If you like your golf courses to make brash, dramatic statements at first glance – and if you do you are highly unlikely to find yourself in the Highlands in the first place – Moray will not be at the top of your wish list. On the other hand, if you want to know what links golf is really all about, and how the game was played back in the late 19th century, then you will not find a more quintessentially traditional seaside layout anywhere in Scotland.
The Old Course at Moray has barely changed in the near-century-and-a-quarter since it was designed by none other than Old Tom Morris. And why should it? The course is simply the result of the natural undulations of the land coupled with Old Tom’s eye for routing; how best to link together the individual holes into a course of balance and challenges.
So do not come here expecting to be faced with improbable carries from one clifftop to the next, 600-yard par fives or countless water hazards. Do not come here if you consider any course under 7,000 yards to be obsolete.
Because Moray’s charms are much more subtle than that. This is a course that begins and ends under the sturdy stone clubhouse that stands within the town itself. Think St Andrews, but on a smaller scale.
Located in the town of Lossiemouth, best known for its RAF base, on Morayshire’s northern coast, this region actually boats a surprisingly temperate climate considering how far north it is. Protected on three sides by mountains, only when the weather comes from the north east – which thankfully does not happen too frequently – do conditions turn really nasty. Most of the time this is one of the driest regions of the United Kingdom.
The holes at Moray meander between patches of gorse; sometimes so open that it can hard to discern the right way forward and at other times with the trouble encroaching almost claustrophobically towards the very edge of the fairways.
Expect fast, firm fairways and greens, uneven stances, the occasional blind shot and at the very least a sporting breeze. But the real test at Moray, as at so many courses of this vintage, comes not from the tee but when you get much closer to the greens.
Do not come here if you consider any course under 7,000 yards to be obsolete, because Moray’s charms are much more subtle than that. Think St Andrews, but on a smaller scale.
Some are sunken, some are raised while others are protected by nasty and penal bunkers. But invariably what you have to do before settling over the shot is something that is becoming increasingly rare in the modern game – namely, think. Think where the best place will be for the ball to pitch. Think which club will best perform that job. And think what the contours are likely to do once your ball is actually running down the green.
For those of us not fortunate enough to play all our golf in such conditions it can take a while to remember these subtle skills, but it is 10 times more satisfying to execute a running chip, successfully judging the slopes and borrows, than merely to flip a sand wedge in the general direction of the flag.
At the far end of the course, on the 9th, you find yourself standing alongside the RAF airfield, and while it is true the roar of jet planes and whiff of kerosene is not conducive to a peaceful game of golf, it is not long before the course runs away from here and towards the sea, the 11th being a particularly outstanding par four – and there are several here – where the approach should be aimed at Covesea Lighthouse.
But for all the excellent par fours on a course that has 13 of them, the best is undoubtedly saved until last. Sometimes, at links where the 1st and 18th holes run parallel the last is a disappointment (Seaton Carew and Panmure are two that spring to mind) but most assuredly not here. At 406 yards but generally playing much longer due to the green being set well above the level of the fairway, a closing four here is usually good enough to win any match.
Another of Moray’s great attractions is that you can make a real day of it by also playing the New Course, designed by Henry Cotton and opened in 1976. And with Nairn less than an hour away and Aberdeen also within easy reach, it fits in perfectly to the itinerary of any trip in this area. Such a trip will be packed with ‘real’, traditional seaside golf, and it is hard to think that any discerning golfer would not relish that prospect.