There are few more blissful days in Scotland than snaking your way north on the A9, taking in the stunning scenery framed by blue skies and daydreaming of the golf courses to be sampled. As the climb continues towards Inverness, you have reached your summit – the city offering the perfect base to explore a feast on the fairways. Championship links tests, 9-hole gems and superb inland experiences offer the golfer tranquillity, solitude amid outstanding natural beauty on some of the best golf courses in the country – to suit every budget and every ability.
Yes, the Highlands has become a must-play destination for visiting golfers. It has long offered a pulling power given the appeal of Boat of Garten, Royal Dornoch and Brora, while the modern design at Castle Stuart, including its staging of the Scottish Open from 2011-13, and improved airport links have further put the region on the golfing map.
It’s just 10 miles east of Castle Stuart where another club with a long, established history is enjoying something of a restoration – with spectacular results. Put simply, any golfing journey to the Highlands must feature Nairn Dunbar Golf Club on the itinerary.
“It does take a little effort to get to this area, but the golfers who do come receive a typical friendly Highland welcome and more often than not are very surprised with the quality of conditions and service we offer here as a whole,” says Robbie Stewart, PGA Director of Golf at the club since September 2018.
Indeed, after the championship venue celebrated its 120th anniversary last year, it is now promoting a true links golf experience, improving and upgrading the course to keep pace with the ever-changing requirements and expectations of members and visitors. The restoration of the ‘links effect,’ if you like. With the world’s finest pitching up for The R&A’s Amateur Championship in 2021, hosted along with neighbouring The Nairn Golf Club, the improvements have proved timely.
After receiving consistent feedback that holes 9, 10 and 11 had a more parkland feel, the club put a restoration plan in place to unveil as much of the natural dune systems and undulations as possible. Through sustainable management, Nairn Dunbar have also worked hard on producing more firm and fast greens for links golf and undertaken a rough, gorse and tree management programme.
Under the leadership of course manager Richard Johnstone, who is continuing to engage in education to become one of the most qualified in the UK, the overall improvements have been reflected in recent performance data analysis through the STRI (Sports Turf Research Institute) programme which highlighted the consistent quality of the playing surfaces.
The club, who have also hosted events such as The R&A Boys Amateur Championship in 2017 and The PGA Northern Open in 2018, now boast an improved links test to challenge all abilities while providing great value for money.
Stewart, who helped Cruden Bay blossom to its much-loved status during his 20-year stay, is a man buzzing with enthusiasm. He certainly senses the potential to further grow the appeal of Nairn Dunbar, to boost membership and welcome more visitors from near and far.
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“Going back to late 2015, the club had a vision to restore the links site here,” he explains. “The course has long possessed all the essential ingredients of a thoroughly absorbing links layout and Richard and his team have brought that to the fore in recent years. We are delighted with the quality of the course and continue to pride ourselves on product, condition and service for members and visitors at the club.”
Inverness native Russell Knox would echo Stewart’s words. Now US-based, he grew up hitting balls over Nairn Dunbar and a Junior Open tournament is run in his name, again to be played at the club this year.
The restoration plan at holes 9, 10 and 11 has helped achieve the overall links experience, as previously there was a band of larch trees, gorse and broom running down the right-hand side of the 10th hole that blocked the view of the Moray Firth and the natural dunes. With the addition of new teeing surfaces, the parkland feel has been lost.
Johnstone has also worked on the composition of the grass species on greens, introducing more fine leaved grass into the surfaces and reducing the amount of meadow grass content, giving the perfect environment for fine links grasses to thrive.
Johnstone, who was one of only three course managers selected from thousands across the UK to work at Le Golf National for the 2018 Ryder Cup, said: “We have also firmed up surfaces to achieve firm and fast links golf by regularly topdressing surfaces with dune sand to dilute organic matter with significant changes to firmness on greens and approaches.”
The club also implemented a rough management plan to return the links roughs to their natural condition, allowing fescues to regenerate to a dominant position and leave a long, open and wispy rough. “This gives the course a better aesthetic effect but allows members and visitors to find their balls and help speed up play,” added Johnstone. “We also introduced a gorse and tree management plan to return areas of the course back to its original dune landscape, with the removal of gorse, broom and other non-native species.”
The work hasn’t gone unnoticed. The club were a finalist in this year’s Golf Environment Awards, while Stewart himself was nominated as a ‘Partner of the Year’ by TGI.
Part of a rich stretch of links golfing terrain in the north, Nairn Dunbar is set in 135 acres of undulating links land. Initially a 9-hole course from its founding on 24 May 1899 before its extension to 18 holes in 1924, it lies to the east of the bustling coastal town of Nairn.
With views across the Moray Firth to the Black Isle and beyond to the mountains of Sutherland, as well as inland to the neighbouring Cawdor Hills, it offers a fun and enjoyable test, characterised by holes such as the picturesque par-3 8th.
Offering a challenge for all, the par-72 course measures 6,765 yards from the championship tees down to 5,748 from the reds. Take that trip to the Highlands and go experience it.
Images courtesy of Nairn Dunbar GC