Great things come in small packages and never more so, in golfing terms anyway, than at Boat of Garten. With the Cairngorm mountains to the south and the River Spey and Strathspey steam railway bordering the course, this is a sensational location. Better still, there is a marvellous layout to be enjoyed. If proof were needed that great courses do not need to be around the 7,000 yard mark then here it is. Measuring only 5,876 yards off the back tees the ‘Boat’, as it is known locally, wends and winds its way over links-like turf and between heather and silver birches to provide as exacting a test as it is picturesque.
Arrive early enough and there will be plenty of time to plot your strategy for the short 1st, John’s View, which is named in honour of John Grant, the club professional in the 1950s and 60s and, after a couple of blasts from the adjacent steam train, you are on your way.
By the 2nd you should already be beginning to appreciate that driver may not be the best option and halfway down the par-5 4th you know you are in for something special.
Here you might think that, at 514 yards, there is a chance of finding the green in two. Think again. A cursory glance over the card at breakfast and you can’t help but eye up the two par 5s and short 4s that appear reachable but playing the holes is a very different matter and all, bar one, are cleverly routed uphill to take such thoughts out of your mind.
The 6th, for many, will be the pick of the front nine, if not the whole course. A mature birch blocks the path of the real big boys so a mid-iron approach will be required to find a sloping putting surface.
From here it is up, and up again, courtesy of the ‘thrombosis slope’, to the furthest corner of the course with the second played blind over the crest of the hill. It is well worth waiting for a considerate member of your party to give you a line in.
Welcome relief, in terms of seeing where your tee-shot or second finishes, comes at the 8th though underclub here and the steep bank guarding the green will ensure that your approach is only too visible.
If proof were needed that great courses do not need to be around the 7,000-yard mark then it is here.
The 10th, the shortest of the par 4s at 271 yards, does finally present a chance of blazing one on to the dance floor though, as the course guide suggests, beware ‘yet another Boat bounce’ which could see your tee-shot fire left or right into trouble.
This, in part, is the beauty of the course. Rarely will you find so many crumpled fairways and awkward lies and the 379-yard 11th exemplifies this as well as anywhere. Find the narrow fairway and you will no doubt be faced with having to manufacture an approach with the Stroke Index of 3 telling its own story.
The legendary designer James Braid said of the 12th ‘a superb setting, the birch woods and the mountains beyond; I don’t think there is any equals it’ and, should you take a moment on the tee, you will soon understand why he singles this out. It is genuinely stunning and one of those cocoons of silence that you occasionally, beautifully, stumble across on a golf course.
Recent changes to the 13th have added a second par 5 and, typically, you make your way uphill to a narrow target. Only your very best will offer up the chance of tearing one, right to left, on to the hidden.
And with all but the scratch golfer receiving a shot, it is wiser to accept coming in with a wedge for your third. Three options greet you at the 15th due to a gully which sits around the 200-yard mark slap bang in the middle of the fairway.
Tempting as it is, the soundest strategy is to play short to give yourself a view of the green and, again, you will be teased on the penultimate tee where an arrow-straight driver will leave very little in. It may not be the smartest option but it might prove too inviting with all the terrain tumbling down to the green.
As brilliant as the first 17 holes are, the best is almost saved until last. It is the longest of the par 4s and, if you are considering getting up in two, then the driver is the only choice. Out of bounds skirts the right-hand side, rough the left. Medal cards will be ruined and matches will swing – everything you want from a finishing hole.
So, only four holes that measure over 400 yards, and still a magical test of every part of your game and if any club deserves a notable mention of how friendly and helpful their staff are it is the Boat’s. Be sure to pencil in a visit this year.