When you think of top-flight golf in Ayrshire, you automatically think of the famous links courses running along the coast from Troon to Prestwick and Turnberry. Well, it’s time to think again as the new inland course at Rowallan Castle near Kilmaurs is all set to complement these golfing greats in fine style.
The course is laid out within an historic 600-acre estate that dates back to the 16th century with fairways draped across a gently undulating landscape that incorporates open meadow, wetland and woodland sites. Water also plays a part at a number of holes but never in a dominating, obtrusive fashion.
Designed by Colin Montgomerie with Ross McMurray from European Golf Design, Rowallan Castle is the latest in a burgeoning portfolio for Monty and EGD that now includes the likes of Carton House in Ireland, Royal Golf Club in Bahrain and Montgomerie Maxx Royal in Turkey. With quality projects like these to their name, it’s no surprise to find that Rowallan Castle is another classy track from the same design team.
The three short holes on the outward half (“Ross’s Quarry” at hole 2, “Doctor’s Bend” at hole 5 and “Old Castle” at hole 8) are all contenders for signature hole on the property. The green to the first of these sits behind a lovely wetland area to the right of the hole, the second has a pond lurking to the left of the green and the third requires an elevated tee shot across a shaded valley to a raised green with a stream to the front.
Two holes – the 490-yard par four 11th (“Goat Fell”) and 609-yard par five 16th (”Laird’s Ride”) – are the pick of the holes on the back nine and both dogleg downhill to the left. The former is a formidable two-shotter and the latter will take two mighty blows to get anywhere near a raised green protected by a pond and three enormous bunkers – good luck with getting anything less than a five on this hole.Rather uniquely, Rowallan also boasts a testing par three 19th hole ("The Decider") where informal match play games that are still tied after 18 holes may be decided before proceeding to the more conventional 19th in the modern new clubhouse.
I’d heard a lot about the quality of the first eight holes before I played, and much of this is because of the three par 3’s, an unusual feature for one nine on a modern course. It’s clear why they were designed, as all three fit into a parcel of land that was crying out for a one-shotter, and land that would have been hard to use otherwise. All three are magnificently photogenic, and a couple of minor personal gripes aside, very good holes. The rest of the front nine feels slightly contrived around these holes but that is a) not really a criticism, just an observation, and b) understandable, given how good the par 3’s are. In fact the rest of the front nine will appeal to many given the backdrop of some mature woodland that the back 9 lacks. Can’t say that any other holes really stood out, but the 1st has a classic Monty shape, (i.e. set for a fade, not slightly on the heavily built side) and the 7th (I think) has a wickedly sloping front-to-back green that would be devilish if the greens were quick. On that note incidentally, the greens were slowish, but in good condition when I played in July, (aside from the damage presumably caused by an irate ex-greenkeeper). Indeed the general condition was very good, albeit the rough could be very heavy, and I suspect an extra width of semi-rough might make the course more enjoyably playable to many at the moment.
For me, though, I preferred the back nine. There is a sparseness to the landscape that the architects have not tried to tame with wholesale tree-planting and massive earthworks. The result is a course that, for a modern big-budget course, fits relatively quietly into its landscape. Holes like the massive 11th, the longest par 4 on the course, which has a fairway that looks as if it has had no real landscaping at all as it sweeps downhill. This style perhaps only works because the sheer scale of the course allows for large distances between adjoining holes. I also felt the bunkering was tighter on the second nine, though having only played the course once, it may have been an illusion. For me, the best hole on the course was on this homeward nine, in the short par 4 12th, where classic risk/reward from the tee leaves a variable length shot into a potentially very tight pin position. I played from the championship tees on a windy day, and found the course perfectly playable, as long as the deeper rough was avoided. The course is not overlong at under 7000 yards, albeit with that extra par 3 rendering the length slightly deceptive, and I would recommend it to most players.
Don’t worry about the pylon at the 13th, as a) it’s going soon, and b) if you’ve ever played at nearby Annanhill you’ll be used to it. It is also, despite the undulations on the back 9, and the trek to the 2nd tee, a comfortable enough walk for any regular golfer. For me it’s a four-ball rated course, albeit a strong one. The reasons it doesn’t get a higher rating are firstly it’s not a firm and fast course and I tend to prefer links style golf. Secondly, like many modern designs, it shies away from anything that could be perceived as quirky. Understandable, but it does mean a lack of those marmite-esque features that some golfers may hate, but others love, and can give courses individuality. It may not offend anyone, but it can feel rather bland. Indeed, with the big greens, wide fairways, and typically intrusive modern bunker styling it all felt just a little too much like what you would expect to see on a big new course. Finally the setting is, despite the castles, woodland and views, pleasingly rural rather than majestically grand. And this final point is where the course, through no fault of its own, will always fall short of the truly great. It just doesn’t have the setting of a Loch Lomond or even a Spey Valley and as such I don’t think it is ever likely to attract the real high end market it was originally aimed at, particularly the foreign tourist. That said, its easily reached location, barely 20 minutes from the centre of Glasgow, would suggest that it should be, ultimately, a success. For now though, there are green fee bargains to be had, and I would strongly recommend taking advantage, because right now it’s a six-ball course if value for money was included. I’d happily play again.
It’s had an extended grow in period as I’d been geared up to visit this place a year ago but boy, was it ever worth the wait to get out on the fairways at Rowallan! Not only that, by a quirk of good fortune, I got to play the course in the company of none other than Monty’s right hand man at EGD, the unassuming architect Ross McMurray, who was only too happy to give me one or two insightful pointers as we played a round on his latest course.
The par threes on the front nine are exceptional with each of them featuring water in some shape or form. The 155-yard 8th is probably the best of this trio as it’s located in a far from obvious site for a golf hole which calls for a heroic tee shot to be played from a raised clearing in a stand of trees to a green that drops off on all sides behind a small stream.
I also loved the hole that precedes this, a short par four where the fairway kinks right through a gap in an old hedge to a green that runs away from front to back, “like so many of the greens at Elie,” to quote Ross McMurray. On the back nine, the slightly uphill 12th is another delightful short par four (only 307 yards from the back markers) with a wickedly contoured putting surface to help protect par.
The downhill par fives at 11 and 16 are wonderful holes but the uphill 3-shotter at the 13th will cause consternation to many with a (soon to be dismantled) power line pylon lying slap bang in the middle of the fairway and eminently reachable off the tee – the sooner this obstacle is removed the better.
Overall, Rowallan Castle is a fine addition to the rich golfing mix in Ayrshire and I say that as a confirmed links lover who rarely ventures onto inland courses through choice. This is parkland golf with quality stamped on everything from huge tee boxes to beautiful bunker mounding, from lush, well-drained fairways to large, receptive greens. Well worth a wee trip away from the usual haunts on the coast to sample some seriously good inland golf.