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Royal Montrose

Yardage
6457
Par
71
SSS
72
Built
1810
Architect(s)
Old Tom Morris, Willie Park Jnr, Harry Colt
Nature:
Fine running-golf on a traditional championship links from the origins of the game. True heritage threatened by climate alarmism.
Location/Address:
Scottish east coast between Dundee and Aberdeen. Postcode DD10 8SW
https://montrosegolflinks.com/
Secretary
Claire Penman
Telephone
01674 672634
Professional
Jason Boyd
Green Keeper
Paul Teviotdale
Access Policy:
Visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
Well behaved dogs welcome.
Open Meetings:
various
Fees in 1960s
25p
Fees today
£100 - 2020

Review

 

Royal Montrose at the end of the nineteenth century was considered to be the finest and largest golfing ground in Scotland and, therefore, the world.

It continues to be the second oldest golf club playing across its original turf.

These are spirited claims and in this review we analyse them along with why has Montrose Golf Links slipped from its pre-eminent position in golf although this championship course is still so enjoyable to play. The reasons include:

  • The lack of focused leadership among Montrose golfers.
  • The previous wrong ‘chemical-based greenkeeping’ policy.
  • The role of climate alarmists in damaging the ability to deal with the threat of erosion due predominantly to harbour dredging and hard defences to the south of the Course.

Royal Montrose has the perfect balance of two fine courses: The championship, which is called the ‘1562’ to recognise the date when there is documentary evidence of golf being played here by John Melvill, and the second shorter ‘holiday’ course called Broomfield.

1) A fascinating history.

 

Montrose players and caddies in the 1860s.

Golf in Scotland from the 1600s onwards, as in England, was an upper middle class game (while the aristocracy was more interested in countryside sports), when the cost of a single feathery ball could amount to a month’s wages of a mill worker.

On the east coast of Scotland, as the industrial revolution gradually increased earnings and free time towards the end of the nineteenth century, multiple golf clubs were formed based on different social classes all playing across the same ‘common owned’ linksland.

Montrose Golf Club Medal.

In Montrose a golf club was formed in 1810 by the gentry and professional classes, during the Napoleonic wars and at a time when golf elsewhere in Scotland was struggling as the early industrial revolution put pressure on land and reduced leisure time.

The main reason for forming this club was for the golfers to become better organised in order to prevent the self-appointed local council from changing the use of the links.

Montrose GC became the custodian of this most expansive and fine turf, with members wearing distinctive red uniforms for a time, and organising nationally important golfing events.

They later encouraged the working classes to form other clubs and the owner of the town’s largest textile mill paid for a new clubhouse to be built for the Mercantile GC. Across Angus at Monifieth and Carnoustie, as well as at St Andrews in Fife, multiple clubs with their own clubhouses played across the municipal links from the late nineteenth century and is perhaps one reason why golf in Scotland is considered a sport for all classes whereas elsewhere it is an expensive middle class game.

William Gladstone, British Liberal Party Prime Minister four seperate times, whose family lived near Montrose.

Montrose GC was renamed the Royal Albert after William Gladstone with local connections persuaded Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) to allow “this golfing ground un-equalled by any in Scotland” to become the third royal club in 1845 after St Andrews and Perth.

Following the St Andrews Grand National Tournament in 1857, the Royal Albert took the opportunity, while many travelled to the Volunteer Gathering (the genesis for today’s Territorial Army) that was held on Wimbledon Common and Montrose Links, to organise a national amateur golf tournament in 1860 with larger prizes as well as being regarded as more prestigious than the ‘pro’ event organised two months later by the audacious Prestwick GC on the west coast, which of course became The Open Championship and the most prestigious tournament in the world.

Willie Park Sen at Montrose wearing the Open Championship belt, prior to the ‘claret jug’ being awarded.

In 1866 the Royal Albert held a 25 hole Open competition for pros and amateurs to show off the extent of the Montrose links (Prestwick offered only twelve holes) which became, at over 8,000 yards, the longest course ever played. The event saw Willie Park Senior taking 115 and Old Tom Morris 121 strokes against a surprising winner, the amateur William Doleman from Glasgow GC with 112.

Professional playing adversaries Old Tom Morris and Bob Dow.

The Royal Albert used to meet in The Star hotel until a clubhouse was built in the same year as the first pro the legendary Bob Dow was appointed in 1865. By this time various other clubs were forming: The ‘Weavers’ and ‘Flax dressers’ in the 1830s joined by the ‘Mechanics’ in 1846 becoming the ‘Union’ in 1864 and then the ‘Mercantile’ in 1879 for predominantly mill workers. The Victoria formed in 1864 for the middle classes and the Caledonian in 1896 for shop workers. The Ladies formed in 1889 and amalgamated with the North Links Ladies (founded in 1927) in 1947.

Throughout most of the twentieth century Montrose golf was split up among these five clubs, and with the enormous cost of running their clubhouses little income was left for the course. In 1986 the Victoria, the Ladies and the Royal Albert amalgamated to become Royal Montrose. The Mercantile combined with the Royal in 2019 and the Caledonian is also currently in discussions.

The original famous ‘Gully’ hazard, compared with St Andrew’s hell bunker, now grassed over.

With golf course policy confused between the numerous clubs/golfing entities, the Links Trust was set-up by Angus Council in the 1980s, morphing into Montrose Golf Links Limited (MGLL) in 2004, to manage the Courses. Not only is it not surprising to this day that golfing visitors can’t understand how it all fits together but it is certainly one of the reasons Montrose’ name in golf has slipped.

It is also true that the town’s textile manufacturing base and wealth has waned comparatively, though in the 1950s a new GSK factory was built on ground where the old south links was abandoned and more about that later.

Carnoustie, organised along similar lines, has at last invested in a new golf centre to give a physically focused welcome to visitors and what with the Angus Council running an excellent marketing department to promote the golf courses across the county, it is nevertheless understandably called ‘Carnoustie Country’ which may fit other less well known courses but is hardly a recognition that Royal Montrose should be regarded with more eminence.

Surely the way forward is for MGLL to also be merged so there is one body called Royal Montrose. This would return full circle to when, led by the innovative Royal Albert, national prominence was established for Montrose golfers.

Harry Colt

There have been many developments in the course over the last two hundred years, starting with Patrick Mason the first greenkeeper, John Jannie, Old Tom Morris, William Paton and Willie Park Jnr in 1902. All of the preceding had an input but it was not until Harry Colt, having just designed The Eden at St Andrews, was invited in 1913 to give his ideas, that the course we play on today was created in the 1920s.

A cross-section of the landform at Montrose Links from William Coull’s book.

The old course used the predominantly flat, lower-lying linksland behind the double line of dunes parallel to the beach. Colt changed almost every hole and added the holes from the first green onwards that now run within the dunes as far as the tenth.

There was much consternation among Montrose residents and the Mercantile club, about all of this change, as there appropriately always is when radical change is proposed at historic courses.

Thomas Lyell.

Luckily though, a member of the Royal Albert, Thomas Lyell, was elected as leader of the Council, who had taken back control of the links again in the 1890s, and he made sure that the new course construction was persevered with, helped by Robert Winton of the famous club making family who was a Victoria Club member.

Winton, golf equipment manufacturing and retail shop in Montrose.

So we have been playing on an outstanding Harry Colt course for the last 100 years and one might have thought that, as with Muirfield and Portrush, to name just two other Colt courses that have flourished, that Royal Montrose would now be more highly regarded.

There are lots of other interesting stories; about the quartet of Montrose writers that changed forever the course of golf literature; about the south links being abandoned and the debacle of the Royal Albert building a new clubhouse stranded in the wrong place, but it is best to pick these up from reading the two excellent books Golf in Montrose by William Coull (1993) and A Golden Tyme Indeid – 200 years of golf history at Royal Montrose by Harry Faulkner and Richard Phinney. The latter author is better known from his book, the finest on Irish links golf; ‘Links of Heaven: A Complete Guide to Golf Journeys in Ireland’.

2) Who is to blame for the increasing threat from Dune erosion?

 

Montrose Links and beach taken in 1999. GSK and South River Esk at the top.

Unfortunately these days, Montrose Golf Links is better known for being a leading example in climate alarmist reports. It has certainly been held back by its inability to solve the threat of erosion and flooding. It is worthwhile considering who is to blame for the lack of action in providing sea defences and how has this been allowed to happen, before moving on to review the ‘1562’ course which is used as a final qualifyer for The Open Championship.

The scientific fact is that the rate of erosion/dune loss has recently accelerated since the 1970s:
1902 – 1970’s – 13m over 68 yr equating to 0.19m/yr
1970’s – 2011 – 47m over 41 yr equating to 1.15m/yr
2011 – 2013 – 3.2m over 2 yr equating to 1.6 m/yr
2013 – 2019 – 14.5m over 6 yr equating to 2.4m/yr
(A further, minimum, 2m was lost over the weekend of 14th/15th November ’20).

This is a real environmental emergency today, rather than in a computer-modelled ‘predicted’ future.

There are three possible reasons for this tenfold acceleration in dune erosion since the 1970s:

  • Click to enlarge

    Sea level rise may have accelerated due to man-made global warming, making the high tide storm surges from the east attack more aggressively the dunes. It is a simple and popular view, nevertheless looking at the facts it does not hold up. The height of tides at Aberdeen and South Shields, north and south of Montrose, have been accurately measured since the 1890s and show a consistent average sea level rise of between 1.3mm and 1.9mm every year (less than 7 inches a century) with no acceleration since the 1970s. Indeed the rate of rise at South Shields seems to have slowed from around 2000. See NOAA’s graph and more explanation in this sea level rise article published earlier in 2020, as well as this expose of porritt’s recent rant to satellite data.

  • Erosion to third tee.

    The dredging of the South River Esk started in the 1970s, to allow larger ships into the port. Only in 2020 has Marine Scotland (MSLOT) stipulated in the dredge licence awarded to Montrose Port Authority, that it will be a requirement to deposit ‘some’ spoil in Montrose Bay to re-charge and restore the beach. Nevertheless, the first dumping was made at the north of the bay, approx. four kilometres from the southernmost point of the golf course. This suggests the Port Authority still think the spoil makes its way more quickly back to the harbour if deposited on the south of the beach (even though an Angus Council funded particle trace test in 2015 proved otherwise).

  • GSK installed rock armour along the beach in the 1990s to protect their site between the river and the golf course which, combined with a possible change in tide directions, has moved the erosion up the coast to along the golf course.

Faulkner and Phinney in 2010 quote that “in a BBC radio documentary in 2006, leading British scientists attributed the erosion to the millions of tonnes of sand that have been dredged from the port and deposited as far away as Aberdeen (Ed: to assist with Aberdeen’s beach re-charge!). The dredged sand, the scientists say, is replaced by sand from the Montrose beach that fronts the golf course. The Port Authority has cited ‘global warming and other natural forces’ ”.

Apart from sitting on their hands and just talking, exactly what have the politicians, scientists and The R&A been doing since 2006?

There are alternative solutions available, such as extending the rock armour (successful at Golspie GC and along the 10th and 11th at Royal Dornoch) and building a Sand Motor (successful off the coast of Holland) and their estimated cost (between £20m and £40m) is peanuts in comparison to the cost to the low lying town if it is flooded, irrespective to the loss of golf tourism that has been so beneficial to other Scottish coastal communities.

Boris has boasted that his “new green industrial policy” has funds available for adapting to flooding and surely the Angus authorities should be putting up their hand with alacrity?

It just seems to FineGolf that the sway the climate alarmists presently hold over all the parliamentary parties has created an inertia in the minds of the environmentalists in charge, that with ‘climate alarmism’ predicting (from their computer models) a sudden and continued seven-fold future increase in sea level rise (which a one metre rise by 2100 would require), they support an “inevitable”policy of ‘giving the land back to the sea’.

Is this the confused policy behind which the Port Authority, GSK and the Angus Council have been hiding?

Golfers should never forget that Montrose Links has a unique and ancient heritage with a wonderful golf course managed via a policy of conservation greenkeeping, giving a truly traditional running game that is attractive to golf tourism. It now uses low inputs of water, fertilisers and pesticides, thereby helping properly ‘save the planet’, all of which should give a strong marketing opportunity if a new focused leadership evolves to innovate and give a clear message to the golfing world.

Golfers warned in Golf Quarterly.

While mentioning ‘saving the planet’ the autumn 2020 edition of the enjoyable Golf Quarterly carried an article on how the extremists of Extinction Rebellion have now openly put golf in their cross-hair sights and asks when are The R&A going to do anything to coordinate a fight-back.

FineGolf doesn’t think anybody expects The R&A is able to take on the extremists politically but should it not be seen as their responsibility to co-ordinate seaside golf clubs across GB&I that are threatened by the eco-activists, whether from environmental quangos as in England and Wales (FineGolf has called for a return of policy making to local level) or as at Montrose by giving succour to misled vested interests?

 

How will The R&A’s GC2030 initiative produce more than just talk when there is an immediate and real emergency?  It is not obvious that The R&A think they have any responsibility to help raise funds for adaptive sea defences, even at the historic, unique courses like Westward Ho!, Borth & Ynyslas and Royal Montrose where the origins of the game started.

 

3) Now to talk about the ‘1562’ Course.

 

Map of ‘1562’ course

I first played the course in 2013 in the World Hickory Open and in the write-up reported: “Knowledge of the course becomes paramount in providing enjoyment as you calculate the right spot from which to give the best approach to the green and then watch with bated breath as your ball runs with the movement in the ground, rather than just waiting to see if you have calculated the distance ‘thru the air’ correctly, as is required by soft-greened ‘target’ golf.”

Following a disastrous period of ‘Chemical Greenkeeping’ with over use of fertilisers, pesticides and water that softened and greened-up the course, it is confirmed by the latest STRI report that Conservation Greenkeeping, and with the additional use of compost teas, is now well on the way to consolidating a high proportion of fine perennial grasses that offer a firmness to both greens and well cut run-offs all year round, fundamental to providing traditional running game surfaces.

The course is of two halves with the first nine holes sited within the dunes and the back nine set out across the flatter links ground, though none the worse for that, indeed arguably the more testing half.

The opener (‘Scurdy’ 391 yards) has some affinity to Royal Portrush’s first hole with a flat open drive and a second to a high sloping green.

Dune erosian at ‘Bents’.

It is at the second (‘Bents’ 391 yards) we find erosion facing us with the fairway already moved away from the advancing beach, playing now as a slight dogleg.

‘Table’s’ green.

The third hole (‘Table’ 137 yards) which will soon lose its original back tee to the beach if nothing is done, is a classic, visually beautiful, short par three over one end of the famous ‘gully’ to an island plateau green. To hold one’s ball on the green down the prevailing wind, at one of the most exposed parts of the course, requires delicacy and a concentration often distracted by the wonderful landscape along Montrose Bay.

The fourth (‘Butts’ 365 yards) and Fifth (‘Hillock’ 292 yards) are short par fours, firstly downhill at an angle to a rolling fairway on the inside of the dunes covered in whins (gorse) and with the latter played back up the hill to a green tucked away that tantalises the tiger player. This green was Colt’s original fourth green and it used to be approached from along the dunes at 90 degrees to its present approach, which explains why it sits strangely.

The large ‘Sandy Braes’ two-tier green.

The sixth (‘Sandy Braes’ 479 yards) has a tight bumpy fairway with a large green tilted back to front and a long front tier  receptive to the running approach and offers a possible birdie. The old, upper, 6th Medal Tee has now been reclaimed by the sea.

The seventh (‘Whins’ 368 yards) again is about driving accurately so one is able to play a running approach from the bumpy fairway rather than having one’s drive run out into rough pits down the right.

The wonderfully bumpy ‘Jubilee’ fairway.

We now turn back along the hillside of whins on the inside of the dunes with a short par four eighth (‘Valley’ 329 yards) and then the first of the four long straight par fours on the card, the ninth (‘Jubilee’ 444 yards) that will stretch the best.

As some of you know I carry a one iron when not playing on a lush target-golf course and the more I use it, I have come to the conclusion, the more likely will I enjoy that course. I employed it frequently in the wind at Royal Montrose.

The drive at ‘Girdle’.

The tenth (‘Girdle’ 379 yards) is the first of four holes running straight inland on linksland where the bunkering becomes the main hazard along with encroaching whins.

The eleventh (James Melvill 444 yards) is a tough driving hole with bunkers left and whins right, plenty of humps and hollows to unsettle one’s stance and with the green having two deep pot bunkers.

Alisdair Good, Gullane GC’s pro, playing hickories at ‘Gates’.

The twelfth (‘Pouderie’ 150 yards) is the second of three par threes and with a line of front bunkers reminds me of the eleventh at Dundonald Links, being all carry. This is repeated at the short par four thirteenth (‘Gates’ 320 yards) the only hole at Montrose that could be called weak.

The fourteenth (‘Curlie’ 414 yards) and fifteenth (‘Wilderness’ 555 yards) have the first smooth fairways that we encounter and to increase interest a raised double tier green was added at fourteen.

‘Table’ may be the most picturesque of the par threes but the famous ‘Gully’ hole, the sixteenth, at 235 yards, played across old pitted ground to a green with violent movement, is the most interesting, even though the original sand in the gully has now reverted to rough grass. Over the years this hazard has been played across from different angles and it is now no longer the card wrecker of old. Equally, it ceases to be compared with St Andrew’s iconic hell bunker with which it competed in earlier days.

As should any true championship course, Montrose closes with a lengthy and testing finish epitomised by a tight drive and raised triangular shelf green at the seventeenth (‘Rashies’ 418 yards), also reminding one of the ninth played along under the ridge of dunes where encroaching whins will catch any hooked ball. The raised green, just as one’s matchplay game is coming to its conclusion, gives advantage to a player whose game is in good nick and whose courage convinces them to go for it.

The drive at ‘Dean’s Drive’.

The eighteenth (‘Dean’s Drive’ 346 yards) is a classic ‘Muirfield like’ hole with many eyelid pot bunkers, straight as a die with the beautiful Grey Harlings Hotel framing the green. Here, one’s mid iron approach needs to thread its way on to a green between the numerous bunkers.

In so many ways Royal Montrose is quintessential traditional golf of a quality that compares with the finest.

Colt retained in his design the straightness of the original holes with only two slight doglegs. Though some of the quirkiness of the old course, such as the ‘Gully’, has gone, and a full architectural review of the design of the hazards might help the course’s attractiveness and natural feel, however, each hole has an individual characteristic that belies the need for incorporating modern, manicured, embellishments.

Montrose has battled through difficult times but if new leadership evolves from the change in structure, that not only continues the course improvement through Conservation Greenkeeping (explained HERE by Jim Arthur’s protege) but can tackle the vested interests that threaten, the future looks bright.

James Braid on the 1st tee in front of the Grey Harlings Hotel in 1905.

It is well worth the roaming golfer taking the opportunity of visiting now to enjoy a strong feeling of golf’s heritage, offering a flavour of golf’s origins. Origins that point to where the future of golf needs to be, staying in touch with wider society’s conservationist direction, while providing the running game that gives enjoyment and the FineGolf ‘Joy-to-be-alive’ feeling to all, while challenging the best.

Read ‘Golf in Montrose’ by William Coull (1993) a natural Fine Golfer who recognises how early golf was helped by sheep and modern golf hindered by Augusta Syndrome Disease.

also ‘A Golden Tyme Indeid – 200 years of golf history at Royal Montrose’ by Harry Faulkner and Richard Phinney.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2020.

 

Reader Comments

On December 24th, 2020 Perry J Somers said:

Very interesting review Lorne. Thank you indeed. A course with so much heritage needs to be fought for and preserved.

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