That the best things come in small packages is certainly true in the world of golf, says Fergus Bisset, as he celebrates Britain’s characterful short courses.
Britain is famed for its historic championship golf: the game was born on Scotland’s windswept east coast more than 500 years ago and has developed to become one of the world’s most popular sports. Through that development, many of the most famous courses were established across the UK.
Golfers in this country can visit those prestigious venues, but there are many other delights to sample – and some of the most appealing are the nine-hole courses that deliver a concentrated golfing shot and a more intimate and private playing experience.
Fifty-five miles down the Dee Valley from Aberdeen, between the towns of Ballater and Braemar, lies the small village of Crathie. There’s not much there save a church, a school and a few houses – oh, and Balmoral Castle, the Highland retreat of the Royal Family for the past 150 years.
Constructed in the 1850s, Balmoral sits in a 65,000-acre estate that contains mountains, lochs, forests and an abundance of wildlife. Slightly more surprising is that it’s also home to a rather wonderful little nine-hole golf course. Constructed in the mid 1920s, the layout is played regularly by The Duke of York, a keen golfer and former captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.
The course was always maintained for the exclusive use of the family and the small membership of the club, made up of local people and estate workers, but, recently, a few tee times have been opened to visitors and the course is available to be rented out for a few corporate days.
Playing golf at Balmoral, one feels let in on a splendid secret. Hitting balls around the back garden of a royal residence seems somewhat surreal, but there’s a great sense of peace and serenity to be enjoyed as one walks across fairways that wend through mature pines, past family cairns and monuments and alongside the majestic River Dee.
‘You start by playing down a fairway with statues of Queen Victoria on one side and Prince Albert on the other,’ explains Garry Marsden of the Balmoral estate.
‘You then have a fantastic view of Crathie church, before hitting along the river towards the old curling pond. There are great vistas, but some history and heritage to be enjoyed as well.’
Playing at such an exclusive ‘royal’ course in spectacular surroundings, Balmoral provides golfers with a rare opportunity.
‘We’re limited to the number of tee times we can offer,’ continues Mr Marsden. ‘We only get going in May, then finish in the middle of July for the royal visit.
‘There will never be many golfers on the course and that’s how we want to keep it. The tranquility is a big part of playing here.’
01339 742534; www.balmoralcastle.com
Royal Worlington and Newmarket
There is plenty of debate as to which is Britain’s very best 18-hole golf course. But when it comes to naming the country’s best nine-holer, once name always comes to the top of the list: Royal Worlington & Newmarket Golf Club in Suffolk, a course so good it’s widely referred to simply as the ‘Sacred Nine’.
It was the famous early-20th-century golf writer Bernard Darwin who first described this course as sacred and, much like the layout itself, his words have stood the test of time.
‘In 2018, we’ll celebrate our 125th anniversary,’ notes club secretary Scott Ballentine. ‘I’m sure the course is as enjoyable to play today as it was when it was originally designed by respected course architect Tom Dunn.’
Royal Worlington has a small but perfectly formed layout that features a selection of tremendous holes played over firm-running, sandy turf to fast and testing greens. Each hole has its own challenges, but watch out for the par-3 fifth, where out of bounds lurks to the right, a large hollow waits to the left and a three-tiered green provides a further test.
Going twice round Royal Worlington will provide a good examination for the best golfers, but the layout is such fun to play that all will feel greatly rewarded by their game and eager to reflect on it in the comfortable clubhouse bar.
‘The clubhouse was originally a farmhouse and it has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere,’ explains Mr Ballentine.
‘The homemade cakes and sandwiches are excellent and perfectly washed down with the club’s renowned Pink Jug [a delicious Champagne cocktail].’
01638 712216; www.royalworlington.co.uk
Nailcote Hall’s Cromwell Course is set within the beautiful grounds of this lovely Warwickshire hotel and is yours to enjoy for the duration of your stay. With no hole longer than 146 yards, it’s a real test of your short game, but it’s a golf course in miniature with hazards that include ditches, bunkers and ponds.
The tees and elevated greens are maintained immaculately and are a joy to play on.
After a couple of laps of this fun little track, the opulent hotel provides the perfect setting in which to unwind and reflect on your very private golfing experience.
Each August, the course at Nailcote Hall plays host to the British Par-3 Championship, an event hosted by 1969 Open champion Tony Jacklin. It welcomes many professional golfers each year as well as well-known faces such as Steve Cram and Len Goodman.
024 7646 6174; www.nailcotehall.co.uk
Across the Lecht mountain pass from Balmoral, in the heart of beautiful Banffshire’s whisky country, lies the magnificent Ballindalloch Castle, known as the Pearl of the North. Home to the Macpherson-Grant family, the estate boasts a pioneering distillery, a prize-winning herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle, superb fishing and a ‘proper’ nine-hole golf course.
The word proper is appropriate here as the Castle Golf Course is no ‘pitch-and-putt’ and it’s certainly no amateurish piece of golfing architecture. The excellent design, opened in 2003, is by the world renowned duo of Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie and, stretching to 6,500 yards (over two rounds and two sets of tees), it’s of championship length.
‘The golf course is a great addition to the attractions for visitors to Ballindalloch,’ declares Guy Macpherson-Grant. ‘I’m a keen golfer myself, so there was never going to be any compromise on the quality of the course.’
The fairways at Ballindalloch are shaped and sweeping and the greens beautifully kept. Head greenkeeper Muir Ross does a fine job of maintaining the track, working with help from Guy’s father, who’s an avid golfer and was a driving force in the construction of the course.
Perhaps the stand-out aspect of a round here is the scenery this hidden gem is set within.
‘Many shots are played with the backdrop of either heather-clad hills or the tumbling waters of the Avon, the main tributary of the mighty River Spey,’ explains Mr Macpherson-Grant.
‘The key advice for those playing the course is to not get too distracted by the surroundings and focus on staying out of the challenging rough.’
01807 500205; www.ballindallochcastle.co.uk
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