Not many courses can make an authentic claim to be where golf began but Royal Aberdeen is one such special place. Historians have long contested the true origins of the Royal & Ancient game. It is known that activities involving clubs and balls were played in France and the Low Countries as early as the 16th Century. To the best of our knowledge it was via ships from these lands that the game was first introduced to the port of Aberdeen.
At what point these pastimes became golf as we know it is the crux of the debate, but it is far from fanciful to suggest it developed in its earliest forms right here in the Granite City. The earliest mention dates back to 1565, when it was classified as an ‘unlawful amusement’ in the Aberdeen Register.
Some two centuries later, and similar to their peers in Edinburgh at Muirfield, a formal club was formed: The Society of Golfers at Aberdeen. This was in 1780, a date that makes it officially the sixth oldest club in the world.
It was 35 years after that before The Aberdeen Golf Club came into existence, playing on the public links, and 1888 when they moved to the present site, north of the city at Balgownie. King Edward VII conferred the royal status early in the 20th Century.
Archie Simpson and his brother Robert, from Carnoustie, were commissioned to design the course and, just as Archie’s influence can be seen at nearby Nairn and Cruden Bay – to name but two – the local pros made the most of the quite exceptional piece of land available.
As befits a club where heritage and tradition rank higher than it does at most – the clubhouse when approached from the front entrance exudes a similar sense of gravitas to the R&A’s headquarters at St Andrews – their work bears all the hallmarks of classic Scottish links golf.
The narrow piece of land on which the course is laid out is barely broad enough for two fairways in places and the 9th green is located as far away from the clubhouse as is possible without setting foot on neighbouring Murcar, itself a links of some repute.
Witness the famous story of visitors to Royal Aberdeen who went out to play and returned to the clubhouse only to find their car had been stolen. In fact, they had taken a wrong turn half-way round and wound up on the wrong course.
Quite how the respective clubhouses could be confused is a different question, but that shouldn’t be allowed to spoil a wonderful anecdote. And since Archie Simpson also had a say in the design of Murcar the change in courses might not have been immediately noticeable.
The architects’ work was later augmented by a third Simpson, Tom, JH Taylor and James Braid, who, failing to see how the routing could be improved, satisfied himself with merely adding further bunkers and length to the existing course. Since then little has changed – until a few years ago.
Anxious for the links to retain the same challenge to the modern player as it did to its predecessors a century ago, the club employed the services of Donald Steel to make such adjustments as he feels necessary on an ongoing basis. It is a bold step for such a traditional club to take.
As befits a club where heritage and tradition rank higher than it does at most, their work bears all the hallmarks of classic Scottish links golf.
Stride up the steps towards the clubhouse, for example, and you enter a world of dark oak and polished brass. In the vestibule you can admire one of the original uniforms of The Society of Aberdeen Golfers, a red coat that still looks smart enough to wear today, if a little awkward to play in.
Perhaps that would be a way of limiting the effects of modern technology. Certainly, antique courses designed as long ago as this are more vulnerable than most. Time waits for no man, even at Royal Aberdeen, and that’s why Steel has been called in.
While some would see the tiniest modification to such a venerable layout as heresy, in the right hands and with a minimum of interference, a course like this can often rediscover its previous reputation without losing the subtleties that made it so special in the first place.
It is, therefore, a brave measure the authorities have taken, and one to be applauded. Steel’s first acts were to build a par five on a back nine that previously did not have one, and construct a new green to strengthen the 13th.
From the back tees, the course now stretches beyond 6,700 yards. In other words, it has been restored to the sort of challenge it was always intended to be. Continuing a tour of the clubhouse, behind the soft upholstery at the back of the main bar is the 1st tee where an over-enthusiastic or careless practice swing looks as though it could threaten the bay windows.
So no matter what your opening drive is like or however embarrassing its result, do not under any account mutter a curse – those enjoying a spot of lunch behind might be listening to every word. Balgownie is principally famous for the strength of its front nine and starts to a round do not come any more inspiring than this downhill par four, played towards the North Sea.
If it is possible to forget the looming presence of the clubhouse behind, there is a wonderful sense of liberation about driving towards the open fairway below, in the knowledge a great golfing adventure is about to unfold. From the 2nd tee, every hole in the front nine apart from the short 8th plays due north along the line of the coast.
The principal features are fairways following the lines of valleys and elevated, isolated tees built into the hills that flank the beach. Although not especially tight, the bunkers are cunningly situated: Desirable landing areas are narrow and subtle angles are often created, as at the par-five 2nd where a pair of bunkers some 50 yards short of the flag make you think twice before hitting a wood towards the green.
It’s hard to find a highlight on the front nine, such is the consistent excellence. If for no other reason than it’s the shortest hole on the course, the 8th, where 10 bunkers must be avoided, sticks in the memory. Of the par fours, perhaps the 9th is the pick. Travelling first downhill then up, and gradually turning to the right, this is a hole where every yard must be earned, the green protected at the front by an ominously deep bunker.
If the inward half pales by comparison, not least because it is further away from the sea, it’s still difficult to pinpoint a weak moment. As it plays into the prevailing wind, it’s generally the more difficult side to score on and Steel’s work on the 12th and 13th fits seamlessly into the course as a whole.
In all the appreciation of the front nine, the strength of Balgownie’s finish can be overlooked. On these last three holes the fairways once more become corridors and the land again pitches and falls.
In between par fours of 417 and 440 yards comes a short hole played down towards the sea where the target is a green on three levels. The tee shot is difficult enough, but unless it finds not only the putting surface but the right tier, the second is even harder.
It doesn’t get any easier over the final hole, either, but on a course with such rich history, consolation can be taken that you certainly won’t be the first to have struggled home. In one way or another, your golfing ancestors have been engaged in similar ‘unlawful amusements’ round here for the best part of 500 years.