NAIRN, Scotland -- "Nairn" -- the name sounds like something from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," some place at the edge of the earth, inhabited by wizards, knights and flesh-eating rabbits.
At least so it sounds to Americans looking to explore Scotland's unrivaled links golf courses. The Championship Course at Nairn Golf Club boasts a history that stretches back to 1887 and includes the likes of Old Tom Morris and James Braid. Today, it still holds up to modern technology and players. Golf World has ranked the Championship Course as the ninth-best course in Scotland and the 23rd-best in all of Great Britain and Ireland, and it's a semi-regular host of major international tournaments, including the 2012 Curtis Cup.
Nairn is a quintessential example of linksland golf. The rumpled, heaving fairways slither through gorse- and heather-carpeted dunes like so many angry snakes. From the tees, the aiming points and landing areas are often obscured from view.
For visitors (like me) who are used to courses with wide, forgiving fairways, some of the tee shots at Nairn look utterly merciless. Add in a strong westerly wind off the Moray Firth -- which is visible from every hole and fully in play on the first seven holes -- and hitting a fairway feels almost as great as holing a birdie putt.
But it's not until you get to the greens that Nairn's teeth are truly bared. Breaks are at the same time wild and inscrutable, and, again, the wind can slap balls offline faster than you can say "three putt." Some 80 years ago, James Braid called Nairn's greens "unrivaled" in quality and texture -- and they've had nearly a century to mature since then.
We asked Pamela Pretswell, a member of the victorious 2012 Great Britain and Ireland Curtis Cup Team, to explain her affinity for Nairn, other than the fact that the GB&I team whipped a hugely favored U.S. team there.
"Rule No. 1 for first-time players at Nairn is to stay out of the bunkers," says Prestwell, who has since turned pro and is playing on the Ladies European Tour Access Series. "Always give yourself a shot from the fairway to the green. Low punch shots are very helpful, and a tidy short game is needed to get yourself happily around Nairn. And also to bring a camera to help you remember the fabulous views."
Easier said than done (except for the camera part).
How Nairn plays
On my maiden voyage to Nairn Golf Club, I was immediately struck by the way the fairways sort of melted into unforgiving rough and morphed into the rolling greens. It looks like a course that has been there since, well, 1887.
The result is an unmistakable sense of place. I felt not only that the course required a lot of experience and familiarity to play well but also that there was no way for me to grasp it in just one round. After I relinquished the fantasy that I was going to score well and resigned myself to simply enjoying the visceral history and rustic beauty of the place, I actually did hit a few wonderful shots, including driving the green and two-putting for birdie at the 305-yard 15th.
Aside from playing right along the sea through the first seven holes, a few other especially memorable features stand out. Off the green of the 355-yard eighth stand a couple of white-washed, sod-roofed, salmon drying shacks. (Photo-op!)
The green of the 160-yard 11th is practically encircled by deep bunkers, and where there isn't any bunker, there's gorse. The bowl-shaped green will hold most shots, if you can find it, hitting into the prevailing wind.
The 219-yard 14th presents players with the most treacherous green on the links. It's raised, so that balls tend to roll off like raindrops off a duck's back, and there's also a deep burrow running through the center. If you’re on the wrong side from the pin, three- and four-putts are pretty common.
The view out into the firth and beyond to the Black Isle is stunning, but the waves in the green often rival those in the sea.
Nairn Golf Club: The verdict
Now-pro Pretswell sums up her fondness for Nairn as follows: "I just love Nairn. It feels like a second home to me. The golf course is just beautiful. It is such a true test of golf with amazing views, and I love how the course can play completely differently from morning to afternoon."
Prestwell said the greens are renowned as being the best in Scotland -- an opinion she shares.
Visitors to Nairn, especially those who are not experienced at playing links-style golf, should not get caught up in chasing the holy grail of a career round. The U.S. Curtis Cup Team was upset here, and I would wager that there isn't a player among them who wouldn’t admit to being vexed at times by the vagaries that seem to be inherent in classic links layouts -- Nairn being a prototypical example.
Instead, visitors can revel in the history and aura of the course, tracing the footfalls of Old Tom Morris as they go and savoring the occasional magical shot. Just be glad there are no killer bunnies.
Stay and play in Nairn
The town of Nairn and Nairn Golf Club are located just north up the coast from Inverness. While in the area, schedule a round at Castle Stuart Golf Links in Inverness, a 3-year-old links layout that is home to the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
You can stay where the pros stay during the Aberdeen Scottish Open at Kingsmills Hotel and Kingsclub and Spa; the former is more traditional, and the latter is more modern, and they're just across the parking lot from one another. If you want to know where most business in Inverness has been conducted for decades and is still being done, grab a pint and settle into a chair at the Kingsmills bar. The hotel is back under local management and is being dramatically upgraded. The restaurant at Kingsmills features local ingredients, such as lobster from the Moray Firth and farm-sourced cheeses and ice cream.
For a dinner out on the town, try Rocpool Restaurant. Standing on the shore of the River Ness in downtown Inverness, Rocpool mixes and matches unexpected ingredients in exquisitely balanced dishes. The king scallops absolutely melt in your mouth.