Fifty miles from John O’Groats and 20 minutes from Royal Dornoch, it is on common land accommodating cows and sheep grazing, between a beautiful strand beach and the purple, heather-covered mountains of Ben Bhraggie.
This is a pure, traditional, out-and-back links with an openness of natural undulating ground, the hazards being only two winding burns and a few strategically placed bunkers. Oh and the wind, of course!
As Peter Thomson (five times Open Champion and perhaps the greatest living exponent of links golf) says, “If Brora was a few hundred miles south, it would surely be a big club. I know of no course on the Open Championship roster that has more to it than Brora. I reckon it would confound modern champions. Their outrageous length would count for little. On a good windy day, its par would be hard to beat”.
Christy O’Connor, jnr called it “a great course, the best I have played in Scotland”.
Brora opened as nine holes in 1891 and was extended to eighteen in 1897 by John Sutherland, the famous Dornoch administrator who took advice from J H Taylor and Roger and Joyce Wethered (who both played much golf in these parts), soon after the Highlands railway was laid alongside the course close to today’s tenth tee.
James Braid (also five times Open Champion, a member of the Great Triumvirate with Vardon and Taylor, professional at Walton Heath and Scotland’s most prolific golf architect) visited twice in 1924, redesigning the course as we have it today. It is not surprising that the James Braid Society was founded here at one of Braid’s finest creations.
The flinty humour of the locals is well captured by Hugh Baillie in his erudite centenary history book and he must be well liked himself, to get away with some of the stories of the profusion of characters associated with Brora!
The Dukes of Sutherland, whose castle at Dunrobin is just down the road, have long been associated with the Club. A famous caddie, “slogger Sutherland”, a frequent carrier of His Grace’s bag, is quoted on a particularly frustrating day as giving, in response to “what’s the line here, Sutherland?” on the tenth tee, the epic words: “For as much good as you’re doing here, you’re as well to take the Inverness-Thurso railway line”.
I have already mentioned Ben Bhraggie, upon which there is soon to be an industrial windfarm, accomplishing perhaps what dynamite failed in the past to do, ie to overshadow the dominating statue of the infamous Duke of Sutherland who enforced the clearances hereabouts.
Tom Ainslie, an early pro, is known for cutting to three-quarters the fashionable long, loose, loopy Dornoch swing, the easier to deal with the stiff Brora breezes.
Another Brora man, Willie John Henderson, was considered the next best Scottish player after Eric Brown and John Panton in the 1950s but the man who epitomises all that is best of Brora is Jim Miller. The winner of 19 championships and 10 Royal Dornoch Carnegie Shields, he was off scratch or better from 1962 to the turn of the century, setting a course record of 61 with his exquisite long iron play. There never was a man of better manners and, though he seldom ventured south, he was a great ambassador for northern golf.
When the MCC cricketing golfers took on the Club a couple of years ago, we enjoyed a ‘spirited’ hospitality after being thrashed, an example of which was when I found myself 2 down on the third tee after going par/birdie against Ian Hamilton, recently retired from looking after the Pro’s shop.
Brora is not as sparse as Royal North Devon yet with a similar feel of natural features. The turf is kittle dry, requiring well placed tee shots to give the best chance to stay on the small greens with your approach. If you spray your drive, you will find it often with a reasonable lie, where the cattle, who are kept off the greens with electric fences, eat the rough to a soft spongy consistency, in comparison to these ‘fiery’ fairways that brown-off in the summer with little meadow grass (poa annua) to be seen. The tight lies that the wonderful fescue grasses give are part of the ‘joy to be alive’ that comes from the running FineGolf game.
The 3rd, 5th, 10th, 11th, 15th and 17th are all between 428 and 447 yards in length but the constant wind makes yardage irrelevant and, with no yardage markers on the course, this offers traditional golf where the ball is best kept under the wind and where the bump and run is most often the choice rather than the floated lob-wedge.
Only 6150 yards long, par 69, SSS70, this course is no walkover, demanding planning and touch rather than brute strength, and it has a fine challenging finish.
The 428 yard Fifth (Burn) is perhaps the iconic hole going out with the pin half hidden. The direction and strength of the wind may help you decide between a longer but easier approach from the left or the shorter but more perilous route across the dogleg and mound on the right. One does not want to be strong and run off into the pit behind.
The 500 yard eighth (Long) the only par five, has some similar characteristics to the fifth, perpetually dragging you right into land where the arctic tern (that provides the Club with its logo) nest on the foreshore, having been known to swoop and dive with a ferocity which can draw blood! It has to be decided how much of the long corner can be taken off and there is another tantalising, half-blind approach to the green, the greater from behind the knoll shy of the green on the right, at which one can easily descend into the panic of hit and hope.
Nevertheless, the hole that stays in the mind longest on the front nine is the 190 yard sixth (Witch), pointing inland towards the Clynelish Brewery. The tee-shot is all carry to a deeply undulating green set as an armchair, calling for the most delicate of pitches for the majority of second shots and played with a confidence to take on the borrows and swings of the green.
The tenth (Greenhill) is the only straightforward hole on the course, rescued by a splendid sloping green.
Some call the twelfth (Dalchalm, 362 yards) the best on the course with its fairway humps and hollows. A tiny raised green well guarded by deep pots with the Clynelish burn at the back is certainly tight and, if played downwind (the opposite to the prevailing direction), I am not quite sure how it is even to be accomplished!
The next two holes, if played sensibly, are chances against the card. The thirteenth (Snake, 125 yards) over the snaking burn is pretty and the fourteenth (Trap, 334 yards) with a deceptive blind drive, gathers your approach.
The finish is tough and full of character. The fifteenth (Sahara, 430 yards) is so called, as much of the rough until recently was a desert of sandy holes. The glorious long second from a ridge is played to a plateaued green with a difficult pot front left. The pot right has been filled in, as it was too often destroyed by livestock who favour this part of the course to shelter from the northern wind.
This reminds me of when my playing partner, Gavin Gilbey, years ago on another of those freezing ‘global warming’ winters was struggling with the cold and would happily have laid down behind the sixteenth tee and contracted hypothermia, if I hadn’t given up the game and helped him back to his bed, to hot water bottles and recovery.
We are a long way north here and in the summer the Northern Lights can allow play sometimes across twenty four hours.
The sixteenth (Plateau, 345 yards) with its green perched high on top of an escarpment left behind from the Jurassic age, needs considerable local knowledge! Best to just get on with it and hope you miss both the hidden bunker and out of bounds.
At the seventeenth (Tarbatness, 438 yards), we face the design conundrum of a split fairway (Carnoustie and Castle Stuart come to mind) beckoning us with its siren voice. Fully laid out in front of you from a pinnacle tee is the temptation of the shortest route down the right hand fairway. Hugh Baillie advises that James Braid designed the hole for two drawn shots and it is good advice. If the elevated bowl green can be approached with a running draw, perhaps a par can be accomplished.
I don’t like par threes as an eighteenth, particularly if they are strongly uphill but the home hole (201 yards) does have its adherents. Though unfortunately there is no veranda, the bar windows of the clubhouse do give a good view of, hopefully, your ball kicking in from the right hand side of the hill and achieving the green rather than the pock-marked steep valley in front.
Should anybody accuse this Club of recalcitrant traditionalism, they only need to be reminded that the first game of golf in Sutherland to be played on a Sunday was here ………. in 1960.
Visitors are made welcome on any day and the warm, English-born Secretary will be very happy to rustle up a partner if you venture here alone on what can only be called a pilgrimage to something very special.
Definitely on the American golfer’s tourist trail, who love the quaintness of the grazing stock, Brora GC has tried many times to come to an accommodation with the commoners’ rights. Either way, it will always be a place of much ‘joy to be alive’.
See ” Golf at the Back and Beyond – Brora Golf Club 1891 to 2000 ” by Hugh Baillie.
Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2011.