Trip Dispatch: Sunny days in the Scottish Highlands


The third year was the charm for Aberdeen Asset Management host Castle Stuart in the Scottish Highlands.

NAIRN, Scotland -- I saw the forecast, I just didn't believe it.

So as I stood sweating on the 12th tee of Boat of Garten, a classic heathland course in the Scottish Highlands' Cairngorms National Park, wearing thick corduroy pants and begging for a breath of wind, I had no one to blame but myself.

This was my third visit to the Scottish Highlands, and this time, I'd apparently caught the region in the midst of one of the great warm spells of this generation. The day we were in Dornoch, the beach was buzzing with activity unlike anything I'd seen previously. Beach-goers were even (gasp) swimming in the water of the North Sea.

Down the road, the sun greeted golfers competing in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, which had three rounds of benign conditions before the breeze picked up in the final round. It served as a tidy warmup for the upcoming Open Championship at Muirfield in East Lothian, which by all accounts has been dried to a bone in preparation.

The cooperating weather was a fitting end to Castle Stuart's three year stint with the event. The inaugural event in 2011 was plagued with torrential downpours and a mudslide. For a region once known by Americans as a mysterious land well north of St. Andrews, known only because Tom Watson visited in 1981 and raved about it, it's now internationally known and proven capable of hosting world class events. Its first crack was with the Walker Cup in 1999 and now it's a Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open fixture with a fourth tentatively scheduled for 2016.  

For now, the Highlands will take a step back. Royal Aberdeen hosts the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in 2014 as part of the the new plan to showcase the event on links courses throughout Scotland.

'In fairness to all parts of Scotland,' said Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland. 'There will be no shortage of candidates [to host the event] because there is no shortage of outstanding links courses.'

This week, the many courses of the Highlands near Castle Stuart were on display to the 66,000 fans in attendance who wanted to make the event as their centerpiece. The main hub of Inverness has the infrastructure to host the open comfortably without making traffic or accommodations an ordeal, but it's small enough to bump into groups of European Tour players about town in search of a bite to eat. 

My group spent the week enjoying a varied collection of sunny and dry courses. The lies were tight, whether it was a heathland like Grantown on Spey or Boat of Garten in the national park, or storied links like Dornoch and Nairn.

Boat of Garten

Teeing off on the elevated 12th hole at Boat of Garten.  

As deep as the Highlands' roster of courses have become, the magnet is still Royal Dornoch. It's where Donald Ross learned the game and the spot where golf has been played in some form since 1616. The club is already planning a 400-year celebration to mark the occasion in 2016.

It was my third loop around Royal Dornoch and the course felt like something entirely different from what I'd seen previously. Despite calm conditions, it's hard to believe the course could play any firmer than it is, as the highlands hadn't seen rain in over a month. While firm fairways, the greens, treacherously hard, required deft touch. The course's tabletop greens, infamous in any conditions, were particularly firm and menacing to mis-hits.

'We've been waiting 5-6 years to get the course like this,' noted Royal Dornoch's General Manager, Neil Hampton. 'No irrigation, just let the ball roll.'

Royal Dornoch

Royal Dornoch is playing the firmest and fastest of the Highlands links courses this summer. 

As famous as Dornoch's greens are, at Nairn Golf Club just east of Inverness, they are every bit as impressive. An out-and-back links that feature the first seven holes played along the beach, tourists will adore the scenery. Low-handicappers, like those who competed in the 1999 Walker Cup, will appreciate challenge, highlighted by the great variety of green complexes first laid out by Old Tom Morris and later by James Braid and Ben Sayers.

There is news for golfers in the Highlands: limited public play is now being offered at The Carnegie Club, an exclusive club three miles from Dornoch. Built when Andrew Carnegie took over the spectacular, 7,500-acre Skibo Castle estate, it was revamped as a links style course by architect Donald Steel in 1998. While a fantastic course, it's just a sliver of leisure options available to members here. The course is surrounded on three sides by water. Holes border the calm Loch Evelix on the majority of the back nine, while the holes that stretch along the southern side overlook the Dornoch Firth and Dornoch Bridge.

Skibo Castle

Skibo Castle (left) and The Carnegie Club near Dornoch make for a most exclusive Highlands stay-and-play. 

We played Carnegie on the 5th day of our golf trip, but it wasn't until we were on the 16th tee, a long, straightaway par 4, that a noticeable headwind suddenly stared us down. 

Wearing the same thick corduroys, I cracked a low draw down the middle and, at last, it the most comfortable I'd felt on the course all week.