Moray Golf Club
You’re neither a man nor golfer of much merit until you've played a Scottish links in rain, whipping wind and a barrage of hailstones.
I was driving up to Lossiemouth, a town on Scotland's cold northeast shoulder. The gnarled, knobby pine trees told me that I was nearing the coast; these weren’t the elegant umbrella Mediterranean Pines that you find in Spain or the South of France but the tougher Scots variety, reared in harder conditions, shorter, taciturn, almost bowed with belligerence.
Driving through Lossiemouth and breaching a hill, the view across the Moray Firth was quite breathtaking, galloping breakers working themselves up into an excited, frothy frenzy as they neared the shore, their white curls accentuated by the dark grey sky that obscured the Dornoch coastline to the north.
I’d been driving non-stop for two and a half hours through the City of Aberdeen and across Aberdeenshire hills. En-route the weather had taken a turn! “That’s not rain,” I thought as I came over Bin Hill outside Huntley, heading for Keith and Fochabers. “It’s snow!” Ok, to be precise it was sleet but I was determined to get an early season game of golf on a fast draining links like Moray Old, no matter what the weather.
I reached the 1st green and looked back towards the clubhouse. There was an advancing wall of grey. I hurried a drive at the 2nd before hailstones the size of Easter eggs began bouncing off the tee, greens and fairways. I don’t mind hailstones; at least they’re dry! After a minute the course was covered in . With the hail came a more pronounced wind, biting white bullets bouncing off my wet gear and more noticeably my exposed right cheek. Undeterred I marched on.
Crossing the fairly busy road at the 5th and 6th, I realized the giant green-keepers sheds that I had spotted from the advantage point of the clubhouse were actually green-painted, I suppose camouflaged aircraft hangers. Lossiemouth is the largest and busiest fast-jet base in the Royal Air Force, home to three squadrons of Tornado GR4s along with the more stately Sea King Search & Rescue helicopters. Here they train and prepare British air power for operations worldwide. It can therefore be noisy at times; the jets take off and land across the golf course. For players of a nervous disposition this could prove discouraging. Today was thankfully Sunday, a day of peace!
At the 6th, Gordonstoun, 133 yards off the visitor tee, I nailed a 7-iron at an obtuse angle into a side-wind thinking that club would be enough. The ball fell woefully short. This wind malarkey was becoming an issue. I sat down on a bench next to the tee dedicated to the memory of David Hoare to gather myself. I just wished I’d brought a hip flask, after all this is Malt Whisky country. I wondered if the spirit of the late Mr Hoare might lend me inspiration.
Still the hail, now mixed with raw, relentless rain, kept coming. The next think I expected was an aerial delivery of kitchen sinks. By the time I reached it, the 7th fairway was sodden, almost impassable. They’d had a fair amount of rain along the Moray Coast over previous weeks and even fast-draining ground like Moray’s has limitations. I hit what I suspected was a decent drive at the 7th, not able to look up into the stinging rain to follow the ball. I lost it! I suspected it submerged into one of the recently formed lakes in the middle of the fairway. I had to jump between grassy hillocks along the side of the fairway avoiding the puddles.
The 8th wasn’t much better - but at least now I had company. “You must be mad playing in this,” I cajoled the two RAF crewmen I’d caught up with on the 8th tee who were out looking for some R&R but were getting more S&M. Through the wind, rain, hail and gritted teeth, they laughed almost manically. One had just loosed his 3-wood into a gorse bush, his grip on the game and sanity seemingly slipping.
“Hey, they’ve got floodlit golf here,” I quipped pointing at the banks of lights lining the 8th fairway, trying to raise the servicemen's morale as you do in times of trouble. These were actually landing lights for the airstrip beyond the razor wire - as I well knew but my new pals were in need of encouragement. By the caliber of their game, they were trainees in this theatre at least, not yet battle hardened. We laughed at our bedraggled condition for another two holes before they decided to opt for the comfort of the clubhouse. The RAF wasn't what it used to be.
Meanwhile, by the 12th I was warming to the work. The remaining holes were drier underfoot and the rain/sleet mix had abated. Playing out to the extremes to compensate for the wind was becoming quite amusing, banging drives at acute angles over gorse and dunes and watching them curve like a heat-seeking Excocet missiles, bringing the ball back into play. This was great fun! Out on the bay, a wind surfer was having a ball of his own flying with the seagulls with impossibly high leaps. Back on the course, occasionally I got my trajectory wrong or for some other reason the ball went straight instead of curving. But generally the wind was consistent enough to forecast results. It was glorious! At the 16th with a lovely view along the beach back towards the town, I banked the ball almost over the sandy strip between sea and golf course and watched it arc back greenwards and roll towards the pin. A birdie on a day like this was doubly gratifying. A note on Moray Old’s impeccable greens; here the ball went straight. I kept looking for indiscernible breaks or wind-drift but even in November these greens were as smooth and true as the best of them. On a dry day they would be fiery. I stopped at the 17th tee to look out again across the Firth. Rain hung like chain curtains over the Firth. There was no colour out there, just shades of black and white. It was dramatic and soul-stirring.
The 18th is recognised as one of Scotland’s best Par 4’s and today it was almost unplayable, the wind pushing me off balance and confining the ball to 120 yard dunts at best. Three solid strikes got me onto the high plateau green and down in two - so a bogey was more than acceptable to finish.
I wouldn’t say it was my best round of golf but it was certainly one of the most invigorating. Back in the shop, I ask PGA Pro John Murray what he thought about the routing of Moray Old. I had a niggling little impression that there was a section from the 5th to the 9th close to the airbase that was not all it could have been. Incorporating a few holes closer to the beach from the New course would surely make one of the best links stretches in Scotland. There seemed a tiny twinkle of agreement but John wouldn’t say anything out loud against the Old course. “One or two of the members have brought this up,” he acquiesced, “but no more has ever been said.” I sensed any such suggestions would be deferentially dismissed. You don’t mess with an Old Tom Morris original. As it stands, Moray Old is still one of the premier links courses in the Home of Golf and I’d be back as soon as possible – hopefully on a slightly less challenging day.
The warm glow of clubhouse at the top of the hill was attractive but my car in the visitor car park was nearby and the thought of a hot bath back at the Knockomie House Hotel was too enticing! But Moray... I will be back!