Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Fort William GC - Course no 575

Fort William GC lies around 40 Miles East of Traigh at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK.  I played its excellent 18 Hole moorland course on 21 May 2013, the day after my round at Traigh.  The course lies behind the railway line that runs immediately behind the clubhouse (as shown here with Ben Nevis mostly hidden by high clouds).  That's a pity in a way, since the course itself is hidden from passing traffic on the main A82 road, and it would be easy for passing travellers to miss this genuinely hidden gem.
I'd arrived just after 9AM to find the car park empty and the clubhouse closed, as the Club Steward was down in the town getting the morning milk - visitors to Scottish golf courses used to a more frenetic pace of life might be pacing about but I was in no hurry and apart from the green keeping staff, I had the course to myself for most of the round.  The Fort William course is 5464 Yards, Par 68 off the Yellow Tees and a far more demanding 6217 Yards, Par 72 off the Whites.  The Steward suggested I might try the Whites, but since the course is peat-based moorland and the members were still using preferred lies to compensate for the odd damp and soft areas on fairways, I opted for the Yellow Tees.  This was a wise choice, since as the Steward had also suggested "you'll only get what you hit" so there was little run on any of the fairways.  The Fort William course reminded me of nearby Spean Bridge GC and some of the other equally peat-based courses around the Clyde estuary, such as Cowal, Greenock and Port Glasgow.  Since the course is completely hidden from the road I'd not known quite what to expect.  I'd suspected that since the course lies directly below Ben Nevis, it might be a bit hilly, but far from it, this course is surprisingly flat, weaving its way gently through predominantly pine and birch woodland.  Being peat-based, the course looked to be prone to occasional water-logging and that combined with the fact that Fort William is popularly viewed as being the wettest town in Scotland and with huge volumes of water flowing down from the Ben and surrounding hills, I suppose drainage is always going to be a significant course management issue here.

As you might expect, water comes into play throughout the course, either in the form of drainage ditches or streams.  Study the excellent signage on each tee before deciding your tactics for each hole, bearing in mind that on some holes you're unlikely to see some of the water hazards.  For example, this view from the 3rd Tee looks innocent enough.  You know that there's water around the front of the green, but it's only after you get nearer you see the extent of the hazard.  This Par 3 is only 110 Yards, but requires a very accurate tee shot.

Indeed, the Par 3's are a particular feature of the course.  This is the 125 Yard 6th, another short hole protected by water front, left and right (and prime midgie territory for later in the season!)  The Stroke Index 1 Hole off the Yellows is the 5th, a 385 Yard Par 4 that requires 2 lusty blows to get near the green in regulation.  I was a yard short but got the par easily enough.  For me, the 401 Yard Par 4 9th was a far harder hole.  The drive needs to clear a mound in the middle of the fairway and your second needs to steer its way through a narrowing fairway that was probably the dampest part of the whole course.  I was happy enough with a bogey and delighted with a gross 38 for the Front 9. 
The Back 9 starts with another really difficult Par 4, this time a 377 Yard dog leg left with a lateral water hazard to the left of the severely narrowing fairway, pinching just where your second shot might land if even slightly underhit.  again, I was happy to escape with a bogey after a poor drive.  This is a view from behind the downhill 14th, looking back up to the formidable North Face of Ben Nevis.  It's a pity that high clouds obscured much of the mountain from view, as it's an impressive sight.  I played the course in a gentle wind, by local standards, but this section of the course was pretty exposed to the elements.
Equally, the 16th tee is a pretty exposed place.  This for me was easily the best hole on the course and at 156 Yards is a simply outstanding Par 3 played steeply downhill to a small green protected by bunkers to the front.  Slopes on either side of the green suggest that a slightly wayward shot might get lucky, but my clear strategy was to hit my 27 Degree Rescue club and trust my swing.  I'll take a straight-looking uphill 6 foot putt anytime and was delighted to hole the putt for a great birdie (if I say so myself).

After that achievement I hit my worst shot of the entire round, a bad hook (is there ever a good one?) way left off the 17th tee.  Luckily, the 17th and 18th fairways run parallel to each other and I was able to rescue a par with a 7 iron, short pitch and another single putt.  The 18th is a downhill 332 Yard Par 4, well protected by a deep water ditch just in front of the green.  I'd not noticed the ditch (or read the tee signage properly!), so that mistake cost me a closing bogey for a gross 38 on the Back 9.  Still, I'll take a gross 76, net 65 (3 under net par) with 32 putts.

Fort William is a really good moorland course, full of interest, with great views of Ben Nevis and the surrounding hills and some really good holes, particularly the Par 3s.  I'd played well on the day and beaten net par, but goodness knows how difficult this course must be off the back tees on a wet and windy day.  I strongly recommend you play this excellent course if you ever get the chance - off the Yellow Tees unless you're either very confident or very, very good.

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