Golf and whiskey in the Highlands

If your golf skills fail you, a wee dram can lift the spirits, says Shelley Rubenstein

YOU might think an invitation to the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart Golf Links would be wasted on a novice, but you would be wrong.

There is something quite marvellous about beginning the day in wet and dreary London, before being transported to the beautiful Highlands only a couple of hours later. Numerous flight options mean you can easily do the round trip from London to the Inverness course in a day, allowing you to enjoy a full afternoon of golfing.

The first sight of Castle Stuart’s clubhouse instantly transports you back in time. The magnificent art deco building, perched dramatically atop a hill, reminds me of the only episode of Poirot I’ve ever managed to sit through, owing nothing to David Suchet and everything to the glorious 1930s-style location. I wasn’t the only viewer transfixed by the architecture in that episode of Devon’s Burgh Island Hotel; Mark Parsinen, owner and co-designer of Castle Stuart’s golf links was watching too. He built the £2.7m clubhouse in homage to the building. As a long-standing player at Royal Dornoch and previous owner of the renowned Kingsbarns golf links, Parsinen knows the region’s golf courses well.

Since it opened four years ago, Castle Stuart has been heralded as one of the world’s top golf courses, and in 2010 was appointed as the host course of the Scottish Open. It has become so highly respected that co-designer Gil Hanse has been recruited to design the course for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

The beating rain that greeted me when I arrived did little to diminish the rugged beauty of the location. I took respite in the equally attractive interior of the clubhouse, where talk soon turned to the treacherous weather conditions. In 2011, during the venue’s inagural hosting of the Scottish Open, a colossal storm flodded much of the course rendering many of the holes useless. Testament to its good relations with the locals, neighbouring courses sent their people to muck in and do whatever needed to be done to ensure the Open was completed on-site.

Taking advantage of a break in the bad weather, I hit the driving range. I was having no luck hitting the ball; at least until a man in a ball-pick-up contraption appeared. I discovered I could drive with pinpoint accuracy repeatedly into the side of his vehicle.

It’s a truly beautiful course, cleverly working its way around the split-level landscape to accentuate the stunning views. Notably, this is no elitist members’ club. The green fee per round is designed to be affordable so that anyone can play. The course has become so treasured that an American guest stipulated in his will that his ashes be scattered on the fourth hole.

The next day, I visited another of Scotland’s finest courses, the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle, for a lesson with their resident pro, where golf champions Ernie Els and Paul Lawrie regularly practice. Approaching the changing room, I nonchalantly glanced at the winners’ boards, observing that the ladies’ champion has remained the same since its inception in 2009. I snarled inwardly: who is this Louise Affray, who until moments ago I had never heard of. I fantasised for a moment about defeating her and having my own name engraved on the winners’ board.

After twenty minutes with the very patient pro, my dream was crushed. I remained inept and lacking the necessary co-ordination, with no choice but to concede another year to Queen Louise.

Taking my leave, I headed for the comfort zone of the nearby Glenmorangie distillery. Exhausted after two days of golf – admittedly mainly spent talking rather than playing it – I enthusiastically threw myself into the tastings. The Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban slid down especially well.

Before long, I was reminiscing about my youth, where the local sport was helping ourselves to a slug of whatever wee dram my father and his pals had on the go – a Scottish pasttime to which I’m infinitely better suited.

The Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open 2013 takes place 11 - 14 July at Castle Stuart Golf Links, Inverness aamscottishopen.com

Details on playing on the championship course and rental of the owner's lodge by the 15th fairway: castlestuartgolf.com

For membership enquiries at Skibo Castle and the Carnegie Club: carnegieclub.co.uk/

INTERVIEW WITH FORMER CHAMP JEEV MILKA SINGH
City A.M. What’s your favourite hole at Castle Stuart Golf Links?

Jeev Milka Singh: I love the par five second hole for a number of reasons. Aesthetically, you get wonderful views across the Moray Firth towards Inverness but from a golfing standpoint it’s also very challenging. The green nestles very close to the water’s edge and you have to hit a precise drive followed by an even more accurate second shot to ensure it lands on the right shelf and runs down towards the green. If you’re too far left or too far right you can be in trouble.

CAM Why do you enjoy playing at Castle Stuart?

JMS: For a start, I absolutely love links golf, and especially links golf in Scotland. If you combine the difficulties of playing on a links along with the wonderful views, you have the perfect place to play golf.

CAM: What did last year’s victory mean to you and will you be returning to defend the title?

JMS: Winning at the Home of Golf was very well received back home in India and you always want to come back to places where you have such fond memories.