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Murcar

Yardage
6516
Par
71
SSS
72
Built
1909
Architect(s)
Archie Simpson, James Braid, Graeme J Webster.
Nature:
A tight championship links across characterful rolling duneland with some lovely semi-blind and quirky holes and burns.
Location/Address:
on the Aberdeenshire coast between Royal Aberdeen and Trump Aberdeen. AB23 8BD
https://murcarlinks.com/
Secretary
George Bruce
Telephone
01224 7043541
Professional
Gary Forbes
Green Keeper
Richard Sharp
Access Policy:
Visitors are welcome
Dog Policy:
No dogs
Open Meetings:
Bannerman Trophy - July
Fees in 1960s
25p
Fees today
£130 - 2021

Review

Murcar is one of those exceptionally fine running-golf courses that tends to get overlooked, perhaps because to some extent it has always existed in the shadow of Royal Aberdeen, its neighbour that was instituted in 1815.

Lorne’s 1962 copy of Golfer’s Companion by Frank Pennink.

FineGolf started twelve years ago as an update to Frank Pennink’s 1962 ‘Golfers Companion’ that contained reviews of 128 of some of the finest running courses in GB&I. It took me forty years to play them all by 2004 except that I had never played Murcar until this year.

This is something I now much regret as it is full of FineGolf character, possessing many quirky holes and semi-blind shots that need ‘finding-out’, sited on sandhills with successive ridges rising from the sea. This topography provides a natural terraced effect and allows a view of the sea from almost every hole.

Map showing changes to original layout. Click to enlarge

These views are now somewhat changed by the subsidised wind turbines that have been erected offshore which so annoy Donald Trump with his new ‘Open Championship standard’ course a couple of miles to the north.

Pennink summarised his Murcar review with: “this beautifully kept course enriches not only Aberdeen’s golfing wealth but the whole of North-East Scotland”.

The Murcar Buggy

Murcar did not have an easy start in 1909 on leased ground from the Seaton and Parkhill estates as the local farmer, over whose road lay the prime access point, was anti-golf. Nevertheless with most members not owning a car, the Club cleverly arranged a transit vehicle which was to become known as the ‘Murcar Buggy’ to run on the Strabathie light railway from Aberdeen’s Bridge of Don to the course. At its height in 1921 there were 31,700 golfing passenger trips and the Club took over running the line until after the Second World War, thereby becoming the only golf club in the world to own its own railway.

Archie Simpson in 1895

Archie Simpson, the pro and keeper of green at Royal Aberdeen and twice runner-up in the Open Championship of 1890 and 1895, was paid £15 to design the course. He also designed nearby Deeside and Ballater and left his mark on Cruden Bay and Nairn.

Robert Littlejohn and William McHattie drove the project forward and ensured this was the first club in the region to open on a Sunday, much to the chagrin of Calvinist locals and the early owners of the railway line who refused to operate on a Sunday.

Cartoon of James Braid

In fact the Club went bust in 1917 but by the early 1920s it was resurrected with the purchase of the land and taking over the railway line. James Braid re-bunkered and changed the tenth, eleventh and fourth greens and the Club has not looked back since, particularly when it appointed Roddy Munro as head greenkeeper in 1922.

At this point it might also be mentioned in terms of challenges overcome, that the Club managed to successfully object to Shanks and McEwan’s bid to extend a landfill site to alongside the 13th, 14th and 15th holes in 1998, so preserving the countryside views on the inland side of the course.

Roddy Munro, Murcar’s greenkeeper for five decades

Roddy (who has been added to FineGolf’s Pantheon of the Finest Greenkeepers) eventually retired in the 1970s and his policies were the reason for so many people praising the Murcar turf in the 1950/60s as well as earlier.

There was a severe drought in 1929 and Roddy organised fish meal to be forked into the greens to help retain moisture (similar to modern conservation topdressing with 80/20 sand/fendress rather than using inert pure sand. See HERE for deeper explanation), though the fashionable in the 1930s but disastrous policy of liming the fairways would not have helped!

Following another drought from April to October 1933 (such a drought these days would be met with howls of concern!) a 10,000 gallon water tank was built at the highest point near the thirteenth hole to allow water to be piped to greens and tees.

Cover of Centenary book showing Archie Simpson driving at Serpentine

The Club’s centenary book, edited by Dr Alastair McLeish, notes that Roddy produced the ‘velvet’ greens of the 1950/60s which were also likened to billiard tables. The Open Champion Max Faulkner sang their praises and Dai Rees declared the Murcar greens were “the best in Britain”. They will have been almost pure fescues and browntop bent indigenous perennial deep rooting grasses with their low requirement of inputs of water and fertiliser. This was before the era of ‘American-like’ over-watered and fertilised ‘soft’ greens promoted by the likes of South African Bobby Lock, that became fashionable in the 1970s in GB&I.

Roddy reputedly did not have much time for fertiliser, saying that the water from the burns, which flowed through the farmland before reaching the course, was good enough.

Can you identify these golfers who played in the 1962 Royal Golf tournament at Murcar? They contain three Open Champions and eight Ryder Cup players!

Gary Forbes, the present longtime pro, told me that some of today’s top pros, for example Howell and Karlson  who played in the Paul Lawrie Saltire European Matchplay at Murcar, also praised the greens in 2015.

The fairways, that are unlikely to have been fertilised, are high in fescues and bent. Unfortunately, undermining conservation and all year round performance, the greens are now dominated by weed annual meadow grass (Poa annua) with its necessity for high inputs of fertiliser, water and pesticides to protect from stress and disease.

However, this did not stop me from enormously enjoying my round, played serendipitously with another reviewer working for Golf Monthly.

The third ledge fairway looking to Royal Aberdeen.

One is eased into the round with two simple holes played in opposite directions named after the salmon-fishers’ bothy and a pond that has disappeared, between the two holes.

The third (‘Ice house’ 401 yards) with a high tee turns back to the south with a green in a dell approached from a small ledge fairway. This green abuts the Balgownie ground of Royal Aberdeen and I remember some years ago skipping over to check out the lush Murcar grasses that Bob Mackay was aggressively hole tining. (Bob had been head greenkeeper at Dornoch and later grew in the initially ‘fescue’ greens at Spey Valley, before coming to Murcar. He has now moved on to set-up his own landscaping business).

The plateau 4th green.

The next five holes display the true character of Murcar and mostly hug the coastline, the raised fourth green (‘Pool’ 489 yards) being reached in two only when you are right on your game.

The par three 5th

The fifth (‘plateau’ 176 yards), the first of three par threes, has a long sloping green that is all carry, attractively nestled above the tee in the dunes.

The sixth (‘Seaton’ 453 yards), a slight left-hand dogleg, has a rising and rumbustious fairway and then we arrive at ‘Serpentine’ at 423 yards and Murcar’s proudest, iconic best.

The drive at Serpentine

The drive is typically tight between the marsh on the right and a steep bank of whins on the left and has to fly over two parts of a winding burn, hence the name, to an angled fairway. Depending on the wind and the length you hit the ball, the line needs to be ideally directed for your ball to stay centre-right on the fairway. You can then see the green round the corner of the hill and beyond large swales, ‘set cosily in a saddle’ as Pennink describes it.

Undoubtedly ‘Serpentine‘ is one of Scotland’s finest medium length par fours.

The Grahams Baxter and Thom with the ‘Serpentine’ painting

The well known golf course painter Graham Baxter has recently painted Serpentine and he captures well the wonderful movement in the fairway. Prints are available from the Club.

The 8th green

The eighth (‘Parkhill’ 383 yards) has a semi-blind second that must be hit hard as any weakness will find the deep gully before the raised green.

After avoiding plenty of trouble around the green of the ninth (‘Black Dog’ 323 yards) the tenth (‘Tarbothill’ 400 yards) has a tight blind drive where it is advisable to play to the right of the marker post to open up the large green.

The short par four ninth

The next three holes are out of context with the best of Murcar. Indeed, their addition in order to release ground for the nine-hole ladies course (now called the Strabathie) and to reduce the cramping in Simpson’s initial design, triggered the resignation of the first Course Convenor. Nevertheless, they are still with us as we journey over the top of the Strabathie hill and the railway cutting of yore.

James Braid moved the eleventh’s (‘Railway’ 367 yards) green to its left and the deep fall-off on the right of the green has recently been reduced, making it just about playable if one keeps the blind drive on the fairway!

The par three 12th

The twelfth (‘Strabathie’ 155 yards) is the weakest of the three par threes while the eleventh and thirteenth (‘Point’ 386 yards) honestly need to be played a few times before one understands the correct line for the blind drives and even which clubs to take! This is more ‘Diddy Town’ than great golf but they are still fun with much risk/reward.

The 14th green

The fourteenth (‘Mundurno’ 540 yards) has threatening OOB for the second and third shots as one runs alongside farmland fields, while down the left lies the whins again on raised ground. From this terrain the next tee offers a fine drive to another unusual hole (‘Field’ 383 yards) to a sloping fairway from which one hits up a cliff to a well bunkered green.

The fine par three 16th.

The finest back-nine hole is the sixteenth (‘Nipper’ 172 yards), played across the ‘Field’s’ cliff and another burn to an interesting small green set towards the sea.

We finish with two good par fours, both being tight, an adjective that might best describe this delightful course where hardly a tree comes into play, though the abundance of whins might usefully be managed more strongly to help speed up play.

Harry Bannerman’s fine swing

The centenary book chronicles the many good golfers who have come out of Murcar including Jack Booth, Hugh Stuart and Harry Bannerman of 1970s Ryder Cup fame, along with Muriel Thompson, who was top of the European Order of Merit in 1980 and 1983.

Murcar clubhouse

The Northern Open has been played here eight times and the practice facilities are brilliant. The upgraded clubhouse sits dominant on the skyline.

Murcar may not have the depth of history of its neighbour but perhaps possesses even better sea views and the natural dune movement in the fairways and the many blind or semi-blind shots, all played within a windswept seascape make it a ‘must play’ when visiting the more famous Cruden Bay, Trump Aberdeen and Royal Aberdeen.

Muriel Thomson drives through the ball

FineGolf loves ‘wildness tamed’ and it comes here in spades and if the agronomy was higher in fine grasses with firmer, truer greens all year round, making the need for your play to the green complexes even more subtle and challenging, this course would be up there with the Perrenporths and Pennards in giving a five star ‘Joy-to-be-alive’ feeling.

Mike Pocock the current captain at Murcar Links comments  “ We at Murcar Links are  constantly striving to further improve the offering  for our members and many visitors from both the UK and overseas”.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2021.

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