When I was planning my trip to play the new Kings GC course in Inverness, I knew I'd need an overnight stay, since it's a good 4 hour drive from home. I'd also been wanting to play the 9 hole Par 3 course in Maverston GC, so I factored in playing one of the other local courses on the morning of 30 August 2019. Hopeman was the choice, a course I was very familiar with. Way back around 1985 my group of golfing buddies started what would become an annual golf trip to Elgin, staying for a week and playing twice a day at local courses, from Nairn to Cullen. There are some really good courses up there, such as Nairn, Nairn Dunbar, Old and New Moray, Buckpool, Strathlene, Forres, Cullen, Spey Bay, Garmouth & Kingston and Elgin itself. My favourite, though, was always Hopeman, a small unheralded village links course but for those in the know, a real gem. I guess I'd played it about 20 times before my visit last week. I'd kept a duplicate scorecard from my round there on 30 August 1998, when I played in Hopeman's Gents' Open, for their Andromeda II Trophy, in memory of a local fishing boat disaster. I shot gross 77 back then, net 65 on a course that in some places was very tight, with perils aplenty, bouncy narrow fairways and more gorse than you'd ever see in a golfing nightmare. I don't think I actually won but I do remember getting a substantial prize voucher and getting my handicap cut! Maybe 2nd place, I don't really remember.
So, and by sheer coincidence, I was back at Hopeman exactly 21 years after that epic round. I'd previously played Hopeman with the same group of golfing buddies, so it was really strange to be fronting up, early morning, to an almost empty car park, without Graham, Donald, Brian M (still missed terribly by all of us, one of life's unique characters. RIP my friend), Martin, JD, Chris, Brian B and other regulars. Guys, it just wasn't the same this time round. No banter, "stewards' enquiries," jokes, silly and heroic shots. Just fond memories on every hole.
Hopeman is a short 5368 Yard Par 68 links course off the yellow tees (5265 back in 1998). The 1st is a 342 Yard 4 with a semi blind tee shot played slightly uphill to a heather and gorse lined fairway. Avoid the bunker and you'll have an easy short iron to the green. Except, the green is super slick and unless you're very precise you may just be paying it a fleeting visit with your approach. Bogey here is entirely predictable and that's how I started this emotional return round. The next is where the fun really starts. 301 Yards, Par 4. Sounds easy enough? Factor in gorse both sides and behind a ditch in front of the small elevated green with gorse behind and it's far from easy. I'd hit a good straight drive (an essential element if you're to play well here) a short 9 iron pitch and a couple of putts, for a first par. Next comes the first of the five Par 3s. 153 Yards, blind, to a green shared with the 6th Hole. Hook it here and you might still be on the green, but 80 or so feet away. A bunker protects the front right of the green so fly that and hold on tight and you'll be OK. I got away with another par after 2 good putts.
The 4th is a very flat 506 Yard Par 5, dog leg left. Aim at the right side bunker and get past the trees on the dog leg corner to set up a long approach shot. I missed the green on the left, leaving an awkward pitch over a greenside mound, but a bogey there was acceptable. It was a long Par 4 back in 1998 and lengthening it by almost 50 yards has put further pressure on the tee shot. Overall, an improvement I think. The 5th is an awkward little hole, at 328 Yards, dog leg right. The temptation is to try to cut across the dog leg but heather and gorse await anything short on that side. I'd gone straight up the middle, forgetting that the bouncy links fairways here can deflect even the best shots into trouble. An outrageous bounce left me with a totally blind wedge shot over gorse to a hidden green. I'd had that shot before, so knew it only too well. Easy 4 after a good wedge and a missed birdie putt from 10 feet! The tee shot for the 6th never really appealed to me. The fairway looks wide enough, but the little bunker on the left caught me out, again! Bogey there was actually a good result. The 7th is called "Ditches" so be warned. This is a flat Par 3 of 178 Yards. Go over the green at the back or miss it left or right and you may find a deep water-filled ditch, which is just lost ball territory. I hit 20 Degree Rescue, 58 Degree lob wedge from just off the right side of the green and a 2 putts for another bogey. This is the 8th, a 337 Yard par 4 that narrows considerably towards the green. Just avoid the heather and gorse!
Hopeman's 9th is an uphill 281 Yard Par 4 that plays a bit longer than you'd think. Find the fairway and it should be a short pitch to the green. This is one of the easier holes and par is important, given what faces you next.
The Back 9 is simply great fun if you've got enough golf balls on board. Think narrow, gorse, trouble, straight and don't panic. The 10th is only 294 Yards, but is gorse lined and bumps in the fairway will deflect your tee shot one way or the other. Get lucky here and you'll have a totally blind shot downhill to a sloping green, as shown here. Get unlucky and you could easily run up a big score. I fluked a par after finding heavy rough from my straight drive, 6 iron to 15 feet and 2 putts.
Next, comes the 11th, another narrow gorse lined fairway and more humps than a herd of camels. 350 Yards this time. Driver, 6 iron, pitch from just off the green and 2 putts. I've had far worse over the years here, believe me.
Is there a better Par 3 in Scotland than the 12th at Hopeman? Indeed, I guess I've played around 900 courses in Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, Sweden, Cyprus, USA, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, and Turkey. At 4/5 Par 3s each, that's around 4000 Par 3s. This is in my Top 3. If you've played a better hole than this, you're a lucky and probably well-travelled golfer. The 12th is called "Priesach" and is a 137 Yard hole, downhill, to a small green surrounded by gorse and/or sea. Hit the green and don't 3 putt is all you have to do. Factor in the exposed tee, high above the sea, the likelihood of a strong wind in your face and the sheer drama of the hole and you might be starting with an old ball! A view from the medal tee and below, and below that, a view back to the green from what is now the 15th tee.
Just a terrific hole that I wanted to play all day. There was no-one behind so the temptation was definitely there. I managed bogey with both balls! Back in 1998, the course routing followed a very long and steep path behind the 12th green, so it was quite a walk to the 13th tee. I gathered from talking to the greenkeepers repairing a nearby path that the layout changed around 15 years ago, with the 13th tee being relocated to the left of the 12th tee, meaning that the 13th was rerouted and the 12th now sits on its own. Once you've finished the 12th, you now have to walk back up the same path you went down, leaving your clubs at the top. Personally, I preferred the original layout, but it's still a truly great hole, well worth visiting Hopeman to enjoy.
The 13th is now a 382 Yard almost flat Par 4, rather than a 339 Yard partially uphill hole. I think I prefer the old layout. However, I'm splitting hairs there as this is still a strong hole, played into the prevailing wind. The 14th as shown here, remains much the same and is a 370 Yard downhill Par 4, with a generously wide fairway, played downwind. I like this hole, and if you play it sensibly, there's no difficulty in getting par.If like me you miss the green with your approach, bogey will probably be your best bet. I'd 4 holes left to scramble a score, but I'd need 4 pars to equal the 1998 score of 77 gross.
The 15th is a delightful little Par 3 of only 122 Yards as seen here from the tee. With the wind helping, it was only a flick with a wedge to clear the bunker in front of the green and let the ball carry down the slope to the green. Most times your ball will land on a downslope so holding the green is actually quite difficult. My tee shot just ran through, but 2 easy putts from there and another par on the card. The 16th remains a beast of a hole, uphill into the prevailing wind, its 367 Yard plays more like 430. I played Driver, 3 Wood and 6 iron to reach the green in 3, but a good 15 foot putt rescued the par. 77 still on.
The 17th is the last of the Par 3's and is an uphill 191 Yards, gorse on both sides and at the back, a wall and more trouble. Only the top of the flag is visible from the tee and i needed a solid Driver to reach the side of the green. A great little 9 iron pitch and run to a few inches and 77 was STILL on! The last at Hopeman is a really testing hole. Your drive will be blind, through a chute of gorse and over a rise in the fairway and there's really nothing to aim at, as shown below. 388 Yards of trouble, with water in front of the green.