A few weeks ago I wrote a story in which I declared golf course architect David McLay Kidd to be a sort of Picasso of his art– stridently modernistic to a point so exaggerated that his Tetherow Golf Club, in central Oregon (as one example), appears almost an abstraction of itself. Lest you misunderstand me here, I believe Kidd has taken his art form to a new place– still rooted in Scottish fescue, but like fescue that’s been flown into outer space. And I mean this in a good way. While I might not want to play some of Kidd’s courses every day, I admire his daring and appreciate his vision and the way he is testing the limits of what a golf course can be.
That said, I’m just back from Scotland and a windy round of golf on his Castle Course— the seventh course belonging to the Links Trust in St. Andrews, and the first built in many decades (click here for a video of the Castle Course by David Whyte). It’s located about five miles from the lovely town, in a former pasture high on cliffs above the North Sea with stunning views back toward the spires and stone buildings. The course is also neighbor to Kyle Phillips’ miraculous Kingsbarns Golf Links (more on the most recent project by Kingsbarns developer Mark Parsinen on these pages shortly) and the Fairmont St. Andrews Bay Hotel.
Let me start by saying that you are not unlikely to hate Kidd’s Castle Course– as I did when I first walked it a year before it opened– especially if you care about your golf score. But disliking this ultra-modern course in the midst of the oldest and most historic layouts ever built is like saying you hate the new Louvre entrance by IM Pei in Paris, that Shanghai should have no modern skyscrapers no matter how artful, and that anything built later than, say, the early 20th century has no place in any place. It’s also worth mentioning that Kidd’s super modernistic course is named after Kinkell Castle, which stood on the site as long ago as the Middle Ages, and which features in the course logo (of a Scottish peer’s helmet). Thus as any great modern artist should do, Kidd pays homage to the past while shattering all expectations in looking forward.
Before I describe the course any further let me just mention that the first thing you should do upon reaching the first tee is tear up your score card. The best way to play the course is exactly how two fellows I caught up with on the back nine played it: on the par-four sixteenth hole, the one guy who had actually PUTTED into a burn earlier in the day, took six shots to get on the green from about 20 yards away. The green is defended by a steep false front that repels all but the most lofted shots, and upon hitting the front and rolling back down on his approach, at least this fellow was clever enough to pull out his putter rather than attempt an impossible flop shot from the tight lie. Let’s just say that the first three of his putts each got closer to the top of the slope but ended up farther from the green than when he’d started. Laughter– his own, and the loud guffawing of his opponent and dear friend– may have influenced the next two shots, which also rolled back down to around his feet. He hit his sixth shot so hard I thought he might throw out a rib, and it ended up on the back of the green. The point here isn’t the six shots but the joy with which he hit every one of them. I watched from a few feet away and saw many emotions quickly pass over his face: fear, anticipation, hope, disappointment, and ultimately amusement and then determination again. Not caring about his score, he felt no real pain in missing the shot but enjoyed the opportunity to try to meet a demand that he might not find anywhere else on any other golf course on the planet.
Which is why you destroy the scorecard upon embarking on the round. Because you will face dozens of shots you’ve never seen before and will likely never see again, some of them unrealistic, many of them simply unlucky, all of them challenging. The Castle Course is to golf what the game of H-O-R-S-E is to basketball: an opportunity to take crazy chances and meet impossible demands, but to see each of these as entirely separate from the rest of them so that you can take the immense pleasure of executing one successfully and not taint it with a worry about how many other strokes you’ve taken thus far in the day. Every shot is its own challenge, divorced from all others. It is the height of Zenness if you’ll pardon me from using that tired golf comparison, of living in the moment.
Even before we’d reached the first green my playing partner– the eminent Scottish golf videographer David Whyte– deemed the course “Salvador Dali country”– an apt description. Tom Mackin, another golf writer friend, described it to me over the phone recently as “a lot like St. Andrews if the ground there sneezed REALLY hard.”
From the very start of our round on the Castle Course, the vagaries of the first fairway suggested I might have benefited from hitting over some of the humps and hummocks that effected my ball’s flight, rather than playing along the ground as I assumed was preferred on a course such as this. By the second hole, as I noted the spires of St. Andrews Cathedral in the distance, I also noticed that so far the flags were visible from the tees while the journeys to reach them were not– acceptable when the terrain dictates hitting a blind shot but a bit harder to take knowing that the entire landscape here was crafted by man. But I reminded myself to pull up my skirt and hunker down for an afternoon of combat golf– especially on the greens!
On the third green, a par-three that I reached off the tee with a heroic rescue club shot, it occurred to me to adapt a unique approach to putting if I was to survive 18 holes. It made no sense to even remotely think about making a putt: my goal was simply to hit approaches within three-putt range. No easy feat on greens that own more real estate than Donald Trump.
The fairways, also, continued to be very commodious but with many opportunities for bad luck or bad karma. I was told that many of the “Don Kings”– flat-topped mounds sprouting fescue in a way that reminded players of the boxing promoter of the same name– had been removed from the course since opening, but vagaries continue to plague. Allow me to add that I’m also okay with crazy green humps that might carom my ball thirty yards to the right or left, as long as I can see them on my approach. When I hit a very solid approach into the 504-yard fifth hole I felt cheated because what seemed a perfect shot was not– which would have been fine if I’d seen the danger and could have adjusted the shot accordingly. But I felt that I’d been duped. I felt the hole punished a very good shot.
Number six presented one of the most memorable holes for me– a blind downhill tee shot opens up to a beautiful green perched on cliffs with breaking waves and views as near to the town beyond as we were likely to get. A town that promised cold beer and a warm supper if we could successfully navigate through the windy and darkening afternoon. At seven I wrote a note to myself that this really was a whole new paradigm and they should take “par” off the scorecard entirely. I hit two extra clubs on the hole and let the wind die my approach sideways, which was like discovering electricity. This was pure play and to get upset about any bad shot was entirely beside the point– like watching a movie and being disappointed because there were no naked women in it. Or cheeseburgers. Like the Old Course that it’s kin to, if you cave into attachment on the Castle Course you are screwed: you must accept, and soldier on. And doing so will make you a much better player– angrier, possibly, but better.
It took me until the eleventh hole to recognize that on some greens here, looking beyond the pin might be the best way to find the easiest putt– I understood that the backstop was there to help me, and that leaving anything short was simply the wrong approach. If you love golf in the way some people love music, this was simply a new kind of music.
Once I understood what was before me– and beneath me– I failed to take any notes at all for about five holes on the back nine, simply settling into the round as into an old leather club chair. Then the guy we’d caught up to took six putts to get on the green and I noted that this was a snapshot of the entire experience and had a very good laugh– at him, at myself, at this crazy thing we call golf. At hats launching off the tee box better than some of our tee shots.
What followed on seventeen was one of the all-time greatest par threes I’ve ever played– 174 yards into a stiff wind over cliffs to a green that seemed larger than many European countries I’ve visited. It required an epic effort to reach, even with the “bunt driver” shot I’ve perfected. After a three putt I felt I’d conquered Normandy.
On eighteen David Whyte had me dormie but I didn’t really care. The 533-yard finisher plays like a double dogleg if the pin is set at the top left of the putting surface. I crushed a drive and a three-wood into the wind but still had a long rescue club into green, which I pulled toward a fescue mound protecting the clubhouse, but was surprised when walking up I saw that I’d actually hit through the rough and my ball rested at the very base of a steep mound twenty yards left of the pin. I shook my head, appreciating both the good luck of getting through and the bad luck of my impossible lie. I said to David, “I’ll be fortunate not to lose the ball from here– there’s no way I can get this anywhere near to the green.” Then I climbed up on the mound, reached way below my feet in a stance so awkward it could have been part of a rap video, and knocked the ball into the hole for a birdie.
A few notes of complaint about the Castle Course– and please don’t construe my descriptions to this point as complaints, because I truly grew to love the layout the more we played it. For one thing, the “Architect’s Advice” in the yardage guide is total crap, lacking any humor or voice or fun, and just not very helpful. For another, I must say that service and attitudes were indifferent at best, despite the fact that I was traveling with David Whyte, who was revered everywhere else we wandered in the entire country of Scotland. There were no marshalls to be seen, no support of any kind, and no service whatsoever– which is fine on many Scottish courses but not one where guys are taking five hours to play and paying a premium for the privilege. The superintendent could also have trimmed back some more fescue to speed play and make the incidence of homicide (or suicide) less likely.
All photos (and several three-putts) by David Whyte.