Thursday, October 29, 2015

North Coast 500 - A Scottish Golfing Tour. Day 8 Skibo Castle

Swans in residence behind the 11th green
What is it about rain? You walk out of the house (B&B in this case), you start packing the car and when you close the boot it starts to rain. It’s like the Gary Larson cartoon of the bird on the telegraph wire, hovering over the car being washed so meticulously. ‘You are mine, all mine.’

Rain seems to wait in that same way, and by the time I had arrived at The Carnegie
Club, at Skibo Castle, it was full on bucketing. An American in the Pro shop looked pretty unhappy about it. “But it was 10 times worse at Trump Aberdeen”, he said.

 I asked him what he thought of the place.
“We saw a lot of water… and I don’t mean the sea.”

 The Carnegie golf course has an interesting history, dating back to 1898, when the billionaire owner of Skibo Castle, Andrew Carnegie, had a nine hole course built. By the 1920s it had pretty much vanished (Carnegie died in 1919). It took a new owner, in 1990, to start again, asking Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie to produce an 18 hole layout… as such, little of that first 9-hole course remains.

Views over the 16th green (and 18th hole) to the clubhouse, and Skibo
Castle far left.
The course has been evolving since then, now under the Golf Directorship of David Thomson, who is also the Head Pro. Working with Tom Mackenzie there have been sweeping changes. All of the gorse has been ripped out to give it an open, windswept look.
The appetising and short par four 17th
“You couldn’t see the water from any of the early holes,” David told me. “Now you can see it from everywhere.”

Not that you could see much from the clubhouse thanks to all that rain.

Playing out of one of the many bunkers I found during the round. 

This is a private members club. As David pointed out, it’s a country estate with a golf course… as opposed to a private golf resort. There are over 7,000 acres of land here and many members have never played golf, preferring the fishing and hunting… or the general beauty of this isolated part of the world.
The par three 13th
The course has been opened up to green fees… but only 8 tee times a week from June to October, and not on weekends. The experience is one of exclusivity, something quite alien to me as we have no private clubs in Ireland. Some, such as Portmarnock, have the air of exclusivity but anyone can play there if they pay the green fee. Not so, here.

There are 400 members but the course is never busy as it tends to be residential, and there are only 43 lodges.

I headed out in the rain, which eased off after 20 minutes. By the 9th it gave up completely and the sun came out. It decided to stay, too, so my decision to leave the sun screen in the car was proving a mistake… but here they think of everything. The halfway house (between the 5th and the 12th) has sun screen in the bathrooms.
The par four 7th. Short and with a split fairway.
The Carnegie Club takes a few holes to get going. You get to sample the fairways and greens, both of which have a sweet rhythm and are generous in scale. You can play low bump and run shots into all the long holes, and being short is preferable to being off the sides where recovery shots call for a very delicate touch indeed. By the 6th, the course switches gear and never lets up. I had yet to see another golfer so I got to play around with my approach shots – mixing high 8 irons with punched 6s. I even tried putting from about 60 yards, so smooth are the fairways.
The par three 9th. 215 yards from the back tee. 
The rhythm is languid and elegant. It feels so natural that you’d think the course had been here longer than it has, and that’s a testament to the quality of the ground, the design and the greenkeepers. It’s a lot of fun to play and while the course isn’t dramatic at the start, the surroundings more than make up for it.

The back nine is quite different as you get to the water’s edge, with two right-hand doglegs proving a terror to anyone with a fade. Another terror awaits on the 11th green… a flock of gulls were waiting for me and they left a few presents on the putting surface. No respect, I tell you.
Birds leaving the 11th green.
And then there are the swans. Quite the racket and there are more to come, flying in from the north. I’d make a joke about Ryanair’s routing here but nothing springs to mind.

I’m now in Brora for three days, playing four courses. The Royal Marina Hotel is a big change from the B&B. Big room, big bed and a restaurant/bar that means no walking in the rain. Oh, did I not mention… the rain’s back.

Weather Report
Rain to start, then brilliant sunshine. Probably a 1 to 2 club wind.
Golf Report
Played good golf, but only came close to my handicap thanks to light rough and some big putts. Made five from 15-20 feet. I might make one a month if I'm lucky, so I reckon I've used up my quota for the next two weeks'.

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