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Royal Aberdeen: Historic Links off the North Sea

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Overlooking the North Sea in the historic Scottish city of Aberdeen lies the links at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club. The Club’s origins date back over 240 years to 1780, when it was founded as the Society of Golfers at Aberdeen. It gradually grew in stature over the next century, hosting major tournaments and golfing royalty while preserving its classic links land character and heritage.

The challenging Balgownie course, with tight fairways, deep bunkers guarding greens, and fickle winds off the North Sea, is laid out in a classic “out and back” links design. The front nine winds dramatically through towering dunes along the shoreline and is renowned as one of the finest stretches of links golf anywhere. The inward nine plays inland along a plateau. Royal Aberdeen has earned widespread critical acclaim, especially for its spectacular and challenging front nine that hugs the North Sea coastline.

In this post, we will look at the origins and history of Royal Aberdeen and walk through the Balgownie course layout. Finally, we’ll see what’s happening at the club today, suggest further reading, and show some videos to bring this classic links course to life.

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History of Royal Aberdeen

Royal Aberdeen Golf Club has a long and storied history, with its origins tracing back to 1780 when it was founded as the Society of Golfers at Aberdeen, making it the sixth oldest golf club in the world. For the first 35 years, membership was exclusive, with just 25 members, and determined by ballot. In 1815, the club was revived and formally instituted as the Aberdeen Golf Club. The club initially played on a 7-hole links course east of Aberdeen city before moving north to Balgownie Links in 1888.

In the club’s early years, it struggled financially, and at times, only the secretary would attend the annual meeting to take the minutes. But it persevered and gradually grew in stature. King Edward VII conferred the ‘Royal’ title in 1903, formalizing the club’s prestigious status. The course was originally designed by acclaimed architects Archie and Robert Simpson before being remodeled by the legendary James Braid (who we profiled in our post on Brora), who added length and strategic bunkers.

In the early 2000s, Royal Aberdeen undertook a major course improvement project led by renowned architect Tom Mackenzie. This included rebuilding all bunkers, adding new tees, and recontouring fairways and greens. The course was lengthened by over 300 yards to bring it up to modern championship standards, enabling it to host notable championships such as the Senior Open and Walker Cup. These renovations have ensured that Royal Aberdeen remains one of the finest traditional links courses in Scotland.

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Did You Know?

If you think the pace of play is a modern-day issue, think again! The first known time limit rule for searching for lost balls came from the Aberdeen Golfers (later Royal Aberdeen) in 1783. Concerned with time wasted, they introduced a 5-minute search time, which established the precedent before having to take a penalty for a lost ball.

The 5-minute rule was not universally adopted right away. Some other clubs instituted search time limits in the early 1800s but removed them. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the 5-minute search time became more standard across the official Rules of Golf published by the R&A.

Over the years, the specifics around the 5-minute rule evolved, including allowing players to declare a ball lost earlier without searching the full 5 minutes. In 1964, requiring the full 5 minutes of searching was reinstated. Finally, in 2019, after over 100 years as the standard, the search time was reduced from 5 minutes to 3 minutes as part of the new Rules of Golf. The new rule is referenced in the current 2019 Rules of Golf under Rule 18.2, stating a ball is lost if “not found in three minutes” after beginning to search.

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The Course

The Balgownie course at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club plays to a par of 71 at just over 6900 yards in a traditional out-and-back routing. Known for its small, sloped, and undulating greens with strategic bunkering, Royal Aberdeen represents Scottish links golf at its finest. Its combination of natural beauty, masterful design, and storied tradition cement its reputation as one of the top courses not just in Scotland but the world.

The Front Nine

The outward nine is widely regarded as one of the finest stretches of links golf holes in the world. Carved through towering dunes lined with gorse, the holes play out to the rugged North Sea coastline. If there is a headwind, every hole will play directly into it. With rugged dunes, dramatic sea views, an unforgiving wind, and a thrilling sequence of unique holes, it showcases everything that makes Scottish golf so special and beloved by enthusiasts worldwide.

The downhill 1st hole eases you in, but the 2nd immediately shows the course’s teeth with a long forced carry over hills and gorse. The next six holes play completely parallel to the sea, showcasing all the classic attributes of Scottish links golf – rolling fairways, pot bunkers, dramatic elevation changes, and water views on every hole.

The signature 8th hole plays 147 yards along the coast; with ten bunkers protecting it, “Ridge” epitomizes the challenge and beauty of these epic nine holes. The par-4 9th, measuring 446 yards, is a beast of a hole requiring two solid shots to reach the green, which only receives a precise shot. The putting surfaces on the front nine are also smaller than average, placing a premium on approach shot accuracy. The ever-present wind can make club selection a nightmare; one day, a pitching wedge will reach a green, and the next, you’ll need a mid-iron. The front nine at Royal Aberdeen’s Balgownie Course represents the pinnacle of links golf.

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The Back Nine

While the first nine garners most of the acclaim at Royal Aberdeen, the inward nine is nearly equal in quality and challenge. Playing atop a plateau inland from the sea, it loses the rugged dunes but retains the quintessential links attributes – rumpled fairways, pot bunkers, stiff winds, and dramatic views across the course.

The inward nine stretches inland across a flatter landscape and emphasizes accuracy over length compared to the front, with less margin for error and out-of-bounds lurking to the right of 10, 11, and 12. The par-4 10th eases you in before the superb one-shot 11th, “Short,” measuring 166 yards to an unusual green. The 12th winds left to right along a valley before climbing to an elevated green, while the green on the par-4 13th, “Blind,” is in a hollow. The tough 390-yard par-4 “Dyke” has a “dry ditch” running through the fairway at 230 yards, forcing a decision off the tee.

The closing stretch is a tough one with a stream in play on 15 and 16, and 17 is a formidable long-ish par-3. The 18th “Home” plays tough into the wind. Bunkers are left and right with OOB left, again placing a premium on accuracy. The green is elevated and well-bunkered, making for a testy finish for even the best players. Matching the quality of the opening nine is no easy feat, but there is no letdown on this inward nine – it proudly upholds Royal Aberdeen’s lofty reputation as one of the finest courses in the world.

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Royal Aberdeen Today

The Balgownie Championship course consistently ranks among the top courses in Great Britain – currently ranking at #16 in UK & Ireland’s Top 100 Courses for 2023/24. Golf Digest ranks it as the 59th greatest course in the world, praising the “dramatic dunesland along the shoreline” on the front nine holes.

Over the years, Royal Aberdeen has hosted several major amateur and professional events, further cementing its reputation. These include the 2005 Senior British Open, won by Tom Watson, the 2011 Walker Cup Matches, the 2014 Scottish Open on the European Tour (won by Justin Rose), and the 2018 Amateur Championship (won by Jovan Rebula, nephew of Ernie Els). The Walker Cup in 2011 (won by GB&I) was notable for featuring a young Jordan Spieth months before he would launch his stellar professional career.

Subtle changes are regularly made to keep the course aligned with modern standards while preserving its traditional character, and the club completed extensive renovations to its facilities in the late 1990s, including the member clubhouse, which has attracted praise from golf media. Combined with Royal Aberdeen’s world-class course conditioning, the club offers an exceptional golfing experience.

Visitors are warmly welcomed, especially those with a handicap of 24 or under looking to take on the challenge of the championship Balgownie Links. Advance booking is highly recommended, as tee times are in strong demand. 

Visit Royal Aberdeen online at http://www.royalaberdeengolf.com.

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Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Royal Aberdeen – Random Golf Club
Royal Aberdeen – Overview
Walker Cup – 2011
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