ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - The first recorded mention of golf being played on the land administered today by The St. Andrews Links Trust was over 600 years ago.
On June 28, 2008, the newest chapter of golf history in the Auld Grey Toon will be penned, when The Castle Course opens to the public.
The 6,759-yard David McLay Kidd design is an intriguing and - dare we say it? - sexy addition to the six existing courses administered by The Links Trust. The golf course will leave many golfers utterly gob-smacked, whether it is by the panoramic cliff top views over St. Andrews, or the breathtaking vistas out over St. Andrews Bay, or, perhaps, by the vertigo-inducing greens.
One thing is certain: There is nothing like The Castle Course in all of the Kingdom of Fife.
The stretch of land running along the seaside precipice outside St. Andrews upon which The Castle Course is built was procured somewhat piecemeal from local farmers. As such, it is the first of the Links Trust courses to be built outside of town, where the other six courses lie.
It also means that The Castle Course is not a links course.
"It's technically not linksland," explained Kevin Mackay, director of operations at The Castle Course. "Although we've done all we can with the grasses, it's a cliff top course. This was all agricultural land previously."
Not only was the soil originally dark, rich and poor-draining - the polar opposite of sandy linksland - it was nearly dead flat.
Architect and native Scot David McLay Kidd (creator of famed Bandon Dunes in Oregon ) called in hundreds of loads of earth to create the effect of dune-swept linksland. In this respect, The Castle Course is very similar to Pete Dye's Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.
And like the Straits Course, The Castle Course looks like it has been here forever. It is by design more rugged and less polished than the semi-links Kingsbarns , designed by Kyle Phillips up the coast of Fife a ways.
The instantly aged landscape, however, belies the legitimately long history of the land upon which the golf course is built. Kinkell Ness, the stunning escarpment upon which the dual ninth and 18th green is now situated, was in the Middle Ages the site of Kinkell Castle, home of the prominent Moneypenny family, who were deeded the land in 1211.
Hence the name "Castle Course" and the peer's helmet logo adopted by the course.
How The Castle Course plays
Scott Gummer's book, "The Seventh at St. Andrews," documents McLay Kidd's design efforts at The Castle Course. Sort of. The book came out long before the golf course was even named, and, really, is more about McLay Kidd than the course.
"[The book] makes it out like [McLay Kidd's team] did it all," says Mackay, "when our greenskeepers did about 95 percent of the shaping. It was a bit one-sided in that respect."
So while McLay Kidd's routing exploited the panoramic views of St. Andrews and the coastline to their full extent (you can see St. Andrews Bay from every hole, and the city from most greens and/or tees), the locals should be given credit for the heaving fairways and sometimes insanely undulating greens.
The book does, however, include hole-by-hole playing advice from McLay Kidd, which, given the preponderance of blind tee shots and visual illusions around the greens, is greatly appreciated.
Also appreciated will be advice from the 40 caddies whom The Links Trust is dedicating to service at The Castle Course. First-time visitors are strongly encouraged to make use of this local knowledge.
I was fortunate to be invited to play a round at The Castle Course on June 3, three weeks before it opened even to the media. And I was even more fortunate to play with John Stewart, communications assistant for The Links Trust, who was able to provide me with the critical local knowledge required.
The Castle Course will leave many golfers utterly gob-smacked, whether it is by the panoramic cliff top views over St. Andrews, or the breathtaking vistas out over St. Andrews Bay, or, perhaps, by the vertigo-inducing greens.
"Visual intimidation off the tee is one of the course's major defenses," advised Stewart on the second hole. Indeed, although most of the fairway landing areas are generous, it is often difficult or impossible to see them from the tee.
One needs to rely on a caddie or the aiming lines illustrated in the yardage book. The problem is, though, that some of those lines are as yet somewhat untested. For example, on the magnificent 555-yard, par-5 18th hole, which is a sharp dogleg right playing down to the Kinkell Ness, I hit the recommended line toward a big tree in the distance. Unfortunately, I hit my ball too far, and it ran through the dogleg and into some thick rough.
There is one "defense" the course has that cannot, however, be countered by experience born of playing a few rounds: the hummocks.
For the uninitiated, hummocks are the wooly humps scattered throughout every fairway of the course. The young fescue on these lumps is already close to knee-high, and balls unfortunate enough to find a hummock can be unplayable.
Now, this feature would be reasonable if, as with the hidden bunkers at The Old Course , there were only a few, and they were so famous as to be able to try to avoid them. The hummocks, however, are so numerous, and positioned with such penal arbitrariness, as to be close to unfair.
Case in point: on the stunning 421-yard sixth hole, named "Pier" because the green is the first to jut seemingly out into the bay, there is a blind tee shot over an aiming stick in the middle of the fairway. Stewart drilled a perfect tee shot over the post, only to find his ball lodged firmly - almost inextricably - in a blind hummock.
The final line of defense on a course that would give the namesake Kinkell Castle a run for its defensive money are the greens, which are, quite frankly, like nothing I've ever experienced before. As with true links courses, the greens are less "complexes" than more closely-mown extensions of the fairways. As such, some of the contouring is both beguiling and bedeviling in its severity.
Take the green of the 540-yard fourth, with its wild undulations and three tiers that are barely in the same climate zone. Another extreme example is the very next hole, another par 5 at 536-yards, where the green is a huge bowl-shaped confabulation. If you reach it in two, your ball will rattle around like a penny in a beggar's dish, and may even drain down into the hole.
The verdict on The Castle Course
The Castle Course is like nothing else in Fife - perhaps not like anything in Scotland. The turf on the greens still needs to do some growing in, and a number of those hummocks (in my opinion) need to be removed or at least shaved so that they are playable. Nevertheless, visitors to the historic links at St. Andrews will be well-rewarded if they make time for this newest addition to 600 years of golf history.
The closing stretch of holes - the monster 585-yard 15th, the scenic ocean-side 406-yard 16th, the cliff top 184-yard 17th and the dramatic 18th - is quite possibly the most memorable four-hole closing stretch in Scotland.
The 17th, in particular, is without peer, playing over a cave in the Kinkell Braes. Tip of the day: Play toward the bunker well left of the green, as the ball will likely funnel right down toward the abyss.
As for the blind shots and hummocks, just hit it hard and say a little prayer to Old Tom Morris.
A coastal path runs along the cliff top between the course and the sea; it's popular with hikers, painters and photographers. The best view of St. Andrews is from the sixth green, so be sure to get your cameras out!