Trip Dispatch: Sipping whisky, savoring the links golf of Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Highlands

INVERNESS, Scotland -- From the cramped confines of the Cave Bar -- a former coal-storage vault turned tap room located just off the main lobby of the Meldrum House -- the path ahead is plotted out in numerical clarity, a four-day, 108-hole journey through the Scottish Highlands.

The dichotomy between the diminutive decor -- which included room for just two tables, an additional three spots at the "bar" and little else -- and the sprawling trip that will cover more than 260 miles is unmistakable.

The journey had already began, with a quick trip from Aberdeen Airport to Murcar Links Golf Club , and the arranged itinerary was feeling more like a marathon than a sprint, but it turns out that had more to do with the rigors of international travel than the road ahead.

A word on off-the-plane rounds when traveling to Scotland. While they may be a biological necessity for any traveler looking to keep the effects of jetlag at bay, care should be taken when choosing the proper venue.

Murcar, for example, is an intriguing test as anyone who tuned in to watch August's Paul Lawrie Match Play, a European Tour event won by Kiradech Aphibarnrat, can attest. What it is not is anything one would consider comfort golf.

At just over 6,500 yards from the championship tees, the winding par-71 layout cuts a swath through rugged dunes via a collection of rolling fairways that at times appear non existent.

Murcar Links is a strategically compelling and affordable layout (100 pounds for midweek green fees in the summer) that's best played more than once or with an accommodating member who doesn't mind answering the occasional, "Where does this go?"

The physiological challenges of jetlag aside, Murcar Links is an ideal starting point logistically for any trip to the Scottish Highlands. Just nine miles from Aberdeen Airport, it's also a short drive from Meldrum House and the confines of its Cave Bar and a collection of over 100 malt whiskys to help ease the assimilation process.

"What is remarkable about Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Highlands is how it all blends perfectly like a smooth single malt," said Maura Nolan of Irish Links Tours & Travel, which specializes in Scottish golf trips.

"Here you will find some of the finest links courses on the planet, old villages steeped in great golf history, the most revered distilleries in the world, friendly welcoming people and the most stunning landscapes in all of Scotland."

Trump International Scotland

Along those lines, the combined benefits of a few malt whiskys and a good night's sleep can drastically change a perspective, as evidenced by the trip's second stop -- Trump International Scotland .

While Donald Trump will tell anyone who will listen that his links creation is the world's greatest, it's best to leave such lofty comparisons to others and stick to the realities on the ground.

Trump International Scotland has the potential to be one of the game's greatest links in a few decades or so when the fescue can properly grow in and the prevailing winds have time to soften some of the course's rough edges.

Like the man who carved the links from the dunes, there is nothing subtle about Trump International Scotland -- with the club's majestic entrance being your first indication that this isn't your grandfather's links -- but until that "proper" grow-in, it will remain an intriguing (albeit costly, with green fees ranging from 185 to 215 pounds) design, with relatively open fairways and creative green complexes set amid towering dunes.

Cruden Bay

It will take time for Trump International to join the short list of the game's best, as evidenced by stop no. 3 on the itinerary, Cruden Bay Golf Club where history suggests they've been playing the ancient game since 1791.

Cruden Bay is as charming as it challenging, with a circular layout that loops along the Water of Cruden adjacent the local village before swinging across an enormous dune and down into a valley.

The course is riddled with history -- including an ancient mound in the middle of the 18th fairway that is rumored to be a burial ground from the 1012 Dane war -- and with 100-pound green fees in the summer it's arguably the best bargain north of St. Andrews.

Royal Dornoch and the Scottish Highlands

From there the Highlands' journey diverts, as the dean of golf writing Herbert Warren Wind penned in a 1964 New Yorker article, "North to the Links of Dornoch."

Just as Royal Dornoch Golf Club has become a must-play stop for any golfer committed enough to venture north of Inverness, Skibo Castle is slowly, meticulously, working its way into the rotation.

The Carnegie Club at Skibo , which was built in 1995 and offers limited tee times to the public, continues to improve with time, thanks in no small part to Director of Golf David Thomson.

The quintessential Scot is always ready with a smile, a few warnings to help make your trip around the layout more enjoyable and will happily share a "wee dram" with you after a round.

All of which sets the stage for Royal Dornoch, which is regularly ranked among the world's best links and with 120-pound green fees worth every pence. Located just 8 degrees below the Arctic Circle, Royal Dornoch is hard to get to and impossible to forget.

In a classic out-and-back routing, the layout weaves its way atop dunes to the turn before following the coast back with seamless variety.

From the short, par-4 eighth hole which drops over a towering cliff down to a well-protected green; to the par-4 14th which always seems to play into a fierce wind and is hidden by a series of mounds, each hole is profoundly unique.

As Wind famously wrote, "No golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch."

It's normally best to end any trip to the Scottish Highlands at Royal Dornoch, otherwise allow another layout to suffer from unfair and unrealistic comparisons, but the final leg of this journey, Nairn Golf Club , proved to be an exception to that rule.

Nairn is some 15 miles east of Inverness and the Culloden House Hotel, a roomy and ideal staging area for a Highlands trip, and what the course lacks in relative notoriety compared with Dornoch is quickly mitigated by a thoroughly enjoyable layout and a link to the game's roots that dates back to 1887.

As compelling as the layout is, a post-round tour of the clubhouse and newly created "history room" by the club's chief executive Fraser Cromarty is worth the price of the green fee (110 pounds in the summer).

As Cromarty revisits 128 years of club history, the trip comes full circle in Nairn's clubhouse pub, which is more spacious than Meldrum House's Cave Bar but no less inviting.

Numbers again dominate the conversation, but thanks to personal pedometers the metrics of measurement go well beyond the original 108 holes over four days. More than 114,000 steps, 366 flights of stairs and 52.59 miles were walked during the Scottish Highlands tour -- and, much like a Scottish malt whisky, it's gone far too quickly.

Veteran sports writer Rex Hoggard is a senior writer for GolfChannel.com, serving as a beat writer for golf's professional tours. He has more than 15 years of journalism experience, including nine years at Golfweek Magazine. Rex began his career at the Orlando Sentinel, followed by a stint as a staff reporter for the Highline News in Washington before joining Golfweek in 1999. Follow him on Twitter at @RexHoggardGC.
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Trip Dispatch: Sipping whisky, savoring the links golf of Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Highlands
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