Things were warming up nicely in the old blacksmith’s forge, outside Kirriemuir. The fire was working wonders, the warmth contained by the thick stone walls… the gin was doing likewise, warming us from the inside out. Scotland has a reputation for the best whisky in the world but the thrust of a new generation of gin distillers is giving the country additional bragging rights. The stone building doesn’t look like much from the outside, like so many bothies common to Scotland, but this is now home to the Gin Bothy, and we were sampling a range of flavours from Original and Gunshot, to Rhubarb and Chilli. I had never liked gin but as our host Linda guided us through the varieties with an enthusiasm that proved infectious – delicious, almost – I found myself being swayed. It was how each drink was presented that proved so interesting. On the table were bowls of mint, orange peel and rosemary. It was a heady mix of flavours and scents that turned the traditional gin and tonic into something far more adventurous.
Carnoustie Country holds a vast range of choice for golfers, far beyond the bucket list destination of Carnoustie, but what the region offers runs far deeper than tight crisp fairways and slick greens. Kirriemuir is the perfect example. This small town is home to two famous sons from very different spheres of life. In the heart of the town stands a statue of Peter Pan, a tribute to J.M. Barry, the author who was born here in 1860. On the outskirts stands a statue of Bon Scott, the original frontman for the biggest rock band in the world, AC/DC. It is the latter who draws the biggest crowds today, with many no doubt perplexed to see the lead singer carrying bagpipes. The instrument embraces his family’s background in music and also the AC/DC track ‘It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)’, in which the bagpipes were played. Other famous names are associated with this small town… including the family of the three Davidson boys, who co-founded Harley Davidson.
And now the Gin Bothy is enhancing Kirriemuir’s and Scotland’s reputation for innovation.
Scotland’s reputation for golf, on the other hand, is second to none. Carnoustie Country boasts 34 golf courses and while Carnoustie itself, not to mention the 147th Open Championship, takes centre stage in 2018, there is far more to the ‘Country’. Carnoustie boasts three courses for starters and within only a few miles you will find the highly regarded links of Panmure and Monifieth. But there are plenty more to make this a region of rich golf experiences.
We started our trip to the south, an hour north of Edinburgh, in the quiet glamour of Murrayshall Hotel. Two courses wrap around the 365 acre estate of wood and heathland, with the house being the centrepiece. It dates back to 1664, and that feeling of age drifts calmly through the corridors… although now it boasts modern flourishes and upgrades that put comfort at the heart of things.
There are two words synonymous with Scotland: golf and whisky and, at Edzell Golf Club, they blend together perfectly. Gin may be making inroads but whisky is the shining beacon. Edzell Golf Club is a sweet and well-aged parkland, with ingredients that include a bomb crater created during World War II, and splashes of history around the clubhouse. Right next door, the 4 star Glenesk Hotel makes a splash of its own with the Guinness Book of Records for the most number of whiskies available to guests and visitors. The 360° Bar is stacked high with gleaming bottles, and you will have your work cut out for you as you choose from the 1,013 whiskies on offer. There might be a favourite you have in mind or an elusive label you’ve been seeking for years… chances are it will be here and John, the barman, will find it for you in an instant. And he’ll recommend any number of other labels based on your tastes.
Half an hour away, on the coast, whisky is quickly forgotten as you prepare to play the fifth oldest (1562) recorded golf links in the world. Only at St Andrews has golf been played longer over the same golfing ground. And what a peach Montrose is.
Framed by flaming gorse, the scent of coconut is overwhelming as you head up into the dunes above the sea for a stretch of holes that will take your breath away. Holes 2 to 6 are glorious, streaking along the coastline and dancing across dune tops that have been eroded by nature over recent decades. A tee hangs on the very edge, roped off, demonstrating how links and coastal courses are at forefront of climate change. On the 150 yard par three 3rd – named ‘Table’ for obvious reasons – your attention will need to be on the tee shot and nowhere else. Landing short must be avoided and two of us discovered why as we had to play up a steep 12 foot bank to what became a hidden green.
Short is not a word you would use for the par three 16th, which at 230 yards is one of the longest par threes you will face anywhere. It’s a monster and the green is well defended: even your driver may not be enough. Take a three at either of these holes and you can mark that on your card with pride. This is an obvious must-play course (there are two links here), not only for the history but also for the brilliance of the course. It’s classic old school charm is utterly endearing and we were all enchanted.
For history, Panmure Golf Club also has something to crow about: it is a links that saw Ben Hogan mowing the 17th green by hand in the weeks before he won the Open Championship in 1953. He wanted to get the green speed to match those at Carnoustie. He won £500. It was the one and only time that he played the tournament and he left Panmure with an enduring legacy: in addition to his mowing prowess he suggested that the 400 yard 6th hole would be improved by placing a bunker on the front right of the green. The bunker has been there ever since, wreaking havoc on one of the toughest holes in Scottish golf. It is named ‘Hogan’.
Of course, any golfer coming to Carnoustie Country has their eye on the prize of playing the toughest course on the Open Championship rota. This is no flippant remark, for Carnoustie proudly embraces its ‘toughest’ reputation. From my Carnoustie Golf Hotel window, on the third floor, I looked out at the stands being erected beside the 18th green and I was reminded instantly why it possesses that reputation.
There, below, was the Barry Burn that Jean Van de Velde visited in 1999 to shatter his dreams of an Open Championship: there was the same burn that almost cost Padraig Harrington his first Major in 2007. Yes, it is a fearsome finish but from the hotel window the sunlight and shadows spilled across the flag almost serenely… like butter wouldn’t melt.
When our fourball played it hours later only one of us avoided the water. It can humble the best… and the average.
The course is looking pristine and the greens staff have been working around the clock to get it ‘Major’ ready. On the course, 83 of the 112 bunkers have been rebuilt – it took 3.5 days to finish just one of the Spectacle bunkers – and new mounding has been added at the 8th/12th green area to offer improved spectator viewing. The efforts to make Carnoustie ‘Major’ ready are not confined to the course alone, however: the Links House is an imposing new clubhouse alongside the 1st tee. It opened in April. Bells, whistles, technology… they’re all here and the new high-tech indoor driving facility is something to behold. Six bays allow golfers to play 14 different courses, including Carnoustie. If you want, you can replicate the exact conditions outside so, even in the wind and the rain, you’ll know exactly what to hit on every hole. If you prefer, you can also battle zombies! Yes, you read that correctly. Anyone can use the facilities and while green fee paying guests will have complimentary access, just £10 gets everybody else an hour to hone their swing… or kill zombies. It’s your choice.
Perhaps one of the most obvious places to start is with the annual Carnoustie Country Classic. You won’t get in this year – it’s sold out – but for roughly £700 you’ll play a 72-hole stableford competition over Montrose, Panmure, Monifieth and the Carnoustie Championship course, while staying at the Carnoustie Golf Course Hotel for five nights. Break that down and you’ll find sensational value at every turn.
Carnoustie Country may not boast the clusters of world famous courses you’ll find in St Andrews, Ayrshire or along the Golf Coast, east of Edinburgh, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t exceptional golf on tap. There’s no point mentioning all 34 courses but a few that jump out are Blairgowrie (two majestic heathland courses overwhelmed by pine and birch trees), Forfar (a James Braid gem) and Letham Grange (a modern Donald Steel parkland). All three are in the Destination Golf Top 100 Scottish Courses (indeed, 12 of the 34 courses make our list) and each of the 34 will give you a golf experience to remember.
You simply have to factor in all the different ingredients to create the perfect package… very much like what they’re doing at the Gin Bothy.
Carnoustie Golf Hotel
Murrayshall Hotel & Golf