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Nairn Dunbar

Yardage
6765
Par
72
SSS
74
Built
1899
Architect(s)
Various locals, Ken Cotton
Nature:
1899. Sociable Club with championship links course on its way back to 'running-golf' conditions.
Location/Address:
On the east of Nairn. IV12 5AE
https://www.nairndunbar.com/
Secretary
Kieran Maclean
Telephone
01667 452741
Professional
Robbie Stewart
Green Keeper
Richard Johnstone
Access Policy:
Visitors are welcome
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs are welcomed
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
25p
Fees today
£70 - 2020

Review

It is easy to be confused by the name Nairn Dunbar GC.

Nairn GC is a raised beach links, defended by rock armour from high-tide storm surge and sited on the Moray Firth in the Highlands. Dunbar GC, founded in 1857, is another raised beach links on the East Lothian coast with an ancient history (so well documented by John Harris’s wonderful book “Dunbar Golf, the story of the links at Hedderwick and Broxmouth” who kindly proof-reads FineGolf with true understanding).

Occasionally a foreign visitor has arrived at Dunbar thirty minutes before their tee-time, only to be greeted with the sanguine realisation that a starter awaits them 194 miles away…

1902 Long Driving competition at the Dunbar. Winner 203 yds. Click to enlarge

FineGolf recently reviewed how Royal Montrose had widened access of the lower social classes to what had previously been a privileged activity. It did this by permitting a number of different clubs to play over the same links. Nairn also saw a similar development of all classes playing the game in the late 1800s but this time via two separate courses, one to the west of the River Nairn and one to the East.

The West course, founded in 1887 by the local gentry for the professional classes, is well known through its hosting of major amateur international matches like the Walker (1999) and Curtis (2012) Cups that were shown on television.

Sir Alexander Dunbar

The course to the East was founded in 1899 by the same golf enthusiasts, the local MP Sir Robert Finlay QC, Solicitor-General at Westminster and the town Provost, William Dallas. It was sited on 90 acres of land gifted by a local land owner, Sir Alexander Dunbar. It has always been known locally as ‘the Dunbar‘ and as a most socially friendly of clubs.

Though formed by the ‘toffs’, the Dunbar has always been run by the local trades people, with the objective of providing the ‘best golf at the cheapest price’ on an area of true linksland.

Initially comprising nine holes until 1924, a number of local people have influenced the layout over the years. In particular, Ken Cotton, one of Britain’s finest course designers after the Second World War and well known for his 1960s design of the truly traditional West Lancashire links course amongst others, was involved with the Dunbar in the 1960s.

Jim Arthur's five principles of conservation greenkeepingOf crucial importance to the Dunbar’s present standing is its adoption of a conservationist greenkeeping policy since 2016. This has not only provided members and visitors more enjoyment but the Club has in turn been rewarded by The R&A with co-hosting of the British Amateur Championship in 2021 and becoming the 2020 winner of the national greenkeeping environment award.

The Dunbar’s finances have always been very tight and the Town Council has been the Dunbar’s long term financial backbone, feeling always that what was good for the Dunbar was good for the town.

Map of parcels of land making up the Dunbar in the 1970s.

Benefactors like Sir Alexander Grant of Logie, a self-made man who owned the biscuit makers McVitie & Price, have been important but it was the oil boom in the 1970s that increased the membership and transformed the Dunbar’s finances. This allowed the able secretary Alister Clunas to lead the strategic negotiations with owners of the sheep grazing rights, and the transfer of parcels of land, now adding up to 160 acres, to the Council for a peppercorn rent for 99 years with another 99 year option. This gave security of tenure to the Club and subsequently instilling the Club with the confidence to fully develop both the course and clubhouse in the 1990s.

The three ‘Hill’ holes (six to eight) were sold for housing that funded a new impressive clubhouse and the new ninth to eleventh holes were added, on what was originally Brodie Estate land, at the end of the course, thereby greatly enhancing its ‘championship’ attractiveness.

Tina Ian

Nevertheless, during the 1990s the ‘target-golf’ boom was in full swing along with the environmentalists’ frequent ‘plant a tree’ campaigns. The Dunbar suffered both from over use of a new Watermation watering system and the alteration of this open links course into a lush tree lined ‘parkland’ character. This was admitted in Sandy Park’s captain speech, when Sir Michael Bonallack, Viscount Whitelaw and Tina Ian were helping celebrate the opening of the new holes in 1994.

There have been too many men and ladies who have helped the Dunbar over the years to mention them all but Tina Ian stands out. She was born in 1911, often ladies champion and captain (1937-55 and 1964-68). As John Lawson’s centenary book ‘Nairn Dunbar Golf Club – 1899-1999, 100 years of Nairn golf’ mentions:
Her intuitive knowledge of people and a deep conviction of what was right she gave a long lifetime of service and guidance to her girls. “Teach them etiquette first. The golf will come from themselves, but the etiquette must be taught”. And by example she instilled in people around her not merely a love of the game but an awareness that behaviour, manners and courtesy mattered as much as winning.

In her nineties it was appropriate that Tina saw the ladies captain post become a full member of the main committee. There was also the un-banning of jeans in 1996 after a ‘bourgeois’ ban was introduced in 1994, though she may have regretted the change in entertainment tastes as traditional Dunbar singsongs around the piano became things of the past.

From the eighteenth ‘Merryton’ fairway with clubhouse.

The photogenic eighth ‘Brodie’.

Although the eighth is most often photographed, the course is generally known for all of its excellent first eight holes on undulating ground and the strong finish, particularly the iconic par five eighteenth with its remarkable bowl green. The green sits alongside the modern clubhouse which is set on an ancient marine terrace, and the final green is gained with a half-blind shot over a bank in echelon from a low running fairway. This is a hole full of quirky difficulty and though it may not have the visual beauty of, for example, nearby Moray’s Old course eighteenth, it must be among golf’s finest and most interesting finishing holes for match play risk reward.

FineGolf has resisted reviewing the Dunbar earlier, preferring to wait until the leadership of the Club fully committed to bringing the course back to its heritage of firm, fast-running links conditions.

Richard johnstone

It is now marvellous to report that the scratch handicap course manager, Richard Johnstone, has been leading a renaissance since being appointed in 2016. He has the advantage of knowing the site intimately having joined the greenkeeping team from school in 2000. He subsequently studied for an HND and the R&A scholarship while gaining wider experience by volunteering to help prepare many other courses for major tournaments.

He recognises that it is so important to take his club membership with him through good communication to surmount any ‘fear of change’ and has the support of the club leadership to supply the vision of a long term restoration programme brilliantly communicated  (for example see here: restoring the links – highlands presentation).

Whispy rough on the fourth ‘Braids’.

The low-hanging fruit was tackled first, such as replacing the thick rye/yorkshire fog lush roughs with wispy fescues/bents waving attractively in the wind. Wiedenmann equipment was acquired to flail cut, pick up and scarify the roughs, allowing the natural fine grasses to dominate once more, resulting in fewer lost balls and speeding up play, enhancing the enjoyment and playability of the links.

Being a ‘community minded’ club, they have a great relationship with many of the local clubs and have loaned out this machinery to help others achieve similar goals.

The Burnett Rose as the logo of the Dunbar

While successfully removing the proliferation of gorse (see FineGolf’s article ‘Gorse, friend or foe’) and establishing sandy wastes, exposing the natural undulating dune-scape, encouraging the heathers and natural wild flowers, including the Burnett Rose as used in the Club’s logo, Richard’s team has built confidence among a growing cadre of members to support the necessary conservationist thinning out and removal of those non-native trees that had been planted in the previous forty years in the wrong place.

The correctness of this policy is explained to those unfortunately influenced by the extremist Extinction Rebellion type woke climate alarmist propaganda promulgated by parts of the media such as the BBC. (see FineGolf’s article on golf course trees).

Even more difficult for a young modern greenkeeper is advocating for the transformation of the agronomy from weed annual meadow grass (Poa annua), typical of soft target greens receptive to the lob wedge, to fine fescue/bent grasses that deliver firm, smooth green complexes receptive to the bump-and-run (see Gordon Irvine’s article on the five principles of Jim Arthur’s Conservation Greenkeeping).

Graph showing reduction in fertiliser use at the Dunbar

It is in contrast to Nairn’s senior west course, which continues with a policy of mowing low for speed, thereby perpetuating greens that employ a less sustainable Poa annua domination, though fescue turfed run-offs to new greens are being employed.

The Dunbar’s conservationist policy change (helpful to ‘saving the planet‘) is being tackled heroically with reduced inputs of chemical fertiliser, water and pesticides and now increased fescue over-seeding, all with the aim of returning the course to fast running firm surfaces all year round.

UK rainfall by region 1910 to 2020

This strategy is helped by a low average annual rainfall of only some 550mm, contrasting with the West of Scotland, which saw an average precipitation of 1400mm increase between 1980 and 2000 to 1550mm for no apparent reason, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom that has seen basically a flatlining of rainfall levels since 1900.

Of course, there are inevitable weather fluctuations that make a greenkeeper’s life so problematic in planning their interventions. For example, Nairn’s rainfall was only 482mm in 2018 but a much wetter 670mm in 2019 but this should not be confused with the concept of some climate change emergency; this is just the perpetual change in British weather, which has seen no increase in extreme rainfall days.

Aerial of changed 9th,10th, and 11th holes showing new sand scrapes and few trees.

There is still further progress to be made with this conservation greenkeeping programme that is being managed within a budget in 2020 that remains less than 1% above that of 2015. But no longer is the Dunbar the second class course in Nairn but a partner in attracting golf tourism and overnight stays in what has been called the ‘Brighton of the North’.

Indeed, agronomically speaking, this course is leaving the better known Nairn GC that, like so many of the heathland clubs around London, regrettably has been slow to change from their policy of ‘cut low for speed’  Poa annua dominant greens, in its wake and is being brought back to a running links style based on fescue/bent surfaces.

The opening hole (‘Moray Firth’ 418 yds) is a fair starter but reminds one early that strategy is necessary as a running long iron approach to the green is easiest accomplished via a dip of dead ground in front of the green from the left of the fairway.

The first of only two short par fours comes at the second (‘Hilton’ 333 yds) with a hidden green best played with a full shot to gain some backspin to a green that slopes front to back, an intriguing design used at many of the Dunbar’s greens.

The third hole ‘Lochloy’.

Apart from the attractively bunker-surrounded dell green hidden in the dunes of the eighth (‘Brodie’ 163 yds), the other three par threes are in different directions but less noteworthy though the new, much improved eleventh ‘Bents’ has its supporters.

‘Lochloy’ at 189 yds comes at the third and needs a good biff. ‘Harbour’ at 161 yds is the fifteenth hole and is straightforward with a ring of bunkers at the front and a screen to protect a shank off the tee flying into the nearby caravan park behind a hedge!

The eleventh ‘Bents’ before 2016

 

The new 11th with sand scrapes instead of trees. Click to enlarge

The eleventh (‘Bents’ 174 yds) has been transformed from a tree-lined avenue to large areas of sandy waste to the same raised green, but turned 90degrees from a new tee with now a front left bunker and sole sentinel tree behind. This new design, when mature, will be so much more individualistic in its character than the previous enclosure that could be found at any parkland nonentity.

We next have holes four to seven that are each challenging par fours, none with a stroke index of more than seven, and they are the heart of this championship course.

The drive at the fourth ‘Braids’.

Four (‘Braids’ 448 yds) skirts around a raised bank on the right from which one’s ball is thrown left at the green from mounding on that side, so keep your drive left but without running out into the now dense wood that runs along that side of the hole. There are no bunkers but the fairway narrows to the green that slopes away and left. James Braid, of the famous Triumvirate with JH Taylor and Harry Vardon, who played exhibition matches here was happy to have this hole called after him.

The beautiful, bumpy 5th ‘View Hill’ fairway.

Five (‘View Hill’ 453 yds) is gorse-lined, with a dip in front of the green. When played into the prevailing wind, the second shot, is from a beautifully bumpy fairway and can be easily thrown off line as one’s ball runs in. There is plenty of movement in the ground around this green complex with a narrow long green, the back two thirds of which sits in a bowl.

The sixth ‘Table’.

Six (‘Table’ 419 yds) is straight and all depends on your second shot which is all carry to a small table green high above the fairway. Not easy to judge when with the prevailing wind.

The seventh ‘King Steps’ with heather rough

Seven (‘King Steps’ 395 yds) is another hole curving to the right with ‘jungle’ gorse rough on high moundings along the corner, demanding a second to a flat green on an elevated plateau above the fairway and a steep bank to the left of the green. An accurate drive playing close to the trees and Minister’s Loch on the left will give an easier second but it still needs a bold half blind shot that makes this a tricky stroke index three.

The par three eighth ‘Brodie’.

The pretty eighth is all carry from a high tee across a dip to the green nestling within a dune protected by bunkers front and sides. Taking one club extra is the sensible play and if overdone the ball may bounce back from the bank behind. The prevailing wind is directly across and if your tee-ball emerges from the protecting blanket of trees up the left and fails to start up that side it can be easily blown into oblivion.

The ninth ‘Old Bar’ fairway from the green.

We now come to the recently redeveloped new holes of which the ninth (‘Old Bar’ 501 yds) has an S-shaped fairway with a bank along the left shielding the ditch between it and the tenth hole (‘Westward Ho’ 411 yds) that returns back into the prevailing wind.

It is on these holes that the most recent opening up of the course has taken place with the inappropriate trees between the two holes removed and seas of interesting sandy wastes replacing them.

Most will play the ninth as a par five but it will tickle the tiger’s risk and reward thinking when plotting their way onto a mound green with run-off.

Pre-2016 10th tee stopping a view of the sea

As we turn at the end of the course we are nearest to the sea with salt marsh all around and new raised tees. It is from here that the sea can now be seen.

New 10th tee without the ‘weed of the forest’ silver birch trees and gorse.

The dogleg left tenth has a testing drive that must miss catching the slope and careering off into bunker or ditch, while simultaneously not running out on the other side into hillocks. Fortunately this green is not the usual 1990s type seen on so many inland courses with round moundings designed by computer during the ‘target-golf’ craze. Though it is slightly raised, it is flat and running away with run-offs from all sides and the ditch lurking nearby. ‘Exposed’ might be an appropriate adjective here, requiring a low running approach under the wind.

The opened-up drive at the twelfth ‘Birches’ with new bunkers.

Pre 2016 12th drive with gorse

The twelfth (formerly called ‘Westward Ho’, now ‘Birches’ 381 yds) is a dogleg right with a drive across the dune in echelon to a wide fairway that needs care to avoid a run-out into bunkers or down a slope with heavy lush rough shaded by dense trees. The green is again undefended by bunkers with half of the front, left side and back having a severe bank to threaten one’s medium iron approach.

We are now out on the flat linksland with a higher water table and indeed the low lying linksland has suffered from flooding on occasion but the well placed ditches across the course add a need for extra strategy in the play, particularly at 13, 16 and 17.

A 2012 photo of the thirteenth ‘Long Peter’.

The straight thirteenth (‘Long Peter’ 529 yds) has a ditch in echelon across the fairway at 280/320 yards and a two-tier green.

The fourteenth ‘The Flats’ green.

Fourteen (‘The Flats’ 346yds) is unusually straight for a short par four and runs back towards the caravan park but its flat green is protected by well placed bunkers after which there is the flat par three fifteenth (‘harbour’ 161 yds).

As any proper championship course should, the Dunbar has a stretchy run-in. Sixteen (‘Spires’ 503 yds) is a slight dogleg left with a bunker defended drive and if, having safely wended your drive through, using a low running, ideally one iron, shot, the golfer can set up their birdie, as long as your second can carry the burn.

The same but now deeper and wider burn flows straight across the fairway at around 240 yds but is less of a worry downwind than the one from the northeast at seventeen (‘Burn’ 442 yds). Hidden ground before the green and a slope from front to back again and with side bunkers, tests the best.

Aerial of clubhouse, eighteenth and first.

And so we come to the eighteenth (‘Merryton’ 499 yds), a fine finish to a course that does not overwhelm nor quite say “Wow” but creeps up on you, offering a variety of challenges, all enhanced by the increasingly fine grassed, firm surfaces. 6765 yds, par 72, SSS74.

Now that the young course manager has shown his mettle with leadership, communication, openness of approach, the building of a fine greenkeeping team and gained commitment from members to achieve the long term turnround, the Dunbar should be on every fine golfer’s radar, as it looks set to simply get better and better.

There have been many tournaments here, for example the Scottish Ladies Under-21 in 2009, the World One Arm in 2010, the Scottish Boys Under-18 in 2011, the Boys Amateur in 2017, PGA Northern Open 2018 and, with Nairn, the Dunbar is due to share the 2021 British Amateur Championship.

Dexter yawning at the Renaissance with Muirfield over the wall.

Last but not least the Dunbar has had the sense to confirm two years ago that well-behaved dogs are welcome to join their owners while playing social golf. As many readers will know FineGolf  considers well behaved dogs bring a welcome sociability to golf and can help bring a relaxed atmosphere. My late black labrador ‘Dexter’, who holds the world record in how many different golf courses a dog has walked, has a FineGolf obituary which identifies the 80 courses. As a generality I have found with a few exceptions that the finest courses welcome dogs, the fine courses allow them on leads and the commercially driven ones ban them.

See ‘Nairn Dunbar Golf Club – 1899 to 1999, 100 years of Nairn golf’ by John Lawson.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2021.

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