Category Archives: Scotland

Gleneagles King’s Course Review – Auchterarder, Scotland

At most of the golf courses one will play in Scotland, there is a distinct air of simplicity about the property. The pro shops tend to be just sufficient to carry the requisite souvenir items for visitors as well as the absolute necessities for a round of golf. The clubhouses, while often serving some of the best food in town, are never over the top or ostentatious. While it is cliche to say at this point, it truly is “all about the golf” when you play most clubs in Scotland. In my opinion, this is how it should be. A golfer should say “wow” about the golf course (and trust me, you will quite often), but it’s far less important to be impressed by the clubhouse.

At Gleneagles, there is a wow factor from the moment you drive onto the grounds. Everything you see appears to be perfect. The grounds are beautifully manicured. Everyone there is happy and smiling. It feels like you have arrived at a friend’s country estate rather than a golf course and hotel.

The amenities at Gleneagles are staggering. I’m sure I’m leaving many activities out but here are some of the things that one can do while staying at Gleneagles:

  • Golf on three different courses
  • Fishing
  • Shooting Range
  • Falconry
  • Off-road driving
  • Horse Riding
  • Gun Dog Lessons
  • Spa
  • Four restaurants
  • Two Bars

Sadly we didn’t actually stay at Gleneagles, we this was just a day trip for us from Anstruther. One of the people in our group remarked during our day there, “I’m going to come back next summer and bring my daughters. This place is incredible.” My response? “Please adopt me.”

While we didn’t stay on property, we did have a pretty full day at Gleneagles. We did the requisite shopping in the pro shop. It’s well-stocked and reasonable by U.S. standards. As a bonus, they still had plenty of Ryder Cup 2014 gear they were practically giving away. As an American I feel a little guilty walking around with a Ryder Cup 2014 bag tag, the scene of another European rout, but it’s engraved with my name, and I have no shame in using it.

As mentioned earlier, there are three courses at Gleneagles:

  • Centenary Course – The home of the 2014 Ryder Cup and the 2019 Solheim Cup
  • Queen’s Course – The shortest of the three courses but considered by many to be the best of the lot.
  • King’s Course – Plays anywhere from 5200 to 6800 yards and our course of choice during our visit.

Like the rest of the property, everything about the golf course is first class. The conditioning was as good as any course I played while in Scotland. Even the yardage books get it right. We’re all familiar with the overhead view of the hole with distances to various targets. The hole guides at Gleneagles also feature a view of the hole as you see standing on the tee box. That picture shows distances to the hazards as you see them standing on the tee. It’s a minor detail, but a quite useful feature playing a golf course for the first time.

I’m going to guess that Gleneagles is not on the radar for most golfers trophy-hunting on their way through Scotland. After all, it’s not on many of the top–100 course lists. It’s not a traditional links course near the sea. It’s also never hosted an Open Championship. If one does choose to skip Gleneagles for those reasons, they are missing out. The course is a blast to play.
While it doesn’t have the fabulous sea views of the Castle Course, nor does it have the fantastic routing of Cruden Bay. What It does have is just fun golf holes. The first hole is short by most standards, maxing out at 362 from the back tees. But it is severely uphill and features a large green, so it’s possible to mis-club it and still have a putter in your hand on your third shot. It’s the perfect way to start a golf course. You can get away with a below average drive. You can hit an indifferent approach and still have a decent chance at par. It’s always nice to ease your way into a round of golf.
The second hole is the precise opposite, a longer downhill par four where you’ll play a downhill second shot to a green that runs away from the golfer. It goes on and on like that. The holes never feel redundant; that is unless you get bored of all the beautiful Scottish countryside you’ll see during the round. If Royal Dornoch is like a beautiful walk along the beach, Gleneagles is like a leisurely stroll through the Scottish Highlands.

So what about the other two courses at Gleneagles? The Queen’s and the Centenary Course. While I didn’t get a chance to play them during my visit, I learned the following:

  • The Centenary is not the favorite of most. It’s a Jack Nicklaus design. Some love his courses, others not so much. It’s apparently was designed for spectator views and to accommodate the length of modern tour professionals rather than to appeal to golf nerds like myself. On the plus side, the Centenary does allow for carts where the other two courses do not. If you want to take a cart on the other two courses a doctor’s note is required.
  • The Queen’s Course is the favorite of the membership. I couldn’t get an answer out of anyone as to why this is the case, but I’ve heard it is the most picturesque of the three. The fact alone makes me want to go back and play it simply because on the King’s Course every hole seems like a postcard.

So what did I find lacking during my visit to Gleneagles? Other than the fact that I don’t have the bank account (or expense account) to stay there, I’m hard pressed to find any fault with the property. The golf was incredible. The food was delicious. Every employee we met could not have been nicer. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, could it be that Gleneagles is a little too luxurious compared to the typical Scottish golfing experience? Maybe, but who doesn’t need to feel like a king every now and again?
Pro Tip: A four ball was only £360 during twilight, and that was after 1:00 pm as of September 2015. After Cruden Bay, this was probably the best deal of the trip.

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All photographs are free to use as wallpaper or may be purchased as prints.

Cruden Bay Golf Club Review

the 11th hole at Cruden Bay
The view from the 10th tee

As I sat down to write about Cruden Bay, it dawned on me that a review in the traditional sense is pointless. Everyone who knows of Cruden Bay either already loves it or has it on their bucket list. No one needs me to tell them that Cruden Bay is worth their time. The course is fantastic. Everything you’ve probably heard about it is true. Play it if you have the chance.

I thought it would be much more enlightening to tell my readers what I liked best about the course; specifically the top nine things I love about Cruden Bay:

The Clubhouse

It’s one of the best settings for a clubhouse I’ve ever seen. You walk in through the front doors to a dining room with panoramic windows that seem to overlook the entire golf course (they don’t, it just appears that way). I’ve never seen anything like it. Possibly the only thing better than playing a round of golf at Cruden Bay is sitting in the clubhouse with a pint afterward watching other golfers finish up their rounds.

After my round, my family and I had dinner in the clubhouse, and it was one of the better dining experiences we had while in Scotland. Not only was the food superb but like everywhere else on the property people were warm and inviting. There was an interesting mix of clientele dining in the clubhouse; from members to visitors, to locals celebrating a birthday. The clubhouse feels more like the centerpiece of the town where everyone congregates rather than a golf club.

the 8th hole at Cruden Bay Golf Club
Looking back on the 8th green on the way up to the infamous 9th tee box

The Accommodations

We stayed right down the road at the Cruden Bay Bed and Breakfast, operated by a lovely man named Ian. The breakfast and lodging are nice enough but where it truly stands out is the hospitality. If you are the type that likes to sit by yourself and not talk to anyone at breakfast, then DO NOT stay at Cruden Bay B&B. Ian loves to chat, tell stories, and even offer his guests a wee nip of scotch in the morning. The odds are that if they’ve been to Cruden Bay they know Ian. His stories of Herb Kohler, his daughter’s golf career, and others are worth the trip alone. Our breakfast chatting with Ian was one of the more entertaining moments we had off the golf course. And no, we didn’t take him up on the offer of scotch.

The People

My day at Cruden Bay started with the pro shop telling me they were giving me back £20 of my prepaid fees because the greens had recently been aerated. Needless to say, this was a shock. I have never been to a golf course, much less a top 100 course, where they cut you a break on anything. I played on several of the Reynolds Plantation courses during Masters Week (prepaid of course), and they were in horrible shape. There was a better chance of me getting a tee time at Augusta National that week than getting a dime back from the folks at Ritz-Carlton.

The slightly-terrifying view from the 5th tee box at Cruden Bay
The slightly-terrifying view from the 5th tee box

One of the many things I love about Scotland is how proud the locals are their fantastic golf courses. There is never a sense of exclusivity or snobbishness (except maybe at Muirfield 😉 ). In fact, it’s the exact opposite at Cruden Bay. They have a world map where visitors pin their hometown so you can see how far and wide people have come to play this amazing golf course. During my visit to the course, I was lucky enough to be shown around the clubhouse by Ru MacDonald, host of the Scottish Golf Podcast. Cruden Bay and Scotland itself for that matter could not have a better ambassador than Ru. As much as he loves the game itself, I suspect he enjoys talking about Cruden Bay and other links golf just as much.

The Scotch

The 2nd best bridge in golf at the 6th hole

Most golf courses (if you’re lucky) will present you with a bag tag or similar trinket to commemorate your day at their club. Cruden Bay, on the other hand, gives you a tiny bottle of their scotch to take with you. On a related note, a few days later when I was playing Royal Dornoch I was putting on my shoes in the locker room and what did I find in the trash? A tiny empty bottle of Cruden Bay scotch. I’m not sure if I’m appalled by this, not waiting for a more appropriate moment to consume this unique drink. Or that may have been the most appropriate place to drink it, on the grounds of one of the few courses that can compare to Cruden Bay. Either way it’s a neat little gift and one that I won’t be drinking anytime soon.

The Routing

Many of the modern golf facilities in the United States are beautiful, well-maintained courses, but they were designed around a purpose other than the golf course. Typically it’s a housing community or resort but often this means the holes are separated by long cart paths, making it feel more like a random collection of holes rather than a cohesive journey on a golf course. What makes Cruden Bay so cool is that the round starts out at the clubhouse, the first four holes bordering the local community, then heading out toward the dunes, playing from the high ground back down, then up again. When you complete your round at Cruden Bay, you’ll feel like you journeyed to the end of the earth and then returned to civilization.

The 4th Hole

The par 3 4th hole at Cruden Bay
The par 3 4th hole at Cruden Bay

While this hole has been photographed and discussed ad nauseam, it is a thrill to see it for the first time. On one side you have the beautiful little seaside town, the other is a beast of a par 3 when the winds are up. Playing at about 190 yards into the wind, I hit a 2-hybrid on the screws and still found myself well short of the green after rolling back down the hill. Even though I bogeyed, I still smile when I think about that part of my round.

9th Tee Box

A view from the 9th tee box at Cruden Bay
On top of the world on the 9th tee box

In contrast with most of the course and links golf in general, there is a bit of a walk from the 8th green to the 9th tee. Part of the way up you might start to curse the Scottish tradition of walking instead of riding in a golf cart. It’s not a terribly steep path but long enough that you’ll feel it. Rest assured though that the walk is worth it. And I mean really worth it. It seems like you can see forever; from Slain’s Castle off in the distance, the waves crashing below, to seemingly the rest of the golf course 100 feet below where you’re standing. The view is one of my favorites in all of golf. Just enjoy my pictures of it until you play it yourself.

The Price

The 4th hole at Cruden Bay Golf Club
Looking backward on the 4th hole. From here it’s onto the dunes

As of 2015 the visitor weekday green fees at Cruden Bay were £100, or roughly half of some of its more famous neighbors. I could go on about a 5000-word rant about top 100 ranked golf courses and their fees, but I’ll refrain here. Just know that of the “trophy” courses one can play in Scotland, Cruden Bay might be at the top of the value list.

The Dunes

The par 3 16th hole at Cruden Bay
Looking back at the par 3 16th hole

I realize that the height of the dunes on a golf course has zero relation to the quality of the layout. There is something special however about the terrain at Cruden Bay. It’s not so much that you’ll look around and say “wow” at the dunes around you (although you will), what makes the course special is that you feel like you’re playing over those dunes. They are truly part of the golf course rather than just beautiful scenery.

So what did I like best about Cruden Bay? Besides the people I met I’d probably say the view from the 9th tee box. I could have spent an hour up there, watching the golfers below, taking pictures, just enjoying the spectacular view. So allow me to give one last piece of advice on your trip to Cruden Bay. Remember that little bottle of scotch I mentioned earlier? Throw it in your golf bag and drink it with your friends on the 9th tee. I can’t think of a more appropriate place to enjoy it.

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All photographs are free to use as wallpaper or may be purchased as prints.

Royal Dornoch Golf Club Review – Dornoch, Scotland

the first hole at Royal Dornoch

During my trip to Scotland, Royal Dornoch was by far the most out of the way course. It sits roughly four hours north of Anstruther, our first home base during our trip to the UK. So why go to the trouble to play it? Friends who had been lucky enough to play the course raved about it. I knew it was ranked highly on just about every list of top golf courses. Tom Watson described the experience as “the most fun I’ve ever had playing golf.” The other reason I was interested in visiting Dornoch was because it’s the childhood home of Donald Ross. If you care at all about golf architecture and its history then visiting the hometown of one of the most famous men in golf is a worthwhile journey.

One of the first things that strike many golfers upon their arrival to Royal Dornoch are the tour buses in the parking lot. Much like Royal Portrush, golfers will travel from far and wide to check out the famous links. On one hand, this is a great thing. I respect anyone interested enough to make the journey all the way up here to likely play a single golf course. On the other hand, to bus in and then bus out, not stepping foot in town, means the golfer has missed an absolutely charming little town. Everyone we met was very friendly, from the bed and breakfast where we stayed to the pubs around town. And the coolest thing is how proud they are of their golf course. They know they are sitting with an international treasure in their backyard yet there is no hint of arrogance or snobbery, just a welcoming and friendly vibe.

The entrance to Royal Dornoch is very understated. There are no fancy gates. The locker room and pro shop are nice enough but not pretentious. As far as I could tell the only practice area was the putting green out next to the first tee. It’s all about the golf course. And what a golf course it is.

Quite often reviews of golf courses talk about how “the land seems like it was meant for a golf course.” It’s usually something along the lines of “the course practically laid itself out.” I’m not a golf course architect, but if I was I’m not sure that I would take statements like those very well. It seems really difficult to build any golf course, much less a good one. I would imagine the goal of an architect it to make it seem as if the course was meant to be there, but that actual process is very challenging. All that said, if I have ever seen property that seems to cry out for a golf course, Royal Dornoch is it. I could not imagine a better piece of property on which to play golf.

Possibly the best thing about the golf course is the routing. It is a very traditional out and back, links golf set-up. You tee off on number one heading away from the clubhouse, play the next eight holes outward, then turn around and play 10 back towards the clubhouse. The first eight are played on an upper ridge followed by the remaining holes dropping down along the sea. It’s almost as if the two halves of the course are like stair steps with gorse and the 50-foot drop providing the separation. One might think that a simple out and back routing might be boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the round unfolds and you move away from the clubhouse the beautiful Dornoch Firth comes into view. Playing golf at Royal Dornoch is one of those “good to be alive” points in your life where it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place to be. The beauty crests at the 8th hole where the fairway drops roughly 40 feet down to the lower part of the golf course. Standing on top of the ridge before you walk down, looking over what seems like the entire golf course, was one of the highlights of my trip to Scotland.

the 8th fairway and green at Royal Dornoch Golf Club
The 8th fairway and the drop down to the Dornoch Firth

Obviously Royal Dornoch is a beautiful golf course. People travel from everywhere to play it. But how difficult is it? While I would put it a notch below Portrush and County Down in terms of difficulty, it is still a very tough track. The day I played the first 8 holes played directly downwind. It was a perfect day for links golf, playing those low shots that land short of the green then run up onto the putting surface. The back nine however played directly into the teeth of the wind. On the 14th, the famous “Foxy”, I hit driver/3-wood to pin high. 18 is one of the harder finishing holes you’ll find in the UK. From the men’s tees it played almost 450 yards directly into the wind. I again hit a drive, then 3-wood, both on the screws, only this time I was on the front fringe, the green guarded by a small swale in front.the 18 hole and clubhouse at royal dornoch

As I was leaving the golf course after my day at Royal Dornoch, clubs over my shoulder as I walked back to our B&B, I noticed something interesting. The course all day had been packed with tourists, but at this point in the evening it was nearly empty. It was around 6 pm in the evening and the weather was absolutely perfect on this September day. The only reason I wasn’t out playing more golf was because I was thoroughly exhausted after two weeks of golf and sightseeing. What was interesting was the local members seemed to be streaming onto the grounds to catch the last couple hours of daylight and enjoy their fantastic course. And by streaming in I mean walking in; no cars, no buses, just people carrying their clubs who appreciate great golf and are lucky enough to have this gem in their backyard. If I ever wanted to get away from everything for a few months and just write, play golf, take pictures, and decompress, Dornoch would be where I’d go. The town and golf course left such an impression on me that I’ll never forget them. Maybe Tom Watson was right, it is about as much fun as you can have playing golf.

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