The Castle Course at St. Andrews: The "Home of Golf" receives a very modern addition

By Kiel Christianson, Equipment Editor and Senior Writer

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.

18 Holes | Public | Par: 71 | 6759 yards
Castle Course in St. Andrews - Hole 17
The par-3 17th at The Castle Course is as dangerous, playing over the Kinkell Braes (or ravine), as it is lovely.
Castle Course in St. Andrews - Hole 17Castle Course in St. Andrews - Hole 18Castle Course in St. Andrews - Hole 14Castle Course - View from the Sixth Green

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.

Fast Fact

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!

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Equipment Editor and Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.


 
Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Castle Course Review

    Mick Minister wrote on: Jul 4, 2011

    Played this course on Saturday 2nd July, One of the best courses I have ever played, outstanding, fairways still need a couple of years to establish themselves fully, however for such a young course they were still very good, thought the rough was abit severe in places but i'm old enough to say to myself i should'nt have been there, as for the green's which no doubt is everybodys talking point, out of this world, loved them, what a test of golf, even if you do 3/4 putt some of them , so what! this course is a must for every true golfer, we played off the white tee's and we had our fairshare of birdie putts,I always measure a course after I play it by saying would I pay top dollar to play this course again, you better believe I would, 3 days after and i'm still buzzing about it. well done to St Andrews Links it's a credit to the History of the Town.

    Reply

  • The Castel Course

    Paolo Quirici wrote on: Aug 17, 2010

    I did get to play this superb track by David McLay Kidd design on a postcard weather day and the views are breathtaking. The course it self is a fine test of golf, fair and highly interesting.
    I have played on Tour (European) from 1989 till 2001 and I have seen a lot of good tracks over those years. I would rate the Castel Course as one of the best seen so far in the league with Loch Lomond and Old Head.
    A must play for all those golfers that do seek a real challenge.
    Have fun.

    Reply

  • Castle Course

    JFB wrote on: Aug 8, 2010

    I played this last week for the first time and it is fantastic. I am a 4 handicap and shot 77. It's more than fair with stunning views. The finishing holes are outstanding. The ninth shares the green with 18 and is fantastic. You better be hitting it well because there is a fine line between enjoyment and total frustration(example 4th green). You must hit accurate long tee shots and you must enjoy playing a course with more elevation. Don't skip it - it's worth the play.

    Reply

  • Castle Course

    Haw65 wrote on: Dec 14, 2009

    Played it May 09 during a week long trip to St. Andrews. I agree with archer66, don't bother. Even the locals will tell ya this doesn't measure up to the others at St. Andrews. Look at the club house as it compares to the surrounding area. Simply put, bad idea. The club house belongs in Palm Springs, Calif. The employees were outstanding and for their future I hope it works. But next trip I won't bother with this one. Can't improve on the history of the area.

    Reply

  • The Castle Course

    archer66 wrote on: Jun 22, 2009

    I have now played this course three times; once out of curiosity, a second time to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming and a third time to see if they changed it much after its first winter.
    The answer to the last question is, sadly, no.
    I reviewed this course on another site - and I have never reviewed any other course ever, at least not unless I was being paid to do so in a magazine.
    Yet this course annoys me so much that I feel compelled to write again.
    The Links Trust claimed that the course was for locals to enjoy when the Old Course was clogged up - to escape the tourists. However, the only people that I have ever come across on the Castle are bemused American tourists who, generally, wonder why they are there and why they paid a ludicrous amount of money to be humiliated.
    The tragedy is that, from tee to green the Castle is fantastic - the 100% (near enough) uneven lies can be lived with as an homage to pseudo links golf. However the greens are the result of designer ego running amok.
    I noted that this year - despite much drier weather - the speed of the greens has been much reduced. This, at least, means that some putts can remain on the dancefloor…
    Look at any of the great courses in Scotland and the greens will be challenging but relatively flat in the mai. The tricksy novelties of a Biarritz green, for example, are in stark contrast to the rest of the greens at North Berwick.
    One mental green on a course is a talking point, 18 of them is a crime. At the Old Course the sweeping swales and hummocks are reduced by the sheer size of putting surface - just one double green has massive variations (7th and 11th), the rest offer subtle breaks that are tricky and enjoyable to combat.
    At the Castle the greens are just plain stupid - impossible to putt sensibly on, hardly ever is an approach shot worth worrying about - wherever you go will leave you with a ‘Himalayas’ putt that is difficult (and oftentimes impossible) to stop within five feet. Following the ‘architect’s tips’ in the strokesaver was a laughable waste of time - it became a bit of fun as we were the only people on the course we were hitting four, five, sometimes six shots into greens and even the prescribed ‘architect’s tip’ resulted in the ball running right off the green or, at best, rolling some thirty feet past and leaving an impossible putt back.
    Several key people on the project were ‘allegedly’ warned that the greens were too severe and would need rebuilding within a year or two but no notice was taken. It appears that arrogance ruled throughout the entire design and build at the Castle…
    So if you want to go and have some amazingly silly and impossible putts in St Andrews, go play the Himalayas in town. It costs a pound fifty and is much more fun than the ridiculous Castle.
    The Links Trust ought to take note that their course for locals is currently being played only by tourists and they will only play it once - so either dig this over to community allotments (there is a growing food crisis after all) or get a proper golf course architect to redesign the greens. Better yet get a good greenkeeper in to do the job for a fraction of the cost - such people built the Old Course greens after all.

    Reply

    • RE: The Castle Course

      roger wrote on: Aug 13, 2012

      Thahen i wrote this i realized that i don't know anything about golf. I just play all over and just enjoy this game.
      I go to the Trust every year whit a group of 24 people. Some go multiple years and they want just one thing, play the castle course because of the pure beauty.
      This is a course that just not need over analizing, just enjoy and play.
      Let people find out for them selfs.

      Reply

    • RE: The Castle Course

      Ben wrote on: Aug 24, 2009

      I have just played the Castle course and found it to be absolutely fantastic. Amazing scenery, inspired holes and alot of fun. I wanted to reply to the previous poster because I don't the greens were as unfair as he suggested. It was the first time I have truly had to think about playing my approach shot away from the pin to leave myself a realistic two putt. This course really made me think and whilst I think the greens could be toned down a bit (mainly to allow for more pin placements)it is ridiculous to say that the course should be destroyed... it is world class. play it of you get the chance.

      Reply

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