The sixth tee of the Brora Golf Club, in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, affords the golfer one of the game's more majestic views. To the right lies the glistening North Sea. To the left unfolds a panoramic vista of sublime links fairways. From this vantage point, much of the out-and-back layout can be seen, and as I stood on this tee box on a sun-dappled September day, I took the opportunity to count the number of golfers on the course. It didn't take long. There were three, including me.
If a place such as Brora resided in the United States, golfers would sleep in their cars for a tee time. Were it located in one of Scotland's more populous areas, its parking lot would be lined with the idling buses of the package-tour masses. But Brora is in the Highlands, a windswept land of magnificent links where crowds are rarely seen and pretension is never tolerated. It is a land of golf courses without golf carts. A land where dropping greens fees into an "honesty box" feels akin to placing offerings into a collection plate. A land that experienced its most recent golf course building boom during the heyday of the nineties—the eighteen-nineties.
Somewhat shocking to those who visited here in decades past, the Scottish Highlands is also now a land of fine cuisine and first-rate hotels. Choking down burnt haddock and navigating the undulations of old mattresses are no longer the inevitable price paid for getting one's passport stamped.
Still, a good meal and a good bed are not really why anyone should travel to the Highlands. You come here if you're tired of having five attendants vie for the honor of cleaning your clubs. You come here to feel, through your feet, the land that inspired Old Tom Morris, Donald Ross and James Braid. You come here, in other words, for the golf—pure and simple.
Golf Road, Dornoch; 011-44/1862-810-219, royaldornoch.com. Yardage: 6,682. Par: 70. Architects: Old Tom Morris, 1886; Donald Ross, circa 1895; John Sutherland, 18901910. Greens Fees: $137$152. T+L GOLF Rating: *****
Donald Ross called it "the most beautifully situated links in the world." Herbert Warren Wind declared, "No golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch." Tom Watson heralded it as "one of the great courses of the five continents. A natural masterpiece. I have played none finer." Indeed, were it not for Dornoch's remote locale, this glorious links would surely have been overrun long ago by the been-there-played-that crowd—and also lost the modest ambience that makes its every round a religious affair. Here, golfers launch drives over plummeting chasms and ponder approaches to upwelling greens. They navigate fanciful drop-offs, strike triple-breaking fifty-yard putts and fall prey to mysterious swales. Through it all, they will commune with holes so brilliantly conceived by Old Tom Morris and Ross that they seem not to have been designed but conjured from the land. A land that was not turned into a golf course but one that turned those who walked it into golfers.
BOAT OF GARTEN GOLF CLUB
Nethybridge Road, Boat of Garten; 011-44/1479-831-282, boatgolf.com. Yardage: 5,876. Par: 70. Architect: James Braid, 1932. Greens Fees: $56$65. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
With whimsical holes bounding over hills and heather and framed by billowy silver birch trees, Boat of Garten feels like a course designed by J.R.R. Tolkien. This delightful layout, however, is clearly the work of James Braid. Composed of a surfeit of testing doglegs and plateau greens, the Boat offers a sterling example of Braid's ability to design to the contours of the landscape. Holes dart into woods and plunge down mogul-run fairways, rising to offer stunning views of the Cairngorm Mountains. Indeed, the only reminder of the outside world comes from the whistle of a nearby steam locomotive. As for the challenge of this par-seventy test: The amateur course record is a sixty-seven. Seventy years of play on a course of less than 6,000 yards, and the best showing is three under par?Braid rests easy in his grave.
CARNEGIE LINKS AT SKIBO CASTLE
Skibo Castle, Dornoch; 011-44/1862-894-600, carnegieclub.co.uk. Yardage: 6,671. Par: 71. Architects: Donald Steel and Tom MacKenzie, 1995. Greens Fee: Free to members and guests of the Carnegie Club. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
Those who say money can't buy happiness have never set foot on the Carnegie Links. When Skibo Castle owner Peter de Savary opened the course a decade ago on a stunning peninsula four miles west of Royal Dornoch, Donald Steel and Tom MacKenzie were universally praised for having coaxed a classic links with cleverly sloping greens from this rolling grassy canvas. The catch was (and still is) that only members and guests of Skibo Castle, who pay four figures per night, can play it. The property has since been bought by a consortium of members (see page tk) who have made the course even better, thanks to some recent subtle redesigns and gorse removal that opened up views of the Struie Mountains and the Dornoch Firth. All in all, a grand reward for the price of a night at the castle.
NAIRN GOLF CLUB
Seabank Road, Nairn; 011-44/1667-453-208, nairngolfclub.co.uk. Yardage: 6,721. Par: 72. Architects: Old Tom Morris, 1890; James Braid, 190926. Greens Fee: $143. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
Since it hosted the Walker Cup in 1999, the Nairn Golf Club has seen its reputation grow exponentially. While Dornoch has long been considered the first tee time to make in the Highlands, conventional wisdom now has it that Nairn is the second. A classic links layout that boasts the dream team design pairing of Old Tom Morris and James Braid, Nairn features an outward nine that meanders west along the stunning banks of the Moray Firth. On the day I played, it also meandered directly into a 60 m.p.h. head wind (which the locals take great pleasure in referring to as "Nairn breezes"). Such prevailing winds frequently wreak havoc on play at Nairn, a course whose holes are lined with a litany of hazards: thick galleries of gorse, strategic mounding and burns, plentiful waste areas and more than 100 revetted bunkers. Said "breezes" can also render putting on Nairn's enormous, contoured greens akin to an act of faith.
BRORA GOLF CLUB
Golf Road, Brora; 011-44/1408-621-417, broragolf.co.uk. Yardage: 6,110. Par: 69. Architects: John Sutherland, 1891; James Braid, 1924. Greens Fees: $56$65. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
Rarely is a course known more for the livestock that graze on it than for the golfers who play it, but such is the case with Brora. Due to ancient grazing rights that continue to this day, local sheep and cattle roam freely over this linksland—electrified wire fences restrict them from the greens. Persistent chomping keeps the rough wispy and forgiving . . . and then there are the cow patties, so ubiquitous that a local rule designates them "casual water." But a cow pasture this is not. Indeed, Brora's craggy landscape is frequently compared to the terrain of North Berwick, and Braid's clever routing here makes the £25 he earned for the work seem, in retrospect, quite the bargain.
DURNESS GOLF CLUB
The Bungalow, Durness; 011-44/1971-511-364, durnessgolfclub.org. Yardage: 5,555. Par: 70. Architects: Francis Keith, Lachlan Ross, Ian Morrison, 1988. Greens Fee: $28. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
Tucked far, far away on the northern Highlands coast, Durness is a nine-holer routed less than two decades ago by three local golfers with virtually no design experience. It seems inconceivable that such a course could achieve the cult status it now holds—inconceivable, that is, to those who've never been to this distant gem. The holes run high along coastal promontories, then plummet inland down roller-coaster fairways, offering views of the North Sea, barren mountains and marram-covered dunes. In truth, Durness is blessed with such an abundance of scenery one is hard-pressed to concentrate on the golf at hand. The last hole is one of the game's most spectacular, a bold par three across a gap in the cliffs to a green on the edge of the world.
GOLSPIE GOLF CLUB
Ferry Road, Golspie; 011-44/1408-633-266, golspie-golf-club.co.uk. Yardage: 5,990. Par: 69. Architect: James Braid, 1905. Greens Fee: $46. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
A round at the unconventional Golspie is a uniquely tri-polar experience: A six-hole stretch of seaside links is followed by a half-dozen heathland holes, while the final third plays through parkland. It's a testament to the genius of James Braid that it all feels not disjointed but delightful. Indeed, each movement is so equally pleasing that even locals can't agree on which is best. Some prefer the rollicking links, whose wild fairways tack along a salty seawall of boulders. Others rave about the second act, "Paradise Corner," which rises into heathland laced with heather, gorse and pines. One suspects that those who prefer the testing parkland holes are merely partial to the pint that awaits them in Golspie's unpretentious clubhouse.