Six years after St Andrews Links Trust purchased land at Kinkell Braes outside the town – just along from the Torrrance and Devlin (now called Kittocks) golf courses – the much-anticipated new Castle course welcomed its first paying customers at the end of June 2008.
Laid out on a cliff top with more than a mile of waterfront overlooking the town, the Castle was constructed by David McLay Kidd and his DMK design company. Lead shaper, Mick McShane, deserves much credit for turning featureless farmland (described as a “hillside of rotten rock”) into anything remotely resembling a golf course, in much the same way as he did at nearby Kingsbarns.
The new seventh member of the Links Trust’s portfolio may be seen by some as the black sheep of the St Andrews links family due to its unnatural links character but the design and feel of the new links-like course is such that it blends in superbly with the other courses on the roster.
Routed in two loops of nine, the holes on each loop of the Castle course rise up from the clubhouse to higher ground alongside the A917 Crail Road before tumbling back down again, with the closing three holes of each strung out along the coastline. Clever mounding ensures many of the holes play in isolation to the others, intensifying the expectation of what’s to come next.
The feature hole is the par three 17th, played across a ravine on the edge of the cliffs, into the prevailing wind from St Andrews. It really is an all or nothing hole where anything right is gone forever so the safe play is to aim left, where the contours will hopefully funnel the ball right to the putting surface.
It will be interesting to see what reviewers make of the new kid on the St Andrews golfing scene.
I think it’s fair to expect any course in and around St Andrews to be good, so, having heard Tom Doak had given The Castle Course a zero in his latest Confidential Guide, I was intrigued to see what could possibly have led to such a harsh evaluation. Knowing that Doak isn’t a fan of courses that have been ‘raped and shaped’ one can only assume this is what made him feel the course is deserving of such ill-founded criticism, as the land used to create the course was nothing but farmland before the project was commissioned. I can only imagine how much soil must have been shifted, as what McLay Kidd has created with very little help from mother nature is highly impressive and imaginative. The course offers every challenge possible, with ample opportunities to give the big stick a rip off the tee and imagination and precision required in the approach play, as this is a true shot makers course, with infinite possibilities for pin positions on the vastly undulating greens. There is a good mix of holes, with the par 3’s and 5’s presenting many different challenges and strategic decisions. Much has been said of the difficulty of the greens and some critics suggest they are unplayable and unfair, but as we played the course in winter conditions the greens were receptive and a relatively slow pace, making them no more difficult than many other courses. That said, you do need to land the ball in the right spot, so club selection is key to the approach play here to avoid treacherous putts.
Although the first stretch of holes present drama and considerable challenges, the course really takes off from the par four 6th hole. A blind tee shot to a fairway that runs downhill towards the sea, sets up an inviting second to the green site, which sits at the bottom edge of the course. The seventh, eighth and ninth holes all run along the boundary at the low point of the course, bringing the cliff edges into play, with elevation changes that create drama and excitement. The par 3 eighth is a beautiful looking short hole, reminding me slightly of the 11th at Castle Stuart. The similarities between The Castle Course and Castle Stuart don’t end there, as the 17/18th par three/five finish is strikingly comparable, with both courses making excellent use of their rugged coastlines to produce stunning vistas along the final stretch. The 18th is a pure risk reward par 5, where the longer hitter can bite off a huge chunk of the left to right dogleg to leave a reachable second shot and set up an eagle putt.
Overall, I’d say this course is a fine example of modern links design and similar in style to Turnberry and Castle Stuart. It’s not up there with those two giants in the quality of turf and conditioning, but it’s certainly a top-quality venue with an abundance of character and its own unique challenges. SB
Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Doak's book. He sounds a tad bitter about the Castle course. To actually create an interesting course from a potato farm probably takes more imagination, or guts, than dealing with, and creating from, perfect linksland.
Really enjoyable review, and from playing the Castle Course a couple of times the Doak review is way off beam - I think that the Links Trust is to be commended for building a more modern style of golf course with great views of St Andrews whilst keeping true to the fun of Links golf.
Actually, the Castle Course is one of the most under-rated courses in the UK (especially amongst St Andrews golfers !).
In 2012 I first played The Castle Course and got a great impression of it, having played not bad and finding it tough to score. When with my friends we decided to go back, my good friend Gonzalo who turns to be the CEO of the group said this course was to be played. And the “official tour” started on May 28th at this course. We were all very excited and it was a great kick off for the trip, no rain, no cold, gentle breeze and 12 guys who have played golf together for the last 35 years with huge smiles in each of our faces. A nice touch from St Andrews Links to incentive play on the “other” courses was to give lunch to groups of 8 playing Castle or Jubilee, which we of course took advantage of. One of the nicest spots on this course is the views the Club House provides so some burgers and club sandwiches appeared before the birdies … sorry the bogeys!
I had a decent front 9 and an awful back 9, it looked like the long haul flight took my legs off (like Maradona in USA 1994).
The course is not only fun but challenge and shot making in every corner, you need to have distance control and imagination to play some of the holes. The greens are crazy? YES! Do I like them? A LOT, as this is an experience you don’t face every day just go there and play, at the end of the day the sensation of having played something unique will come to your mind.
Some shots you face are simply unbelievable: second to par 4 6th hole downhill, tee shot on 7th, par 3 8th, second at 9th all of these with awesome views of the Sea. 12th continues to be my own nightmare, 14th is an amazing tee shot where choosing the correct line is the clue, par 5 15th is a great 3 shots hole and the grand finale 17-18 where the par 3 is an all or nothing shot and 18th gives you the chance of take an aggressive line according to the distance you are able to carry with your driver. In very good shape, some greens not at the best but an experience to repeat and to recommend. Don’t feel The Old Course is the only girl in town, take a chance at Castle and you will end your round happy even having scored more bogeys than usual!
There’s no doubting that the Castle course doesn’t fit easily into the collection of courses that are administered by the St. Andrews Links Trust.
It isn’t located within town and it isn’t even really a links course, certainly not from the same mould as the other six anyway.
It recently received particularly strong criticism from respected architect Tom Doak in a recent publication and others may also question why this course needed to be built. The fact that the St. Andrews Links Trust themselves refer to it simply as their ‘seventh’ course doesn’t really help its cause either.
The other way to look at it is that this David McLay Kidd course, which opened for play in 2008, actually offers a welcome change from the classic, traditional links golf on offer at the other locations. And importantly, in my eyes anyway, if the course is good (and it is) why should it not have been created? I’d rather have it the way it is now than it still be farmland like it was before.
I personally thought the golf was exceptionally good too and I really enjoyed the course. The green contouring has had a lot of negative comments but I found them to be perfectly acceptable, indeed rather fascinating. There are certainly some significant borrows, putting on them can be tricky and challenging but they fit in well with their surroundings and again, like the layout itself, they make for a refreshing change.
I can’t comment on how successful this new course has been since it opened, it was certainly much quieter than the other courses on the day I played, but it is one I think you should experience if visiting St. Andrews without question.
Because of the style and nature of the course I know some people won’t take my advice and others who do may not find it to their liking. It’s certainly not a course that will be universally loved but I don’t necessarily see that as a negative. I would suggest playing this course to break up your visit and not necessarily play it as your first or final round.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
As a very keen golfer and one that looks forward to a trip months before I go, I search for the good before the bad when playing a new course. On a trip last week to St Andrew's we decided to put the Castle Course on our itinerary along with the Old, New and nearby Elie golf club.
As you arrive it looks great, fabulous views of St Andrews Bay, gorse in full bloom, sunny day and undulating turf - a golfer's dream.
Then you play it. I would say as a decent player I have never enjoyed a round of golf less. To me the course is just too hard, I hit it ok and didn’t see my ball land once off the tee. The greens have apparently been softened and they were still almost unplayable.
As we finished our torture, the friendly starter asked us how our round went, we told her what we thought and she had a resigned look on her face that this was not the first time she had heard this today. Over a well-deserved beer, the other golfers in the clubhouse had similar thoughts to us.
This course couldn’t be any different to modern links such Castle Stuart who have created a masterpiece by giving the golfer choices. Here it is execute the perfect shot or lose your ball.
Played July 2016. Played mostly very well indeed and managed 34 points off 9. Quite breezy. Dread to think what I would be from the medal tees - 18/19. This is a very very tough course. Agree previous comments - adopt match-play, preferably 4BBB (more help the better for finding balls in the thigh-high rough, and try and enjoy the ride. Played a handful of inspired holes which will live forever in the memory - and that's a feature of a high-class course - playing great golf on a tough track = memorable experience.
Yes, some of the greens are a bit extreme, but I wouldn't call them unplayable. These enormous, undulating, multi-tiered complexes will definitely wreck your day though if you somewhat struggle with your short game. Despite this, I really enjoyed the layout of the polarising Castle Course. I found it very very scenic, while still needing a high level of golf strategy and shotmaking. High handicaps will have a hard time playing medal since they will definitely pick up on a hole or two especially if they get short sided. Great place for match play. It was very different from anything I've ever played, almost like an American links with Scottish conditions and alien greens. My recommendation is to forget the score and enjoy the views and experience.
I think the course adds great contrast to the Links Trust’s portfolio of excellent courses. Sure it’s tough and it’s a more difficult walk than St. Andrew’s Old Course but at the end of the round I could only say I enjoyed it a lot. There are 2 or 3 greens that were fairly radical in terms of shaping where I’d say enough pin positions were questionable but at the speeds the greens were rolling probably about 8.5 – 9 they were near perfect and extremely enjoyable. Raise them up to 10+ and several would be unplayable in the wind. The greens were also by far in the best shape of all the great courses I saw in March. This likely due to the fact that the Castle Course closes during the winter which allows them to preserve their greens even more.
There are quite a few standout holes., too many to detail here but for those loving great views the front 9 and back 9 both finish along the cliffs with an nice run of cliff top views. The par 3 8th is a little drop shot par 3 looking out over the cliffs and water. The par 4 9th hole has a brilliant back tee that offers up a blind tees shot over the cliffs that simply dares you to cut off as much as you can chew and attempt to still find the fairway which runs down the cliffs at a diagonal angle from right to left away from you.
The par 3 17th is a dramatic long par 3 with a reverse redan green. I’ll admit this is too much hole for most as they will not think to play it safe and utilize the fairway left if the carry is too much. Most will likely throw up a hail marry in hopes of finding the green across the cliffs. Truth be told this hole could probably be played with a putter if one were simply to follow the fairway around.
In the end I’m guilty of going all the way to St. Andrews (been there before), just to see the Castle Course and mainly due to the controversy around it. I did enjoy the day as well as the my game with the very strong playing elderly member who was all too proud to tell me all about it. The only warning I’d offer to our readers is this, the Castle Course is very challenging and does have a dramatic, almost unnatural at times landscape, it’s tough, the greens are among the most difficult you may see at those speeds and it’s more suited to strong golfers. It’s definitely worth a visit, choose the right tees, the course is hard enough without having to hit 3 woods into all the par 4’s. Bring your imagination with you, you will need it around the greens both with chipping and putting and lastly play matchplay with your buddies. It’s a great course for it.