St. Andrews' Castle Course Fit for King

The new arrival in Scotland's famed town seems prepared to dazzle aficionados of the links.
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Many golfers speak of the town of St. Andrews, Scotland and its famous Old Course as if they're the same thing.

Given that the course has hosted the world's most historic golf tournament, the

Open Championship

, more than any other in the world (27 times), the blurring of lines is certainly understandable.

In reality, however, the Old Course is just one of six operated by the town's

St. Andrews Links Trust

. And in June, it will unveil its seventh,

The Castle Course

, anxiously awaited by golfers worldwide.

Why all the mouth-watering and hand-wringing?

The Castle Course is the first new championship-style course built at the "home of golf" in nearly 100 years -- and it's a good one.

Really good.

The man responsible for its design is

David McLay Kidd

, a 36-year-old Scot who is best known (and praised) for the original 18 holes at Oregon's

Bandon Dunes Resort

.

Surprisingly, and unlike all the other Links Trust courses, the Castle Course is not a true links course. Though seaside and treeless, it is not built on requisite sand-based linksland, but rather on a clay-soil tract that used to be a potato farm.

Called a "clifftopper" by superintendent Gordon Moir, it sits some 60 to 80 feet above the sea, which it skirts for a mile, and roams across 220 acres, more than double the area of the essentially level -- and sea level -- Old Course. To be sure, there is little kinship between the two.

The Castle Course is no old-style, minimalist creation, either. Kidd was not reluctant to fire up the tractors and earth movers here. The net result is that there is scarcely a level hole. The ground is in perpetual motion, heaving and tumbling, climbing and pitching and plunging. There seem to be elevation changes at every turn, and the land does, in fact, change grade by 125 feet overall.

As one might expect from a clifftop, seaside site, the views are sublime. On every shot, without exception, the ocean stretches away in all its glory, and you merely have to cock your head to take in the medieval quarter of the beloved "auld toon" of St. Andrews, marked by St. Rule's Tower, the town wall, the spire of St. Salvator's, the Cathedral and its graveyard.

It's truly a spellbinding site, and on it are a number of unforgettable golf holes -- among them, the three that bring the round to a thrilling climax. The 16th is a 411-yarder that heads toward the sea over ground full of ups and downs and dunesy knobs with fescue whiskers. A very deep swale short of the angled and elevated green awaits the second shot that just fails to get up. And the green, sited perilously at the cliff's edge, is devilishly contoured.

On 17, a 206-yard par three (236 yards from the championship tees), the unnerving first shot is played from an elevated tee across a V-shaped chasm that is part rocky inlet and part overgrown vegetation, with a beach at the bottom washed by the swirling North Sea. Consider it a nominee for Scotland's single most heroic one-shotter.

The 18th hole, measuring 546 yards, rises as it heads away from its elevated tee to parallel the cliff's edge, then swings sharply right toward the sea and descends dramatically to its half of a spectacular double green shared with the 9th hole (shades of the Old Course), all but cantilevered over the water. This is an epic creation, perhaps even more memorable than the noble par-five 18th at Ireland's

Waterville Golf Links

along the Atlantic Ocean.

Imagining the Castle Course in a 25 to 35 m.p.h. wind -- not uncommon at St. Andrews -- one wonders how difficult this layout might be. Not unplayable, but very close to unmanageable.

David Kidd said, when he undertook the project, "Our aim is to take people's breath away."

He has done just that.

He also said, "My challenge is ... to create not just six but 18 great holes." That might be stretching it, and it's hard to assess at this early stage, but if we have to settle for 10 or 12 great holes and six or eight that are merely excellent, the Castle Course will nevertheless be a triumph.

In fact, the Castle Course could actually turn out to be a greater test than the Old Course. But -- could the Castle ever be chosen to host the Open Championship? Since it is not a true links course and the Open, in its 136-year history, has always been played on one, the Castle's chances seem slim.

If you consider the price being charged to play it as an indicator of quality, however, it would appear the Links Trust thinks the Castle Course is every bit as good.

It's charging £120 (about $240) for 18 holes -- the same as the Old Course.

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