By: Sally Ross
Photography: Sally Ross
Evening shadows grow up from the softly undulating, treeless world surrounding me. I’m on the 17th tee of Brora Golf Course in the village of Brora, the Northern Highlands of Scotland. Shifting cloud layers spotlight a rolling green here, a long stretch of fairway there, a dozen large red cows making their way up the first fairway, the Caribbean blues of the North Sea, the brilliantly white Tarbat lighthouse 40 miles south and the snow covered Cairngorm Mountains beyond. The cuckoo stills the night as arctic terns dive and oyster catchers warn me not to walk through their nests. The two-car ScotRail passenger train adds percussion as it chugs south to Inverness. Alone, I’m playing what the Scots call millionaire golf because I seem to have the place to myself. This is heaven.
I get all of this and classic golf for $467 per year, not per month mind you, but for the entire year; no extras, no assessments, no required meals. If you walk –as we all prefer to do –an electric trolley is worth the investment or available to rent for $20 a round. Last year, a friend loaned me her trolley during her hip replacement; this year, my clubs are loaners that I’ll probably buy from another friend. Just ask around and someone will have what you need, or there is always the local charity shop or boot (trunk) sale.
Club membership in Scotland is charged per individual, an important difference for me, a single widow. At home in Georgia, I pay the same club membership fees as a family of 12! At Brora, I can be a country member, meaning I live more than 35 miles away, though I still have rights for handicap records, competitions, tee times and all social events. Full membership ($612 per year) gives me all of this, plus reciprocal rights at 12 surrounding golf courses. At $25 per round (for three rounds) at the famous Royal Dornoch, which is normally $205 in the summer, I can save the difference in one outing.
“Brora currently has 400 adult playing members, including individuals and groups from all over the world,” says Tony Gill, club secretary. “I can’t tell you how many people play a round and come in to the office to join or sign up for Golf Week. Most of them enthusiastically plan to tell others and to return themselves.”
As a member at Brora or any Scottish club, I can play in any Open, Invitational, Walk On or Mixed Competition in Scotland and only pay an entry fee of $2 to $20. That means no green fees to play neighboring Royal Dornoch or Nairn Dunbar, mountainous Kingussie or gorgeous 9-holer Aigas. Just as at home, individual games of stroke or match play reward the best gross and net scores. Though differently calculated, the handicap systems in both the US and Scotland allow players of all abilities to compete with one another for those net prizes. In Scotland, winners receive vouchers to collect goods from any professional shop or store in the country and sometimes a revered cup or trophy. These will likely remain in the club’s lighted trophy case, but what a joy it is to know that Brora’s Chaplin Cup (a 1927 silver wine chiller) is mine this year or the Robertson Rosebowl will soon include my name along with teammates Angela MacBeath and Peter Ethridge.
For all the joy that competition brings, golf in Scotland can really be a game, far more informal than we know in the US. In Preferred Lies (2007), a delightfully spiritual book about golf in Scotland, Andrew Greig writes, “…we’re here to be playful, to explore, and create, not just spend all our time grimly trying to whittle a few strokes off the same course played over and over.” Common games, as in the US, are weekly Medals (stroke and handicap winners), Stableford (in US pulling points), Foursomes and Greensomes (alternating shots) and Texas Scrambles. But I’ve also enjoyed Three Ball Better Ball (three-person teams with best net score recorded), Four Ball (match play for two two-person teams in which best net of a two-person team wins the hole), Roll Out Wednesdays (show up, put in your £3, and play twelve holes in random three-somes with prizes for best front 6 and back 6) and even our wacky Midnight Golf on the summer solstice: eight holes, with teams of two going out as eight-somes with two clubs and a putter, and in a “fancy dress” theme. This year it was D-Day; last year they all wore onsie pajamas!
At Brora, we aren’t limited to 18 holes as a firm rule of play, though it is harder to go out for nine since the links course does not come back to the club house at the turn. But many courses here have their own adapted layouts. It’s 12 holes weekly for the BMWs (Brora Mature Women) and the BOBS (Brora Old Boys Society). Those who work late can get in five, eight or 12 by turning back and (politely) crossing over to return at certain acknowledged points. Given that summer sunset is about 10 p.m., even those who work can get in 18 if they really want to, and tee times of 5 or 6 p.m. are not uncommon.
The air is pristine, ocean-fresh, highlighted with natural smells of farms and heather and sea. I’ve walked about five miles to this heavenly point on the 17th tee, and another mile will take me in. No matter how I’ve played on any particular day, I will have gotten in my walk. I have time here to enjoy the shifting colors of mountains behind me and the golf course’s undulating shadows and winds make the grasses appear to mimic the rolling sea beyond. Here there is peace. It’s not a four-hour escape from the hubbub of life. It’s a place and a time of just being.
Brora is special, even among modern links courses because, as in the beginning of golf, this is common grazing land, a public domain open to walkers and their dogs and to crofters, or farmers who retain ancestral rights to graze their sheep and cattle on the course. Because they do, all Brora greens are surrounded by low electrified fences. Golfers just learn to do the Brora dance of hefting one leg then the other over to get to their putts. You get a second try if your ball hits one of these fences and you get a free drop if you land in an animal dropping.
Regular golfers at Brora come to expect two dozen sheep with their nursing lambs after climbing the hill on 15. Generations of sheep created bunkers in the natural way on the far hill, hunkering down out of the winds. Cows often settle around the spring-yellow gorse along the burn, or stream, surrounding the 13th par three, and at sunset cows cruise in a line back up the first fairway to the par three pitch and putt area over the harbor. One day, six huge cows stood not 10 feet in front of our ladies’ tee on the 10th. Luckily we hit high enough to miss them all.
And, yes, it might rain. Weather is another part of the Scottish golfing adventure. Shifting winds, rain, hail, sun and heat can change any round without notice. Generally, wet weather gear will suffice and golfers just keep on, realizing as my friend Liam told me, that skin is the very best water repellant, while clothes just pull you down.
Prior to 1982 when the Dornoch Bridge completed a chain of access to the Highlands, Brora literally was “at the back of beyond”, a term I learned from Hugh Baillie who wrote the book on the history of Brora Golf Course (Golf at the Back of Beyond: Brora Golf Course (1891-2000), 2008). Now, during an afternoon at the beautiful Brora clubhouse, I’ve met South Africans, Americans, Canadians, Finnish, French, Bahamanians and Germans. Generations of the ubiquitous English come on holiday to the Highlands, and many retire here. The regulars give the place character. Beloved Pobbles plays the races on his iPad from the best seat with the best view of the sea and the 18th. Genial Hugh Baille who literally wrote the book on Brora golf history holds court with old friends and new arrivals. Ken, Charlie, James (the greenskeeper) Mikey Mac, and Ali hold down the bar as Fiona, Nicki, Pam and Lorna serve drinks, and Alistair cooks up the best ever bacon rolls in the kitchen. Club Professional Brian Anderson is renowned for his subtle, right-on golf teaching, a truth I can attest to with relief, respect and awe.
All of these folks engage visitors with open arms, hearty greetings and conversation openers you can’t ignore (“have a seat, what are you drinking?”). Free access to the Internet, when I don’t have it at my rental house, means I spend many hours enjoying this company and the wide range of Scottish dialects and languages. (See golf terms in the box.) At times, it’s just the few of us. On Friday nights, the clubhouse fills up for regular Curry or Quiz Nights and the weekly Snowball Draw in which one member, who must be present, may win up to £1000! For over 30 years, Brora has hosted its famous Golf Week during the last week in May. Over 100 golfers gather for five days of all-day golf, all-night parties and year-after-year emerging friendships. Major competitions, including the James Braid Open and the Clynelish Open hosted by the popular local distillery, are open to all. (See the web site at http://www.broragolf.co.uk for details.)
History and the Course
In hushed, almost Biblical tones, people will tell you that in the beginning, “James Braid came to Brora.” It is a point of pride that the famous Open winner and course architect redesigned this course, along with 400 others in Scotland. In his letter he offered great praise after his two days here in 1924. (My guess is they asked what he was drinking.) Today, Brora is the headquarters of the James Braid Society and thus the host of the yearly open in his name.
Founded in 1891, the course has evolved to become what Peter Thompson, another Scottish Open winner, calls “The purest links course in the world.” Says 20-year greenskeeper, James MacBeath, “Brora is the only course in the world where you can play golf pretty much as it was played 125 years ago.” Fairways and greens are only treated with weed killer and mowed, while the animals and weather take care of the rough. Bunkers have been built up for easier play, but likely appear where the sheep created them A brief description from www.golfnook.com says:
Brora is one of those “sneaky good” golf courses. When you play Brora, the excellence of the golf course creeps up on you. After all, it’s only 6,110 yards from the back tees. How hard could it be? Plenty, that’s how hard it can be! Throw in the usual gusting winds off Kintradwell Bay–a small bay leading into the North Sea–and you have a real challenge….
Brora is a classic out-and-back layout, beginning with a relatively easy opening hole – just to warm you up and welcome you. Almost every hole from first through ninth goes out in a northeast direction with the sea constantly on your right. (Slicers, beware!) The back nine return in a southwesterly direction, finishing with a wonderful 201 yard par three that plays uphill and has a bunkered green to contend with just to keep you honest. If you’re having a good round up until then, this hole can be a heartbreaker. If the wind is in your face and you don’t think you can get there in one, do consider laying up. “Lay up on a par three?” Yes, yes, yes.
And to be fair, I’ll add that the crowd in the clubhouse will be watching, discussing and judging your performance on that challenging 18th!
Peace and Tranquility.
Here in Brora we generally play in twosomes, sometimes threesomes; and from my observations, singles may be as common as foursomes. The expectation is that any round will be completed in under 3 ½ hours, not the standard four to five hour commitment as in the U.S. And that’s walking. But there are almost never any delays, no waiting for the group ahead or feeling pushed by the four behind. There are no sounds of buggies zooming, no cement cart paths and no worries as you look for a ball poorly played into high grasses mowed by cows.
Playing Brora, walking these hummocks and hills and hollows, with a partner feels downright leisurely. There is time to look around, to agree with your partner that this is the most beautiful place in the world, to walk and think in silence, and even, if this is a friendly game, to drop another ball or two and try that shot again. We encourage one another on the first tee (“play well!”), compliment one another (“well out”) and shake hands or kiss a cheek at the 18th.
In Brora, I go to sleep after a day’s golf and don’t remember the game as much as the place and the people, the laughter and the silence. And I wake to think, “Ah, another day living Brora! I wonder what it will bring.” I never know, but it won’t matter because I will have made the journey. Recently, I’ve adopted a favorite quote: “You don’t live your dreams by dreaming.” No, I’m not dreaming, I’m happily living and golfing at the back of beyond.
Author Sally Ross is a Watkinsville resident and retired professor of English Education at The University of Georgia. She currently “plays off 25” and is spending 5 months in Brora, the Northern Highlands, Scotland. This is her sixth summer in the Northern Highlands of Scotland. Contact Sally at email@example.com and see her photography at http://sally-ross.artistwebsites.com as well as at www.sallyrossphoto.com.