Golf‚??s pretty accessible in Scotland. ¬†Even the Open venues like Carnoustie, St. Andrews, Troon and Turnberry are happy to take green fees off willing visitors. ¬†There aren‚??t many places your average punter just can‚??t play. ¬†The Carnegie Club, however, is one of them. ¬†To play it you have to be a member, or a member‚??s guest. ¬†To stay at Skibo Castle, you have to be a member too. ¬†It‚??s no stretch to say that The Carnegie Club is among the most exclusive clubs in Scotland (the website proclaims it as ‚??One of the world‚??s most exclusive private clubs‚?Ě). ¬†But is it any good? ¬†The answer is a resounding ‚??yes‚?Ě ‚?? our experience was an enchanting blend of beautiful scenery and a well designed golf course in near perfect condition. ¬†A true privilege.
Before heading to Carnegie we had a magic morning with our host Rob, which is worth sharing. ¬†Rob hails from this part of the world, but came out to our school in Christchurch for a gap year back in 2000/2001, where he befriended a few of our mates (like Pete, who was down in Ayrshire with us). ¬†We caught up with him in Edinburgh a couple of weeks back, where he (still) works as a corporate lawyer much as we did before this year. ¬†He happened to have taken a week off to come home (his family have a farm ‚?? well, 3 farms ‚?? up on the Tarbat Peninsula, just outside of Tain) coinciding with our time in these parts, so he invited us to stay for a night or two. ¬†Naturally we accepted. ¬†
On a fine Thursday morning Rob took us on a tour of the properties, to see his Empire. ¬†By far the most impressive attraction to my mind was one of the paddocks they have on the 500+ acre 3rd farm that‚??s set up on the cliffs overlooking, well, everything. ¬†‚??Nine Counties Paddock‚?Ě is so named because you can see nine counties from it. ¬†Obviously. ¬†During our tour we learnt a bit about soil and barley and the like ‚?? all the barley the MacKenzies grow goes to Glenmorangie and into their whiskies. ¬†They get over 460 litres of raw alcohol per tonne of barley (one of the highest yields of all Glenmorangie‚??s suppliers)! ¬†Anyway Rob also took us down to the beach to let the dogs have a good run, and let us in on a few projects he‚??s got in the pipeline ‚?? clearly an ideas man. ¬†Then we fed the calves, who were very suspicious of us Kiwis. ¬†It‚??s only the sheep that have any cause to worry...
[Corrie, the MacKenzie's springer spaniel, sleeping awkwardly at base camp...didn't get a photo of the even more lively Gillie, a cocker spaniel]
[Corrie eagerly anticipating his visit to the beach - notice the gentlemanly pose with right paw on the arm rest]
[Corrie at the beach]
[Worried looking sheep]
But back to the golf. ¬†When we left base camp it was bucketing down; things weren‚??t looking good. ¬†By the time we reached the Dornoch Firth ‚?? only 10 miles down the road ‚?? the skies were clearer and the rain behind us ‚?? phew... ¬†To get to The Carnegie Club (named incidentally after the infamous steel magnate from Dunfermline, Andrew Carnegie, who owned Skibo) you cross the bridge over the Firth then take your first left onto a small, non-descript side road that has no sign posts or any other indication that it leads to Nirvana. ¬†You pass holes 7, 8 and 9 and see The Struie up ahead, glowing under the afternoon sun. ¬†You know you‚??re in for something quite special. ¬†A low key gate-with-intercom is the last obstacle. ¬†Thankfully our name had been put on the list, and we were in. ¬†The anticipation was killing me.
As we pulled down the driveway past the empty driving range, rustic dykes and the understated clubhouse a couple of souls were mosying around in their tweeds. ¬†A family was being whisked off in a dark green Land Rover, probably up the road to the Castle (no private vehicles allowed apparently ‚?? you‚??re chauffeured by a dandy looking driver). ¬†We felt less out of place in our old Merc ‚?? The Tank ‚?? than we might have in Dodgy. ¬†But then again Dodgy would look out of place anywhere in Scotland. ¬†And he came to be accepted by the private golf club community in the US, so there‚??s no reason why he wouldn‚??t here. ¬†Anyway. ¬†We introduced ourselves and were soon on our way. ¬†
Right away you know you‚??re at no resort course. ¬†Proper, narrow, hard fairways bordered on both sides by Long Stuff. ¬†Perfectly cut, beautifully proportioned pot bunkers. ¬†Tricky green complexes. ¬†And back tees that we were allowed to play! ¬†(The Scots have been uncooperative in letting us play the tips ‚?? a privilege only reserved for medals, Open Championships and the like). ¬†Did I mention the Long Stuff? ¬†David Thomson the pro has been making a number of improvements to the course over the past 5 years, with the help of his Head Greenkeeper. ¬†Those in the know have been impressed. ¬†We were too (he talked us through them afterwards).
The 2nd hole demands one of the most intimidating tee shots I‚??ve had to hit for a while. ¬†A huge dune sits on the corner of a dogleg right; into it is cut a swathe of pot bunkers. ¬†There are bunkers on the left too, of course. ¬†Down wind the play is probably to smash driver over the top, but it‚??s not a prudent play first time around... ¬†If you end up in one of the pots you can forget about par and probably bogey. ¬†A seriously striking hole.
On the 3rd, a short par 5, I was fortunate enough to pitch in (semi-blind) from 80 yards for an eagle 3. ¬†30 quid for The First Tee, thank you very much. ¬†After a birdie on the par 3 4th I was sitting 3 under with only 14 holes left to screw it up (which proved to be more than enough...). ¬†The back 9, which plays almost entirely into the wind, is much more difficult than the front; and there's an Amen Corner-like stretch from 9 thru 11. ¬†
After 5 holes we came across one of the highlights of the day: The Greatest Half Way House In The World (suggestions for rivals welcome). ¬†There are many things that make this little cottage (formerly Gypsy Caravan) Great. ¬†First, you are led to it from about 4 or 5 holes. ¬†Second, there‚??s no one in there to take your order and make you feel uncomfortable or harassed ‚?? you have it all to yourself (assuming there‚??s no one else on the course, which would be very seldom indeed). ¬†Third, there is a perfectly adequate espresso machine and several fridges well stocked with goodies like fruit and beer and energy drinks and chocolate bars and spring water and beer. ¬†Help yersel‚??. ¬†Fourth, the leather sofas and stately wooden table provide agreeable seating options ‚?? not to mention the tables and chairs out on the deck. ¬†Fifth, the view from said table up the property to The Struie is breathtaking, particularly on a day like Thursday. ¬†On a gorgeous day it‚??s an enriching place to pause and reflect, to take in the views; on a miserable day it‚??d be a comforting place to find shelter, to recharge the batteries for a final dash. ¬†An amazing little place.
I also liked the inscription on this wee rock sitting just outside the cottage:
If you‚??ve been foolish enough to opt for the beer option after just 5 holes (I didn‚??t), the 6th hole will frighten you. ¬†A short par 3 over a gully to a small green guarded front left by a big dune that obscures the putting surface. ¬†The sky above you feels huge at this point ‚?? wide open spaces are abound. ¬†Chances of hitting even a wedge straight, in this wind, are minimal. ¬†But who cares?! ¬†Just enjoy the view...!!!!
7 and 8 are a couple of glorious little par 4s over the road that demand a bit of careful thought. ¬†Not crash and bash jobs. ¬†On 7 there are a string of pots running from the end of the fairway to the raised green, offset at 60 degrees. ¬†Don‚??t go in them. ¬†They look about as friendly as the English (I don‚??t mean that...they look friendlier...no I‚??m joking, I‚??m a quarter English). ¬†On 8 the loch sits there deviously off to the right; and the fairway tilts towards it. ¬†Goldy‚??s probably the only person reckless enough to have ever hit a driver here. ¬†
Things change on 9. ¬†But before you get there you‚??re distracted, momentarily, by The Most Impressive Bed Of Moss Ever To Have Existed. ¬†Moss and lichen, rather. ¬†A wee information board tells you all you need to know about the 3 types of ecosystem that occur at Carnegie, and about all the types of lichen you can find if you have a magnifying glass and are patient enough. ¬†Sounds boring, ¬†I know ‚?? but the visible ones were very intricate and impressive and I wanted to touch them. ¬†But of course I wasn‚??t allowed, like all good things in life.
So the 9th. ¬†A 215 yard par 3 over a gully; dunes to the left and a fence to the right. ¬†A nasty looking pot guards the front of the narrow and undulating green. ¬†Gorse is behind it. ¬†Down wind only a 5 iron or so, but good luck stopping it somewhere remotely safe. ¬†The landing area must be about 15 feet long by 10 feet wide. ¬†A hum dinger of a ‚??short‚?Ě hole. ¬†And the beginning of the end. ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†
Just as you‚??re wondering what hit you, you get to the 10th... ¬†504 yards of par 4 from the tips. ¬†With a blind tee shot over a hill perforated with a pot bunker (‚??only‚?Ě 230 to carry). ¬†And gorse and heather on both sides. ¬†The road being further right, delineating the Out of Bounds. ¬†Wind from the left. ¬†Just go ahead and stroke one down the middle then son... Ha! ¬†In fairness the shot is less demanding than it looks, because the fairway opens up once you get over the hill. ¬†But we didn‚??t know that. ¬†And I must impress upon you just how daunting your task looks from that little tee box cut into the bracken. ¬†A triple bogey 7 ended my hopes of channelling US$100 of Liam Doust‚??s money towards The First Tee in recognition of an Under Par Round. ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†
After 10 you turn around and look back West towards The Struie. ¬†Magnificent hillsides of brown punctuated with the pink and purples of heather roll around you ‚?? the sun shining on a slope here or a forest there. ¬†The Dornoch Firth is behind you. ¬†And the rest of the back 9 is in front of you. ¬†Regardless of how you‚??re playing you can‚??t help but breathe deeply and thank your lucky stars that you made it here even if only for a day.
Reality cruelly grips you again as you check the yardage book. ¬†471 yards of dogleg right par 4 ahead; into the teeth of the wind; a huge hazard (loch) on your right. ¬†The course staff then demonstrated why they are probably among the best at their trade. ¬†Because the wind was dead into, the markers had been brought forward 25 yards to another little tee, making the hole playable as a par 4 (just!). ¬†At other courses we‚??ve been the tips have been put out as far back as possible, regardless of the conditions. ¬†A thoughtful display lads. ¬†12 is a similar but shorter dogleg right, and had a bit of Kiawah Ocean about it ‚?? water all the way along the right; wind howling into from the left; a green perched just above the loch. ¬†Tough stuff...
Thank God for a second visit to the Half Way House! ¬†This time we licked our wounds for a little longer. ¬†And admired the view, which you‚??d never get sick of. ¬†Then Mike took his shoes & socks off for the walk to the next tee ‚?? because the grass paths are so perfectly mown that it‚??d be a shame not to experience them au natural. ¬†We were really in our element by the point, as you can imagine. ¬†
The golf course didn‚??t get any easier either, with anything remotely short of standard making up in trickery what it lacked in length. ¬†The innocuous enough looking 13th cost me a double bogey, but I didn‚??t care because I knew that after I sank my putt I could walk barefoot, again, to the next tee. ¬†On those Amazing paths.
A little grey gatehouse is tucked discreetly by a tree to the right of the 14th. ¬†I can‚??t put my finger on why, but the wee house had a magnetic pull so I took a photo of it. ¬†The photo is below.
The last 3 holes are on the other side of the clubhouse, so we stopped for a quick chinwag with David en route to the 16th tee. ¬†A tremendously affable character and good golfer in his own right (used to have the course record, 63, at Cruden Bay). ¬†He chatted through with us the changes he‚??d made and the changes he‚??s planning to make. ¬†We also got a good feel for how the club runs, and what it‚??s like as a member. ¬†Sounds alright. ¬†On a more serious note, it was a buzz to hear David talk about something he had invested so much of his time and energy into, and of which he could rightly be very proud of. ¬†Something of a masterpiece, really. ¬†(I also enjoyed hearing about how a couple of members got booted out because they complained too much...no nonsense here - the owner got the cheque book out and told them to take a hike after David finally lost his patience with them).
17 may just be one of the most scenic holes in Scotland. ¬†At this point you‚??re as close to the Struie as you get. ¬†The walk back to a wee tee perched on a mound is an exhilerating one, with the wind blowing hard off your right and the loch gleaming below you. ¬†I could‚??ve sat there and thought about life for an hour. ¬†Or three. ¬†Instead I struck a 2 iron down to the fairway, heaved a fat sand wedge onto the front edge and wandered off with an innocuous par. ¬†Goldy found himself in one of the striking fairway bunkers, which must rate a mention again for how beautifully they are cut. ¬†They almost don‚??t look real.
On 18 you can open the shoulders and swing hard as it‚??s a short down wind par 5. ¬†You can also glance across the loch to your left and spy the famed Skibo Castle, looking discreet and stately in the trees. ¬†Not a bad place to lay your head to rest if 1. You are a member, and 2. You don‚??t mind forking out over a thousand pounds for the privilege. ¬†Before you ask, no we didn‚??t stay there.
The conservatory bar at the end of the clubhouse looked like a tempting place for a refreshment and nostalgic chat, but we had a dinner date down the road with Rob & friends. ¬†It was no hardship though I must report to have a shower in the locker room. ¬†4 shower heads: one orthodox, above your head; one above your head but offset to one side, with a different jet; one at bum height; and one at lower thigh height. ¬†You can have different temperatures on each, and thus do ‚??Hot / Colds‚?Ě if you so wish to rid your legs of lactic acid. ¬†Then you can don an Egyptian cotton robe for a brief moment, splash yourself with expensive looking after shave then get into your car ready for the 200 yard drive back into to the real world. ¬†(After thanking your hosts, of course).
What a day. ¬†Thanks David & The Carnegie Club for allowing us the privilege of experiencing such a special place. ¬†Top 100 raters / players ‚?? watch this space.
Thanks also to Rob & The MacKenzie family for kindly putting us up at Cullisse Farm ‚?? your home cooked meals and farm tours made us feel at home and recharged the batteries. ¬†Cheers!
Postsript: ¬†Our camera died tragically on the 5th hole. ¬†It's been a loyal and trusted friend for 220 days or so, and we're hoping he's revived in due course. ¬†The offshoot of this tragedy is that photos from the 5th onwards - and on subsequent days - have been taken with the less competent iPhone camera, which doesn't quite capture the scenes as well as our Sony. ¬†Please accept our apologies.
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