Monday, October 26, 2015

North Coast 500 - A Scottish Golfing Tour. Day 5

Tain's 12th hole is sponsored by the local (and highly acclaimed)
Glenmorangie Distillery
Today, things ramped up a gear on the Scottish golfing front. Two gears, actually. Tain Golf Club is in a different class to what has come before. Before today, the emphasis of the courses was on fun, without any pretensions.

Tain is a Top 100 contender and it takes no time at all to see why… on the drive in
there’s a carved statue of the course’s designer: Old Tom Morris. Three words that fill links enthusiasts like myself with a burst of enthusiasm. Back in the days that Old Tom was designing courses, there was no big movement of earth. No, you worked with what was there, which is why Tain is so wonderfully natural. Acres of bumps and humps and hollows, small rises to greens… and big rises, too. 
The dogleg 9th at Tain. A short hole that doglegs sharply right. Put
that Driver back in the bag.
Surprisingly, for a links, you rarely see the sea. Not only do you find fairways chaperoned by broom and gorse, but woodland also slips into play for a section of the course that feels almost like heathland. It means several holes feel totally isolated from the world.

the Index 1 14th at Tain Golf Club
Showing off the shapes of Tain's fairways (15th hole)
The Alps hole. The green sits immediately behind those two distant dunes.
Only the 11th hole, named Alps, takes you out to the firth. There are few climbs at Tain but that doesn’t mean the earth won’t move you, and the name Alps refers to two impressive dunes that explode upwards short of the green. It makes the signature hole the only one where the green and flag are invisible. Elsewhere, putting surfaces are often hidden, which adds to the difficulty on large greens. I’d been told that the condition at Tain was always exceptional… and it is. The greens are things of beauty.

Not only did I find a wonderful course, I also found that Scottish golfers don’t hang about. My tee time was 8.30am and Stuart, the club’s pro, suggested I let the two older guys on the tee, go ahead of me.
The entrance to the club - carved stomps and Old Tom Morris. 
“They’ll be round in two and a half hours,” he said. “You’ll be in front of a three ball.”

So I watched the two guys tee off and I followed after them. For three holes I had to wait on my approach shots, but by the 5th they were gone from sight. You’d think I’d lose sight of the three ball behind, wouldn’t you? But not a bit of it. I was taking photographs and video, but I wasn’t slow, and every time I looked back to the tee, the three lads were arriving. They had to wait on the 18th tee for me, which I felt quite embarrassed about.
Tain's clubhouse and 18th green
I finished, sat down on the deck behind the clubhouse and waited for them to finish. I looked at my watch and almost choked. I was round in two and a half hours exactly… which meant the three ball was as well.

Irish golfers take note. A three ball, playing 18 links hole, in 150 minutes. Imagine how many more people we could get into the game if we could promise people 150 minutes on the golf course, not the 240+ that seems so common these days.

Tain’s marketing materials lead, not surprisingly, with Old Tom. ‘Old Tom Morris’s Northern Jewel’ is the line, and a jewel is exactly what it is.

Interesting shapes on the approach to Tarbat's 6th hole. The graveyard
behind contains the church which is home to the Tarbat Discovery Centre.

Tarbat Golf Club

The afternoon was going to be split between Tarbat Golf Club, and the Tarbat Discovery Centre, both in Portmahomack, a small village on the sea, 13 miles east of Tain. The village is squeezed between the bay and a steep hill that rises immediately behind it. Go to the top of this hill and you’ll find Tarbat Golf Club. It’s nine holes so I wasn’t expecting much, but it packs some punch. There’s only one greenkeeper – Mike Key – and he’s been pushing the course along for a decade.

“You see those two bunkers?” he asked, pointing down the 8th hole. “My wife and I dug those out by hand.”  
Tarbat's 8th hole, green to tee (and clubhouse... the white
building, centre left)
Mike has taken what was essentially a very large field and turned it into something that feels and plays like a links course… but with a bit of mischief thrown in. Fairways perform the unexpected and a couple of creative greens mean you’ll have fun if you end up in the wrong place.

Mike had a fair battle to make these changes over the years but he’s not the sort of man you mess with. This is a guy who travels three and a half hours to Glasgow, on Sundays, to do martial arts training. And not averse to a bit of Kung Fu fighting on a Friday night… his words, not mine.

There is one thing that these two very different golf courses have in common. They have a graveyard right next to the entrance, and in both cases there are signs alongside suggesting ‘Passing Places’. Seems about right.

The Shandwick Stone. This is the original stone slab, now encased in glass
to protect it from the elements. It has been here for well over 1,000 years

Tarbat Discovery Centre

The Tarbat Discovery Centre (in the church with the above mentioned graveyard) is a fascinating enterprise. I’ve never been a great one for touring these places – playing an Old Tom Morris is about as historical as I get – but the centre is fascinating. The focus is on the Picts, the indigenous Scottish people who lived in these parts between the 3rd and 9th centuries. I won’t attempt a history lesson, here, but the Picts carved stone slabs which were nine feet high and were planted in the ground around the area.  Three remain.

A little bit of education.

Weather Report
Another chilly but sunny morning… and an even brighter afternoon. Perfect golfing weather.
Golf Report
Without question the best golf I’ve played in four years. Fourteen out of fourteen fairways hit - a testament to the generous width of Tain’s fairways - and all wrapped up in two and a half hours.

This second stone slab - the Hilton-of-Cadboll Stone - is a replica. The
original is now in the National Museum, Edinburgh
Tomorrow ups the ante again. Royal Dornoch beckons, 16 miles to the north. I play the championship course in the morning and the Struie in the afternoon, with a young man by the name of Ru MacDonald. I’ve been told to keep an eye out for dolphins.

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