The Castle Course at St. Andrews and Machrihanish Dunes in Kintyre are the best new Scottish courses since Kingsbarns
The Castle Course
Next on the tee: the highly anticipated seventh course at St. Andrews
Decades from now, when David McLay Kidd looks back on what promises to be an enormously productive career designing golf courses, he may well single out 2008 as the most satisfying year of all. For in it he will unveil two ambitious seaside eighteens in Scotland, his homeland: the Castle Course at St. Andrews and Machrihanish Dunes, near the bottom of the Kintyre Peninsula. Both will be momentous occasions. The Castle Course will be the first championship-caliber layout opened by the St. Andrews Links Trust since 1914, and Machrihanish Dunes will join an Old Tom Morris course that since 1876 has been the only reason for a golfer to visit the remote area. Heady stuff for an architect who has only just celebrated his fortieth birthday, but Kidd and his talented team are brimming with confidence.
The Castle Course, scheduled to open on June 28, will be the first of the pair to debut. It takes its name from Kinkell Castle, which five hundred years ago stood on a headland two miles southeast of the town center, where the nines of the new layout begin. (The six other Links Trust courses are on the opposite side of town.) Kidd won the commission despite ignoring the warning that presentations must under no circumstances run longer than two hours. Mesmerizing the committee with his passion, he recklessly took three and a half hours to present his case, and in so doing he carried the day. The fact that he had designed the famous first course at Bandon Dunes obviously did him no harm.
Unlike the other St. Andrews layouts, this is not a links. Although it is seaside and nearly treeless (the sycamore behind the first green is the only tree on the course), it is not laid out on sand-based soil (greens and approaches, however, received several thousand tons of sand to permit running shots) but on clay where potatoes and barley were once grown. The links superintendent, Gordon Moir, calls the Castle a "clifftopper." Some sixty to 125 feet above the sea, which it skirts for nearly a mile and a half, the Castle roams across 220 acres, more than twice the area of the basically level Old Course.
Kidd's routing plan is masterful—unpredictable, studded with daring moments, jam-packed with memorable golf holes. This is no minimalist undertaking; Kidd and his associate Paul Kimber have moved dirt by the ton. Not surprisingly, there is scarcely a level hole. The ground climbs and plunges, ripples and heaves and tumbles. Elevation changes stare us down at every turn—it's more than 150 feet overall. The high point is gained at the twelfth green and thirteenth tee, with the lowest ground being the double green of the ninth and eighteenth.
Along the way, the fairways seem to inhale and exhale, feinting and then swooping into the course's many doglegs. Most of the turns are gentle, though some are sharp, as on two and eighteen. The course can be set up as long as 7,188 yards, as short as 5,319, and has five sets of tees on every hole. Seven greens are right at land's end, high above the beach. The walks from green to tee are generally short, which those carrying their own bag or towing the trolley will applaud. Besides the views of St. Andrews Bay, water in the form of burns rears its head short of the green on the par-five fourth and the par-five fifteenth, setting up unnerving risk-reward shots for the big basher. The fourth (570 yards from the tips) and the fifth (557 yards) are back-to-back three-shotters, an uncommon circumstance that finds Kidd simply responding to the best routing that the land could give him.
Though they don't often look it, The tee shot landing areas at the Castle are spacious. It's true that the early parts of the fairways incline to tightness, but if you can get it in your head that your tee shot is going to carry this skinny section of land where the fairway exhales, you will drive the ball straight and long again and again. The fairways are pocked with mounds (some of them fetchingly bewhiskered) and hollows. The approaches to the greens have the same mixture of grasses as the greens themselves (80 percent fescue, 20 percent bent). This encourages the player to hit bump-and-run shots or to try the Texas wedge.
The greens are large, averaging more than seven thousand square feet. The generous size gives players a fair chance of hitting them in a heavy wind—20, 30 and 40 mph blows are not at all rare on this high ground by the sea. More often than not, though, they are also dramatically contoured, making the two-putt far from routine.
On every hole, without exception, the gray-green sea can be observed stretching away to the distant horizon. Astonishingly, we merely have to cock our head in order to take in the medieval quarter of St. Andrews—St. Rule's Tower, the town wall, the castle, the spire of St. Salvator's, and the cathedral and its graveyard, where both Old and Young Tom Morris are buried. On a pellucid day, the panorama to the north extends for miles over the Eden estuary and the Firth of Tay to include Carnoustie and Arbroath and, even farther on, a suggestion of the Grampian Mountains. It is possible that no seaside course in the world is more strikingly situated than the Castle.
And on this course there is not a single weak or indifferent hole. In truth, no hole is less than very good. Which raises the question: How many holes are truly great?Probably at least half of them, which, I grant you, is not easy to grasp.
Among the many unforgettable holes are the three that bring the round to a rousing finish. The sixteenth—436 yards, full of ups and downs and dunelike knobs with fescue whiskers—heads toward the sea. Short of its elevated green is a deep swale lurking to swallow the approach that just fails to get up. The green, sited perilously at the cliff edge, is devilishly contoured in the grand tradition of Kidd and company.
On the seventeenth, a two-hundred-yarder, the shot is fired from a raised tee across a V-shaped chasm that is part rocky inlet and part overgrown vegetation, with a hidden beach at the bottom washed by the swirling North Sea waters. There is safety out to the left; to the right is a calamitous plunge. This just may be Scotland's most thrilling one-shotter, perhaps even eclipsing the eleventh on the Old Course and the fourth at Cruden Bay. But it is not without controversy—more on that momentarily.
The 575-yard home hole rises smoothly as it heads away from the clifftop tee and parallels the cliffs, then bends to the right and descends steeply to its half of an immense double green (the only one in the layout and an appropriate bow to the Old Course). The putting surface, shared with the ninth hole, is all but cantilevered over the water some sixty feet below. An epic creation, this par five is every bit as magnificent as the eighteenth at Pebble Beach or the seventeenth at Old Head.
Regarding the seventeenth, one anecdote from the course's early days is worth passing along: Last July, sixteen golf journalists—eight from the United Kingdom, eight from the United States—were invited to play the shot on the par-three seventeenth, which for them was set up at 170 yards. Depending on whom you ask, the weather was either mild and unusually calm or windy and ominously "changeable."
Each of the players was given three balls and urged to have a go at it. The average handicap was about nine, and a few players boasted a two or three. Of the forty-eight shots, only three found the green, which, though broad and open across the front, is rather shallow. Some players felt that the Castle Course is simply too hard and that this incident on the seventeenth merely confirmed what they had sensed when they examined (but were unable to play) a number of its holes. They concluded that the course's demands on the swing of a solid, above-average player were excessive and that it should be softened in one way or another, perhaps by making the tee shot landing areas more generous or the putting more manageable. They feared that unless substantive changes were effected, the course might alienate much of its constituency (visitors and locals) and possibly even fail, to be left unused for many years—as was once the case with Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s excellent Cashen course at Ballybunion.
Not all observers subscribe to this bleak outlook. Alan Ferguson, captain of the New Golf Club St. Andrews, says, "I think the Castle is wonderful—a true championship course. Yes, it's a stern challenge, and it's obviously not a course for most ladies: There are a number of forced carries off the regular tees that measure about 170 yards. Still, there are five tees on every hole, so you can choose the set that most closely matches your ability. The Castle is quite subtle as well—it has you playing at many angles to the wind. It's like Muirfield in that sense, where the struggle with the winds off the Firth is a constantly shifting one. And the Castle actually replicates the Old Course in one way: Both of these layouts have a number of hidden landing areas for your drives, which means that visitors will be well advised to take a caddie if they're to have any chance of heading away on the optimal line."
The green fee at the Castle Course has been pegged at £120 ($245), just ten pounds less than at the Old Course. This is hardly a giveaway, but it's what one has to get used to paying for great golf these days. Will the Castle Course turn out to be David McLay Kidd at the top of his form, the form that he first displayed at Bandon Dunes?I believe it will be. Still, only time—and just a little time, at that—will tell.
At long last, a second course is joining the esteemed links on the Kintyre Peninsula
Perhaps even more so than the Castle Course, for David Kidd the project at Machrihanish Dunes represents a return to his roots. He knows the land intimately—his family vacationed there regularly when he was a boy—and he is positively effusive when it comes to its charms: "My earliest childhood memories," he says, "are of running on the broad sandy beach and hiding in the steep dunes at Machrihanish. As I grew older, I caddied for my father and grandfather [on the original Machrihanish, which dates to 1876] and fished for salmon in the river that runs across the course. I am thrilled to have embarked on a personal dream to create a second course in the dunes at Machrihanish, a dream I have mused over my entire career. But I won't be able to take credit for this course. You see, the holes were here, as many as twenty-three 'natural' holes lying in the dunes, looking as though they were just waiting to be put into play. I know writers hear this kind of thing all the time, but it's the truth. This project at Machrihanish," Kidd says, "is not like the Castle Course, where we had to construct and mold every hole. These were right at our feet—the teeing areas and fairways and green sites."
Being readied for a mid-September opening, Machrihanish Dunes occupies 205 acres of pristine linksland, a ten-minute drive from Kintyre's most populous place, Campbeltown. This is the first eighteen-hole links course (seaside, sea level, sand-based, set in the dunes) to be built on the west coast of Scotland in a hundred years. Out of the roughly 32,000 golf courses in the world, fewer than 250 are considered authentic links. Machrihanish Dunes will be one of them. At one point it abuts the Machrihanish Golf Club links. Bordering directly on the Atlantic for well over a mile, the Dunes will feature six greens and five tees at the ocean's edge. Par is seventy-two; the course can be set up between 5,389 and 7,222 yards. There are three one-shotters, three par fives and a dozen two-shotters. The views are heart-stopping—northwest over the Atlantic to the Paps of Jura and south a mere fifteen miles to Northern Ireland. (For many years, Paul McCartney has owned a farm in the area, and the setting and the exquisite coastal drive to reach it inspired two lovely songs: "The Long and Winding Road" and "Mull of Kintyre.")
When I visited the site in August, Kidd's associate Paul Kimber served as my guide. The pair of us walked a number of "holes." You had to have your imagination in high gear. We tramped from where a teeing ground (as at the Castle Course, five per hole) would be located, then along the path of the planned fairway (generous, most of the time) to the spot that would accommodate the green. Nothing was there, understand, but if you looked closely enough, everything was there. Nature—the intertwined movements of sea, sand and wind over countless centuries—had actually produced golf holes in the raw, if you had but the insight to divine them. With their vision and sensitivity, Kidd and Kimber could do it, and this ability was essential, because constructing fairways with an armada of bulldozers and backhoes was forbidden by Scottish Natural Heritage, the government's environmental agency. (Earth-moving equipment was, however, allowed for the building of greens, tees and bunkers.)
These "fairways," the general outlines of which were easily discerned, were particularly fascinating. Kimber and I were not fighting our way through scrub and weeds fit only for extermination. No, indeed. The "fairways" generally consisted of a seaside fescue that seemed made to order as a launching pad for golf balls. In fact, if you took half a dozen balls and simply dropped them on the ground, five of the six would provide an eminently playable lie, whether the shot called for a three-metal or a wedge. The Machrihanish dunes are natural carpets.
Day in and Day Out, The three key figures on the site here are Kimber, Euan Grant and Conor Walsh. Tall, rangy, in his mid-thirties and a very good player in his own right (a four handicap), the English-born Kimber had taken the same leading role at the Castle Course. He has worked under Kidd for eight years and is not reluctant to make decisions. He believes that Machrihanish Dunes has an excellent chance of equaling the original Machrihanish links, which, starting with its famed opening tee shot across a corner of the Atlantic, is terrific.
Grant, thirty-seven years old, serious-minded and dedicated, is the construction foreman. Until recently he had served for more than three years as head greenkeeper of the Old Course itself. He had been charged with overall maintenance of the fabled links, including the preparation of it for the 2005 Open Championship. Machrihanish Dunes will be ready for play in the fall, but it may not be opened to the public until the spring of 2009. When it does open, Grant will take over as head greenkeeper. He has found a house down here on the Mull of Kintyre for himself and his family.
Walsh, all of twenty-seven years old, is the technician, a shaper extraordinaire. The understudy to Mick McShane at the Castle Course, he has taken the lead role at Machrihanish Dunes, and he's bent on bringing out the best from the land. I asked him how long it took him to shape a green. He gave the question some thought—I got the impression that he may not have been asked this before—and then gave a remarkable answer: "A day and a half."
Kimber then led me over to the nearby seventeenth green (the hole is a 479-yard two-shotter), which is the result of Walsh's creative ministrations. It is an audacious amalgam of knobs and slopes and contours, of humps and hollows and hillocks, the terrain everlastingly in motion, the likelihood of three-putting—or four-putting—brazenly confrontational. It reminded me of nothing so much as a crumpled sheet of paper.
Kimber had the greens and tees seeded by the end of October, with the grow-in period beginning immediately. So after almost 130 years, the original Machrihanish links, whose pedigree includes Old Tom Morris, J. H. Taylor and Sir Guy Campbell, is going to have company. Soon there will be two regulation-length links courses on the Mull of Kintyre, not to mention a third eighteen, just fifteen minutes south, called Dunaverty. Located in the holiday village of Southend, Dunaverty (dating to 1889) measures only 4,799 yards and plays to a par of sixty-six. The views of Dunaverty Rock, Sanda Island and the coast of Northern Ireland are enthralling. The course has only two holes as long as four hundred yards, but several holes are quite stimulating, such as the 245-yard sixth, a stout par three, and the 412-yard seventeenth, where the green is fronted by a fifty-foot-wide stream. It should be noted that this course is, in literal truth, a cow pasture, where cattle and sheep graze contentedly. Say what you will, but all of it—the Machrihanish Golf Club, Machrihanish Dunes and the Dunaverty Golf Club—will add up to an honest golf destination meriting a two- or three-day visit. Or even longer, as other golf developments planned for the area (see sidebar) gain momentum.
Though transportation is also changing rapidly, at present getting to Machrihanish entails either a three-hour drive from Glasgow, with the "bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond" charming us first, followed by a gloriously beautiful run along the fjord Loch Fyne; a high-speed ferry ride, just forty-five minutes from Troon; or a flight to Campbeltown Airport (a half hour from Glasgow), which is minutes from the first tee of either of the two Machrihanish links. As this famously remote peninsula becomes increasingly accessible, travelers will be forced to confront the question: Which of David Kidd's brilliant new works to play first?Fortunately, there is no incorrect answer.
Machrihanish Dunes is the first part of a sweeping plan to transform an isolated corner of Scotland into a world-class golf destination to rival Bandon Dunes.
In addition to the new David McLay Kidd design, the developers say they hope to build at least two more seaside links on the Kintyre Peninsula on land they've either already acquired or have the option to buy. Meanwhile, they've purchased and begun renovating two century-old hotels in the area. And they intend to build dozens of time-share cottages—some of them overlooking the new course, others in the village of Machrihanish—as well as a series of single-family homes with private airstrips.
"It's about creating a destination," says Brian Keating, founder of Brightside Leisure Development and the principal investor in the project. Keating, a former telecommunications executive, says he drew inspiration from a visit to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon and discussions with its founder, Mike Keiser. Keating was impressed by the Bandon ethos, which he describes as a love of traditional links golf that is free of superfluous modern trappings and open to all.
In the case of Machrihanish Dunes, he says, having the chance to play one or more latter-day links plus Machrihanish Golf Club, the 1879 Old Tom Morris classic, will be a large part of the appeal. So, too, Keating hopes, will be the opportunity for visitors to explore the surrounding area, including Campbeltown, a faded port town that once thrived as a hub of whisky production and shipbuilding. "The place has an amazing history that's been almost forgotten in a hundred years, and I thought golf could play a part in reviving it."
Keating continues: "We could have easily applied to put a three-hundred-bedroom hotel down on the dunes and do what a lot of resorts do, which is build a big fence and lock everyone inside it. I decided it would be much more appropriate from a visitor's point of view if you could experience the town and the different facets of Kintyre."
The first accommodation that Keating and his team are refurbishing is the Royal Hotel, a four-story stone building that sits on the harbor in Campbeltown. The second lodging will be the Kintyre Hotel and Cottages, situated across the street from the first tee at Machrihanish Golf Club. The third phase will be the cottages at Machrihanish Dunes, followed by the private homes.
The additional parcels of land the developers are eyeing for golf include the site immediately north of Machrihanish Dunes, which if anything features even more wildly undulating terrain. The second tract being considered lies twenty miles up the coast in the town of Tayinloan. Keating says he's shown it to three "top ten" course architects and that it's likely to be developed next, under the name Gigha Straits, after the nearby Isle of Gigha.
The developers are also taking steps to make Machrihanish more accessible by air. Keating has purchased a stake in Loch Lomond Seaplanes and intends to add a plane to the company's fleet that would be dedicated solely to golfers. He's also been in talks with Loganair and says the carrier plans to increase its service between Glasgow and Campbeltown from five to seven days a week this year. To attract Irish travelers, he's exploring the possibility of having Loganair's Glasgow-Derry-Dublin route add a stop in Machrihanish. Finally, tour operators might begin offering charter flights to and from Prestwick Airport on Scotland's Ayrshire coast, home to such storied courses as Prestwick Golf Club, Turnberry and Royal Troon. —Paul Rogers