Modest royalty: Duff House Royal produces pleasant play for golfers in Banff
BANFF, Scotland - What you may have heard is true: what baseball is to America, what soccer is to the rest of the world, that's what golf is to Scotland. Forgive the cliché, but it's part of the social fabric.
Along the coastal road from Inverness to Banff , way up here in the north, hardly a town passes that doesn't have a course of its own, conspicuously marked from the main thoroughfare. Need to find the police? Good luck. But there's always a sign that points to the local links. Here in Banff, the public commons is a huge putting green.
The course the locals play is Duff House Royal, and there are two good reasons to recommend it. First, with a comparative lack of tourists, this is golf the way the Scots play it, and have played it for generations. That means golf that's short on pretense and long on pure enjoyment. A missed two-footer? Who's keeping score in the first place? On to the next one, joyfully.
The other draw, and maybe the more intriguing, is that Duff House Royal is one of very few courses in Scotland that bears the imprint of Alister Mackenzie. In 1923, about the time the club received its "royal" designation, Mackenzie was commissioned to ensure the existing course was worthy of the brand. It was Mackenzie's last stop on his way to America, to places like Cypress Point, Crystal Downs and Augusta.
Like most of the courses that dot the coastal trail, Duff House Royal is walking distance from anywhere in town. But different from the others, most of which meet the shore, it's a parkland layout that plays along a river, then wanders in and out of a hardwood forest past an old baroque manor. At less than 6,200 yards, it only looks short; par is 68, there are five par 3s, just one par 5 and consequently, some very hefty par 4s. It's a quiet little course, kind of like a chapel. A well-struck iron has a thick sound to it, not the "tick" you get on the hardpan links.
Carefully groomed, yet modest, Duff House Royal has the feel of an upscale muni. With one big difference: hole after hole collides head-on into greens that only Mackenzie could've dreamed up. One has a mound the size of a VW beetle. Another sweeps around like a NASCAR turn. Still another might as well be a ski run. The 18th slopes like a waterfall, spilling off in multiple directions as it flows from back to front. Ridges, rumples, shelves, you name it. Mackenzie took a course that was solid and turned it into something much more.
Of the two nines, the outward is the more forgiving and the more enjoyable. But it's hardly a pushover. At the par-4 No. 3, you experience the literal meaning of "fairway bunker." As in bunker "in" a fairway. The three deep pits on this dogleg right serve to narrow the driving area and to extend the hole past 400 yards by forcing a drive to the left (which also brings out of bounds into play). Not for the last time, you'll probably be attempting an up-and-down par into an oddly configured green.
Mackenzie really ramps it up at the par-4 fourth with a back left pin-placement atop a plateau that's just about the size of a large living room. A sand wedge can carry to the crest of the shelf, and with just a hint of spin slide 20 feet back. I know this from experience.
The most memorable hole here probably is the par-3 ninth. In the Scottish tradition of assigning holes names, this one goes by "Orchard." I'd call it "Talladega." The kidney-shaped green does a hairpin turn around a right-front bunker, and it's banked all the way. It's tough to hit the green, but easy to find that bunker, where an over-heated blast can fly the putting surface into the black River Deveron.
That ski slope green? It's the par-5 No. 12, and there's nothing subtle about it. It's two flat tiers connected by a rise that shoots straight up 10 feet. The upper tier is alone up there; it drops in all directions.
From this point on, the course's length takes over, with consecutive par 4s at Nos. 14 and 15 that total more than 900 yards. After that comes a driver-length par 3, sadistically bunkered at that, best played as a four at the risk of taking a six. The 17th hole, another monstrous two-shotter, skirts three cross bunkers and two bomb craters left from World War II. For those still standing, that waterfall green awaits at the finishing hole.
Far removed from Scotland's golf meccas, Duff House Royal is not a destination unto itself. But along this northern coast, good golf is plentiful and not nearly as expensive as at the tourist destinations to the south. For those with a yen for adventure, this is a rarely seen stretch that can yield unexpected rewards.
November 3, 2005