Fraserburgh Golf Club
Aberdeenshire, Scotland, United Kingdom
Is Fraserburgh a great minor links or is it a minor great links?
The answer depends largely upon your perspective of the game and what you hope to gain from it. A bomber that carries the ball 290 yards might find that the 6,310 yard, par 70 course is unable to test every club in the bag unless the wind is brisk. Conversely, the majority of golf enthusiasts that play happily with modest expectations for a good score will find the charms of Fraserburgh to be as captivating as any course in Scotland.
It has everything required of a cult classic: an enchanted setting, crumpled land galore, sweeping long vistas, and a collection of distinctive and sometimes unusual holes. Throw in a most welcoming club atmosphere and it’s easy to see why the visitor with a ten handicap might just as soon enjoy a game here as at more famous links.
The club is justly proud of its heritage. Founded in 1777, it is among the oldest in the world. Indeed, Fraserburgh claims to be the oldest operating under its original name. However, its golf wasn’t always played here and today’s course didn’t take shape until 1920. The club gives primary credit to James Braid for the course we enjoy today.
Set mostly in the dunes near where the North Sea and Moray Firth meet on Scotland’s northeast side, Fraserburgh enjoys a romantic, primordial setting. Yet, golfers who venture here might initially doubt the wisdom of their actions. As seen from the clubhouse windows, the first and eighteenth holes parallel each other and are as flat as flat can be. Hardly the epic stuff of links golf! Doubts creep in – have I made a mistake in coming? The answer will soon be obvious and is emphatically NO. The second hole climbs Corbie Hill and from the third tee (the high point on the course) all is revealed. The town of Fraserburgh and the fishing village of Inverallochy lie to the west and virtually all of the holes lie north and east of this vantage point.
The course builds throughout the round. The first five play toward and then over Corbie Hill and feature soil that is more clay than sand. The next seven play mostly up and back from each other and leave the golfer at a far point from the clubhouse. The final stretch save for the anti-climatic Home hole play through the best, mightiest dunes.
James Braid was a champion golfer of the highest order imaginable, a winner of five Open Championships. Along with Harry Vardon and J.H. Taylor, he formed a triumvirate that was accurately dubbed ‘great.’ As his playing days waned, he became an active architect but his work never quite achieved the top tier reserved for titans like Park, Colt, MacKenzie, Fowler and Alison. His most famous course is surely the King’s Course at Gleneagles set in the magical Perthshire countryside; Enodoc, Brora and Deal mark other design high points. Similar to them, the golfer leaves Fraserburgh with a feeling that he has just played holes unlike any in the world.
According to Gordon Moir, who joined the Fraserburgh greens staff in 1976 and is now the Director of Greenkeeping for the St. Andrews Links Trust, there were two major periods of change to Braid’s work. The first came in the 1950s when the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth holes were created in lieu of holes that played back and over Corbie Hill. Moir is quick to note that several of Braid’s replaced holes were extremely good. However, the three new holes through the tall dunes have the marked advantage of being situated on ideal sandy land close to the sea. The second major series of alterations came in the mid-1970s when two sets of parallel holes were created, the eighth/ninth and eleventh/twelfth. Gone were several flat, unremarkable holes on the clubhouse side of the road.
No known or name architect is credited for overseeing either set of changes. However, given how well the holes are knit together and how well the course flows, one can only infer that the work was done by someone intimately familiar with the course. No doubt about it: people with a strong feel for the land did the work. No architect rushed in, drew some squiggly lines and left.
These improvements constitute a huge gain for the course but by the time of their completion Bernard Darwin and similar scribes were no more and the course has never been properly chronicled. Did writers like Herbert Warren Wind and Pat Ward-Thomas who existed in the mid-1970s and reported golf in a meaningful, compelling manner ever visit this little seaside town? Maybe not. In any event, at least for this author, Fraserburgh is a course that evolved into a real gem over five decades and never received its proper due in print. Pictures don’t lie and after looking at the holes below, see if you agree.
Holes to Note
Second hole, 390 yards, Braid’s Bellow; The first hole measures 435 yards and the steeply uphill second plays virtually the same distance. So much for a gentle handshake! Huge eight to twelve foot mounds dot the landscape and break up the ascent as well as the flow of water over the sloping clay land. These mounds are quite a clever design ploy and have a greater impact than bunkers might. One thing that can be said about Braid is that his work resists being readily stereotyped unlike some other designers. His courses reflect their surrounds and the more intoxicating, like Fraserburgh, the more potent the outcome.
Fourth hole, 330 yards, The Plateau; The third and fourth are a pair of short 330 yard par fours that play in opposite directions. The third features stunning views from atop Corbie Hill before dropping to a green with a wonderfully wicked false front. Balls that land as far as seven paces onto the green retreat as much as thirty yards. The fourth heads in the opposite direction and plays notably different. Braid benched the green into the side of Corbie Hill. Hitting this plateau green – even with just a wedge – is one of the most satisfying shots on the course. To miss is to court a high score. Play for the middle of the green and be satisfied with a fifteen to twenty foot birdie putt.
Fifth hole, 185 yards, The Hump; From lower on the back shoulder of Corbie Hill, the golfer hits over a twenty foot hump/dune that partially obscures the putting surface. The busy main thoroughfare beside the hole can jangle frayed nerves.
Seventh hole, 165 yards, The Well; One of the prettiest views on the course is had from the elevated seventh tee with sprawling dunes behind the green as far as the eye can see. The vast landscape makes the already small target look even smaller. The right bunker eats into the putting surface, which sharply tilts from back right to front left.
Ninth hole, 460 yards, Lang Whang; The name says it all. This is a beast that is made special by the consummately humpy-bumpy landscape. It may not appear as dramatic as some of the other holes but is full of good golf quality. Though it was added more than fifty years after Braid’s course opened for play, this natural hole fits in well and its muscle compliments the older, quirkier short two shotters.