Brora Golf Club may be the least known and truest test of classic links golf
BRORA, Scotland -- Playing Brora Golf Club for the first time, you feel a little bit like Christopher Columbus discovering the new world. Once you discover you won't sail off the edge of the earth, all the beauty and unspoiled treasures around you are amazing.
Such it is with the public, par 69 layout, first opened in 1891 by golfer and architect Old Tom Morris and later renovated and greatly upgraded by James Braid in 1923.
Of all the famous and worldwide known courses in Scotland, Brora is probably the least known and truest test of classic links golf.
It has nine holes hard by the pounding surf of Kintradwell Bay, leading to the North Sea. The nine inward holes play back towards the clubhouse with the par 3 18th practically right under the clubhouse window.
Part of the reason for the lack of overall mention or publicity is the remoteness of the location. Brora is probably the finest and most northerly located links in this golfing kingdom.
The course is just north of Royal Dornoch, which gains most of the attention in the area, and was considered mostly inaccessible by car until recent improvements in the highway and the new Dornoch Firth Bridge makes it only an hour's drive north from Inverness.
The addition of hotels and neighborly courses has made it much easier to make this part of an outstanding Highlands golf tour. Once you've discovered Brora, you'll find a course with as many oceanside holes as any in Scotland or just about anywhere else for that matter. Holes 1-5 and 7-9 hug the coastline with the par-3 13th pointing directly at the water.
The holes feature the rolling links design with small hills everywhere on the course, hidden greens, small burns crisscrossing the fairways with large, pot bunkers guarding the fast and undulating smallish greens.
The greens are encircled by a thin piece of electric wire, which keeps the nearby sheep and cattle off the surfaces, but does little to affect the high-stepping golfers.
Perhaps the best part about this hidden gem is that it's still possible to play on a weekday afternoon almost totally alone in just over three hours, all for a very reasonable green fee. Take the Brora layout and place it on any coastline in the U.S. or just about anywhere else for that matter and the price automatically goes up five or six times.
Braid, the five-time Open Championship winner, charged the Brora members $25 pounds when he took the train north from London to walk the course with course leaders in the early 1920s and quickly returned home to stretch out his proposed upgrade.
The course, thankfully, has changed very little since Braid worked his architectural magic and today is the proud home of the James Braid Golfing Society. For decades, the true golfing purist have made it a point to encounter Brora once in their golfing lifetime and most first-timers will tell you, it's certainly worth the journey. While only playing 6,110 yards from the back tees, Braid's links has enough mixture of bent grass greens and beach sand, burn water and spiky gorse, not to mention blind shots and the loud surf, to get anyone's attention.
Its beauty, challenge and charm is enough to attract any true lover of the game and take the sting out of any high score.
The first hole, a par 4 measuring just 297 yards from the back tees, gages your skill level right from the start. It bends slightly left to right off the tee box and the green is fairly hidden until you reach your drive in the fairway. The putting surface is perched on a knoll overlooking the jagged terrain, meaning your approach shot must be a good one to avoid rolling back into the small valley below.
After surviving the first challenge, the short walk between the first green and the second tee is simply spectacular as the tee box appears to be set right on top of the beach with clear views all along the bay from the Sutherland foothills in the south to the Ord of Caithness in the north.
The key to success on this hole, along with the par 4 third and fourth holes, is long and straight with little margin for error. The ever-present water lines the right side, and while the beach below plays as a lateral hazard not out of bounds, you won't see many people playing their ball from an impossible shot in the sand.
The par 3 sixth is the first to play away from the water, but the drive still must be long enough and straight over on this 174 yard maze of swales and hollows with three large bunkers guarding the front of the green. The only true safe landing area is on the putting surface and even that doesn't guarantee an easy par once the putting adventures begin.
A small, sneaky burn comes into play about 65 yards in front of the seventh green. Only the longest of hitters could reach this off the tee, but it certainly comes into play on the second shot for every golfer.
Also, never discount or underestimate the wind at Brora. It usually comes in strongly and constantly from the water, meaning it's likely to be in a golfer's face during the front nine holes and at their back on the inward side, but it can also swirl on several places on the course making club selection a dicey matter.
The par 5 eighth and par 3 ninth are two of the prettiest holes on the course, or anywhere in Scotland for that matter. The eight swings slowly from left to right with two solid shots needed to have a chance at a solid wedge to the eighth green. Walking toward the green from the fairway is one of the best views anywhere as the elevated green is framed against the churning waters for a great portrait.
The ninth is 162 yards from the back tees with the green directly backed by the water. Titled the Sea Hole, any shot sliced off the tee will easily find the water while the left is guarded by solo pot bunker which can be real trouble for any golfer with hopes of making par.
The railway line which Braid and Morris first traveled on to reach the course, are still in use just beyond the ninth and 10th holes.
While the inward holes toward the clubhouse on the back nine are a bit less dramatic, they nevertheless are interesting and entertaining. The burn comes into play on several of the holes along with numerous humps, blind shots and hollows. It's classic links golf as the first-time golfer may not know their true target until they reach the fairway or move closer to the green.
Among the best holes is the steeply uphill par 4 16th. The hole measures 345 yards from the back or medal markers, but the second shot is almost always a blind uphill approach to a small green with hidden bunkers and a stiff wind playing tricks with the ball.
The finishing par 3 18th is another Braid classic with the tee shot all carry, 201 yards over a deep valley. A tee shot short on the green will simply roll back in the valley and leave the golfer with another blind approach to the tricky green.
The secret may be out some day on just how good and scenic Brora is. A course this fine shouldn't be hidden forever. But until then, the true believers will continue to gather on a regular basis and any Scottish golf lover shouldn't consider their journey complete until they can cross off the fine links of Brora from their must-play list.
July 23, 2002