There was a time when golf wasn’t 18 holes. 150 years ago, The Open was three loops around the 12-hole course at Prestwick. As the rota expanded, four rounds at nine-hole Musselburgh worked well, or else twice around the 18-holes of the Old Course.
But over time, nine-hole courses became seen as second-class, and a Championship course with a par 72 became the standard. Away from the big-name courses, quirkiness remains at some of Scotland’s historic lesser-known links - here are five of my favourites.
There are dozens of courses, especially in Scotland, that started their lives as 9 or 12 hole layouts before acquiring additional land to build more. Invariably, they are worse for it. Links land is rare, hard to imitate and always special, so building additional holes on adjoining pastureland always leaves the soul wanting. At Shiskine, they could have added 6 holes to their 12 hole links but resisted the temptation. A dozen links holes that are exhilarating, eccentric and truly exceptional, make sure you take the ferry from Ayrshire to play this rugged beauty.
Backyard golf is alive and well in Britain. Great friend of Sounder, Dan Davies, has written about RNGC – his mini course built in the orchard of his Devon orchard (‘Shrinking the Game’). But even Dan would have to tip his ‘Bund Green’ cap to Andy Burnett who bought a cove on the Moray Firth back in 2004 and set to work on building his own 9 hole course. The result is £15 greenfee Covesea, and I’m pleased to report that the spirit of the game is alive and well here. Boomerang shaped greens and blind holes over sandstone stacks, this isn’t your ‘conventional’ course – but play with a smile on your face and at a pace that the gridlocked big name courses crave for.
Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides isn’t your typical golfing destination, but with the relative fame of near(ish) Askernish, maybe more will be tempted. Of all the islands in this distant archipelago, Harris was our favourite. Rollicking links land and crashing waves combine to produce a golfing playground like no other – distant and dramatic. To be enjoyed, and then to be enjoyed again.
Driving along the desolate North coast of Scotland, the scenery suddenly takes a turn for the dramatic as you approach the tiny village of Durness. With one greenkeeper (the charming Ali Morrison), a miniscule budget and just 9 holes – how could lowly Durness possibly compare with the big name behemoths of Fife and East Lothian? For sheer joy, drama and memorability – Durness romps home. A course everyone should play in their life time.
You may have noticed we’ve been venturing further North over this list, and nowhere is more so than Whalsay. It’s the only 18 hole course on my list, but for those intrepid explorers bold enough to take on the journey, they are rewarded with an experience like no other. Whalsay isn’t shackled by green committees or limited by convention – it is golf on the edge of the world. Playing amongst the coves and cliffs of the 60th Parallel they play for the sheer thrill and love of the game here. Just as it should be.