Most golfers aren’t aware that there are seven courses that comprise the St. Andrews Links Trust. In addition to the Old Course, you’ll find the New, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtryrum, Balgrove, and Castle Courses. The Castle is the most recent of the bunch, opened in 2008. It was designed by David McLay Kidd of Bandon Dunes fame. As of 2015, it cost £120 to play the course in peak season. While the purpose of this review is to discuss the Castle Course, if you’d like a full rundown on pricing and golf details at St. Andrews, check out my travel tips to the area here.
It’s no secret that Castle has been extremely controversial. Some love the course and the views of St. Andrews it offers, others, like Tom Doak, have skewered the layout, rating it a big, fat zero on a scale of 0-10 in his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.
Will most tourist golfers enjoy the Castle Course? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Should it be included on a trip to the area? My emphatic answer is yes, play the Castle. In my review I’m not going to get into a comparison game; should one play Castle over Kingsbarns, or if it’s better to play two rounds on the New Course instead of making the 10 minute drive out to the Castle. I’m simply attempting to answer the question as to whether or not most golfers will enjoy this track. Again, my answer for most is an emphatic yes. So why should you play it? Why do others hate it? Read on to find out.
Roller Coaster Greens
The first complaint that is often levied against Castle is the greens. They are extreme. In many cases, they are multi-tiered and quite fast. If you are on the wrong tier two-putting will be extremely challenging. Even more remarkable is that I’ve read the greens have been redesigned, or flattened three times since the course was originally built.
The day I played I didn’t run into a whole lot of problems with the greens. There were few times when I missed in a spot that was unplayable. Granted I had one of my better days from tee to green. I was hitting it pretty well and with the guidance of my wonderful caddy “Eddy”, I avoided disaster. Without a caddy and if I was spraying it I might feel different about the course, however.
So the question then is “When are greens too extreme?” Obviously, this is a very subjective question with no definitive answer. I’ve heard it said that at Augusta National, an above-average golfer could hit all 18 greens in regulation, albeit on the wrong part of every green, and still not break 90. Oakmont possibly has the fastest greens in the world, greens so fast that they need to be slowed down during major championships. These are two of the greatest golf courses in the world, and almost no one would dispute this fact. Are their greens too extreme?
The “Famous Neighbor” Issue
I think that they could have plopped a replica of Cypress Point down in the spot where Castle is, and many would still call the course rubbish. When you share part of your name with the most famous course in golf, aka “The Home of Golf”, a new course will always suffer by comparison. Local biases aside, however, the Castle Course is extremely different from the other Links Trust courses. Where the Old Course (and others in the Trust) are about as natural as you can get; played over very traditional undulating links land, Castle is mostly manufactured. It was built on flat farmland, so all of the rolling hills on the property needed to be built from scratch. The same goes for the mounding around the course. It all had to be created. In my opinion, it looks natural enough. There are a few features, like the grassy mounds in the middle of the fairways, which are a little hokey. But again, the Old Course has some crazy mounding and features that if it weren’t the Old Course people would call it Mickey Mouse.
A fair price?
There is also a major complaint about the Castle Course being mostly a money grab and against the spirit of accessible, public golf. This to me is a head-scratcher for a couple of reasons:
- Many consider Kingsbarns to be the other “must play” course in the area. Even my 70-year-old caddy said as much. The problem with Kingsbarns is as of 2015, it runs £226 for 18, over £100 more than Castle. By most accounts Kingsbarns is a better track, but there isn’t nearly the outcry over its greens fees than what one would expect.
- The Old Course costs £170 to play in-season and is booked solid. I realize that many of the tee times are utilized by locals and others who aren’t paying anywhere close to the rack rate but still, it’s one of the most expensive rounds in the UK, and it’s not like the Links Trust is hurting for cash.
A Case for the Castle Course
So why should you play the Castle Course?
- The views are incredible. The course sits on hillside about 3 miles away from the town of St. Andrews so much of the round you’ll be looking across the bay to the “Auld Grey Toon.” It’s gorgeous. Maybe it’s eye candy and not architecturally significant, but I challenge anyone to play the course on a gorgeous day and not come away in awe of the views of St. Andrews.
- The crazy greens can be fun. You know those putts that you see on tv where the pro starts it 20+ feet away from the pin, wonder how it can get close, then watch it snuggle up to the hole? You know the chips where you play it past the pin, off a slope, and have it come back to tap-in range? Those are the shots you’ll get to play at the Castle. With a little help from your caddy and the stroke-saver guide, you might have a fun day.
- This last point is a little controversial, but many of us spoiled Americans will appreciate the fact that the Castle’s 9th hole loops back to the clubhouse before making the turn to the back nine. When our group played the New Course several were surprised that there was no “halfway house” or opportunity to buy a hot dog at the turn. It didn’t quite register with them that most traditional links courses play nine holes out and nine holes back inward without any amenities at the turn.
Is the Castle Course the best track you’ll play in Scotland? Far from it. It is a beautiful spot and worth your time. I’m glad I got a chance to play it on my last trip, and there’s a good chance I’ll be back. With so many great choices in the area, I think that fact says it all.
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