Fort Augustus Golf Club
FORT AUGUSTUS, Scotland - Fort Augustus Golf Club, in the tiny village of the same name, could very well be the hardest nine-hole golf course in Scotland and the hardest par 67 layout anywhere in the country. It could certainly be the hardest course in Scotland without a drop of water anywhere on the premises.
It most certainly is one of Scotland's most unique courses anywhere with dozens of sheep roaming freely on the property, acting as natural, albeit underpaid, groundskeepers on this ancient, nine-hole, 18-tee, layout which opened in the early 1900s.
Designed by Scottish golf pioneer James Baird, the course, which measures 5,100 yards from the back tees, showcases how difficult a traditional Scottish parkland course can be without all the tricked up bells and whistles of most American championship layouts.
Baird is a five-time British Open, known locally as the Open Championship, winner and one of the finest and most prolific course designers in all of Scotland. While he designed dozens of full, championship layouts in this island golf kingdom, he also did several smaller layouts like Fort Augustus, which lack none of the toughness or championship quality, they only come in smaller packages.
That much is certainly true of Ft. Augustus, for any golfer not producing his best effort will come away from the layout severely punished and shaking their head over taking such a large score on such a relatively simple-looking course.
That's the true beauty of Baird's design and many others like it in Scotland; a layout does not have to be elaborate, fancy or expensive (green fee at Ft. Augustus is 10 pounds, about $15 dollars American) to be fun, challenging and unique.
There is a tiny clubhouse, with a small meeting room, and an honor box outside when the course professional or secretary is not on the premises. As with most Scottish courses, there are no motorized carts, but pull carts are available and the course is easily walkable with its gentle hills and treeless parkland setting.
What makes Ft Augustus tough is the dense layer of yellow-flower gorse and dark brown heather, which line most of the holes. Woe to the crooked-driving golfer as he or she will spend most of their day hacking the ball back into the fairway with a lofted club, provided they can find their shots at all.
From most of the tees, the heather looks just like dark, brown dirt alongside most of the flat, course fairways. Once you make a closer inspection of the off-course area, you'll notice the heather is a thick, closely cropped, gnarly plant, which grabs golf balls, and the clubs which try to reach them, with the strength of Velcro and the toughness of a brillo pad.
It's almost impossible to advance the ball a great distance out of this hazard with most golfers reduced to chipping the ball back into the fairway and promising to be more wary or careful on their next tee shot.
The gorse is a prettier-looking plant, but it has thorns just behind its flowers and can also be quite difficult to escape from. With its long narrow fairways and precise driving areas, Fort Augustus certainly rewards the accurate driver of the golf ball, at least until they arrive at the sloping, heavily undulated green where putting becomes another challenge altogether.
The ever-present sheep are not so much a hazard, but an on-course obstacle to be observed and played around or over. The sheep were here long before the course was ever built and have seen enough golf and golfers that they patiently go about their business without interfering with play.
There is enough grass, heather and other natural items for them to feed on that they rarely bother golf balls. You occasionally find the sheep resting on the greens, but they will move when they see golfers approaching or hear golf balls landing around them.
The sheep may not be the smartest animals, but they should be of little concern to golfers at Fort Augustus other than another unique feature, which makes this course so much fun to play.
The par 4 first hole, titled 'Ben Tee', gives golfers an idea of what they can expect during the round. Golfers tee off on a slightly elevated tee next to the clubhouse. The fairway dips sharpely down before heading back up to the tiny green. There is gorse and thick heather all along the right side along with thick, overgrown rough. The left is bounded by a dirt road and out-of-bounds to the left of the round.
The golfer needs to be straight off the tee to have a good shot at a lofted iron to the green. There is sand to the right of the green with plenty of humps, bumps and undulations on the putting surface.
The par 4-second hole is the number one handicap hole, for good reason as it measures 438 yards from the back tees, 455 yards when it plays as the par 4 11th. The fairway slants slightly from left to right with heather and gorse on both sides of the fairway. Two long, accurate drives are needed to reach this green in regulation. A large lone tree stands guard on the right side of the fairway, near the green, as if the golfer needs any more trouble on this already troubling challenge.
The par 4 third plays back the other direction, 349 yards from the tee, but once again long and straight is needed off the tee and to the green if you are to have a good chance of success. If this is the strong point of your game, then Fort Augustus is probably for you, but if you're like most mere golfing mortals, then prepare for a long day of challenges off the tee and to the green.
Holes 4-5 (13 and 14) are back-to-back par 3s where you can begin to get a few strokes back on the course. But once again, watch out for those inaccurate drives as they can find the thick stuff just off the fairways or the sand bunkers closer to the greens. The greens can be very fast, or slow, depending on the recent rain or sheep indentations, so speed and direction are critical.
The sixth hole is the lone par 5, measuring 550 yards from the back tees, but it is also one of the prettiest holes on the course. The Caledonian Canal runs all along the left side of the fairways with boats of all shapes and sizes constantly floating by the tree-lined shore.
It's even possible to take the recently renovated, and decidedly upscale, Scottish Highlander barge to its mooring station in Inverness-shire, less than a mile from the course and walk to Fort Augustus with your clubs in tow.
The seventh hole, titled 'Croft', is a par 3 in name only. Measuring 232 yards from the tee (253 yards as the 16th hole) it requires a mighty blow off the tee to reach this uphill green. The best most can hope for is a chip and one-putt for par, but this is one of the toughest short holes you'll face anywhere.
Both the par 3 seventh and the dogleft left par 4 eighth hole have large fences which separate the fairway to keep the sheep out of certain sections of the course. Always try to clear the fence off the tee and make sure it's closed when you go through.
The eighth, known as 'Corrieyairack', is another stern challenging test measuring 352 yards from the tee. If you're not able to hit the ball over the tree which guards the left bend in the fairway, then you'll find yourself facing a very long second shot to the bunkered green, or even worse, hacking out of the dense heather and gorse all along the right side.
The ninth is the final par 3 and is not the most demanding hole on the course, but golfers will face a blind shot to the green with a large bunker to the right side of the putting surface. There is also a great difference in distances from 131 to 192 yards on the 9th vs. 18th hole.
The second time around is slightly longer yardage wise, but hopefully golfers will have a little more on-course knowledge, plus where to, and just as importantly, where not to hit their tee shots.
Fort Augustus is a challenge and a Scottish golf experience to be savored, embraced and sometimes even feared, but it's the type of layout you would never find on a course this size and a town this small in America. It's a great hidden gem in a country already full of well-publicized diamonds.
Fort Augustus Golf Club
Fort Augustus, Inverness-shire
Phone: 011 44 01320366669.
Green fees: $10 lbs, $3 lbs, pull cart
9-hole course, 18-tees