According to geologist, geographer and golf consultant Robert Price’s book Scotland’s Golf Courses, “a different type of links course is to be found at Spey Bay. An 18-hole course has been laid out on a series of raised, storm-beach ridges which accumulated during periods of higher relative sea level some 6,000 years ago.”
He continues: “The ridges consist of boulders and pebbles and largely coincide with the rough of gorse and heather, whilst the fairways are to be found in the shallow ‘valleys’ between the ridges. Wind direction and strength obviously play an important part in determining the difficulty of this course.”
Ben Sayers, one of the best players to compete in the Open championship and never win it – with twelve top ten finishes in thirty four tournaments – was the man who laid out the course in 1907 when he routed the fairways in an out and back fashion along the Moray coastline. Several holes were lost during the 1980s due to storm damage but most of the original layout remains intact.The signature hole is still the 138-yard 8th, situated at the most easterly point on the property. Out of bounds extends to the left and beyond this par three hole, with a nasty pot bunker positioned to the front left of an elevated, shallow putting surface. Pray the wind is blowing against when standing on the tee as that’s the best chance of playing a tee shot to hit and hold this treacherous green.
Six holes run alongside the seashore on this traditional out and back design. The course plays over the natural contours of what was once a shingle bed, formed over thousands of years. The greens are quite small and were originally square in design.
Spey Bay fairways run fast and the many severe bumps and hollows can knock a ball into the acres of heather and gorse on either side of the fairway. Some of the fairways are quite narrow and in parts not far from the others, although usually running in the same direction.
The par three 15th plays to a green right beside the beach. This is followed by a par five that is one of the best holes. The 18th is no place for nerves as you must clear fifty yards of dense gorse right in front of the tee.
In recent years some work has commenced to get the links back more to the original Ben Sayers design. You need go no further if you want to rediscover old fashioned links golf with a minimum of fuss.
This review is an edited extract from Another Journey through the Links, which has been reproduced with David Worley’s kind permission. The author has exclusively rated for us every Scottish course featured in his book. Another Journey through the Links is available for Australian buyers via www.golfbooks.com.au and through Amazon for buyers from other countries.
The course opens with three par 4’s which introduce you to the one of Spey Bays best features, the fescue clad shingle banks which you must plot your way across. The long 1st hole at 427 yards affords the luxury of a wide open drive which then leads you down to the green and enthusiasts of fine links turf will already be appreciating what awaits them. Holes two and three are shorter but full of character, aim for the Bin Hill in the distance and you’ll be fine, the only downside is that they are possibly too tight for their position on the score card. For reasons that will become very clear I’ll comment on the 4th 6th 12th and 13th later. The 5th, stroke index 1, which says it all, has a much more open drive than in years gone by but with a very undulating fairway and approach to the small green can prove very tricky with a long iron, the layout is more typically suited to a par 5. The 7th offers you a wide open drive, the first for a while and there is an interesting slope leading onto the green that can catch you out. In the summer this dries out and can insure that your next shot is from the gully at the back of the green. Some would arguably call the 8th the signature hole at Spey Bay, when you experience the 138 yard par 3 named Plateau the only advice I can give you here is keep your head down on your second shot. Signature hole or not you will not forget it. The 2nd hole at Royal Dornoch is tricky but nothing compared to Spey Bay’s 8th. Onto the 9th which comes with a change in direction heading back to the clubhouse, a short par 5 aptly named the Valley with out-of-bounds on the left and gorse on the right. On the card it looks like a birdie chance, but be glad of a five and walk to the 10th tee adding up your first nine, anything under forty and you’re doing well. The 10th completes the loop and then the tricky 11th, so typical of the shorter par 4s at Spey Bay, on the card it appears simple but treated it with a lack of respect and you will be left wondering where it all went wrong. The 14th, my favourite, was originally 300 yards and has been greatly improved with the addition of 105 yards making this a wonderful par 4, stroke index 2, with a fairway that would grace any Open Championship venue, a flattish green situated between two shingle banks that is normally approached from at an angle across the banks. You will see what I mean when you play it yourself. I always feel when playing a course for the first time the same as when watching a good film, I’m hoping for a really good ending, and Spey Bay delivers this with the last four holes, none of which are give aways, and into the prevailing wind will show you what you’re made of, so I’ll not spoil the ending and leave you to discover this for yourself.
The four holes that I left out of the previous paragraph were not part of the original layout planned by Ben Sayers in 1907. The original layout unfortunately had to be hastily altered due to coastal erosion in the late 1980’s. This erosion caused the loss of the entire 11th hole and 13th green and forced the removal of the 4th & 6th holes. The subsequent alterations resulted in four completely new holes. The new 6th hole is so out of character for Spey Bay it begs the question why Ben Sayers’s original 6th hole is not reinstated albeit with a subtle change up at the green. This hole was brilliant in design, driving the ball towards the Moray Firth, as so desired and incorporated by Mark Parsinen and Gil Hanse when designing Castle Stuart. The original 6th traversed the two large fescue clad shingle banks, yes short by modern standards at 304 yards but it would take a brave man nowadays to stand up with the modern driving equipment and attempt to reach the green or even to find the fairway that was cosseted by the awaiting gorse. The long 12th is the only new hole that comes close to being worthy of its place on Spey Bay. The unimpressive par 3, 13th is hopefully to be extended to a 300+ yard par 4 which should see the new green being situated on the fairway of the original 13th hole. With these alterations and a simple transfer of the Par 3, 4th back onto its original line, albeit shorter, would bring the course back closer to the original layout.
The only points of criticism I would mention, other than the new holes enforced by the coastal erosion is that the first six holes are too tight and unforgiving and that the first hole is about 30 - 40 yards too long. All too often the paying visitor or first time Open competitor is beaten before he has had a chance to reach the 7th tee, this does not encourage a hasty return. Also the majority of the greens are flat, however the 8th, 9th and 15th are not and watch out for the subtle ridge through the 18th green, a masterful touch by someone, long ago. Historically the lack of money available to maintain this course has actually helped to preserve its natural condition, no automatic watering system or expensive fertilizer budget. Yes more money would help with course alterations and the demands for Greenkeeping machinery, maintenance and in the overall upkeep, but the present Greenkeeper, Barry Cruickshank, has already worked wonders on a shoestring budget to rescue the greens during the 2011/12 seasons back to a very good putting surface. A local businessman has recently purchased the property which grants him the lease of the golf course, so hopefully this will be the start of great things for Spey Bay, never has a course deserved it more. No fancy ponds, no striped fairways to show which direction to play, no buggy tracks, no huge meaningless bunkers and no hiding behind the delusions of grandeur that come with a magnificent new clubhouse, just golf as it was intended to be played.