Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Carnegie Club Skibo Castle - Course no 547

When Craig Stu and I began our quest in earnest a few years ago, we quickly realised that apart from the physical challenge of playing well over 600 Scottish courses, our most serious challenge would be in gaining access to some pretty exclusive places.  Since then we've managed to play some pretty obscure courses that few others had heard of, at some of the most famous courses in the world e.g. Prestwick, Loch Lomond and a Highland course so private that we're still obliged not to mention it by name, but one course still stood above the rest in terms of privacy and exclusivity.  I refer of course to The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle near Dornoch in Sutherland.  Skibo, as most Scots folk know it, used to be accessible by all at a price, but a change of ownership some years ago and subsequent preservation of the privacy and security of its elite membership has meant that access to common golfers like us was completely out of reach.  We'd certainly not wanted to impinge on the privacy of the rich and famous and recognised their right to enjoy the sport on their terms, and although we know the names of a few of its more famous members, it's not for me or this blog to mention who they are.  However, it was  frustrating to think that despite our best efforts in support of cancer research we might ultimately fail in our challenge to play every course in Scotland. 
We were therefore relieved to learn recently that the general golfing public were to be given limited access to Skibo, albeit for just a couple of tee times a day, at a pretty eye-watering £300 a head.  That's more than the annual subscription at some Scottish golf clubs, entitling members to unlimited golf and in caddying terms, I'd need to walk a very long way with a heavy bag to finance such a green fee.  Craig, Stu and I were therefore delighted when The Carnegie Club offered us a very generous discount on that green fee since we were playing for Cancer Research UK.  Thanks again to all concerned and in particular to Jack, who really could not have been more helpful.  We really appreciated that offer and all of the other kindness shown to us when we played Skibo early on 9 October 2012, a perfect sunny windless day and without doubt one of the outstanding highlights of our journey around every Scottish course.  This is me just before we teed off.
I reckon I've now played golf on well over 600 courses in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, Wales, Ireland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus.  Skibo is quite possibly the best course I've ever played in terms of the course and the overall experience.  As I've said, the green fee is pretty expensive but as a special occasion treat, Skibo is well worth playing, especially if you get the perfect golfing weather that we enjoyed.   I might need to win the National Lottery to apply for membership, but at least I've got the Skibo bag tag, bought the souvenir golf shirt and have the memories of a perfect golfing experience.
Skibo is a links course measuring 6207 Yards Par 71 from the Yellow Tees and is laid out over a narrow strip of links land  between the shores of the Dornoch Firth and Loch Evelix.  As might be expected, no expense had been spared in constructing and maintaining the course as evidenced by the amazingly manicured condition of the fairways and greens, which all ran far faster than we'd expected.  Even the edges of rivetted bunkers had been carefully strimmed to produce clean edges, all paths and gates had been impressively well built and conservation areas (rare plants and lichen) were sensitively protected, with informative signage to explain their significance.  With hardly a divot mark or weed in sight, the course was in the best condition I've ever seen on any Scottish course.   The design is also quite stunning with one great hole after another.  This is the 6th, a 142 Yard Par 3 with a single large pot bunker protecting the plateau green.  I opted for an easy 6 iron, found the green and had a satisfying par on a really tricky looking hole (Stroke Index 16!)

This is the 7th, a 311 Yard slightly uphill Par 4.  There's a bit more room than you'd think when standing on the tee and thank goodness there was no wind to speak of.  I hit a good drive but my second shot was just short of the green and a bogey followed.  However, scoring was quickly coming secondary to just enjoying the experience.  By the 7th we'd all agreed that Skibo was simply outstanding in all respects.  We'd noticed that the greenkeepers had been laying sand around all of the greens.  Stu wondered why but clearly wasn't impressed when I speculated that it was probably to make them sandier (he'd left his house at 0330 hrs to drive up to Skibo and had clearly hoped for a more exact explanation!)  Part of the fun of playing all of the courses is the easy banter between the 3 of us, so I knew I was on risky ground asking Craig and Stu what the collective noun was for the collection of swans flying overhead at the time.  Stu thought it was a "box" (after the famous brand of matches).  Such are the heady matters discussed between friends during a game of golf.

This is the 8th, one of the holes bordered by the Dornoch Firth.  Again, the fairway is wider than you'd think, but even if you reach the green in regulation there's potential trouble awaiting.  Craig plays off 3 at Carnoustie so can play a bit, but faced with a 30 foot putt from the back of the 8th green to a hole cut near the front, his putt went straight off the front of the green, the ball ending up 40 yards away in heavy rough.  Made my bogey look pretty good, though.  There's a half-way house after the 12th(!), well stocked with free coffee, beers, fresh fruit and chocolate bars etc.  We'd no sooner finished sampling the bananas (honest!) than a guy turns up in a buggy with free bacon rolls and hot soup.  It would have been churlish to decline.

The 11th marks the start of a great stetch of holes bordered by Loch Evelix on your right.  The 11th is a dog leg right 418 yards, Par 4.  Craig tried to take on too much of the carry over the loch, but it was an old ball (another welcome feature of Skibo is that you tend to find new Pro V1s rather than lesser brands).  This is the 12th, a 397 Yard Par 4 where water again comes into play.  Craig found the water again, but we gave him a Mulligan (who was the famous Mulligan and how bad a golfer was he?).   Although I'd parred Holes 5 and 6, I was finding it easy enough to bogey every hole on the Back 9, and  pars were fast becoming like hen's teeth.

Until the 17th, that is, the signature hole at Skibo.  The 17th is a classic risk and reward Par 4, 304 Yards from the very back tee, but a more manageable 267 Yards from the Yellow Tee.  There are 5 deep bunkers to contend with if you take on the drive, but I laid up with an easy 3 wood, pitched on and 2-putted for an easy 4.  This is the view from the tee.  Stu also baled out, finding the left side of the fairway, but Craig easily drove level with the right side of the green (taking 3 more from there).

This is a short video of the views from the 17th Yellow Tee. A stunning hole.

The last hole at Skibo is a left dog leg 515 Yard Par 5 played over a swamp from the tee.  This swamp looked pretty wet but was remarkably dry (I'd failed to clear it from the tee) and a remarkably good place to hunt for Pro V1s!  I'd gone round in 87, net 76 (net 5 over) with 35 putts.  But the scores were pretty irrelevant as we'd all enjoyed playing what we think is probably the best course we've played so far in Scotland (or anywhere for that matter!) Skibo is expensive but my guess is that if you ever get the chance and get the perfect golfing weather we had, you'll not be worrying about the green fee.  You'll probably be like me, desperately keen to play it again sometime.  Simply a great golfing experience.

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