ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - It had been nearly three years since I first played the Duke's Course , an oft forgotten heathland just a mile into the hills from the historic Links Trust golf courses on the sea.
Back then, the property had just been purchased by U.S. businessman Herb Kohler, of the Kohler water fixture empire in Wisconsin, who also bought the Old Course Hotel, just off the Road Hole of the Old Course in St. Andrews . He ordered an extensive overhaul of the course, originally built in 1995 by five-time Open Champion Peter Thomson.
Architect Tim Liddy oversaw the renovation, which included remodeling every bunker from a links-style sod pot to more rugged shapes. He also added a more exciting closing stretch that featured four brand new holes from No. 15 through 18.
After that visit in 2006 I went to Kohler, Wis., the following summer, where Kohler put his mighty stamp on the golfing world with four exceptional layouts designed by Pete Dye, including PGA Championship and the upcoming Ryder Cup Matches host, the Straits Course at Whistling Straits.
As good as the golf was at Kohler, the five-star American Club Hotel and Waters Spa did its very best to steal the show. And anyone who has been to Kohler and Whistling Straits knows Herb will spare no expense to get the very best out of his golf course and accommodations.
The Old Course Hotel and the Duke's in St. Andrews are no exception. The staff says the often hands-on Kohler comes over at least three or four times a year to check out the progress and enjoy a few rounds.
This time around, the Duke's new bunkering was largely the same, though the grass around the edges had been shaved down to a far less penal level. My favorite hole, the downhill No. 7 with the St. Andrews skyline in the background, was even prettier, thanks to flowering gorse splattered around the fairway on a recent spring afternoon.
There were also some noticeable differences and improvements. When I was here last, the course's well-known drainage issues had been addressed but not solved. Since then, sand has been continually added to the ground, and the difference is night-and-day.
Several greens had also been rebuilt, most notably the short, downhill 13th, which is now more receptive to approach shots.
Newly-appointed Head Professional Ayden Roberts-Jones, who has been with the club since before the ownership change, has been on hand for the improvements. With the major alterations over (at least for now), he's looking forward to the golf course's continued maturation.
"Now," he said. "It's just a matter of tidying up some areas and getting the most out of the course setup."
Last year, the setup may have been difficult for general public play after hosting the Scottish Amateur Stroke Play Championship. To host the top players, the rough was grown long and thick. It's been shaved down now, making the course, which can be played over 7,500 yards, a more enjoyable round where good numbers are possible.
The Duke's Course in St. Andrews: The verdict
Though it will never be the area's most famous golf course, the Duke's Course continues to fill its niche nicely. It receives a lot of group and corporate play because golf carts are available for rent, there are group and individual lessons, returning nines and a halfway house. And as one happy member noted to me in the dining room, the view overlooking the course and town of St. Andrews is worth the membership alone.
And unlike most traditional Scottish clubs, you have a choice of five daily tees.
"Even if they don't play them, a lot of people seem to like the idea that the championship tees are available," Roberts-Jones said. But before your bravado gets the best of you, keep in mind even the Scottish Amateur wasn't playing all of the back boxes. Most mid-handicappers will want to stick to the third and fourth boxes if they want to score low.
Peak-season rates at the Duke's are £110 for 18 holes, though they can be booked cheaper through Old Course Hotel golf packages. That rate does not include golf cart (the course is a pretty easy walk anyway), but it does include range balls and a souvenir bag.
St. Andrews stay-and-play: The Old Course Hotel
Set on the famous "Road Hole" fairway of the Old Course, the Old Course Hotel is a five-star property, and the facilities and services just keep getting better. The fourth floor restaurant and bar offer the best view of the Old Course and St. Andrews in town, not to mention whisky from every distillery in Scotland. They will even offer wine and whisky tastings for groups and parties. Guests of the American Club in Kohler will also see a familiar sight for sore muscles here: the Kohler Waters Spa, featuring their signature golfer's massage.