The original course used by the members of Stranraer Golf Club was located in the east end of the town and was opened in 1906, the year after the club was formed. It was a 9-hole course, laid out over three fields by the 1883 Open Champion Willie Fernie who played a match against Dan Kelly, the local professional, to mark the occasion.
The course and clubhouse were requisitioned by the War Department in 1940 as a Transit Camp – nearby Cairnryan became an important construction site for Mulberry Harbours in the D-Day landings – and the members were without a course until well after World War II when James Braid was called out of retirement to design a new course at Creachmore just outside the town. Stranraer was Braid's last design prior to his death in 1950. Two years later, the new Stranraer opened for play.
Situated on an escarpment beside Loch Ryan, Stranraer is laid out on former farmland with many stands of mature trees. It is a fine parkland layout with several holes also played along the loch shore. With a total length of 6,308 yards, there are no fewer than fourteen par fours on the course with only one par five, the appropriately named “Lang Whang” 15th hole.
The signature hole is the 397-yard par four 5th named “Corunna” played from an elevated tee looking over Loch Ryan towards Ailsa Craig out in the Irish Sea. The tee shot down to the lochside must find a tight fairway between a heavily gorsed bank on the left and out of bounds along the shoreline to the right (where two bunkers are postioned to catch pushed drives). It's a thrilling hole to play and, in fact, it has been voted by readers of a Scottish golf magazine as one of the toughest eighteen holes to play in the country.
On a sunny and windy Tuesday morning I arrived at Stranraer GC knowing little about the course other than that it was highly rated in the region and the 5th hole in particular was going to be special. I left agreeing with the latter but not so sure about the former. It is a seaside parkland track, or rather, harbour-side, given its location on Loch Ryan overlooking Cairnryan Port a few miles from the open sea. It is not a links golf course. It is a 6,300 yard par 70 James Braid design with no less than fourteen par fours, three par threes and just one par five. The course is not an easy walk and I found several of the par fours to be brutal uphill slogs (4, 7, 11, 13 and 17), with 4, 13 and 17 all played in the same direction alongside one another and the brutal 11th the least enjoyable hole of the lot.
The 2nd and 3rd holes both offered interesting tee shots with a dangerous burn flowing between them, but the course comes alive on the 5th - the signature hole due to the superb views of the bay from the perched tee area, but lest you acknowledge it is also very difficult tee shot. It’s narrow enough with the shoreline all along the right of the fairway and deep gunk to the left, but the danger on both sides is exacerbated by the extra hang-time on shots due to elevation and potential for cross winds. If I played this hole every week I would definitely hit iron off the tee and hit it on as low a ball-flight as possible. Once you make it to the serene low-lying shoreline setting of the fairway, the approach is one of the more enjoyable shots you will play on this course. The 5th green and 6th tee area is the nicest little corner of the course, the ferries en route to Northern Ireland visible at the terminal across the bay. The 6th is another great hole, a par three of 160 yards played from the shore back inland into a bushy enclosure, the green elevated and guarded by quite elaborate bunkering front and right.
The rest of the back nine was not so memoranble and after an awkward long walk around the clubhouse area, the 10th hole is about as parkland as you can get – actually quite a good hole, a narrow dogleg-right weaving through tall trees around the corner. It was on the 11th hole where I began to sense I was not going to love this course overall – just 380 yards on the card but a horrible uphill tee shot and even more horrible uphill approach to a super-elevated green, anything short coming back down the hill even in soft conditions. No fun at all! I did quite like the par three 12th, a solid 185 yards, flat, with a burn and two bunkers to gobble up anything short and offline.
The 13th was almost as nasty as the 11th and by now my ‘not an easy walk’ summation had been fully formed. It must be said, in fairness, that 14 and 15 are two excellent holes in succession, played towards the southeast corner of the layout and alongside the Loch to the left in a lovely setting. The 14th is a 515 yard par five, reachable in two of course, and without much danger around. The 165 yard par three 15th green is treacherously perched on an elevated mound with vegetation troubles to the left, bunkers short and a steep drop-off to the right, demanding an accurate shot and allowing little bailout. The stretch from 15-17 is really difficult slog, before a considerably more benign finishing hole.
The opener is relatively gentle. The adjacent fairways of the par four second and third holes are split diagonally by a lateral water hazard which focuses the mind from the tee and again on the approach to each green. The most troublesome thing about the fourth is that it leads you unavoidably to the fifth, “Corunna”, possibly the most visually stunning, enticing and yet simultaneously nerve-shredding tee-shot in Scottish golf. Admittedly, this description only applies to the tee-shot from the highly elevated medal tee from where the golfer’s eyes are drawn instinctively to the steep escarpment of gorse that runs along the left or possibly the big water hazard (referred to by locals and cartographers as Loch Ryan) on the right but never the deceptively big, green, flat bit in the middle. I know very good golfers who have dropped more shots here in one day than they did the rest of the season. Par 4 is possible – but 14 is statistically more probable! The committee might not thank me for saying this but I suggest you ask for special permission to play this hole from the medal tee. Having played around 90 Scottish courses (including many of the “biggies”) this is my current nomination for the best hole in Scotland.
The sixth is a tough par 3 encircled by bunkers and gorse. The 458yrds ninth is (surprise, surprise) quite tough. The tenth is a lovely wee par four requiring strategy from the tee and a gentle touch to a small, raised green. Putting from the back of the slippery 11th green is as close as most Gallovidians get to Augusta –take four (very gentle) putts and avoid the embarrassment of putting back down the fairway! At the 185yrds 12th the lateral water ditch re-appears, somewhat cunningly, about two small paces short of the green. However, this par 3 is a cinch compared to the 15th which is 185yrds uphill to a long-narrow green with steep fall-offs on both sides. Take the left slope and its time for a new ball. The next two are harder still – 470yrds and 462yrds respectively. Anyone who claims to have parred holes 15 to 17 at Stranraer is possibly lying, hallucinating or, least likely of all, really quite good at golf. By the 5th it starts to dawn on you that Mr Braid may not have been of an entirely cuddly disposition. On the vertiginous ice-rink of the 11th green you consider the possibility that he may even have had a vindictive streak. By the time you are putting for your third consecutive “double” on 17 you have pretty much gone off the guy.
However, when the dust has settled, sitting in the comfortable clubhouse looking over the stunning course the word most likely to spring to mind is RESPECT. This course deserves loads of the stuff and is quite possibly the most under-rated course in Scotland. It is a fitting final addition to Mr B’s glorious collection. Personally, if I had to play to my handicap to save my life I would choose The Old Course, Turnberry or possibly even Muirfield before I chose Stranraer. RESPECT. Derek, Edinburgh, June 08
There is no reason for the relative remoteness of Stranraer being used as an excuse to explain why this 18-hole James Braid layout does not feature in the list of the top 100 Scottish courses – it is well routed with excellent conditioning and the changes in elevation provide fantastic views over the course and the loch.
After three good opening holes and a weak 4th hole - one of only two such holes on the course along with the 8th – the famous 5th is played from a tee perched high on the edge of the escarpment down to a fairway running alongside the loch – easily one of the best (and toughest) driving holes in Scottish golf.
The back nine just seem to get stronger and stronger, culminating in two long par fours, each over 400 yards from the medal tees, played into the prevailing wind after turning for home at the 16th and 17th holes. When we played in early April, tees were absolutely pristine, fairways very tightly mown – (surprisingly so for a parkland course) and greens in very good condition - though the staff in the clubhouse thought they had been better the month before!
A good, honest club golf course it may be, but with a favourable micro climate in this south west corner of Scotland, Stranraer is a course well worth visiting even outwith the main spring and summer months.