To talk of golf in Scotland evokes thoughts of wild terrain, seaside fairways with high wind and rain. The first names that come to the minds of Americans are St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Muirfield, Turnberry, and others that constitute the British Open rotation of courses. Golfers who have been to the homeland of golf often return regaling the name Gullane, North Berwick, Royal Aberdeen and Royal Dornoch, to name but a few of the non-Open-rota courses. But one that gets overlooked but that should be on every golfer's must play list is the Montrose Golf Links.
First, a bit of history, which is so rich here. The Montrose Golf Links lay just north of Dundee and Carnoustie, about a 20 minute drive up the eastern coast of Angus. It consists of two 18-holes courses, the Medal, a championship course, and the Broomfield, a less challenging course for daily play and beginners. Golf has been played on these grounds since before 1562, when the first written account of the game appears in a diary.
At one time in its not too distant history, there were 25-holes to the Montrose Golf Links, not all of which were played on any one round. However, they were used for a unique event in 1866. Two Open Champions entered following an advertisement in the national press for a "Open Championship to be held on Montrose Golf Links over 25 holes, being One Round of the Golf Course". Willie Park of Musselburgh, winner of the first Open Championship, finished second with a score of 115. Andrew Strath from Prestwick, the reigning Open Champion, finished on 119 as did the young Jamie Anderson of St Andrews who was to win The Open three times in a row from 1875. The winner was T Doleman from Glasgow who played the 25-hole course in 112 strokes and won the first prize of £10.
Americans are not used to the idea that several clubs can be associated with and support a single golf course, but in the UK where class structures forbade the social mingling between classes it was the only solution. Links courses are public land, so the use of them cannot be restricted to one group over another. Thus, clubs based on social status formed around the local links, providing access to a wide variety of social classes. By the beginning of last century there was a proliferation of clubs and clubhouses in the town of Montrose, but as a result of amalgamation over the years three now remain - The Royal Montrose Golf Club, Montrose Mercantile Golf Club and the Montrose Caledonia Golf Club.
Much of the course is in its original layout, however, nearly 8 holes on the Championship layout had to be relocated when the train tracks were laid through town. However, 11 of the holes on the Medal course remain in their original configuration since the 1500s. This thought boggles the mind, as this was during the era when the Americas had not yet been successfully colonized by Europe. (Florida was just beginning to be explored by the Spanish, and St. Augustine, the oldest city in the USA, wasn't founded until 1565).
When you begin your round on the Medal course, the first hole takes you dead on toward the ocean, typically into a stiff breeze. For the first 7 holes, you play directly along the edge of the North Sea, with the salt-laden, humid winds and sounds of the surf washing over you as you play. Be wary of those cross winds pushing your ball into tall grass or worse yet the gorse. In the spring, you could swear that you can smell the sun-tan lotion of local beach bathers. Then you realize the water is WAY too cold for anyone to be swimming, and not much later you grasp that the odor is that of the bright yellow blossoms on the gorse.
As goes for most links courses, Montrose gives the appearance of being flat yet rolls, rises, and swoops in unpredictable yet totally natural ways. It is also difficult to discern where the fairway ends and the official putting surface begins. And the revetted bunkers, deep and steep, are quite typical for Scotland but diabolical for most Americans to extricate themselves from.
While playing Montrose Links all of life's cares, concerns, and nagging issues disappear as 500 years of golfing history consumes you during your walk in this all too public park. During my last visit, some walkers and their canine companions joined me as I played a couple of holes. Interestingly, the dogs showed no desire to chase my little white ball. Having the company of a local citizen and his dogs accompany me felt surprisingly comfortable, and I have since wondered aloud on more than one occasion why we exclude people and dogs from our golfing lands.
People commonly ask me what are my favorite courses. Montrose enters my mind immediately in my group. When you make your trip to the homeland of golf, be sure to include the Montrose Golf Links on your itinerary.