New courses have virtues all of their own but those that date back practically half a millennium have a certain charm impossible to match. One such example is Montrose, located on the east coast of Scotland that is the very cradle of the game. Whether you believe golf as we know it today was invented in these isles or across the North Sea in the Netherlands – and there is no definitive answer – what is beyond doubt is that it was here the game acquired widespread popularity. And with courses like this one, it is a small wonder.
This is golf in its original, most basic form – and it is all the better for it. The length, shape and difficulty of the holes are determined less by the architect than the demands of the land. It is easy to imagine what it was like here centuries ago before the grass was cut and greens and tees defined because that is all that has changed. You almost think it would have been impossible to arrive at any other routing.
So since the land decreed there would be as many as 10 par fours (depending on which tees you use) in the opening 11 holes, it is futile to worry about any sense of imbalance – just enjoy each one for what it is. And if you are surprised to find only three short holes, it is still one more than there is on the Old Course.
Bear in mind there were few, if any, regulations in terms of course design back in the 16th century. It is courses exactly such as this one that created the benchmarks by which others are judged.
So when, for example, you stand on the 3rd tee – its title ‘Table’ tells all – what you are looking at is the original version of a design replicated on literally thousands of courses all over the world since. The tee is on one high point, the green across a valley on the next 150 yards away. The rest is up to the wind.
It is easy to imagine what it was like here centuries ago before the grass was cut and greens and tees defined because that is all that has changed.
Genius then, and genius now. It might be fractionally easier to find the green with the more stable and penetrating modern ball but the challenge is essentially unchanged since the day it was designed.
Nor had the concept of par been invented, which can have a stifling effect on contemporary design. Nowadays, holes like the 5th and 16th would simply not be created. The former is nominally a par four of well under 300 yards played uphill around a bunker that guards the front left of the green.
The latter is barely 50 yards shorter yet classed as a par three. You would think that finding the green would be enough to warrant a par being recorded but the enormous putting surface barely has a flat section on it. It is probably easier to record a three on the 5th than on the 16th.
For all its charms, Montrose should most certainly not be thought of as merely a curiosity. Mingled among the kind of holes described above are classics like the 2nd, played parallel to the sea down the most rumpled of fairways, and the 17th, a wonderful par four where the narrow green is on a shelf above and to the left of the fairway.
Slightly confusingly to the first-time visitor, Montrose has no fewer than three clubhouses, each accommodating its own club. They are Royal Montrose, Montrose Mercantile and Montrose Caledonia.
Thankfully, there is only one pro shop, in which building is also the Golf Links Office that deals with course bookings. The first record of golf being played here is in 1562, while the first club, the Royal Albert, was formed in 1810. This places Montrose inside the 10 oldest golf clubs in the world.
For a taste of history, a visit to this corner of Angus is a must. But in addition, it remains a links course good enough to host qualifying for last year’s Open at nearby Carnoustie. Montrose, then, has something for everyone.