It’s only April 21 and the grass on Scottish golf courses is already lush. The gorse is in full bloom and oozing that marzipan odour that must drive the bees wild.
I was playing an Open Texas Scramble at Murcar Golf Club. Two groups of 4 from my home course were participating, most of who had just got back the day before from a skiing holiday in Switzerland and one of whom had done some serious damage to her shoulder ligaments, not tumbling down piste but falling out of a hot tub. I was drafted in as the sub (No, not in the hot tub).
Actually, thinking it was a woman they needed (4 men & 4 ladies) I was going to offer to ‘go in drag’ but that weak attempt at a joke backfired on me badly. I only got as far as saying “I’ll play…” which was instantly accepted and there was no get out. We hit the links at 1pm and it was windy, a stiff east to southeasterly that in spite of bright spring sunshine, had a bite to it. This unusual wind direction had the effect of skyjacking reasonably hit drives and sending them westward. But there’s always a breeze along Scotland’s northeast coast so it doesn’t matter which way the wind blows, gorse and rough are bound to come into play.
The course normally opens with two easy Par 4’s but the 1st, almost directly into the zephyr gave us a taste of things to come. It is at the 3rd that the links characteristics become exaggerated and the gorse on the right truly threatens. Its green nestles in a natural bowl of dunes. Murcar stands cheek to jowl with Royal Aberdeen Golf Club at the 3rd and 4th and has perhaps suffered a little from that close relationship. Both courses share the same stretch of duneland. But like two competitive sisters, one being a bit classier and better looking than the other, somehow Murcar missed out on the particular ‘Je ne sais quoi’ that sets Royal Aberdeen apart.
Perhaps having such a popular rival has acted as a spur to the Murcar club. They’ve certainly made big efforts over the past two or three years and like the springtime grass and gorse, the place is now blossoming. A much revamped clubhouse and the addition of a decent driving range & practice area make visitors feel better served, along with an excellent standard of clubhouse catering – more on that later.
My merry group made its tentative way scoring collective pars on most holes but nothing more startling. It was a Texas Scramble and our team had to score birdies to get anywhere near the prizes. Like Royal Aberdeen, Murcar’s front 9 has some good tests, not so much a chain of unadulterated links but more a medley of diverse playing propositions each calling for different approaches. What did come through on these early holes though is the significant improvement in the quality of this course. I’ve been marginally disappointed with Murcar in the past. It was a bit rough, pastoral in places particularly on the back-9 with slightly indifferent greenkeeping. But that seems to be behind them! Like their recently improved clubhouse, Murcar has been busy bringing the course up to current standards and attracting ever more significant events such as the European Seniors Tour in 2005 and the European Challenge Tour in 2006.
Originally laid out by Archie Simpson 100 years ago (this year), the first design was upgraded under the supervision of James Braid (which course didn’t that 5-times Open champion have a hand in).
The wide sands of Aberdeen’s coastline are most often in view “Even if you nail a straight drive it’s a long way home” Along with the most recent revamp (2007), there has been a rebranding - they now bill themselves as Murcar Links Golf Club. I have to pipe up at this stage though, I don’t really consider Murcar as a pure links. It’s more a links with a touch of headland/pastureland thrown in. Rather than the great, hairy sand dunes this coast is renowned for, there are several distinct hills and as you migrate inland, the nature of the turf is less linksy too. But it is still a reasonable test of anyone’s game. From a raised tee with the sea to the right, the 7th is about the best example on the course with two burns crossing the fairway. If you land left you could block yourself out with the gorse and hill. Even if you nail a straight drive it’s a long way home with a narrow entrance and two good greenside bunkers.
When we got to around the 9th, a big drive over a blind crest before rolling down towards the green, I pointed north where the rolling dunes continued like a shaggy old rug, rucked and rolling away into the haze of the North Sea. “See over there,” I announced to the guys. “That’s the greatest links course in the world!” And after suitable pause for effect, I added, “It just hasn’t been built yet.”
From Murcar all the way up to Cruden Bay Golf Club (around 20 miles further north), sandy dunes the likes of which this world might never know again, at least not until there’s another ice age followed by a thaw followed by land rising up from the sea followed by another few hundred years of wind-propelled sand-sculpturing. This is rare, antique land that a golf & property developer would flip his lid for. And he has! The inimitably coiffeured Mr Donald Trump has purchased a sizeable junk of this unique links landscape with plans for two world-class golf courses along with a 5-star hotel, millionaire-standard housing and other worldly delights. There was much consternation from the local planning authorities, so much so that it was left to the Scottish Office to sort it out. Now the green light’s on with hopes of work to commence this year.
Meanwhile, we began to realise we were playing slow. This was partially due to the group in front but I’m sure we were equally to blame. We anticipated some flack from the group behind us and our playing compadre, Steve T had a retort ready for them should they get shirty. “Look chaps, we must apologise for the group ahead – in fact, they’re our wives and we’ll give them a good rollicking when we get them home – oh, and by the way, the one with the beard is his, ” he added, pointing to me. Russell my next-door neighbour had elected (or was told) to play with the women. As it happened the trailing group didn’t complain until we reached the 14th by which time Steve had lost the inclination to deliver his one-liner.
And so we finally sailed in towards the clubhouse. It had been a long round, 5 hours in all, which is extraordinary for a Scottish outing. Having not played it very often, I can’t say I’m overly in favour of the Texas Scramble format. Working as a team it’s certainly sociable with everyone playing from the best ball position but it lacks the valorous determination you occasionally get from scrambling out of trouble and in spite of the odds, winning the hole. With the team deliberations and collecting of errant balls, it also seems slower which I didn’t think should be the case.
Part of the conversational theme with Tom and I, my driver of the day, had been clubhouse cuisine. Suffice to say Murcar’s exceeded all expectations. Scotland’s clubhouses are not renowned for quality provender and I often prefer just ‘going home’ or looking for a proper restaurant rather than put up with frozen chips and bought-in, microwaved entrees. Not so at Murcar! Between the eight of us we sampled most of what was left on the menu and each dish went down exceptionally well - compliments to the chef and his very helpful, cheery staff. Now here’s the clincher. I was £9.00 including a large glass of red and tip. How’s that for value!
As regards green fees, I’m not so sure the course is worth £70 a round. That’s over $100 USD. I suppose any decent visitor-type golf outing is around that price these days. Playing one of Murcar’s Open Competitions however provided the round for a mere £12.50 ($18.00) per person with the chance of winning some good prizes. This is clearly a great way to play most of Scotland’s second-tier courses and only calls for some advance planning and an authenticated handicap certificate. It would be wise to check all this before coming, but as mentioned you’d have to book well in advance anyway to arrange your place. For details of all Open Competitions throughout the UK visit - www.happygolf.co.uk
Murcar Golf Club
Bridge of Don
Grampian AB23 8BD
Tel: 01224 704354
Location: Off A90 at Murcar round-a-bout, approximately 5 miles north from Aberdeen centre following King Street.
Statistics: 18 holes, 6,325 yards, Par 71, SSS 72
Designer: Archie Simpson (1909)
Green Fees: Weekdays: £70 per round, £95 per day
Weekends: £95 per round Visitors: