Spey Valley

Dave Thomas
Modern designed championship course among heather and dramatic Cairngorms
1 mile from Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. (post code PH22 1ST)
Alec Glachan
01479 815 100
Murray Urquart
Green Keeper
Access Policy:
Visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
Welcomed on a lead
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
Fees today


The Macdonald Hotel Group which owns, among others, the Marine Hotel at North Berwick and Russacks at St Andrews, opened Spey Valley in 2006, a mile from their Aviemore highland resort.

In the marketing bumf designed to attract professional and charity tournaments to a course that is under snow and frost for three to four months a year, there is an emphasis on the silver birch trees and the delights of the River Spey, whereas the course will truly attract golfers only if the heather and fine grasses are developed appropriately.

The 13th

The 13th

They have already succeeded in staging a Challenge Tour event when the pros purred their praise in comparison to the many ‘puddings’ on which they have to play.

It was enjoyable to chat again with an old friend Bob Mackay, previously head greenkeeper at Royal Dornoch until joining Spey Valley at the growing-in stage. He has done a wonderful job again on this well drained heathland over a gravel base, giving us a fast running course with predominantly fine fescue grasses on the greens and sculptured fairways.

It needs time, of course, to mature and Bob is using sustainable greenkeeping methods and a bit of potash to help thicken the sward, while all the holes have distinctive individual features.

Architect Dave Thomas, who designed The Belfry, that quintessentially ‘target golf’ type of course, calls Spey Valley the potential jewel in his crown. He has again created a modern course feel, bringing in bulldozers to form the fairways and removing the natural quirks. Golf professionals prefer to have a flat lie and not some ‘unfair’ bump in the middle of the fairway that might stop their drive dead or gives them an uncomfortable stance.

The 200 yard 6th

The 200 yard 6th

His routing is interesting, giving some challenging holes like the 200 yard 6th with its classic shelf green set into the heather with a glorious view of a lake used by many birds.

The next three holes are all highly individual and fun and the tenth, attractively set between old Scots pines, is one of four testing and individually excellent short holes but they are all around 200 yards off the whites; I took (rather boringly) the same club at each of them.

I am surprised that the white tees of about 7000 yards rate an SSS 75 against a par of 72, (which really is made a 71 with a short par

The 200 yard 9th

The 200 yard 10th

five at the 3rd hole) but it does give the visitor the opportunity to shoot below their handicap if they think their way round!

Although the course is wonderfully fast-running and bouncy, the use of the bump-and-run shot is restricted, as the green designs favour the modern lob wedge; it was not until the short par four 9th that I bumped in to a pin.

One needs to bring a good putting stroke, as many of the greens have a lot of movement and big, modern borrows and swales.

The unseen River Spey

The unseen River Spey

The course runs alongside the River Spey for the first five holes but only glimpses of this famous salmon river are available, seen through a dense curtain of uninteresting trees. It is a pity it is not more of a feature.

The abundant old heather is beautiful but is tufty, calf-height and stringy and needs regeneration. Usually the best method of achieving this is by burning but that has the downside of creating short-term scars.

The beauty of the silver birch and heather setting against a backdrop of spectacular mountains provides an important aspect of the course’s ‘joy to be alive’ factor. In the longer term ‘the weed of the forest’ needs to be thinned to encourage movement of air around some of the greens. One has to play quite wide to reach the heather so on most holes this concern should (sic!) be irrelevant. The main hazards for lower handicappers are the signature Dave Thomas bunkers.

Dexter and Angelika on the 7th

Dexter and Angelika on the 7th

When I saw on the first hole a Dave Thomas bunker with its ‘tonsils’ in the middle, I thought it was an attractive way to create interest and give a natural feel. After the 2nd hole and the 3rd holes, in fact right round the course, seeing these tonsil bunkers left me sad, as their repetitiveness seemed to emphasise the unnaturalness of such a feature.

Indeed, would it not have been more attractive on holes like the dogleg par five 13th to have used a heathery outcrop as the hazard on the corner, over which professionals can choose to take on the carry rather than have two more tonsil bunkers?

The 5th at 635 yards apparently is the longest hole in Scotland but has an air of artificiality to the second set of bunkers and its raised green.

The second nine, set in the centre of the land, gives continuous stunning views of the mountains all round and the Cairngorms skiing area in the distance.

The 15th has to be carefully thought about and is best played with a long iron off the tee but might be fun for big hitters to attempt to clear the tonsils on the corner.

The 16th (200 yards) over a pond is attractive and a ball feeds in well from the left of the green.

The tight 17th drive

The tight 17th drive

A tight drive at the par five 17th is needed in order to leave a pitched third shot over a barrage of tonsils to a wide but shallow high green that thwarts any attempt at hitting the green in two.

The 18th, returning to the parkland area alongside the first, requires a drawn drive around trees to avoid two dominant bunkers designed to be replicas of two corries in the Cairngorms in the far distance.

This course has been built for the corporate/professional circuit market, with buggies being the preferred mode of movement round the course and there are some long walks between greens and tees. Nevertheless the General Manager/Professional could not have been more welcoming and polite, allowing my dog, Dexter, to accompany us on foot.

The environment within which the holes are built is fantastic, with a high ‘joy to be alive’ factor. There is presently no clubhouse nor a membership to create a social environment to the course but let us hope that the Macdonald Hotel ownership supports Bob Mackay as he seeks to mature the course with a blend of the natural. It will then become a destination for serious touring golfers demanding play on wonderful fine grasses between the heather, beneath stupendous mountain scenery, having prepared on the excellent practice facilities.

Review by Lorne Smith 2009

Reader Comments

On July 1st, 2010 Robin Brown said:

This has a fabulous setting and several excellent holes.Course needs maturity and in time will be an excellent place to visit. Strong par 3’s particularly memorable. Buggy is essential.

7th hole selected as one of best 18 in Scotland recently.

On May 7th, 2018 Ben said:

Bit offended by the main review – how anyone can even refer to this as dull or disappointing in anyway leaves me questioning the authors credentials.

Spey Valley was without doubt one of the best golf courses I have played. Really rewards the long hitting risk takers off of the tee and found that all par fives were reachable in 2 although, as a good par five should be, any misses were severely punished. Without doubt one of the best conditioned golf courses in the world and has a real feel good factor – can not wait to return.

Dear Ben,
You are obviously a very good and long hitting golfer and who loves his wedge and I can see why Spey Valley is up your street. It surely is Dave Thomas’s finest creation. It is certainly not FineGolf’s objective to offend anybody and it is surprising you use the words ‘dull’ and ‘disappointing’ which I can’t find in the 2009 review. What one tries to do is be truthful about the overall characteristics. After a good grow-in with fescues, the eighteenth green in 2017 was inspected and continues to be predominantly fescue/bent grasses which one hopes is reflected across the course and hopefully the heather has now been tended into a finer quality and perhaps the ‘tonsil’ bunkers have become more naturalised.
Thank you for your comments.

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