Half the size but full of fun Ed Hodge presents a fascinating history lesson on Scotland’s extensive nine-hole heritage
Scotland’s proud golfing history is famous and well-documented. The Home of Golf, the cradle of the game, where the pull of St Andrews, Royal Troon, Turnberry and many other iconic venues remains strong. Delve a little deeper, though, and an engrained form of the sport exists far beyond the glossy tourist brochures promoting championship challenges.
Indeed, it is a remarkable fact that almost a third of the courses in Scotland are nine-hole layouts. Take a turn off the well-trodden golf paths and you will uncover 178 nine-hole courses – according to official records – and probably more on private land.
The country is simply blessed with a vast supply of fantastic short-form courses, steeped in history and often acting as community centres in small villages.
Why? Well, here is the school lesson…
Many of Scotland’s nine-hole courses boast a deep tradition. Namely, small pieces of land that were built by dispersed village communities to satisfy their pleasure for golf.
The consequence of this is they tend to be found in more peripheral areas of the country, at all points of the compass.
For instance, 23 of Scotland’s nine-hole course are actually on islands – Barra, Corrie, Lochranza, Machrie Bay and Tobermory to name just five gems worth uncovering.
This is wonderful news for the adventurous golfer who loves straying from famous fairways and going ‘out of bounds’ to tee up at a far-flung location that can provide many a tale to regale friends and family.
‘We get all sorts of sums in the honesty box’
The far west coast is a prime example. In remote Argyll, one such venue requires entry down a single track road, money popped into an honesty box and typically a meeting with wandering wildlife.
Kyles of Bute Golf Club has existed since 1906, offering truly panoramic views across to the Isle of Bute and over Loch Fyne to the Mull of Kintyre. For visitors, here is the best bit. It’s £10 for 9 holes.
“But we get all sorts of sums put in the box,” laughs Steven Neilan, the jack-of-all-trades at the club. “The signature hole is the 9th tee, and the views are just tremendous in both directions of the Kyles.”
I was fortunate to grow up in Perthshire – a haven for nine-hole golf with 17 courses – and play as a junior at Muthill, a lovely little layout.
Further along the area’s tourist trail, two-time Ladies European Tour winner Carly Booth learned her trade at Comrie, while former Open and Masters champion Sandy Lyle has a deep affinity with neighbouring St Fillans, labelling it his ‘favourite inland course in Scotland’.
“We think we have one of the best nine-hole packages in Scotland,” claims Gordon Hibbert, club manager at St Fillans.
“We are blessed with our setting, our course has been transformed by former Gleneagles greenkeeper John Myles and we have new caterers doing a great job. It’s a special place and we look forward to seeing even more visitors come here.”
Mains of Taymouth, set in stunning Kenmore on the banks of Loch Tay, is another worth a visit in the region.
For the discerning visitor with a nose to explore, the far north and south offer other notable nine-hole choices.
St Medan – the most southerly golf club in Scotland – is nestled around the shores of Luce Bay, offering some wonderful holes on springy seaside turf.
On a sunny summer’s day, it’s pure golfing heaven. At the other end of the compass, Traigh is another must-go destination.
Set in one of the most beautiful parts of the West Highlands, a series of sandy beaches run alongside the course, with stunning views to the Hebridean islands of Eigg and Rum, and the Cuillins of Skye.
‘Nine-hole courses are what got me into golf’
Like a bygone era, these clubs continue to act as community hubs, offering a warm welcome for member and visitor alike. They may not receive the attention they deserve, but that is perhaps the beauty for the golfer in uncovering them.
Furthermore, these beautiful, quiet and often little-known nine-hole courses perhaps even require the lowest handicapper to use creative shot-making skills.
Since 2011, I’ve returned to my nine-hole roots at Kingsfield in West Lothian. It offers a well-maintained course, driving range, short- game facilities, family putting green and a coffee shop.
In today’s modern world, where time is precious, what more do you need? The fact you can maintain a handicap over nine holes now and compete at club level in competitions such as The R&A 9 Hole event is all the better.
“When I grew up I played a lot of nine-hole golf,” notes Richie Ramsay, the three-time European Tour winner and a regular at Kingsfield. “My grandfather, Roddy Robertson, used to take me to the nine-hole course at Hazlehead in Aberdeen. He basically used to take me out with cut-down clubs, tape them up and take me out for a round. I was competitive with my brother, Robin, too. I always remember it was about level 5s for me so if I could get it under 45 for nine holes I was delighted.”
Ramsay chuckles, enjoying his trip down memory lane. “There are a lot of nine-hole courses out there, while even the modern courses are set up with loops of nine that come back to the clubhouse. Myself, because I grew up on it, that’s what really got me into golf.”
It’s in East Lothian where Scotland’s nine-hole history really lies. Musselburgh Links, with a par of 34, is the location for one of the oldest courses in the world.
If that isn’t enough, it’s also one of the first venues used for The Open, having hosted the championship six times between 1874 and 1889.
Staying in the region, a friendly club on Scotland’s ‘Golf Coast’ is Gifford. The course sits at the foot of the Lammermuir Hills and is renowned for the quality of its greens.
‘The hardest par 3 in Scotland’
Even Scotland’s central belt offers a variety of nine-hole courses, full of character and charm. Found just off the M9, Bridge of Allan is home to a hillside nine-hole layout created by Old Tom Morris in 1894.
A course that offers gorgeous views across to historic Stirling and beyond, the 1st hole is iconic – it measures 223 yards uphill over a wall, meaning a par 3 feels like a birdie.
Just 10 miles from Gleneagles, Dunning is another for the to-do list, with the burn that meanders through the course a frequent hazard.
Reflecting back down the years, Scotland’s nine-hole story developed further when prestigious names built nine-hole courses. The Balgove course, under the charge of St Andrews Links, and Cruden Bay’s St Olaf course being such examples.
Gleneagles itself is home to the PGA National Academy course, a venue where those Murray brothers, Andy and Jamie, struck their first golf balls before becoming more adept with the tennis variety.
“Their first experiences of golf were there,” says mum Judy, of her two talented sons. “It was perfect for them, the holes are quite short and nine holes are more than enough when you are small.”
Over in the east, Anstruther provides a sterner test, including the ‘hardest par 3 in Scotland’. Trust me, it’s a delightful coastal challenge, but boy does that 245-yard 5th hole, ‘Rockies’, where you strike blind from an elevated tee to a tiny, sloping green, offer a sting in the tail.
Staying in Fife, step back in time to the roaring 1920s and play golf as it was originally played, even with hickory clubs, on the nine-hole course at the Hill of Tarvit.
From Cupar to Carrbridge, Gairloch to Greenock and Milnathort to Melrose, the options are plentiful. Take a history lesson and find time for nine in Scotland.