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Spey Valley Golf Course, Aviemore

I had a chance to visit one of Scotland’s newer courses Monday. It was our good friend James Smith’s annual birthday golf tournament and we joined around 30 great Scots for a little golf and much merriment in Aviemore, in the highlands. And Carolyn won the tournament (which means she gets to pick next year’s location-any guesses?)

Aviemore is a little like Canmore, surrounded by snow covered mountains and filled with shops selling the latest skis and hiking clothing, and a few nice pubs too!

The Spey Valley Golf Club is on the famous whiskey river named Spey. In fact I played with James Smith and John Grant, proprietor of Glenfarqas Whiskey who told me all the distillers on the Spey use zero water from the river for their whiskey. John leaves soon to drive a vintage Bentley from Vancouver to Alaska, his car, along with 29 others is “on the sea” at this time. Probably costs a few bob more than shipping golf clubs.

The course was designed by Dave Thomas and is represented by Sandy Lyle. It is surrounded by impressive mountains, on a springy bit of sandy turf, dotted by huge white pines and bordered by said whiskey river which is also filled with salmon. I had heard various reports about the design and was looking forward to making my own opinion.

The first thing you notice is the registration area instead of a clubhouse. I met the Pro Murray and Director of Golf Alister, both fine gentlemen who allowed Marley to ride on the cart (buggie) with James and I rather than wait in the car. You sign in then get shuttled in a van a few hundred yards to the first tee, carts, and range area.

The starting hole is fairly simple, at 348 a 3-wood drive left me 100 yards to a well bunkered green. They have a good Strokesaver Book, well worth the $5.00 because without it you often have no idea where to hit your shots. Good tee, fairway and green condition, the greens, like Kananaskis, slow. Something to do with cool mountain air? After quite a hike to the second tee (helps sell buggies, even to Scots) you find another fairly short par four altho quite different from the first with a shallower green and uphill versus downhill. The third introduces the river to the right, is a nice par five. From the elevated tee you have to avoid bunkers on the right and gorse on the left. 3-wood 3-wood 3 putts, nice par. This green is long and narrow, I liked the idea of the first three holes having a round green, then a wide shallow green, then a long narrow one. The 4th is a superb par three (3 iron 195) to another round green that appears to run to the right towards the river but doesn’t. Another easy three putt. The 5th (need that Strokesaver) is a 635 yard par five that plays downhill. Difficult to find a place to hit your drive, nice cross bunkers 100 yards short of the small green that doesn’t seem to hold your third shot. All three in our group rolled off the back and down a slope, I noticed all three of the following group had the same misfortune. By this time I was enjoying the course, very scenic and challenging.

The 6th is another good par three, another 3 iron that has to clear a front bunker. Big receptive green, another easy three putts. Then the 7th hole. Par four 409 yards. Problem is the drive, no place to hit it. From 212 yards to 280 from the tee is an area of bunkers and rough. You have to lay up and then can’t reach the green with your second. I tried to clear the schmutch in the fairway but ended up in a deep trap that did not allow more than a wedge for a second shot of around 180 yards. Not sure how Dave Thomas or Sandy Lyle would play this hole. It’s amazing how a quirky hole like this would be accepted if the course was 100 years old. But it ain’t and in the bar later I heard unanimous crticism of the hole from all handicaps. I’d make it longer (par 5) or shorter, allowing tee shots of mortals to find the fairway.

The 8th and 9th are also quirky holes but more fun. The 8th is a 90 degree dog-leg to the left, with two large pines in the middle of the fairway, in the landing area. I nailed a three wood drive into the 10 yard gap to the left of the trees and punched a wee 8 iron close. My companions had the trees to contend with, several times.

The 9th is a driveable par four from an elevated tee to a sand and tree filled fairway 70 feet below. My booklet helped, another 3 wood just short of a pair of round bunkers, wedge close to the pin to a semi blind green. OK, enough kinky golf, seems to be lots of acres around that could have been used.

The back nine opens with another good par three, another 3 iron. Very large slope back to front, easy three putts (5th one today). The 11th is a difficult driving hole that asks you to lay up short of a bunker 190 yards from the green. OK for flat bellies but the average golfer cannot hit it 190 yards to an uphill green. Needs a landing area created to the left of the bunker, right now a perfect drive runs slideways into the heather. My slider worked perfectly and I had a 6 iron in to the difficult shelve type green. Extremely difficult hole for women. The 12th is a long uphill par four that I couldn’t reach in two good shots, however a flat chip to 3 feet saved the day. The 13th is a dog leg left that looks like you can drive the bunkers on the left. I cracked a drive into the last bunker then hit 8 iron 8 iron and made a birdie 4. No problem. The 14th is a straight par four of 420 yards, drive 6 iron. Very well shaped green with hidden pin behind a mound guarding the right portion. I thought this was a very good hole even though I missed my birdie putt.

The 15th is a bad hole. Pretty though. A par four of around 400 yards that again has nowhere to hit your drive. You do have a choice, straight into a lake (235 from tee) or left into a hill covered with three bunkers, all having high lips so you can’t advance very far and if you do the ball will run off the fairway into rough or water.
LaterI found out you should drive further into the rough on the left which leaves an easy shot to the green, if you find your ball. The 16th is another good par three, same length as the others but due to the breeze a 6 iron covered the 200 yards to an elevated green. Like some of the others, this hole reminded me of Muskoka, but this has better turf. The t-shot is over two lakes and was a bit scary for one of my partners.

The 17th is really good hole, narrow but short par five of 490 yards. 3 wood 3 wood to the greenside bunker and easy blast to the green. I really liked the second shot as it appears you have three cross bunkers to clear, but after checking my trusty book you can see that only one bunker is 90 yards short of the green, the other two are at the green.

A note on almost all of the greenside bunkers, they are a bit far from the edge of the putting surface which means they are all long bunker shots, the most difficult for most people. I remember Summerlea in Montreal having the same (problem).

The 18th is a really good hole, if you have the book! all you see from the tee are two spectacle bunkers straight ahead on a hill. If you have the book you know that the fairway is hidden left of the bunkers, around the corner, next to the river. I hit a really good drive that appeared to be gone to the left but was in the middle of the fairway. As I said a good hole but only if you can draw the t-shot, not easy with today’s balls, nor for the average punter. Sometimes an old pro can still bend it.

Overall I like the course except for two or three quirky holes, a wonderful setting. Why do designers make holes like that? There’s at least one at Crowbush and one at Dundarave in PEI that beg for answers. The turf is great, heathland, springy tight lies with fescue type grass. I think they need to resolve the clubhouse problem(property rights issue), maybe put the clubhouse where the maintenance building is, change 1 to 18 and start on 2. The hotel chain is now owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland which is 66% owned by the country (recent bank bailout) so changes may be in a few years rather than a few months.

Friendly staff, very good value, I think the fee is around $60.00. Cdn. Same season as Ontario, usually.

Director of Golf is Alister Morrison and www.MacDonaldHotels.co.uk/Aviemore is the website. Between Perth and Inverness, on your way to Dornoch.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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