yet very, very fair.  The flowering gorse carpeted the edge of the fairways and, over the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th, provided a stadium effect with its high banking.  The 6th was a very cute looking par 3 with treachery everywhere.  The 9th, a magnificent par 5 played along the edge of the sea.  The back nine is maybe even more spectacular.  With tricky par 4's, including the renowned 14th "Foxy", just one par 5 and maybe the biggest green I have ever played on, at the 16th (I three putted from 25 feet after watching my brother 2 putt from well over a 100 feet - gutted), it led us back to the well appointed club house.  It is without doubt one of my new all time favourite courses.  I haven’t managed to quite work out where on the list but it is well up there. Spectacular.
Thursday saw us head to Nairn.  After a long journey stuck behind every conceivable tractor, lorry and caravan possible, we ended up not teeing off until after 3.  It was sunny but very, very blowy.  The first three holes were into the teeth of it and having started double, bogey, par I was actually quite happy.  The greens weren't in spectacular condition, certainly the worst of the four courses, but nor where they unplayable.  The were very sanded and they have obviously had a few issues, but as you would expect from such an excellent club they are making the most of what are obviously difficult circumstances.  The setting is very attractive but the views just aren't quite as phenomenal as Dornoch, the gorse seems a little less yellow.  It is a first class track, and at £50 was the best value but as a course, as an experience, it wasn't able to quite hit the heights of its Royal neighbour.
My brother took the family honours.  Having played 3 rounds with 15 clubs in his bag I had tried to get the stewards to disqualify him, but his 5 point margin of victory just reflected his abilities over the 4 rounds.  He played the best, and but for a nightmare day on the greens at Tain, 7 three putts if I remember, he would have won a lot more comfortably.
I know many of us go on golf holidays and trips, and they are truly excellent occasions. One thing I urge us all to do is make the effort to go and play in far flung corners of the country. There are some magnificent tracks in the British Isles, and of course, Ireland.  And they are well worth a visit.  Till next time, keep your head down...
- Tom Cates


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