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Royal Aberdeen Golf Club

For more than a century, the links at Balgownie has endured as the pride of this staid city in Eastern Scotland

By: Ron Crowley

Appeared in April 2001 LINKS

Back in the late 1700s, golf had developed from a “short” game played in streets and churchyards to a “long” game played in open areas. Taking their cue from St. Andrews, the golfers of Aberdeen moved out to the coast. But a series of social upheavals, including the Industrial Revolution, sharply reduced the number of golfers and put many clubs on shaky financial ground.

One such group was the Society of Aberdeen Golfers. Founded in 1780, it struggled to survive during the early 1800s. It has been written that for a number of years, the only person who attended the Society’s annual meeting was the secretary who kept the minutes.

In 1815 the club was revived as Aberdeen Golf Club, and while pedants might debate the club’s claim to be the sixth oldest in the world, nearly everyone agrees that Royal Aberdeen has one of the finest links courses around.

Such wasn’t always the case. Originally, the club played on a seven-hole links course east of town. In 1873 the club grew moved north to Balgownie, where the club employed one of the famous Simpson brothers of Carnoustie, Robert, to lay out a 14-hole course. Within a few years, the club had the full complement of holes.

Apart from lengthening the course from time to time, little has changed at the course that eminent British writer Bernard Darwin called “a noble links.” That may be so, but it’s no straight-laced, perfectly symmetrical classic: Although it runs out for nine holes before returning, its two halves are significantly different.

The front nine is nearly 400 yards longer, most of it traveling north and parallel to the coastline. But only rarely does it afford players a glimpse of the North Sea, because the shore is hidden behind an enormously long dune that rises from 25 to 40 feet. With unseen waves crashing on the beach beyond, golfers play from tees built on hillocks and ridges down to fairways and greens that thread ribbon-like through a low valley. Yet the going is hardly silky. With lumps and swales affecting nearly every lie, and gusty wind confusing every club selection, Royal Aberdeen offers links golf on a grand scale.

The prevailing wind at Royal Aberdeen is from the south, so the additional length of the outward nine is understandably necessary. Long, accurate ball striking is rewarded early, at the formidable trio of Nos. 2 through 4. The next four holes offer something of a respite, although the much-photographed par-3 eighth turns back into the wind, causing many a ball to fall short into a sea of pot bunkers.

The scorecard can’t be turned over without first doing battle with the fierce 9th hole, a 453-yard brute bending right to a raised green that deflects all but the purest volleys. Tom Watson considered it his favorite hole when he visited the club.  Just beyond the 9th’s elusive putting surface lies the 3rd green of Murcar Golf Club.

The 3,000-yard march back to the Royal Aberdeen clubhouse is over higher ground that brings the full force of the wind into play. Slicers will have significant difficulty, given the out-of-bounds that marks the entire right side of the inward nine.

The rich tradition of Royal Aberdeen is on full display inside the clubhouse. Hickory clubs line the walls, and the famous cup presented in 1872 by Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, is in the trophy case. The building is largely a male bastion, but that’s not as nefarious a condition as it seems, for the women have their own clubhouse adjacent to the 18th fairway, as well as playing privileges on both the championship and relief courses.

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