Ten minutes along the coast from Castle Stuart is the historic Nairn Golf Club.
In many ways, it is a complete juxtaposition to its aforementioned neighbour. Castle Stuart is a visitor's playground with a handful of corporate members. Conversely, Nairn is a true members' club - 1300 of them call it home, and the club is a bustling pillar of the local community. It also happens to predate CS by 120 years.
Whilst Castle Stuart has hosted the Scottish Open, Nairn has a rich history of Amateur golf. 4 Scottish Amateur Championships, 8 Scottish Ladies Amateur Championships and both the Walker and Curtis Cups. This distinguished history of elite Amateur golf at Nairn continues as they host the Amateur Championship this year.
Stylistically, the course itself is tight and traditional along subtle links land. Don't forget to pack your 'A game' when visiting Nairn - this is an old school championship examination.
At considerable expense, the course has recently undergone an extensive refurbishment with Tom Mackenzie of Mackenzie & Ebert. Most notably, the First and Seventh have had two new greens constructed. Both benefit from more interesting contours and improved views along the beach.
The other main alteration is in the bunkering. The fairway bunkers have been converted from pots to larger and less extreme rough edged bunkers. Previously, they were judged too severe and attritional. I'm a big fan of links bunkers offering choice and variety in the recovery shot - so was looking forward to seeing whether the new fairway traps would deliver on this.
The fairway bunkering now is almost entirely rough edged, whilst the green side bunkers remain revetted pots. This creates a bit of binary delineation as you approach the green. There are always bunkers short of the green that end up neither green side nor fairway, yet must 'select' a style somewhat arbitrarily.
It's the same style M&E have employed at Turnberry and Trump Aberdeen, amongst others. I love the principle of increasing choice and providing shotmaking options, but I'm not yet 100% convinced on the execution. I'm keen to see how they evolve over time. The varied palette of bunkering at Castle Stuart seemed to treat this better.
The first couple of holes certainly provide a test of driving. The width between the fairway bunkers has been reduced from an average of 43 yards previously to 33 and 26 (!) on holes One and Two respectively. Both sets of bunkers are near as dammit level with one another. Whilst there fortunately weren't too many other examples of penal, symmetrical fairway bunkering as the round progressed - I found myself hitting mid to long irons off the tee frequently.
It felt like a real test of ball striking - one where you had to be on your guard at all times.
The short par 3 Fourth was a particular favourite on the front 9. Playing almost blind, the large bunker short obscures the punchbowl green.
Another is the Eighth - 'Delnies'. A little over 300 yards, it plays slightly blind from the tee with everything landing on the fairway kicking onwards and left. Tempting to drive, but devilishly tricky to recover from down the left hand side - a great 'half' hole.
The Ice House & Bothy
At this point I'd like to throw out another honourable mention to what could be the coolest halfway house in Scotland. The Bothy and adjacent Ice House were built in 1877, for storing Salmon. Ice was likely brought in from Aberdeen or Buckie and stored in the Ice House.
Nowadays, as well as a great halfway house, it also gives an opportunity for a great golfing tradition. Members play their annual Christmas meeting out to the Bothy before a well lubricated Christmas lunch around a great long table.
Once the wine and whisky runs dry, the natural place to tee off for the back 9 is from the roof of the Ice House! These are the kind of social traditions that make golf so much more than just a game on the Scottish shores.
The fairways on the back 9 are amongst the narrowest you'll come across in Scotland. On average, they're less than 30 yards wide - whilst remaining remarkably consistent in width at all points. It is some contrast to Castle Stuart - where fairways are closer to 40-50 yards in width.
As mentioned, the majority of the holes play on the tract of traditional linksland - gently undulating, and full of subtle charm. The exceptions are Thirteen and Fourteen which are more inland in character. Thirteen plays away from the coast, up a steep hill. Fourteen is a long par 3 from an elevated tee to interesting green below.
They are in a particularly challenging stretch of holes, but did feel somewhat out of character with the rest.
The run in from here is interesting. Birdie opportunities are available on the short Fifteenth and mid length Seventeenth.
Eighteen is mid length par 5 featuring 10 bunkers. On the drive, there are two left, and two directly opposite them to the right. There's approximately 30 yards between them.
Beyond these traps, there are another 4 - staggered at regular intervals left and right up the fairway, before reaching the green with another pair of bunkers guarding the either side of the front edge. In addition, Out of Bounds and thick gorse guard the right edge of the hole - the OOB snaking round the rear of the green for good measure.
It felt representative of the course at large. To have a go for the green in two, I had to thread the needle in a 30mph cross wind with driver. Instead, I opted again for a long iron. Another long iron down the left set up a 100 yard approach - which set up a regulation par. This was a course to take your medicine, leave driver in the bag and plot your way round instead.
Nairn is a classy place. Always beautifully conditioned, it's a club with a strong membership and a rich history of championship golf. I'm not sure I'd call it a 'fun' golf course - but it's certainly a traditional championship test. It's a true members' club - full of conviviality and hospitality that is worth preserving.