Monday, 27 August 2012

Helmsdale GC - Course no 533

This is a short 1860 Yard Par 30 heathland course on the outskirts of the small fishing village of Helmsdale on the coastal A9 road between Thurso and Inverness.  The course is maintained through the voluntary efforts of its small and hardy band of club members, so there's nothing too grand about this course.  Indeed, in many ways this is golf at its most basic.   I suspect that the club simply does not have the revenue stream, manpower, time or machinery to maintain the course to the highest possible standards, but as with the many other small clubs that are kept going by their local communities, I applaud the efforts being made by the small Helmsdale community to keep this course open. 
Helmsdale starts with a 256 Yard Par 4.  There's a marker pole but I strongly recommend you go forward to identify where you might try to land your ball in the hope of finding it again as this and most of the other holes are bordered by heavy rough, heather, bracken and/or gorse, with narrow fairways.  The next hole is a 92 yard downhill Par 3.  Just find and hold the green and hit your putt(s) hard enough.  When I played here on 25 August 2012 the greens had certainly been cut that month, but I wouldn't like to guess when.  The 3rd is an uphill 137 Yard Par 3 to a small green.  Next comes the remarkable 4th, a 301 yard straight Par 4.  Play your drive over the middle of the gap between gorse bushes at the top of a ridge running across the width of the hole.  I managed that and missed the fairway by a yard.  Mind you, the fairway was only 2 yard wide, as this photo of my bag demonstrates.  OK, your ball might be visible from the top of the ridge if you are as lucky as I was, but the lush thick rough beyond the "fairway" was a good 4 inches long.  As I said, the club's resources are probably very limited, but this hole was just bizarre.
Next comes the 5th, a 179 Yard Par 3 requiring the straightest of drives to avoid more deadly rough.  The 6th offers some light relief by means of a 308 Yard hole with a fairway that even I could hit without too much anxiety (well, it was a very old ball!)  A ditch and hedge runs across the fairway and I wisely chose to lay up short and chip over the hedge to the small green.  The 7th is Stroke Index 1, a 238 Yard Par 3, no less, better played as a short Par 4 if you want to be sure to see your ball again.  The 8th is a blind Par 3 of 167 Yards, with no marker pole.  There's a course map on the scorecard, but you'll probably want to take a wander up the hole before teeing off, avoiding any balls struck on the 7th hole, which cuts across the 8th (the 8th green lies some way beyond the small gap in the wall that's visible from the tee if you don't want to go exploring before teeing off).  This is the 9th, a downhill 192 Yard Par 3, which plays a club less than you'd expect.
I went round Helmsdale in 35, net 29.5 just under the net par with 15 putts and the same elderly golf ball, now resting in a gorse bush behind this, the final green.  Helmsdale is a very long drive from East Lothian and although I'd happily play some of the other local courses again, I doubt I'll ever play this particular course again.  The Helmsdale course is certainly quirky and if you do play it sometime, for goodness sake take some old balls and your sense of humour with you.  You might just need them.

Wick GC - Course no 532

This is a truly great 18 hole classic links course, 9 holes out, 9 holes back, located behind towering sand dunes just outside the town of Wick on the far North East corner of the Scottish mainland.  The famous course designer James Braid at his very best.  A local member told me that the course was in fabulous condition thanks to the work of a new and hugely hard-working young greenkeeper.  Rain was threatening, but it was warm and sunny and the course was almost deserted apart from the 3-ball in front, who kindly let me through on the 2nd hole (and who unfortunately took a soaking long after I'd finished just as the rain started in earnest, having fallen at least 4 holes behind me).  The Wick course measures just 5777 Yards Par 69 from the Yellow tees and as the man said, was in fabulous condition, with fast-running fairways and superb greens.  The prevailing wind helps going out and with the threatened rain fast approaching as I made my way through the Back 9, the prevailing wind made life interesting on the way back. I needed to score well on the way out and was only 1 over after 6, which for me was pretty good. The fairways were surprisingly wide and with the wind helping to keep things straight, I was out in 39 in little over an hour.  This is the 12th green, offering a tantalising glimpse of the sea and a more obvious hint of the rain on its way.
In addition to the crumpled and rolling fairways that are so typical of Scottish links courses offering all sorts of fair and unfair random bounces, Wick's greens are great fun to play, with some fiendishly difficult slopes to figure out.  For example, this is the 13th green.  I avoided the dreaded 3-putt, finishing with 31 putts in total, but I got lucky more than once after mis-reading putts, only to see them take a break to the hole that I'd not even noticed.  Great fun, though.  I'd also rediscovered how to keep the ball low into the wind and fiddled my way back to the clubhouse in 41 for a total of 80, net 69, matching the par of the course.
This is the 18th hole, finishing directly in front of the clubhouse windows.  Wick is a tremendous course, well worth a visit.  It's also amongst the friendliest of clubs, so thanks again to the Secretary, Steward and Members for being so helpful and generous in support of my efforts to play every course.  It's much appreciated as you know.  I hope I get the chance to play Wick again sometime.  Craig and Stu have yet to play it and their in for a real treat when they do. 

Thurso GC - Course no 531

Polly and I played this good 18 hole parkland course on 24 August 2012.  The course was in remarkably good condition considering the rain that had fallen locally in recent days and weeks and our suspicions that the course could be prone to flooding, given the abundance of wetland bogs on and around some lower lying parts of the course.  OK, some of the greens were less than perfect, but like most of the courses were playing during our North of Scotland tour, Thurso is a small club with limited resources, so good on the members and greenkeeping for maintaining such a good course.
Thurso opens with a 406 Yard Par 4 with the clubhouse windows well within range for a hooked drive, so be warned!  OOB on the left further on also got my attention and a rare 3-putt led to a disappointing double bogey (I also 3-putted the 16th after a complete mis-read). The Front 9 has no great holes but is still full of interest, with a good mixture of long medium and short holes.  The back 9 is even better, with the best hole on the course being the 11th, a slight dog leg left 279 Yard Par 4 requiring a good long drive to clear heather to the left of the fairway.  I'd hit a good drive and had only a soft sand iron slightly uphill to the green.  I left that pitch a yard short of the green but no damage done, as I chipped in for birdie from there for 4 Stableford points on the Stroke Index 11 hole, a stroke that was to be pivotal in my annual Summer Trophy match with Polly.
This is the last green at Thurso, with Polly and the clubhouse in the background.  I'd gone round in 82, net 71, or net 2 over par, with 32 putts.  I'd also beaten Polly by a single Stableford point to regain the Summer Trophy by half a point, 6.5 matches to 6.  We have a friendly rivalry between us and I'm sure I'll have another fight on my hands next year, wherever our Summer golf takes us.
Thurso GC is well worth a visit, as is the Chinese Restaurant in the town itself!

Reay GC - Course no 530

Reay GC is a few miles West of Thurso on the North coast of the Scottish mainland and is an 18 Hole links course measuring 5628 yards par 69 from the Yellow Tees.  I played the course after my earlier round at Durness GC on 23 August 2012.  The wind that had so influenced scoring at Durness had reduced to little more than a breeze and conditions were ideal for a relaxing game on a course that was almost deserted.  Reay's fairways are generously wide and with the course in great condition overall, this looked as though it could be a course to savour.  The first 6 holes are pretty flat and easy walking, the best being the 6th, a 442 Yard Par 5 that extends to a more meaty 500 yards off the Medal Tee.  I'd hit a decent drive and 3 Wood to just short of the green, getting a break by narrowly missing this hidden water hazard en route.  The course becomes more hilly from the 7th, a 192 Yard Par 3 played uphill and over a stream that plays far longer than it looks, so take at least one more club than you might otherwise.  I was just short with a 3 Wood!
This is the 9th green and a rare good view of the sea.  This is a 162 Yard Par 3 and a decent hole at the far end of the course.  A wooden bench commemorates a now deceased club member with the epitaph "Hole in one, ya beauty!"  I missed the green but settled for par after a good pitch.  The Back 9 is good but for every downhill hole another went up and by the closing holes I was regretting my decision not to take a pull trolley and to persevere with an old pair of golf shoes.  Carrying my bag certainly helps keep me fit for my caddying work at The Renaissance Club, but I still had some courses to play and was glad to finish Reay just as yet more rain started in earnest.
This is the green at the 18th, a 318 Yard Par 4, slightly uphill.  I'd just missed the green in regulation, my ball trickling back into this nasty looking bunker.  I got the ball out OK, but over 20 feet away.  My single putt from there was pretty good, meaning I'd gone round in 80, net 69 and even net par, with 29 putts.  Reay is a good links course with generously wide fairways and is worth a visit.  It lacks the drama of Durness, but few courses come near that particular Highland gem.

Durness GC - Course no 529

Durness GC is on the far side of the back of beyond and is the most North Westerly course in mainland Scotland.  Being so remote, it's not the kind of place that you'd ever stumble across by accident.  Indeed, having lived in Scotland for most of my 62 years on the planet, I'd never been within 50 miles of the place before playing the course on 23 August 2012 on the latest leg of a North of Scotland tour with Polly.  The Durness course is built on a high clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to the North and East and mountains to the South and West.  Spectacular is a feeble summary description of the overall land and seascape and is also totally inadequate in describing the course itself.  If your golfing ambitions are limited to easily accessible and bland parkland courses then by all means give Durness a miss.  However, if you are willing to test yourself against a challenging course in the most dramatic scenery you could ever wish for, please do yourself a favour and make the effort to play Durness at least once in your life. 
Your first challenge in playing Durness GC will be in getting there.  The course lies just outside the village of Durness on the A838.   "A" class roads in Scotland are usually wide and easy enough to tackle, but whichever way you approach Durness, you'll be driving on mile after mile after mile of a twisting single track road with frequent passing places with numerous blind summits and unexpected corners.  The traffic volume is very low, but just when you think it's getting easy, there's a sheep in the road or a lorry to be squeezed past.  Great fun if you're a reasonably good driver and keep your wits about you, but there's no need to rush anyway as the course is always open for visitors.  We'd travelled up from staying overnight at Dornoch, a journey of 79 miles that took us nearly 3 hours, so give yourself time and enjoy the best of Scottish Highland scenery en route.
Polly had decided not to play the course, given its exposed position, steep hills and the strong wind that is almost ever present in such an exposed location.  Durness has 9 greens but there are 18 tees, making this an 18 hole course.  I didn't tee off until around 1130 and I was planning to play later in the day at Reay GC, 60 miles to the East, so I decided to play balls from both sets of tees to save time, rather than go round the course twice (a practice that Craig, Stu and I had first adopted when playing at Benbecula GC). This is a view of the 9/18th green from the 1st Tee, but more of them later.

The 1st/10th are 296 and 282 Yard Par 4s and on paper look innocent enough.  However, both are steeply uphill into the prevailing Westerly wind (blowing around 25 mph) with the second shots being played blind uphill to a small plateau green with heavy rough to the left. Given the wind conditions, I played Driver and 7 iron for bogey and double bogey.  It was immediately obvious that scoring could be difficult at best, and any doubts on that front were dispelled by the next couple of holes.  The 2nd/11th holes are also uphill, but at only 321 and 311 Yards might normally be easy enough.  However, it's around 180 yards to the fairway with the wind tugging your ball left into impenetrable rough.  One of the most outstanding features of the course are the wild flowers growing throughout the rough (I'm not about to get all emotional about flowers, so bear with me!)  A lot of the flowers are white, a great help when looking for a golf ball, but the sight and smell of so many flowers is pretty impressive, nevertheless.  A couple of 7s and 2 old lost balls later and I'd actually finished both holes.  This is the view from the 3rd Tee - what you don't see is the 25mph wind whipping directly into me when I took the photo. 

The fairway did expand to something like 30 feet wide and this is what faced me as my second shot on the 3rd, a daunting 408 Yard Par 4.  13 shots later and I'd finished the 3rd and 12th holes.  The 4th/13th were uphill again and I was happy enough with a couple of bogeys.  I'd love to meet the course record holder and ask him how to keep a score going on such narrow exposed fairways and small greens!  The 5th/14th were steeply downhill, played either side of a ridge separating the fairways, with blind second shots over a hump to a green that was a bit further away than I thought.  Another couple of bogeys! 

I was already thinking this was a great course before I reached the 6th/15th, a 443 and 505 Yard Par 5 respectively.  These holes skirt along the left side of Loch Lanlish (no, I'd never hear of it either!) with a couple of water hazards running across parts of the fairway and the loch as a lateral water hazard running the length of the hole and in front of the green.  These are simply great holes.  Par and bogey were very satisfying in the conditions and I stood for a while by the 7th tee admiring this view back up these 2 great holes, buffeted by the wind and regretting that we'd run out of sun cream the day before.  The 7th/16th are 178 and 154 Yard Par 3s played from elevated tees to a small green cut into the opposite hillside.  Again, a couple of bogeys were OK after I'd just missed the green with both tee shots.

I'd noticed the 8th and 17th tees when playing the 1st and 10th, in particular that these holes were steeply downhill and downwind.  There's a basic video function on my camera so here's some brief footage of these holes.  I'd not pre-planned the commentary so I don't really think that whoever put some hidden bunkers in front of the green is an idiot!  I was only joking, honest.

The 8th/17th are magnificent holes that in themselves would make Durness a really memorable course, but these are just side shows in comparison to the 9th/18th, a pair of truly great Par 3s that stand comparison with any I've played on my travels around Scotland so far.  The 9th is only 108 Yards, with the 18th being a more formidable 155 yards.  As these photos show, both are played slightly uphill over the Atlantic Ocean to a small fast-running green.  What you don't see from these photos is that the green is overlooked by the clubhouse windows (surely one of the great clubhouse window views!)  I parred the 9th and bogeyed the 18th, by the way, but scores on such a course were pretty irrelevant (94 gross, net 83, with 32 putts).  Durness is definitely up there in my top 10 Scottish courses and out of 526 so far, that's not too bad for a wee village course the far side of the back of beyond.

Just play it if you ever get the chance and see if you agree.

Royal Dornoch GC Struie Course - Course no 528

Polly and I played the 18 hole Struie Course at Royal Dornoch GC after I'd played the nearby Bonar Bridge Ardgay course on 22 August 2012.  I've played the Championship Course at Royal Dornoch a few times and in my view it fully deserves its reputation as amongst the very best of courses.  The Royal Dornoch Championship course has been rated the best links course in the UK, the Number 1 Course in the Scottish Highlands, Number 3 in Scotland, Number 4 in the UK and 13th best in the World.   The Struie is a decent enough links course with some really good holes, but I doubt whether it fully merits its listing as Number 18 in the Scottish Highlands, according to above courses such as Hopeman, Wick and Durness. Such ranking lists are of course highly subjective and in my view are only a general guide to the quality of any particular course, best not to be taken too seriously.

The Struie was remodelled around 2000/2001 using parts of the former Ladies Course at Royal Dornoch to provide a second 18 hole links course more suitable to higher handicappers young and old, and members wishing an alternative to the demands of the Championship Course.  Struie is thus a more manageable 5727 Yards, Par 71 off the Yellow Tees.  The course starts brightly with a really good opening 318 Yard Par 4 with an awkward shelf of a green tucked below the 18th green (best to wait until that clears unless you're really accurate!) and a tricky 111 Yard Par 3, as shown here.  This hole is called "Caddies Well" after unsurprisingly, the drinking well formerly used by caddies to the front left of the 2nd Tee.  Note the rain in the distance.  The forecast was for occasional heavy showers which, as we would discover, was deadly accurate.
Holes 3-7 and 12-17 are pretty flat and unspectacular and in my view the holes nearer the Dornoch Firth from 8-11 is probably the most interesting and exposed section of the course.  We'd been tracking some threatening rain clouds to the West of the course and with a strengthening wind from that direction it looked as though we would be very lucky to avoid a good soaking, so we were pleased to see a shelter in the far distance somewhere beyond the 9th green (and beside the 12th tee as we would later discover).  The 9th is a 469 Yard Par 5 played directly into the prevailing West wind.  We decided to try to make it to the shelter before the storm did and I was really pleased to make par in a little over 3 minutes! 
The shelter had been kindly donated as a memorial to a former member and was a very welcome relief.  Polly commented that it looked as though the storm would pass us by, so we risked playing Holes 10 and 11.  This is a view of the approaching storm from the 10th Tee.  By then the wind was really whipping around us and although the 10th is a flat 374 Yards, I was still just short of the green after 2 solid strikes with the Driver.  The 11th by contrast is 286 Yards downwind and almost drivable.  I guess the real rain started as we left the 11th green, so we made it back to the shelter just in time to avoid a hosing for the next 20 minutes.  Standing water everywhere as we squelched our way back to the clubhouse on the homeward stretch of holes.  This being Scotland, the Sun was beating down from a clear blue sky by the time we finished our round.
The 18th at Struie is a really difficult 118 Yard Par 3, played slightly uphill to a plateau green that slopes wickedly from back to front and is by far the most difficult putting surface to read on the whole course.  For Polly, the Ladies Tee brought a pond and a deep bunker to the right of the green more into play.  I'll not quote her views in their entirety, but she felt that the Ladies Tee was "ridiculously more difficult" and that the tees should be switched to give the ladies a better chance.  She'd already beaten me in our annual Summer Trophy competition, taking the score to 6.5 to 6 in her favour (and some time later after a refreshment in the 19th she was still berating the 18th layout!)
The Struie is as I've said a decent enough course in its own right but for me, it's somewhat  over-shadowed by the magnificence of the Championship course.  I'd love to play the Championship Course again sometime, but as and when I do, I doubt I'd give Struie another try.  I've played it and scored a poor and tired 90 gross, net 79 with 33 putts and I'm content to leave it at that.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Bonar Bridge Ardgay GC - Course no 527

I played this great little 9 hole heathland course on the morning of 22 August 2012.  Showers had again been forecast and sure enough, my first few holes were played in light rain.  I almost had the course to myself and with the holes being set out amongst mature pine forest, only the occasional bird call and soaring buzzards disturbed the peace.  The turf is peat-based and being quite wet after the recent rain, the fairways were quite soft and the greens were on the slow side.  Bonar Bridge Ardgay is 2581 Yards Par 34 overall, and opens with a 354 Yard Par 4, trees on the left, heavy rough on the right and a small steeply sloping green.  A bogey there would have been OK, but I holed a long putt for an unlikely opening par. 
The 2nd is steeply downhill, forest on the right and a water hazard in front of the green.  A bogey was all my poor approach shot though the back of the green deserved.  This is the 3rd, a great  slightly downhill 171 Yard Par 3 played from an elevated tee. An easy par there after finding the green with my 3 Rescue off the tee.  The 4th is a 352 Yard Par 4 that looks innocent enough, but a water hazard cuts across the left side of the fairway around 220 yards out and the fairway slopes from right to left.  The slightly uphill 500 Yard Par 5th is heather and tree lined with a 90 degree dog leg and Stroke Index 1.  I was happy enough to take bogey!
This is the 6th, a really narrow downhill 174 Yard Par 3 with pine forest either side.  Just hit straight and hope!  The wide fairway on the 7th offers some relief and a pheasant amusing itself in the middle of the fairway gave me a good target.  Normally these birds are quite timid and will run off before you get remotely close, but  after  I'd just missed the thing by a few feet with my drive, this bird stood its ground as if to ask what I thought I was doing on its territory, only waddling off after I'd hit my second shot from a few feet away.  Strange.
This is the 8th, the last of the excellent Par 3s on this course.  The green is well protected by pine trees, but at only 137 Yards, this is the easiest of the short holes.  The last hole is a narrow slightly uphill 311 Yard Par 4, with OOB on the left and forest on the right, finishing as all good last holes should, right in front of the clubhouse windows.  I'd an unplayable lie against the wall that runs the length of the left side of the fairway, so a closing bogey was disappointing.  Still, gross 39, net 33.5 wasn't too shabby, with 15 putts. 
This is the 9th green and the clubhouse.  Bonar Bridge Ardgay is a few miles inland from the world famous Royal Dornoch GC and is well worth a visit.  Highland golf at its best and hospitality to match.

Tarbat GC - Course no 526

We'd been planning to play at nearby Invergordon GC after our round at Alness on 21 August 2012, but lightning and torrential rain as we approached Invergordon led to a change of plan.   I'd been planning to play the 9 hole course at Tarbat GC and a couple of other courses the next day, so with the weather looking decidedly changeable, I thought that a quick round at Tarbat might be more advisable.  I'll need to play Invergordon GC some other time.  Tarbat GC is in the tiny fishing village of Portmahomack, a few miles East of Tain, where were based for a second night.  I'd been expecting Tarbat to be quite an  unpretentious 9 hole village course.  OK, it's in a village and is certainly unpretentious, with a modest little clubhouse and honesty box system, but it's actually a 10 hole course and one of the best small courses I've played in ages.  I'd also been expecting it to be a parkland course, but with fast running sand-based fairways and greens this was clearly a links layout.  It was also in fantastic condition and an absolute joy to play. 
The scorecard shows Holes 1-9 as 2313 Yards, Par 34, but when the course is played as 18 Holes, Holes 1-6 and 17 and 18 are played twice, with the 124 Yard Par 3 7th Hole being played only on the Front 9 and replaced on the Back 9 by a completely separate 155 Yard Par 3 16th Hole.  I didn't have time to play 18 Holes, so I played Holes 1-9 and 16 once each.  Accordingly, I played all 10 holes as a 2468 Yard course, Par 37. I played with Ray, a local member who had just started playing golf and who's very lucky to have such a great wee course to learn on.
Tarbat starts with a couple of modest Par 4s of under 300 yards made trickier by the small fast and sloping greens and really gets going on the 3rd, a testing 385 Yard Par 4.  The best hole is probably the 8th, a slightly downhill 265 Yard Par 4 with a really awkward green that's hard to find and hold, as shown here.  I bogeyed that hole, but played well overall to go round in 39, 2 strokes over the par of 37 for the 10 holes with 15 putts, or net 4 under par.  Tarbat is a wee bit off the well beaten track to the world-famous links at Royal Dornoch GC, but is definitely worth the short detour.
I suppose what I liked most about Tarbat was the peace and tranquillity of the place on a perfect Summer's afternoon, with good golf and good company and only the odd skylark as a distraction.  I don't really know why Tarbat has 10 holes and it somehow didn't seem relevant to ask Ray about that.  I was just glad that it did.  I strongly recommend that you make the effort to play here and enjoy the peace and quiet.  This is the 5th, with a river and an old castle in the background.  Again, I don't know their names, but they certainly fit the background to a lovely little course that I hope to play again sometime.  Mind you, 2 over par would be a difficult score to beat! 

Alness GC - Course no 525

Polly and I had driven over to stay overnight in Tain after my quick game at Lochacarron so we both played the 18 hole heathland/parkland course at Alness GC on the North side of the Cromarty Firth a few miles north of Inverness early on 21 August 2012.  We'd started on the 10th to avoid being held up by some members who were about to tee off from the 4th (you'd need to see the layout to see the logic involved!)  Alness is short at 4725 yards, Par 67.  Maybe it's just that there's a fair distance between some of the holes on the back 9 in particular and with some substantial hills to tackle in steamy hot sunshine, the course felt and took a lot longer than we'd expected.  Taking the Back 9 first, Alness was also tight, requiring accurate positioning rather than power off the tees.  This is the view from the 12th tee, a 319 Yard Par 4.  Your second shot will be blind uphill and needs to be very straight!
Avoid making a complete mess of that one and you come to the 92 Yard 13th, a Par 3 that's completely blnd from the tee, as shown here. The small marker pole in the centre of this photo is your line, but don't go left, long or right.  Short isn't too clever either and the green is wickedly contoured, so you have my best wishes!  I scraped a 4 and Polly had considerably more than that, so be warned.  I'm not a great fan of blind short holes, but this one is a little gem and forms a good link to the 14th, another very testing hole.
This is the daunting view from the 14th Yellow tee (the Medal tee being even further back).  This Par 4 is only 391 Yards and should be easy enough if you get your drive away.  I'd assumed that the big tree to the right of the fairway in the middle of the photo was out of range, so that caused me a treble bogey 7.  Good hole, though.  The back 9 closes with another blind Par 3, this time 153 yards over a large hill, overlooked by the clubhouse outdoor decking (where, no doubt, much fun is to be had watching others struggle on this difficult closing hole).
The Front 9 at Alness is considerably longer and more open but with just as many slopes to contend with.  I particularly liked this, the 9th, a 354 Yard Par 4 played downhill from an elevated tee then uphill to a plateau green.  I'd scored 81, net 70 or 3 over net par, with 28 putts on good greens.  Birdie 3s on the 365 Yard Par 4 3rd and the short 270 Yard Par 4 17th were both very pleasing.  I'd also tied with Polly in the latest game in our annual Summer Trophy competion to maintain my narrow half-point lead 5.5 to 5.  We both liked Alness and would strongly recommend it, but take a few spare balls unless your brave (and good!)

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Lochcarron GC - Course no 524

I played the heathland course at Lochcarron GC on 20 August 2012 at the start of a 6 day trip around the North of Scotland with Polly that we'd planned would take us to 11 new courses over the 6 days - Lochcarron, Alness, Invergordon, Tarbat, Bonar Bridge Ardgay, Royal Dornoch Struie, Durness, Reay, Thurso, Wick and Helmsdale.    However, the weather forecast for the week ahead was for a mixture of sunshine and heavy showers, so we'd probably need some luck and good raingear to get through all of those courses without taking a good soaking on the way.  This ambitious trip didn't get off to the best of starts.  Monday 20 August began warm and sunny in East Lothian, but it's a 5 hours+ drive north west to Lochcarron GC in the wilds of Wester Ross and the further we drove the more ominous the clouds overhead became.  Sure enough, I'd no sooner paid the £10 green fee when the first cloudburst of the week began.  Half an hour later, we were still sheltering in the car, by now surrounded by several inches of water, with the peat-based fairways looking completely saturated and pretty unplayable.  Another 10 minutes later, the rain stopped and I risked a quick sprint round the course and its new temporary water hazards and abnormal ground conditions.  Polly opted for her book in the security of the car, a wise choice!  This is me at the first tee, looking decidedly unsure about the wisdom of my decision.

The Lochcarron course has 9 greens, but there's 11 tees in total, with separate tees for the 7th and 16th and 9th and 18th holes, making Lochcarron an 18 hole course under the rules that Craig, Stu and I apply to such non-standard layouts.  With the overhead situation being so delicately poised between downpours, I played a couple of balls off tees 1-6 and 8 and one ball off tees 7, 9, 16 and 18.  Regular readers will recall that we first adopted that time and energy-saving practice practice at Benbecula, which is a 9 green course with 18 tees.  Lochcarron is therefore an 18 hole course measuring 3575 yards, Par 60.  Much of the road to the course is single track with passing places and being so remote, traffic was light on the road that runs through the course.  Indeed, with the road being flooded, vehicles were having to take extreme care, with drivers no doubt also being distracted by the sight of an obviously mad golfer braving the recent deluge in pursuit of his sport.

Lochcarron starts with this, a hugely tricky 210 Yard Par 3 to a small plateau green fronted by a river and bordered to the immediate left by the A896 road. Normally there would also be a great view of the surrounding mountains but as you can see, it was still pouring down in the distance.  The river isn't particularly evident from the tee.  I could see a bridge but I was only there once and opted for a bold 3 Wood with both opening balls.  I cleared the river OK, but had awkward pitches from soaking rough to the tiny green and was happy enough with a couple of bogeys.  The 2nd/11th Holes are almost as tricky, requiring accurate drives to a narrow fairway.  If you're prone to the odd hook, you will definitely not like the 3rd/12th holes, with Loch Carron running the length of the left side of the narrow fairway.  Holes 4 and 13 are Stroke Index 1 and 2 and although they're only a 160 Yard Par 3 they played a lot longer than I'd expected.  I suspect part of the difficulty of these holes is that teeshots are played across the main road.  When I played them a driver had "kindly" stopped on the single track road to let me play, but he'd obviously never seen me play as he was well within range of a slightly mis-directed shot.  I was by then trying to play very quickly as the next black clouds were rolling up the loch! 
The 5th/14th Holes are a simple looking 144 Yard Par 3. Simple that is if you can avoid the swamp to your left and the occasional "Flying Ant" the somewhat ominous name of these holes. The 6th/15th Holes are the best on the course, being 171 Yard Par 3s played over a stream and hedging to a small sloping green.  The main road and the cemetary attached to the village church lie immediately beyond the green and are OOB, adding to the challenge.  I parred both holes but I'd only taken a half set of clubs with me and the 3 Wood was far too much club!  The 7th and 16th have completely separate tees, resulting in separate 123 and 112 Yard Par 3s.  A ditch runs in front of the steeply sloping humpbacked green so par here is a good score. 

The 8th/17th are 280 Yard Par 4 that play longer than they look, so be warned.  I parred them both, but needed good second shots to hold the small green.  The rain had started again by the time I reached the 18th tee.  This is a 198 Yard Par 3 played back towards the church and the main road.  The 9th is a 176 Yard Par 3, if you can find the tee, hidden high amongst the trees to the left of the 18th.  This is a view from the 9th tee, the brown strip being the sea loch (the tide was out).I'd sprinted round Lochcarron in under an hour between rainstorms taking 74 strokes, net 63, only 3 over net par, with 33 putts on slow rain-soaked greens. Lochcarron is one of the most remote courses on the Scottish mainland. It's fun to play but I doubt my travels will take me anywhere near it again.

  A closing view of the last green and the local church.