Like our trips to the Western Isles and Orkney last year, this 6-9 June 2011 trip to the Shetland Isles had required extensive planning. The courses we would be playing were remote and the Whalsay course was at the far end of a 5-mile long island requiring a 30 minute ferry journey from the main island in the Shetland archipelago, so we agreed that I'd take my 4 x 4 on the 12-hour overnight ferry from Aberdeen, so that we'd have a car available. I'd used that ferry many times over the past 10 years in my previous job as Head of Ferry Operations so I was looking forward to that leg of the journey. Craig and Stu were to take an early morning flight to Shetland from Aberdeen and meet me around 0900 in Lerwick, the main settlement in Shetland. We were then to go over to play the 18 hole course on Whalsay and return in time to play at Asta that evening. It doesn't really get completely dark in Shetland at this time of year and even midnight golf is possible (and some night-time competitions are a highlight of the Shetland golf calendar). Craig and Stu both enjoy practical jokes, so it was no great surprise when Craig texted me at 0600 on 7 June (an hour before my ferry was due to dock at Lerwick), to say that they'd both slept in and had missed their early flight. I had their clubs in my car to help minimise their flight costs, but the question was, could they still do the trip? A quick phone call confirmed that the guys were not joking (and had clearly been enjoying some refreshments into the wee small hours). Flights to Shetland are usually quite busy, but as it turned out, there were 2 seats left on the 0945 flight and I really have to admire Craig and Stu's talent for negotiating their way onto that flight at no extra cost.
I'd been planning a leisurely breakfast, but I now had some time to recce the Asta and Lerwick courses before picking the guys up at the airport and heading off to catch a ferry to Whalsay. The Lerwick course looked to be alarmingly wet and hilly. We'd expected Asta to be a 9 hole course, but as I quickly realised, there were actually 2 courses there in a unique course layout (but more about that in due course). We'd known that Whalsay was the most northerly (and easterly) course in Scotland and that it was at the top end of the island, but apart from that we'd not known what to expect. Shetland is generally very peaty and windy (hence the almost complete absence of trees), so it was no surprise to find the Whalsay course was peat based, with a few lochans and areas where the land was so saturated that we were almost walking on the equivalent of a water-bed. The greater surprise was that the course was located on ground surrounded by the sea, with high cliffs on the back 9 adding to the spectacular views. Indeed, the course was a bit like the more famous Old Head of Kinsale course in Ireland (at a tiny fraction of the green fees!), with the course laid out on a promontory of land jutting out into the sea. This is a view of the 1st from the left of the fairway. There's nothing manicured about Whalsay and the sheep added character (and natural fertiliser) to the course. The 1st is called "Auld Hoose" for obvious reasons, but we could only wonder about the harsh winter conditions living in such a tiny and basic croft house. Although Shetland's latitude means it doesn't really get fully dark during high Summer, the Winters are long, cold and dark, as I know from previous work-related visits to these islands.
This is a photo of the guys (Stu to the left, Craig on the right), walking off the 4th green. The 4th tee was on the narrow spit of land to Stu's left, but as we had the course almost to ourselves (only a few hundred people live on Whalsay anyway) we hit some old balls over to the small island in the middle distance. Craig's cleared the island and landed in the sea on the other side, but if money was no object, there's land over there to make a spectacular hole or two! I'd gone out in an unremarkable 43, or 8 over par. The main problem was that since the ground was so peaty, it retained water easily, meaning that there was no run on most shots. We had all been under-clubbing and leaving our putts short, but the views were fabulous and we didn't really mind.
I guess we were all pretty tired by the time we reached the turn (it had already been a long day and dinner was some hours and another ferry journey away). Accordingly, we hadn't focused on the fact that on the most northerly course there had to be a most northerly hole. This turned out to be the 11th, a formidable 202 yard Par 3. This is me putting for par on the 11th watched by a solitary spectator (I missed!). The front 9 had been closer to sea level, but from the 12th onwards the Whalsay course was laid out high above the sea, with some truly outstanding holes.
This is the 13th, named "Water Hole", a 337 yard uphill Par 4 that played to nearer 400 yards. I'd missed the green to the right, avoiding a treacherous water hazard in front of the green that was cleverly hidden from view back down the fairway. A good pitch to within a few inches and I'd finally scored my second par in the round. Remarkably, I went on to par the next 2 holes a 165 yard Par 3 and a 490 yard par 5. By then I thought that I might rescue a decent score, but it was not to be.
Next came the outstanding 16th hole, a steeply downhill 375 yard Par 4. There's a small rise to the 16th tee from the 15th green, and although you know you're near to some high cliffs and have great views out to sea, the view from the 16th tee must be one of the best I've ever seen on a golf course, anywhere. We stood there for quite a while, just admiring the view (sadly, the photo below doesn't really do it justice). The safe option is to aim right, staying well away from the cliffs and a sadistic greens convener would put some bunkers or heavy rough down the right side to prevent such a conservative approach. However, Whalsay is a small club and probably doesn't need to lose any of its members to the effects of gravity. I'd come up just short of the green with my 7 iron second shot, alarmingly close to the cliff edge. The ball was clearly in play but with a 200 foot drop had I slipped, a generous free drop (well, it was a friendly bounce game) was the only safe option. The photo above is me trying to figure out how to play a 40 yard pitch over a deep chasm in the cliff face between me and the green. I bogeyed the 16th but didn't care, as this was simply a great, great hole.
As we feared, the downhill 16th, would be followed by an uphill Par 4 17th, the last thing we needed giving our flagging energy. This is a long 381 yards, playing to 425 yards at least, so another bogey there. And so to the last, the feature hole on the front of the Whalsay scorecard. This is a 360 yard Par 4 skirting a small loch, played from an elevated tee with something like a 290 yard carry. We'd had a great time on Whalsay, but given the distance and cost involved in getting there, we agreed that it was unlikely that we'd be back. Stu and I opted for the safe route around the loch, but even then, I was too ambitious in trying to carry some of the loch, so that decision cost me a newish ball and yet another bogey. I'd gone round in 86, net 76, with 32 putts. Not bad, I suppose. Craig succeeded in carrying the water with his third ball, but we'd given him a couple of Mulligans. An awesome drive, though.
As Craig commented at the time, it's a pity that the soil is so peaty as a more sandy soil would make Whalsay an outstanding links course. However, that's clearly not a possibility and we'll just have to take Whalsay for what it is, a lovely natural course with great views and some truly memorable holes. If you are ever lucky enough to play here, take an extra club for your second shots and if the wind blows as it can up there, take at least 2 extra clubs per shot and hold on to your hat. When we'd finished the round we had a blether with some local members, complementing them on their course. I'd learnt over the years to understand and appreciate the Shetland dialect and the many Norse words that feature in it, so I understood their comments to the effect that the Whalsay course was better than the Lerwick GC course at Dale, a couple of miles outside Lerwick. As we were to discover the next morning, they were right.
I'd booked a space on the 1615 hrs ferry from Whalsay but we'd missed that as a result of the earlier delays. However, the next ferry was at 1700 hrs and we might just about make it if we dragged ourselves away from the course and its friendly members. I managed to get us there, negotiating 4 miles on a very narrow single track road in decent time, but by the time we reached the ferry terminal there was already a substantial queue. There was one small space left by the time my 4 x 4 was loaded, leaving only a few inches to spare, but we were safely on our way back to Lerwick. Although it would still be possible to play at Asta given the many hours of daylight remaining, we were all pretty knackered and we agreed that we'd tackle Lerwick GC first thing next morning and do Asta after that. That, at least, was the plan, but first we had to negotiate a night out in Lerwick. Now why on earth did I think that Chicken Volcano (with the highest possible 3 chilli rating) would be a good idea in the excellent Thai restaurant that we found?