Saturday, September 30, 2006


The tee shot on the wonderful par four forth

(click on the pictures to enlarge)

Robert and I finished up Cruden Bay and originally intended to make a run south to play Crail. I had loved the idea of playing this short par 68 that hugs the edge of the ocean. Traffic conspired to change or plans and send us to a closer course called Montrose which was half way between Cruden Bay and St. Andrew’s. I must admit that I wasn’t as excited to see Montrose, but Robert had told me he liked the course so I figured it was worth a try. I was also a little sore at this point and the thought of playing in another 3 club wind wasn’t very appealing.

First off Montrose turned out to be much better than I expected and I think even more solid that Nairn. Nairn had a few great holes that Montrose lacked but Montrose had no awkward holes that many of the secondary courses seem to have. The course essentially goes out the first seven holes along the coast the coast skipping in and out of the two coastal dune lines. Unfortunately other than a few holes at the beginning there are few ocean views due to the large coastal dune which is eroding very quickly right now. The famous tee at the 6th is gone through coastal erosion. Many of the holes play beautifully up the middle of the coastal dunes through fantastic valleys while other skip up and down the areas where the dunes join to form a more prominent wide but flatter section.

The memorable plateau par three third

An interesting generality that I realized about links golf is almost every links course begins on the ocean in the best golfing terrain before moving away from the ocean and returning inland. For the life of me I can’t understand why but this is the case from Nairn to Montrose to St. Andrew’s to Troon and on. It also explains why the golf in the UK rarely features great finishing holes since most like Royal County Down and Turnberry are over the least interesting land on the property. The North American approach seems to be to get the best to the last like the holes at Pebble Beach.

The turn at Montrose features tee shots off the secondary dune and onto the flatter land below. You would think that the best is left behind but the fall off in quality was very small because of some clever use of the gorse and good solid green sites. All holes set along the secondary dune (includes 9, 10,16 and 17) feature gorse banks along the left dune and out of bounds down the right. This makes for some more accurate golf but fortunately there is adequate room for these shots. Each of these holes features wonderful hummocky fairways and great green sites.

Playing "into town" at the short par four 14th

The course moves in from 11 through to 15 and uses gorse to separate the very flattish land through this stretch. What works well is most of these green sites are quite interesting and make up for thee flatter land. Montrose can be summed up as a very pleasant surprise that should be on any golfer’s itinerary who isn’t obsessed with playing only the most famous courses. I think in Scotland the quality of the average course is well above the normal course we would expect anywhere else. I think it would be worth going over to play all but the elite course on a trip because you would still get the full Links experience at a fraction of the price. Needless to say I was quite grateful for my stop at Montrose.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Cruden Bay

The land at Cruden Bay with 15 green below

When you get out of your car and look out from on high promontory where the clubhouse sits you can’t believe your eyes at the scene below. Cruden Bay has undoubtedly the best setting of any course in Scotland. What makes it fantastic is the course is not only set in among huge dunes, but also features a massive 100’ sea cliff that comes into play along the way. That’s an understatement when you consider the 8th plays into a huge bowl surrounded by the sea cliff and the 10th tees off the top back into the valley below!

The punchbowl at 14

Where Cruden Bay is great like the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th and 13th it takes aback seat to no course in the world for both drama and quality of holes. Even others like the 4th, 8th and 17th are exceptional in there own right, but are overshadowed by the most dramatic holes on the course. If the rest wee as high a quality we would be talking about this being one of the 10 best in the world. So why is this not a top 10 or top 20 courses in the world? Mainly because of the couple of holes that vary from weird to awkward depending on whom you ask.

Some think the opening stretch are pretty average but I found the first two to be good solid holes. A few have suggested that the 3rd is an odd duck, but that’s because the green is tucked tight behind the large dune on the right. The hole is still short and relatively easy and the green is fairly receptive to the bounce of the hill if you don’t mind trying a little luck in your approach. The course picks up pace from 4 through to 8 with a very memorable stretch. The 9th atop the sea cliff is an ideal transition hole from the spectacular 8th to the dramatic 10th tee shot and I think people are crankier about the walk up from 8 than they are about the hole. The run in approach is a must for this fall away green so possibly it is more of a case of people not finding the strategy than there being any weakness in the hole. The course once again is pretty solid from the 10th to the 13th. It is 15 and 16 that cause all the complaints. This is also where the club is considering change, partially due to safety too.

The sea cliff at the 8th is 100' above the green!

The 15th hole plays up hill into a beautiful bowl shaped fairway. The next shot is over a rise to a green that is a full 20 feet below in a tight little bowl with all sides sloping sharply in accept the back of the green. This is a fun shot to hit and see where you ended up. It is also a fair shot since you can literally bounce the ball in from any side or fly it directly in to achieve your goal. I think removing this hole would take away one of the more fun and quirky holes I have ever had the pleasure to play.

The 16th has been called the blind dogleg par three because of its length and the massive dune that obscures all views to the green. The hole is fair since a short shot will be run towards the green and shots can be bounced into the green from the massive dune. The problem is more the tees are in full flight from the 14th, the tees on 16 are definitely in play from the 15th tee and you can’t see if play is through (if players forget to ring the bell). There is no question that this is a safety issue. I just think there aqre other alternative to what is currently proposed.

The awesome approach to 13, notice how small Rob is, the green extends to his location

The highlight of the day for me were the natural landforms in play and the roll in the front of the 13th green was the best feature I have seen in quite a while. It towers 20 feet above the grade short right of the green and features a very sharp slope down to the hollow. Anything hitting it falls will feed back into the hollowing leaving a nightmarish shot into the green. The green is actually set 6 feet below the roll and hides behind it creating a bit of punchbowl due to the huge sea cliff backing the green. The green falls right and away from play to create a reverse redan. This is definitely one of the finest green sites I have seen and one I will copy one day in my own solo work.

The other cool feature that I want to use in the right situation is the huge knoll in the centre of the 17th fairway. It is 15 feet high and steeply banked but also kept short. It is right where tee shots land and defends the hole without being unfair since most shots are playable from a lesser slope or simply find their way down to the fairway. The feature is more sheer fun than anything else, but that is what Cruden Bay and great golf are all about.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Catlestewart Project by Gil Hanse

Gil and the bunker detailing

I had the great pleasure of meeting up with my friend Gil Hanse and touring his new project called Castlestewart that he is building for Mark Parsinen. Mark Parsinen was the gentlemen who built Kingsbarns which was one of the most successful new projects to be done in recent times. It’s likely the reason there is now so many new projects taking place in Scotland after such a long drought of new work.

The site is just outside Inverness and overlooks the Firth of Moray. The site is spectacular with incredible views at the town of Inverness, the suspension bridge, down the length of the Firth of Moray, and the far headlands which has up to 500’ sea cliffs. The bulk of the site is up top about 100’ feet above the water, but there is a lower shelf wide enough for golf holes that will feature a spectacular opening run for both nines. Both opening holes play off the sea cliff and down onto the plateau above the ocean with the holes playing tight to the ocean itself.

Looking at the first below from the tee and the 9th to the left

My favorite part of the routing was the choice not to try finish below and face an awful walk up to the clubhouse. I also like the fact that there were not seven straight holes along the ocean; this was a good way to break up the nines. Both the finishing holes are instead set along the top of the sea cliff which still feels like the holes are right on the ocean, and in fact offer far superior views up and down the sea coast. The nice thing that Gil and Mark accomplished was that they had many of the landing areas away from the edge so that the approach looks diagonally down the coast. I really like the effect. What was also kind of cool was that they point to headlands or other prominent land marks intentionally.

The course was about six holes along, but the shaping was quite clear on a few holes (or at least it was for me). I must admit they were moving a lot more dirt than I would have expected, but after hearing and seeing why, they certainly were doing some very interesting things to the course. The bunker tests were probably the most interesting thing that Gil was doing. He was combining revetted bunkers with a technique called chunking to create the bunkers that you would see if you could find the old books by Hutcheson. The bunkers all seem to be eroding and revetted at the same time, and that is the look that Gil is going to use. These are truly the most unique bunkers I have seen anyone do and that is a credit to Gil’s imagination.

The uphill 12th, playing between the sea cliff and ocean

The other cool idea that he is using is a run or series of rumples that you would see at Baltray in Ireland or lots of courses where the ground have never been smoothed out before seeding. The rumples along with the unusual shaping will help make the holes appear more of nature and less of Gil. It takes a great imagination to pull this all of but I think Gil will be easily successful. I certainly can’t wait to see it done.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


The tee shot on the 3rd

Nairn is a very traditional links beginning hard up against the ocean and playing straight out before turning to come back. The opening stretch is easily the most memorable because of the proximity of the beautiful wide beach and Moray Firth beyond. The openers were very nice but the course really is at it’s finest from the 3rd through to the awesome 5th.

The feature that is most unique to Nairn is the revetted faced bunkers where the revetting appears to be a perfect moon shape. There is very little bunker below grade, in most cases, but the backs are built well up to create depth. The mounds behind are almost perfectly symmetrical at the top which makes the revetted face just as symmetrical. While this sounds too uniform, the effect is far more pleasant than I would have expected since you have all these steep moon shaped shadows along the fairways.

The third hole uses the moon shaped riveted bunkers for maximum impact. The faces are much higher than the surrounding approach and are very prominent because they are unusually high. The three bunkers that frame the fairway end up creating the most wonderful undulating bowl of an approach. Each bunker adds a beautiful twist to the roll of the approach since each is about 3 feet above grade. The effect is one I can easily emulate with any natural plateau green site.

The 370 yard 5th

The 5th hole is the jewel of the club. A brilliant 370 yard par four where the ocean protects the aggressive line and James Braid has added a bunker that is situated exactly where you would want to lay up. The green is the best on the course since it is well elevated and framed in by deep visible bunkers on the right, a strong false front and a diabolical bunker hidden on the left (where it appears you can bail to).

The 6th and 7th seem plain despite their proximity to the ocean and I must admit I wasn’t expecting much coming in at that point. Where I got a great surprise was at the 10th. The 10th and 12th play slightly downhill all the way and look directly out and down the coastline. These were both excellent examples of framing a view using the gorse to point the eye at the ocean beyond. The gorse used this was felt very similar to tree lined Parkland holes other than the fact you could occasionally look over the top. The two holes were also another excellent example of how running holes on a 45 to the ocean provides the best panoramic view of a coastline. The fact that both holes had no backdrop just made the views even more spectacular.

There was still one great hole to come and the downhill 15th was perhaps the next finest after the 5th. The hole is a downhill par three of around 200 yards with the ocean clearly visible as a panorama from the high tee. The bunkers all appear to be directly in front of the green, yet the prominent front bunker turned out to be well short with a hidden sunken fairway in behind. This was just like the fairway at the 17th at Merion and it made me wonder if Hugh Wilson had seen this before building Merion. The fairway then rises up into a magnificent false front which leads into a very wild green. The bulk of the green is a high front and right plateau, but what makes this one very memorable is the wildest back swale and pin position I have seen in a while. This all adds up to one excellent golf hole. The only question I would have is could you bounce in your approach in

The incredible downhill 15th

I mentioned to Robert that if I had this property I would have routed it differently. I would begin away from the ocean and taken you to and from the ocean multiple times. I would have tried to have at least one or two holes playing directly out at the ocean. In particular, at the far end of the course I would have turned to play directly at the ocean. I feel at Nairn, like many traditional links, having all the ocean holes at the start made the course the returning holes almost guaranteed to be less than the holes going out.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Royal Troon

The excellent small bunkers cut tight to the green on the 5th

First off I will tell you I played Troon with a 30 mph wind and driving rain for about 15 holes. This may or may not be a factor in my opinion. I will leave you to judge that for yourself.

Troon is by far the biggest disappointment on the trip. I had played the course before in 1989 and at that time suggested it to my Dad that it was the least interesting on our trip. The second time round the course left me even more flat than I was the first time. There were a few holes like the 5th or the 15th that were far better than I remembered but there were just as many holes like the 9th, 11th and 16th that were far less interesting. The opening stretch has little to no dunes and very little landform until you hit the par three 5th. The course really hits its stride at the awesome 7th followed by the Postage Stamp which remains one of the greatest par threes in golf. After that the famous stretch run around the large dunes is where Troon is considered to be at its best but the only holes that stood out to me were 10th (which is only good) and 12th (which is a favourite). Once again the golfer moves out into light dunes where the holes are average except for the excellent fairway contours found on the 13th and 15th. It struck me that there are far too many average holes for this to be considered one of the worlds 100 greatest.

The huge roll in front of the 15th and the sunken green

While I pick on the course there is one element that makes the course very interesting and also a course that holds up well for tournament play. The greens are fairly small and the bunkers are cut into the greens as tight as any bunkers are in any links course I have seen. It is the proximity to play combined with the small and deep nature of the bunkers that manages to ratchet up the difficulty. There are very few places where there is an easy approach because the bunkering at Troon seems to be well placed to challenge or collect and approach. I certainly can’t criticize the positioning or technique of the bunkers, in fact I think this is the courses greatest strength. I certainly have begun entertaining the idea of much smaller, tighter and deeper bunkering as a way to have an impact and keep the maintenance down at the same time.

The best short three in the world

I guess my issue with Troon is the routing and setting doesn’t seem to me to be as strong as the detailed work. I’m not convinced that Troon is either a great location or a great routing outside of a couple of holes. Some people would suggest that I’m looking too hard at the site and not enough at the detailed work and that by my standards a great course can’t occur without a good site. For those people I offer courses like Winged Foot, St. Andrew’s Muirfield and Pinehurst to prove that is not true. I still think Troon’s greatness has everything to do with hosting opens and its wonderful history and very little to do with the actually quality of golf it offers.

Monday, September 25, 2006


The tee shot over the Cardinal bunker on the Alps

If you asked me for a list of courses which I would recommend you go visit to go learn about golf architecture, I would include Prestwick as quickly as I would the Old Course at St. Andrew’s. The Old Course contains the foundation for most of the principles and strategies of golf course architecture. The lessons of the old course are well documented and well copied, but Prestwick is the course where an architect goes to learn that sometimes you need to ignore convention and push your boundaries in order to create a more interesting game. It’s the place where Pete Dye had the epiphany that lead to the greatest recent change in the way courses are designed.

It doesn’t take long for a golfer to realize that Prestwick is different from most golf courses. The first hole at Prestwick is very narrow and bordered on the entire right by a long wall that separates the golf course from the railway. Out of bounds is definitely a huge consideration on the first tee, and yet you need to be tight to the wall to get a view to the green site. Rather than have clear visibility of the green, the bunkers in front also hide the green. Play to the left off the tee and a large knoll blocks the view to the green and the surrounds.

The 3rd hole features a massive bunker complex called the Cardinal bunker. The tee shot involves judging your distance up to the full blind beginnings of the hazard. The second shot is over the massive expanse of sand and bulk heading that makes the shot completely blind to the fairway or the green. The fairway is full of moguls from one end to the other meaning the ball can bounce anywhere.

The 5th hole hits blindly over a 40’ dune, 210 yards away to a green surrounded on the sides by bunkers with the green falling hard to the left into a deep bunker. The 7th hole is 440 yards up hill down the narrowest fairway on the course. The 9th plays 440 yards into a green that falls at least 3 to 4 feet from left to right where a bounce in approach is the only chance of staying on this blind green. The 13th is a 460 yard par four to a very small green raised 4 feet above the surrounds and featuring a four foot false front. The real treat is the green features shaved banks around the sides making all but the finest shot not good enough. This is also proof that par is sometimes irrelevant to a great hole. The 15th fairway is completely blind and as narrow a fairway as I have ever seen surrounded by gorse, but somehow seems natural an. The approach is blind over a hill with the green dropping 4 to 5 feet from front left to back right. The 17th is the famous Alps with a shot over a 30 foot dune, over a five foot deep revetted bunker and to a green with wild undulations.

The false front at 13

By now you must be wondering how I find this course so charming, but it all magically fits together. Part of it is the history and our ability to accept quirkier work from the past and not from the present, but most of it has to do with the overwhelming number of fascinating details that are almost unmatched by any other course. The golf course is so full of brilliant little moments that the parts may exceed the whole in this rare case. As architects we are always looking for ideas and they are much easier to find in small bits rather than in entire courses or even holes. Often our epiphanies come from the subtle use of a roll or a small minor feature rather than an 18 hole visit. Prestwick is so full of little unusual and interesting ideas that I think one walk and one playing has likely only unraveled half the actual charm found at Prestwick. I’m quite certain I could go there year after year, enjoy each round a little more, and learn something new on every play. That is the definition of greatness in my book.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Western Gailes

The amazing 5th at Western Gailes

Western Gailes turned out to be a big surprise since I had assumed the course to be a very wild and very quirky. It was probably the least quirky links course I have ever played. Most of the fairways are set in natural low and flattish land between the dunes with almost every shot being very easy to understand. If someone were to build a course on links land now this is what I would expect it to look like. The bunkering was excellent and almost all clearly visible from each shot. The greens had some interesting contour, but for the most part the contours were on the gentle side. The layout is very fair and very straightforward, so much so that I would recommend this as the best starting course for a trip through to play Scottish links golf.

The burns(creeks) were fascinating in particular the one at #15 since the far edge was intentionally picked up to make the locations very clear, but it also created a beautiful deep shadow lines and then ended with a run away slope on the back that could be used to kick the ball onto the green. At Western Gailes there were four crossings and most of them were used to front a green similar to the famous 16th at Turnberry. They make for some delicate approaches with front pins and a fascinating contrast to the dunes holes.

The bunkers were generally very small, deep and tough to get out of. The certainly make a great model for difficulty with minimal maintenance. What was really interesting was that some of the contour around them was kept tight and ran directly into the bunkers. It proves that bunkers do not need size to have an impact and that short grass still can have much more far reaching effects if used well. I want to use the idea of slopes that are short and banks that feed the ball into the bunker since the effective area of a bunker quite large without needing a lot of actual sand.

What I enjoyed the most about Western Gailes was the way the course offered so many fun options around the greens. There was a great deal of short grass, but also the rough was kept very light which invited the player to use the ground. The other cool thing they did was using an even shorter cut than the fairway immediately around the green which allowed for putting from almost all sides. This idea needs to come across the pond. I have only seen this done at Rustic Canyon and on the approaches at high end Philadelphia area courses.

The par three 6th down in the bowl

The last thing that struck me about the course was the color. The greens and fairways are similar to what we enjoy by where it gets so much better is in the rough. In the rough you have the fescue with its light brown wispy tops, interspersed with the deep brown of heather (which can bloom a dramatic purple), the purple leaved wild rose which is beautiful but tough to play out of, and of course the deep green of the gorse bush. Add in the taller and nastier looking sea grass and these contrasts do much more to frame a hole than trees can. I much prefer looking at the cant and roll of the land that a dull stand of trees any day.