Appeared in May/June 2001 LINKS
As grillroom debates go, you’re not likely to generate much discussion with, “Name the best inland course in Scotland.” Heck, many of us would struggle to identify even one. But such a discussion could not pass without recognizing the King’s course at Gleneagles. This James Braid gem is the most admired parkland layout in the country, as well as the crown jewel of one of the world’s finest resorts.
A pastoral retreat located in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands, Gleneagles came about because of a voracious competition among the independent British railroads of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One major strategy involved building hotels so passengers remained customers even after disembarking.
Gleneagles was the product of the Caledonian Railway along the Stirling-Perth line, on a high spot known as the White Muir of Auchterarder. The moorland turf was firm and gravel-based, and drained well. Holes could be routed through a palette of visually splendid accents: golden gorse, purple heather, green pines, silver birch and blue lochs.
Braid and Major Cecil K. Hutchison, a first-rate amateur champion, set about their work in 1914 despite the outbreak of World War I. Five years later King’s opened with the ceremonial placing of a marker beside the 1st tee. It read: “Gleneagles Golf Course, opened in 1919, the year of the peace after the Great War.”
The King’s twists, turns, rises and falls, spread out in a way that gives golfers a wonderful sense of walking through a quiet countryside. Braid and Hutchison allowed high handicappers plenty of room off most tees and built large, easy-to-hit greens. On the other hand, these expansive surfaces are simple to three-putt. Additionally, the course hardly has a level lie—only one hole can fairly be described as flat.
The sturdiest challenges on the King’s are the par 4s. The eccentric 3rd hole, at 375 yards, is fairly short, but has a large hill immediately fronting the green. The blind approach is similar to those at Prestwick’s 5th and 17th, two infamous holes of the hit-and-hope variety that didn’t faze architects of Braid’s era.
Two par 4s on the back nine are worthy of special attention. The brutish 10th is the only “flat” hole on the course, but it plays 447 yards into the west wind. And the 13th is a real monster at 448 yards. A deep bunker juts into the landing area and a false front tricks players into thinking they can run the ball onto its slightly elevated, well-bunkered green. Braid himself considered it the best hole on the course, and it’s named “Braid’s Brawest,” or Braid’s Best.
As for the par 3s, the most famous is the 5th, which is dubbed “Het Girdle,” Hot Griddle. It has a severely punched-up green fronted by massive bunkers and draped with a daunting and shaggy slope. The home hole, a par 5, is a wonderful driving hole from a high tee to an enormous fairway that provides plenty of run. Tom Watson is said to have smacked a drive 486 yards down this runway.
It was on the final green in 1936 that Scotland’s Jessie Anderson sank a 21-foot putt to win her match and secure the first tie in Curtis Cup history. Fifteen years earlier, a victorious British team trod off this green, having defeated an American side in a forerunner of the Ryder Cup. (The U.S. team was made up of players who happened to be in Scotland for the British Open, and in no way did it represent the best of American golf.)
Yes, Scotland has some fine inland courses, and to journey there and neglect Gleneagles would be a mistake—a gaffe on the order of visiting the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa, or traveling to Vienna and not attending a Mozart recital. Gleneagles is that good.