Appeared in March 2008 LINKS
If you agree that a golf adventure doesn’t have to begin or end at the links themselves, the drive north along Scotland’s east coast to Murcar Links Golf Club will be part of the fun. True, you can fly into Aberdeen, Murcar’s home, but most American guests will be coming overland from St. Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and other points south.
Although the voyage takes about two hours from St. Andrews depending on traffic, the route, mostly along A90, is a revealing composite of Scottish life: quaint towns, expanses of rolling farm terrain and the dunesland of a putative Donald Trump development, and bustling urban centers like spunky Dundee and Aberdeen, which is at once a strapping seaport and a vibrant university town.
Throw in the left-hand manual transmission and orientation, traffic like crosstown Manhattan, and the odd rapid-fire double roundabout, and the experience can be intense. But just when one begins to anticipate an in-town golf atmosphere—think Portmarnock or St. Andrews—a mile-long, single-lane dirt road from the highway leads to the seclusion of Murcar.
Murcar is a links layout of the high-dunes variety, which translates to numerous panoramas of the North Sea, as well as dramatic changes in elevation and other severe contours. Extreme examples include Tarbothill, the 402-yard 10th, where the blind tee shot requires a 248-yard carry to the crest of a steep hill—into the prevailing wind. More subtle manifestations are the sloping skirts and sudden drop-offs surrounding many of the small greens. The holes are often tight, though at just over 6,300 yards, the course is not long.
The first four holes tack from the clubhouse to the strand, with Murcar’s spectacular six-hole stretch skirting the shoreline beginning at the 4th, a 489-yard par 5 that typically plays downwind, like the others in this sequence.
Other highlights are the uphill 162-yard 5th, Plateau, and the 423-yard 7th, named Serpentine for the burn crossing the fairway at 180 yards and a favorite of members.
Several perspectives along this periphery of the course look unreal, as if conjured up in a painterly, otherworldly manner. The effect was even more vivid in the Scottish parfait of weather during our round: light rain, followed by brilliant sunshine and colossal, fast-moving clouds; repeat.
Murcar’s proximity to neighboring Royal Aberdeen is evident on the back nine, which is perched above the front side. A quirky but likeable combination is holes 15 and 16—a 383-yard par 4 requiring an approach shot over a burn followed by a 160-yard par 3 from an elevated tee back over the hazard.
Founded in 1908—other candidates for names included Seaton, Black Dog and Berryhill, but Murcar won in a tiebreaker—the club hired Archie Simpson to lay out the course. James Braid tweaked it in the 1930s, as did George Smith, but the consensus is that the original design largely remains. The 1909 opening event attracted 100-plus players and was won by James Fraser, also the champion at Royal Aberdeen.
When it reopened in 1918 after being cultivated for crops during World War I, Murcar Links negotiated an agreement with nearby Seaton Brick and Tile Company to use its light rail system to transport players from Aberdeen center, five miles away. The train line ran until 1949, a quarter century after the industrial concern had closed. According to club lore, the schedule for the return trip was fluid, the deciding factor being a wee dram for the driver.
Nearly a century after its opening, Murcar Links has undergone some changes to raise its profile in the golf-rich eastern coast of Scotland. Key elements include a $1.5 million renovation of the clubhouse that retained the superstructure and footprint of the original building while retrofitting the interiors. The club also added five new tees and 10 new bunkers. Also significant is a $1.4 million practice complex with two putting greens, dual 360-degree short-game areas, nine covered bays and an all-grass range—rare amenities on vintage Scottish courses. Other initiatives include rebuilt tees, greens and bunkers.
The marketing effort has kept pace with the improvements; the club restored “Links” to its name after an unexplained hiatus of 90 years. It hosted a European Challenge Tour event in 2006, and will be the site of the 2008 European Girls Team Championships and the Scottish Amateur Strokeplay Championships in 2009, Murcar’s centenary.
According to club captain Steve Price, the club is still formulating plans for the big year, but they are likely to include a commemorative book, matches with other clubs and a malt whiskey distilled especially for the occasion. Which means that in the period leading up to the club’s 100th anniversary Murcar will enjoy a high profile. Of course, it always has been known to aficionados familiar with the region’s immense wealth of courses, complementing names like Carnoustie, Cruden Bay and adjacent Royal Aberdeen.
Murcar and Royal Aberdeen are so joined—sharing the same topography and the same original designer, Simpson—that inattentive patrons sometimes wander onto the wrong track where they are contiguous.
In fact, these wandering golfers may have hit upon one of the secrets of a great golf adventure in these parts: Playing one without the other seems a particular shame.