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Nairn

An unsung links along the sublime shores of northern Scotland’s Moray Firth

By: Nick Edmund

Appeared in September/October 1999 LINKS

First Witch: When shall we three meet again,
           In thunder, lighting or in rain?
Second Witch: When the hurly-burly’s done,
           When the battle’s lost and won.
            -- “Macbeth,” Act 1, Scene (i)

This year’s Walker Cup is to be contested upon a hauntingly beautiful stage. On Sept. 11-12, America’s finest amateur golfers will clash with their counterparts from Great Britain and Ireland at Nairn in northern Scotland.

Nairn’s Championship links nestles on the southern shores of the Moray Firth, not far from the city of Inverness and where the Scottish Highlands tumble spectacularly into the sea. It is hereabouts that the last battle fought on British soil, the bloody slaughter of Culloden, took place in 1746, and where William Shakespeare set his fabled Scottish play “Macbeth.” Cawdor Castle, the scene of several dastardly deeds in the play, is just down the road.

Nairn’s golfing reputation is not as widely celebrated as it might be, or as it perhaps would be were it not so overshadowed by that Royal Dornoch, even though the “Star of the North” is located 60 miles further north and for most golfers is far less accessible than Nairn, which boasts a nearby airport. In any event, the Walker Cup should help put Nairn firmly on the international golf map.

Nairn itself is an attractive, vibrant seaside town, and its golf course merits inspection for many reasons. It may not be an architectural classic in the Dornoch mold, nor is it a links that quickens the pulse in the manner of Cruden Bay (located 60 miles to the east) or Ballybunion, but it offers an excellent, fair and varied challenge.

Moreover, backdropped by mountains and staring across the Firth to the mysterious Black Isle, its setting is quite sublime. Scottish golf writer Sam McKinlay—a former Walker Cup player, as it happens—once wrote, "Here at Nairn is God’s plenty for the golfer—true linksland lying within sight and sound of the sea, heather, whins, burns, the typical hazards of the seaside course, and all in a setting miraculous in its beauty and in a climate more favoured than most parts of these islands.” A favored climate so far north? Yes, apparently so (and notwithstanding the witches’ “thunder, lightning and rain”).

When compared to Carnoustie, as most Scottish links are likely to be in the aftermath of July’s Open Championship, Nairn is a bit of a pussycat. The Walker Cup course will measure 6,687 yards with a par of 71, whereas Carnoustie also playing to a par of 71, was stretched to a gargantuan 7,361 yards for the Open. Although expertly placed, Nairn’s bunkers are not nearly so intimidating and its water hazards are more likely to be dry ditches than rushing burns. Also, the fairways will be a little wider than those at Carnoustie and the rough less punitive. But the heather and whins (often called gorse) that McKinlay referred to, which turn the links yellowy gold in late spring, then pinkish purple as summer unfolds, must be avoided at all costs.

Nairn is a course that rewards good strategy, accuracy and sound judgment of distance. The golf exam it sets is more intellectual than physical. It is also a traditional course in that its routing is essentially out and back. On the front nine, all but two of the holes head in a westerly direction away from the clubhouse; at the 10th comes the inevitable about-face, and with the exception of holes 13 to 15, which spear inland, the course leads steadily home. The feature that most distinguishes Nairn, however, is the quality of its greens. Subtly contoured, invariably quick and always true, as a collection they are the equal of any links in the British Isles.

The first seven holes run close to the sea; indeed, for those inclined to slice, they run perilously close on occasion. Often they are played into the prevailing southwesterly wind. Often they are played into the prevailing southwesterly wind. The finest holes in this sequence are the third and fifth, both of which are medium length par-4s. The third has one of the more turbulent and interesting fairways—only one or two at Nairn are pancake flat—with an impressive fairway trap and a ridge running through its center that partially conceals the flag (the extent determined by the position of the tee shot). The green is slightly raised with a nice falloff at the back. The tee for the fifth hole is almost on the beach, where a high tide makes for an exhilarating and sometimes nerve-wracking drive. As at the third, the green sits above the fairway and is well-defended by natural slopes and an array of pot bunkers.

Other standout features on the outward nine include the unusual, boomerang-shaped green at the short fourth and the cannily crowned putting surface at the drive-and-pitch eighth.

The back nine starts and finishes with a strong par-5. The 10th curves mildly from right to left—toward the sea—and has a lovely flow feel to it. The heavily bunkered par-3 11th is followed by a long and very awkward par-4. Hewn from a sea of gorse, the 12th fairway starts to heave and wriggle right in the landing area for the drive and again in front of the green. Next comes the inland trio, holes 13 and 15. The course really does take on an inland flavor here, with trees and heather the dominant features—shades of Wentworth or Blairgowrie, perhaps? The stretch is comprised of a stern, uphill par-4 with a vast, cascading green; a mighty, 221-yard downhill par-3; and a short, yet deceptively tricky, par-4.

True to form, Nairn’s finish rewards precise rather than aggressive shotmaking. With its chain of bunkers barring entry to the green, the 16th is a tough two-shotter, but the final two holes, a moderate length par-4 and an elegant par-5, both present realistic birdie opportunities—a factor that should add spice to the conclusion of any tight matches in September. Close encounters of the golfing kind? There could be many. The links at Nairn is a fitting venue for the 37th Walker Cup. Let the hurly-burly begin.

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