In Scotland, Making New Feel Very Old
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|In Scotland, the hottest trend in golf course design isn’t something new, it’s something old.
And golf course architect David McLay Kidd has a special talent for making something new look like something very old.
Kidd is the 40-year-old native Scot who gained notoriety as the designer of the first Bandon Dunes course in 1999. This year, Kidd is finishing two golf courses in Scotland that recall those rustic, wind-swept dunes of Oregon, which themselves circle back to Scotland and the sandy dunes that line its beaches, linking fertile soil with the sea. Both of Kidd’s new courses present a compelling reason for you to brave a lousy exchange rate and a transatlantic flight: so you can be among the first to play them.
For the next few years, the Scottish golf universe will radiate outward from two points: St. Andrews and the tiny town of Machrihanish, near Kintyre (of The Beatles’ “Mull of Kintyre” fame).
The first, the Castle Course, is located in the town of St. Andrews, where golf was born 600 years ago. The city is already home of the famous Old Course and five other courses owned by the town and managed through its nonprofit, the St. Andrews Links Trust.
Kidd’s second noteworthy new course, Machrihanish Dunes, lies a four-hour drive west in Machrihanish, a remote region known for its golf and the Springbank whiskey distillery, but otherwise devoid of any sane reason to venture there.
A couple of other media types and I had the opportunity to preview these two new layouts, plus a charming third new course on the outskirts of Glasgow, the Carrick Golf Club, that also warrants your attention.
Thanks to the gaining popularity of St. Andrews as both a university town and a place for Brits to retire, the Links Trust needs more golf. A seventh course will fulfill the Links Trust’s municipal mission to provide one hole of golf for every 100 residents. For the past three years, Kidd has been transforming a non-descript chunk of cliff-top land a couple of miles east of the Old Course into the craggy, wind-sculpted form it resembled hundreds of years ago, before farmers and sheep cleared and flattened it. The 220-acre parcel sits 80 feet above the North Sea, overlooking the town of St. Andrews a mile to the west.
Kidd moved tons of earth to re-create the windswept look of cliff-top links land, mounding black-diamond moguls and dunes along the craggy edges of the undulating fescue and bentgrass fairways.
Kidd is a master of deception. Walking the fairways, you’d never suspect that this was once a potato farm, or that it’s still the site of a water treatment plant (craftily hidden by ragged dunes between the second and eighth holes). The vista stretches endlessly from the first tee box. Your eye bobs along the tops of the dunes, sweeping across the long, tan grasses as the wind rolls by. A single sycamore tree breaks the horizon like a Joshua tree.
Is Kidd begging for comparisons to Torrey Pines or Cypress Point?
In many parts, he’s lopped off the tops of dunes to create buttes, then scooped away some of their sides to mimic years of gnawing by wind and sea. He’s created blind tee shots that lead to wide, forgiving landing areas. Tee shots bounce unexpectedly in the uneven fairways. Approach shots land on enormous, radically sloped greens, but the result isn’t penal. Instead, the Castle Course offers an exhilarating round of golf, rewarding in the same way that a skier looks back up the mogul hill, shakes his head in amazement, wonders how he ever got down, then looks for the chairlift for another run at it.
While the whitecaps of St. Andrews Bay remain visible from most of the holes, there is no more captivating a view than from the par-3 17th and par-5 18th. Both play perilously close to the water from atop a tall cliff (Pebble Beach-style) finishing on a double green (Old Course-style) shared by Nos. 9 and 18. You can tell that much of Kidd’s inspiration for Castle came from Kingsbarns, the modern links design a few miles away that merits all the attention it receives.
The Castle Course, named for Kinkell Castle, which once stood here hundreds of years ago, opens for play this June. Like the Old Course, tee times on Castle will be difficult to come by in advance. If you’re interested in playing both the Old Course and Castle (and you should play both), the only way to secure guaranteed tee times now is through the Old Course Experience, a private corporation that partners with the Links Trust to provide first-rate, turn-key golf experiences. They have a package that incorporates the Old, Castle and Kingsbarns courses, and can link hotel accommodations at Kohler’s Old Course Hotel and air transportation on bmi airlines. (During the peak golf season of April through October, the Old Course Experience controls upwards of 40 percent of the tee times on the Old Course, according to some sources, which makes it the only practical way to schedule tee times for a group outing.)
Until now, visitors from abroad usually spend only a couple of days in St. Andrews, focusing mainly on the Old Course and perhaps Kingsbarns. For the next few years, though, those same golfers will choose to spend an extra day in St. Andrews, playing both the Old Course and Castle, and probably Kingsbarns.
At present, golfers might then leave St. Andrews for Troon, Royal Dornoch or courses in northern Scotland. That’s not going to happen much anymore. The next course that will be on every golfer’s list will be another David McLay Kidd design, Machrihanish Dunes, set to open late this year.
While Castle appears nearly indistinguishable from a centuries-old layout, Machrihanish Dunes actually is centuries old.
Rolling across an environmentally sensitive area, Kidd had a rigid, inflexible mandate to incorporate the existing topography and grasses as the basis for his design. In distinct contrast to Castle, virtually no machinery could be used to move dirt to shape Machrihanish Dunes. No bulldozer mounding. No artificial elevation changes. No non-native grasses, vegetation or pesticides. Except when building greens, tees and bunkers, shovels and picks had to suffice.
“On the fairways, we used the mounds and burrows that the rabbits created,” Euan Grant, the lead construction foreman told me during a site visit. Grant came to Dunes from St. Andrews, were he was head greenskeeper of the Old Course for three years, which included the 2005 Open Championship.
Without any help, the land itself was already spread out as a nearly complete golf course. Kidd says 27 holes – tee areas, fairways and greens – were easily identifiable. He narrowed those to the best 18. Like a sculptor who merely releases the figure trapped in marble, Kidd’s task was to uncover the holes nature had already laid out. Most of the fairways are reasonably well-defined by natural mounding and swales. Greenskeeper Grant’s job is to tease out the contours by judiciously grooming the grasses and vegetation.
Brian Keating, a wiry, middle-aged bundle of energy who once ran the retail operations of Apple in Russia, is the force behind the golf course and supporting real estate development (boutique hotel, restaurants and infrastructure).
“There are 32,000 golf courses in the world,” Keating told me. “Two hundred and seventy-six of them are true links courses. We are creating the 277th.”
The course rests adjacent to Machrihanish Golf Club, designed in 1876 by “Old Tom” Morris, the famed Scottish golf course architect and greenskeeper. Machrihanish Golf Club sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, its feet dangling over a cliff. Its opening hole is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, a forced carry over the Atlantic to a wide landing zone on the other side of a half-moon bay. Old Tom had it right 125 years ago (lending proof that nothing is new in golf design): How much of the Atlantic do you want to bite off, he asks. You have to answer.
The wind howls in from the Atlantic, batting your ball as if it were a cat’s toy. Where to aim? Thirty yards to the left? Forty? Fifty? During my visit, a 40 mile-per-hour wind tore open a hole in a sky the color of wet aluminum foil. Sleet pummeled our faces, the only body area not completely covered with Gore-Tex or wool. Far too many tee shots missed their intended fairways, destined to return only on the backs of milk cartons. The course and the elements hit us hard early on and never relented.
Yet I can’t recall a better day of golf.
Down the road, Kidd’s Machrihanish Dunes holds its drama tight to the mile and a half of sandy holes that play along the ocean. Virtually every shot plays into a hostile wind. You’ll be called upon to draw the ball, fade it or knock it down low and straight, directly into the throat of the wind. Coming back, you’ll need to sail the ball up high, let it ride the jet stream and float it to an elevated green.
It’s still a bit tough to envision the intricacies of the fairways and hazards – the entire acreage still looks like a hazard – but the bones are all there. Grant and Keating assure me that construction is on schedule for a September opening, when Dunes will become the first golf course to debut on the west coast of Scotland in 100 years.
The highest hurdle to playing these two exceptional Machrihanish courses is the journey. Except for the nearby Springbank distillery, there’s really no other compelling reason to make the four-hour drive from Glasgow. That remoteness is one reason the golf here remains so rustic, so undisturbed. Machrihanish Dunes calls golf in this unspoiled area “golf the way it began.”
But with new development, will come progress – and accessibility.
Keating and his Dunes project have teamed with Loch Lomond Seaplanes, an operator of eight-seat seaplanes, which offers service from Loch Lomond or Glasgow round trip to the airport near Dunes. The flight takes about 30 minutes; the Dunes will provide transportation to-and-from the airport, a short drive away.
Loch Lomond is located a half-hour’s drive from Glasgow’s international airport, easily accessible from both the U.S. and the U.K.
Fortunately, U.K. hotelier DeVere is in the loop, too. Their imminently modern and luxurious Cameron House hotel sits on the banks of Loch Lomond. Recently they opened an excellent lakeside golf course, the Carrick Golf Club, itself worthy of your attention. It’s on your way to Machrihanish, and you’d be wise to play it.
Canadian golf architect Doug Carrick threads his 18 holes loosely between the highlands and the lowlands (at the banks of Loch Lomond; the famed Loch Lomond golf course is next door), half on each side.
Hospitality rules here. Don’t be a bit surprised if a golf concierge intercepts you on the eighth hole, dispensing shots of whiskey.
The beef, venison and fish served in the hotel’s restaurant are all locally sourced – as are the 200-plus whiskeys offered at the bar.
Until now, few but the most dedicated Scottish golfers ventured out west to Machrihanish or spent more than a couple of days in St. Andrews.
With the opening of both of Kidd’s new courses, Castle and Dunes, the typical golf itinerary will be all shaken up. For the next few years at least, the path less taken is going to get a lot of wear.
St. Andrews Links Trust www.standrews.org.uk
The Old Course Experience www.oldcourse-experience.com
Machrihanish Dunes Machrihanish, Kintyre, Scotland www.thewaygolfbegan.com
The Carrick Golf Club and Cameron House Loch Lomond, Dunbartonshire, Scotland www.devere.co.uk/golf
Loch Lomond Seaplanes www.lochlomondseaplanes.com