Murcar is a championships links in the very finest Scottish tradition.
It was originally established in 1909 by neighbouring Royal Aberdeen professional, Archie Simpson, and later refined by James Braid some twenty years later with only minor alterations since. Between the two of them they created a natural, memorable and highly rewarding golf experience.
A recent visit to this beautiful part of the country in May 2015 confirmed to me that this is unquestionably one of Scotland’s leading seaside courses. It has a character all of its own, forms a true test of the game and provides a stretch of magical golf on the front-nine that is particularly to my personal taste.
A magnificent setting is created at Murcar by the way that the land gradually falls from the highest point on the course down to almost sea-level. This sloped-tiered effect not only gives us stunning vistas from virtually all parts of the course but it results in perfect terrain for exciting and exacting links golf. Gorse abounds throughout the links and the splendid view out to sea, where vessels wait in line to enter Aberdeen Harbour, is another constant.
This illustrious club has hosted several notable amateur championships and professional events in its history and will once again be thrust into the spotlight this summer when the Saltire Energy Paul Lawrie Matchplay, a new European Tour event, will be held here. Despite several new back tees being introduced recently I suspect this will still be one of the shortest courses on the tour, but length is almost irrelevant at Murcar because the narrowness of the fairways ensures accuracy is of a much higher importance. And if the wind blows, as it certainly did on our visit, it will require imagination, creativity and shot-making rather than distance to master this impressive venue. The matchplay format should also be well-suited to Murcar because of the many risk-reward holes. A lot of work has clearly been done on the bunkering too, each one riveted sharply and cleanly.
The course, playing to a maximum yardage of 6,516 yards against a par of 71, eases you into the round with a couple of straightforward yet satisfying holes. They are sound par fours, playing alongside each other in opposite directions and a warm welcome to the course, but they don’t set the pulse racing like the following holes do. They do introduce you to the narrowness of many of the fairways at Murcar though and display an early warning that straight hitting will be the order of the day.
The third has a blind drive and from the moment the dual-fairway comes into view and begins to cascade down tumbling linksland you know that you are in for something special, a real treat. From the third to the ninth you are in the thick of the duneland, the best of the terrain, and for an hour or more I was in pure golfing heaven.
After completing the third, with its green almost engulfed by large sandhills, you head along the coastline, turning back on yourself only once at the magnificent one-shot fifth, until you reach the seclusion of the ninth green at the far end of the links. It completes an outward half of not just extremely high quality golf but of thrilling excitement where every shot in your armoury is likely to be called upon.
There are a number of truly superb holes in this long stint. The seventh, named Serpentine because of the slithering burn that not only crosses the fairway but snakes alongside it, is perhaps the shining light of this stretch and is a hole of sheer delight. You drive from an elevated tee to a fairway well below but the huge bank of gorse on the left, marshy land to the right and the aforementioned water to carry add anxiety in the golfers mind. Should one find the fairway you are left with a fabulous, likely long, approach to a green defended on all sides by sand and closely mown drop-offs. A par here is to be savoured, as is the hole itself.
The 4th tee is a spectacular spot on the course; hard to the shore it has an elevated drive to a slither of fairway that ducks, dives and at one point even stops and drops down several feet. On the tee you are virtually sharing the same land as Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, in fact we had to wait for a group to putt out on a green ‘next door’ before we walked past them up to the tee-box. Unlike other courses that abut one another there is no boundary wall or fence here. It’s nothing really but touches like this make you smile.
The real beauty of Murcar, however, is that although the feel and character of the course changes on the back-nine the quality stays the same. Indeed the 10th is arguably one of the strongest holes on the course with a drive down the right required to open up this green tucked behind a shallow sandhill.
For the most part of the inward half you play on higher ground, but it is far from flat. There is more width too especially compared to the agonisingly narrow, but fabulously undulating, fairways of the opening half. Drives into the unknown occur at the 11th and 13th and whilst the short hole in-between isn’t as easy on the eye from the tee as the others it has a most excellent green complex.
Another very good series of holes commences at the 14th; a wandering par-five that will likely require three solid strokes. This is followed by the daunting 15th with a terrifyingly difficult approach best described by the late James W. Finegan, “This, into a stiff wind, can be a real ‘death of glory’ undertaking, for the shot that is the least bit anemic is likely to plunk into the face of the cliff and retreat, as we watch in horror, slowly back down into the burn.”
The 16th, played back over the 15th green, is a stout one-shotter and the 17th, aptly named ‘Hummocks’ is a classy par-four that curves to the left. The home hole is well bunkered and has no doubt benefitted from a new tee which adds extra bite to the climax of the round.
Add to all that one of the warmest welcomes we have received, the delicious lunch, the modern clubhouse, excellent practice facilities and Murcar ticks all of the boxes for a superb day’s golf.
The fact that Murcar, literally next door to Royal Aberdeen and less than ten minutes from Trump International, is sometimes overlooked by American visitors to the North-East of Scotland tells me two things. The first is that the strength of depth in this area is of an uber-high quality and secondly that the Yanks are missing out on one the best examples of links golf in the UK.
Meanwhile, the Strabathie course at Murcar is a little nine-hole relief course that has two sets of tees and plays to 5,364 yards if you are to go round twice, par is 70.
James Braid is credited with the design which features half-a-dozen links holes towards the start and end of the round with the other holes played over softer ground on the opposite side of a burn that runs through the course.
The eighth is the best hole on the course although I was also fond of the simple but elegant par three 7th.
The Strabathie doesn’t compare to the main course at Murcar but there are a few interesting shots and if you have time for a warm-up before tacking the championship course it is conveniently located and shouldn’t take you too long to whizz round once.
Following a 4:00am alarm call we’d already driven for more than six hours and covered over 350 road miles before boarding a ferry at Oban sailing to Lochboisdale.
The Halifax Golf Club, often better known as Ogden, is a course that divides opinion.