Oh my word! The Balgownie Links at Royal Aberdeen is something else. It’s different gravy - an unbelievably good golf course. Not only is it the best in Aberdeenshire it’s one of the best you will play. Period.
It is the epitome of an authentic, genuine and pure links golf experience which not only gives us 18 fabulous holes but it takes us on a thrilling journey of discovery through the dunes on the outward half before testing our metal into the wind on the back-nine along the plateau.
Played over the keenest of turf and maximising the natural undulations of the land quite exquisitely we find ourselves in golfing dreamland at Royal Aberdeen situated just on the northern edge of the Granite City.
With even just the slightest of breezes the ground game is the preferred way into the majority the greens which are not the most heavily contoured but feel just perfect for the environment. A few carefully selected elevated drives from the top of dunes on the way out is about right with the tee shot on the second just about as visually appealing as anything I’ve seen; a wide fairway narrows quickly before snaking out of sight between the sandhills.
The much lauded front-nine is indeed truly exceptional. Hole-after-hole the course just keeps on delivering world-class holes for us to enjoy, savour and remember. Bish-bash-bosh one after another after another. Even a couple of newly laid greens at the second and third, which don’t quite merge as sympathetically into their surrounds as they perhaps should, fail to take anything away from this utterly brilliant stretch of holes.
Royal Aberdeen produces the perfect mix of challenge, fun, exasperation and reward of just about any course that I’ve played.
The first is my favourite opening hole in golf – eat your heart out Machrihanish – with a decision to be made on the tee, located tight in front of the large clubhouse windows, in order to avoid a quartet of deep fairway bunkers before firing across a sunken valley to a table top green with a back drop of the North Sea sparkling in the distance on a good day.
In addition to this, the second, fourth, sixth, eighth and ninth are my personal picks from what is an unbelievably strong collection of holes. To play such a run of golf is very unique and something only a small number of courses can produce.
In comparison the run for home isn’t as magical but the test of character required on the inward half, played into the prevailing wind, is just as rich and rewarding. And the holes themselves, both individually and collectively, are still of an exceptionally high standard. The only hole that didn’t really do anything for me was the 14th with a dry dyke running across the fairway (no I wasn’t in it!) and an angled grassy ridge fronting the green.
Holes 10, 11 and 12 would still be the envy of most courses and serve up classic links golf. Meanwhile, the 13th has the most brilliant green complex, as does the 15th, and the 16th is no pushover either as the course builds to a crescendo.
The final two are pretty much as good as anything on the front-nine. The short 17th is enchanting with a cascading green ringed by bunkers and shares the same glistening backdrop as the opening hole whilst the 18th is everything you could ask for on a top championship course; a stern two-shotter of 440-yards with the most demanding of approaches culminating under the gaze of the noble clubhouse.
I have always played this most traditional of courses form the white competition markers (6,537 yards) but it can be stretched to 6,922 from the tips for say something like the Walker Cup or Scottish Open should they happen to be in town. Either way, it is a par 71 with an SSS of 73 (whites) and 75 (blues).
Recorded as the sixth oldest in the world the golf club moved to the present site in 1886 after being formed as the Society of Aberdeen Golfers way back in 1780. It was a sound decision because this land encapsulates the spirit of the truest form of the game.
Royal Aberdeen isn’t quite as good as Royal Dornoch in my opinion but it is certainly of similar ilk. It’s cut from the same cloth and if the two were boxing opponents I think Dornoch would only just get it on points. It really is that great.
Also on site is the Silverburn course, home of Aberdeen Ladies Golf Club, and offers a great deal but sadly doesn’t quite live up to its excellent early billing.
The first five holes are played on the opposite side of the clubhouse to the Balgownie and the rest of the Silverburn. I’d be quite happy to put these first few holes on loop and just keep going round and round. They are effectively a miniature version of the main course and are an absolute joy to play.
The sixth and seventh aren’t bad either, in fact the latter is a fine par-four to a lovely raised green.
But then disaster strikes! We cross an access road and play parkland holes 8 to 16 which are a significant drop in quality to what has come before (the short 8th is actually ok) before we return to the side of the 7th green where the 17th tee is located and we play the final two holes where we find ourselves back on better ground and are excellent.
It would be hard to recommend playing all 18 of the Silverburn but would highly advise you play the first seven and then jump on the 17th tee for the last two.
Commercially it may make sense for the Silverburn course to have 18 holes but there’s no denying it would have been much more satisfying if it had remained as the original six-hole ‘ladies course' and is a prime example of where quality is better than quantity.
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.