Golfing in Scotland
The benign North Sea waves were gently caressing the wide, sandy beach to my right with a rhythmical murmur as I stood on the 7th tee at Aberdeen's Murcar Links and lined up my drive. Ahead, the hole plunged down to a fairway criss-crossed by the two-pronged Serpentine burn and edged by a huge dune thickly carpeted in bright yellow gorse.
My ears were still ringing from the warning of a playing partner, a near-as-damn-it scratch golfer native to north-east Scotland, when we were climbing up to the tee box of the 423-yard, par-4 hole. "This is one of them hardest holes of golf in Scotland," he had said.
My drive somehow went arrow-straight, soaring high into the cloudless sky and ending in prime position on the fairway. Amazingly, my next shot was also a peach, coming up just short of the green and setting up a chip to secure a rare par. Rare for a 23 handicapper, that is.
It was the highlight of my round. But the real stars were the wonderful but testing old links course - which celebrates its centenary this year and which uses the contours of the sandhills to create a delightfully natural layout with superb views from its elevated tees and the astonishing weather. This was the beginning of April, and yet we were in shirtsleeves as though it was mid-summer. To borrow Visit Scotland's new promotion slogan, it was a perfect day for golf.
Similar balmy weather had greeted us the previous day at nearby Cruden Bay. Another gem of a course set right on the coast, its present layout dates back to 1926 although golf is reputed to have been played here since 1791.
But our luck ran out the following day at the prestigious Royal Aberdeen Golf Club. A chilly fog had blown in overnight off the North Sea, shrouding everything in a murky embrace and steadily soaking us with the drizzle being borne on the fresh breeze. The weather could not have been more different. Yet Royal Aberdeen lies cheek-by-jowl with Murcar, to the point where as you make theturn after the front nine and head back to the clubhouse you walk by Murcar's 4th tee.
You could easily carry on playing the adjacent course if you weren't paying attention. Indeed, we were told that a group of Americans had done just that while playing Royal Aberdeen a few years ago. Instead of turning for the back nine, they accidentally continued onto Murcar's holes - only realising their mistake when they finished at a different clubhouse, and sheepishly had to get a taxi back to Royal Aberdeen to retrieve their car.
Both Royal Aberdeen and Murcar are just five minutes by road from Scotland's third city and Europe's oil capital, Aberdeen. Yet this beautiful, rugged coastal stretch of gorse and heather-covered sandhills - where American tycoon Donald Trump has won permission to build his huge, controversial Trump International Golf Links golf course, housing and luxury hotel project - is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Granite City.
Originally founded in 1780 as the Society of Golfers at Aberdeen, the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club incorporated the society on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and is the sixth oldest golf club in the world. Historic relics adorn its clubhouse, and golfing history permeates the air.
Golf's five-minute rule was first introduced here, in 1783, setting golfers a time limit of five minutes to find their ball before it is declared lost. It was a rule I did not bother taking advantage of each time my ball disappeared into a clump of gorse, my lack of ability having been found out by the tough, tight Balgownie Links layout and themiserable, dreaky conditions.
This was my first visit to Aberdeenshire; previous golfing forays north of the border had taken me to the west coast and around central Scotland. I had joined a group trip discovering the golf delights and other attractions of the Grampian region coast before going off by myself to revisit one of my favourite areas, the Trossachs, followed by a long overdue pilgrimage to golf's Holy Grail - St Andrews.
Less celebrated than many of Scotland's other courses, this Aberdeen trio is as fine a collection of golf links as you will find anywhere. And the city and surrounding area has much else to offer besides.
This part of Scotland is synonymous with whisky-making and the Highland village of Old Meldrum, just 12 miles from Aberdeen Airport, has a distillery which has been producing single malt Scotch whisky for more than 200 years. Part of Japanese-owned Morrison Bowmore, the Glen Garioch distillery (www.glengarioch.co.uk) has had a chequered history and reopened for production as recently as 1997, having been closed two years earlier.
Guided tours are offered daily from 10am-3pm, Monday to Friday, including whisky tasting. Our tour guide pointed out some village buildings downwind of the distillery's huge, now redundant chimneys which he told us once housed the local alcohol rehabilitation centre. Talk about being cruel to be kind.
Another tradition in the area is shortbread; you can tour the factory of family-run Dean's of Huntly (www.deans.co.uk), which produces some of Scotland's finest shortbread biscuits, using recipes created by Helen Dean in her kitchen in the 1970s. Her son, Bill, runs the factory today.
Aberdeen makes a great base to play the area's courses, with fine eateries including the Albyn, offering French-Scottish cuisine. The Marcliffe Hotel is a five-star sanctuary in the city with a putting green to practice on before your round and a spa to ease aching muscles afterwards.
After Aberdeen, I headed south to revisit Gleneagles, one of my favourite golf resorts and venue for the 2014 Ryder Cup. This grand old lady, set in 850 acres of beautiful Perthshire countryside an hour's drive from Edinburgh and Glasgow, was built 85 years ago. A recent £70 million makeover has included the addition of a new wing with 59 rooms, many featuring balconies and cosy fires, and 10 luxury Spirit suites.
There are three courses at Gleneagles. The Ryder Cup will be played on the newest of them, the PGA Centenary Course (formerly the Monarch's Course) which was created by Jack Nicklaus. On my previous visit I had played the Queen's, enduring a nightmare round straight after a video lesson at the golf academy and then witnessing a playing partner achieve that rarest of feats -a hole in one albatross on a par four.
On this occasion I took on the tougher King's. Getting the first tee time of the day, I had the course to myself, save for the pheasants, curlews and deer which graced it throughout the round. It felt more like a wildlife ramble than a game of golf.
Sadly, there was no time to try the resort's many other leisure facilities, among them its chic Spa by ESPA and outdoor experiences such as off-road driving, shooting and fishing, falconry and an equestrian school.
I took a break from golf to live like a laird for a day at Dalhousie Castle, a fabulous 13th century fortress south of Edinburgh now part of the luxury von Essen Hotels group. While it has no golf course alongside, there are numerous courses in the area.
There can't be many hotels where you dine in a vaulted dungeon, with a suit of armour standing guard!
My final destination was St Andrews. An important trading centre for many centuries, the town oozes history from every stone. A Greek monk is said to have brought the relics of St Andrew, who became Scotland's patron saint and whose saltire cross was adopted as the national flag. Stately ruins tell of centuries of influence,power and strife.
I played two rounds while at St Andrews. My first was on the Kittocks Course at Fairmont St Andrews, one of two courses at the luxury golf and spa resort which has just undergone a £17 million refurbishment programme - the other being the Torrance Course, which reopens in July after major redevelopment. The course hugs the cliff edge, giving wonderful views to the town on some holes, and features double greens and tough bunkers.
On my last day in Scotland I got to fulfil the dream all golfers harbour; a round on the most hallowed piece of turf in golf, the Old Course. Having got my tee time from the starter and joined a group of three golfers from Bristol, I nervously teed my ball up in front of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club - the governing body for the rules of golf in most countries.
I'm not sure how, but I didn't duff my tee shot. Nerves got the better of me for much of the round but I did manage to play a few good shots, including the daunting drive on the 17th - the infamous Road Hole - where you have to flirt with the old railway sheds by the Old Course Hotel. I also managed to avoid Hell, the notorious and cavernous bunker on the 14th. And we all stopped for the obligatory photo of each other standing on the famous humpbacked Swilcan Bridge, bathed in sunshine on the 18th fairway.
A perfect end to a memorable golf trip.
Scotland GOLF facts
Perfect golf breaks
Enjoy a perfect golf break in Scotland this year during the Homecoming Scotland campaign, celebrating Robert Burns
250th anniversary.Aberdeenshire, St Andrews and Perthshire are among destinations to enjoy a golf break in the home of golf.
For more information or to plan your break to Scotland, go to: www.visitscotland.com/perfectday or call 0845 22 55 121. For golf information, go to: www.visitscotland.com/perfectgolf
Flights operate from London region airports to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Trains also operate from Kings Cross on the National Express East Coast line to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Leuchars (for St Andrews) and Gleneagles.
Green fees vary from course to course and by season. High season (May- October) green fees for Royal Aberdeen are £100 weekdays/£120 weekends. For the Old Course, high season costs £130 per round, and at Gleneagles, high season green fees for all three courses are £110 for residents and £155 for visitors. Passes are available for some areas of Scotland.
You can hone your game alongside the Old Course at the St Andrews Links Golf Academy (www.standrews.org.uk). It boasts one of Europe's foremost practice and teaching facilities, with a 51-bay centre and video and digital swing analysis. The Gleneagles Golf Academy boasts a 320-yard, double-ended driving range.
- Royal Aberdeen Golf Club www.royalaberdeengolf.com
- Cruden Bay Golf Club www.crudenbaygolfclub.co.uk
- Murcar Links Golf Club www.murcarlinks.com
- Gleneagles www.gleneagles.com
- St Andrews Links Trust www.standrewsgolf.org
- The Marcliffe Hotel, Spa & Restaurant www.marcliffe.com
- Gleneagles www.gleneagles.com
- Dalhousie Castle www.vonessenhotels.co.uk
- Fairmont St Andrews www.standrewsbay.com
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you take a golfing break to Scotland.