Magic Kingdoms

Don't be fooled by the natural look of compelling recent course designs: Mother Nature had help

Chambers Bay

The Castle Course's par-3 17th (foreground) and par-5 18th form a cliffhanger of a finish. See the complete "Magic Kingdom" photo gallery

February 22, 2008

The latest fashion in golf design is rumpled, crumpled and frayed around the edges. The hottest courses look old and weathered, even though they are brand new.

With these courses, the assumption is Mother Nature provided some terrific topography that finally is being discovered for golf. Truth is, imaginative architects created most of these distressed-look courses on otherwise lackluster sites. To add character to each place, they dug down, piled up and then routed golf holes through the tumult, leaving the jagged peaks and steep slopes intact. They refused to smooth the rough edges, giving us not silk purses, but alligator bags.

It is called dirt-pile design -- and that is meant as a compliment. Jack Nicklaus practiced a bit of it in the 1980s, and Robert von Hagge a lot of it, both framing fairways with pointy dunes meant to evoke the English seaside of Birkdale, Lytham or St. Georges. In the 1990s Mike Strantz was even bolder, using the Irish alps of Ballybunion as his template, but it took Pete Dye to push the style fully to another dimension. At Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, Dye took a flat, abandoned Army air base overlooking Lake Michigan and conjured up grand canyons and towering mountains to set the benchmark by which all dirt-pile designs are now measured. Chambers Bay (Laudable Audible, Feb. 15) near Tacoma, Wash., recently underscored the concept's potential when it was selected to host the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2015 U.S. Open.

Two new courses that certainly measure up are reclamation projects on opposite sides of the Atlantic. One is public, with the alluring address of St. Andrews, Scotland. The other is private, with a less appealing address of Bayonne, N.J. Both are monuments to mound building, magic kingdoms pulled out of molehills.

The Castle Course at St. Andrews

Six years ago the most sought-after design contract was the proposed seventh course for the St. Andrews Links Trust. So what if the land was a potato field surrounding a water treatment plant? It was St. Andrews, the home of golf!

Actually, the 220-acre location had some merit. A clifftopper 80 feet above the surf of the North Sea, it overlooks the Auld Grey Toon less than a mile to the northwest. (The other six courses of the Links Trust are barely visible, at the far end of town.)

David McLay Kidd, a native Scot whose breakthrough design was the original course at Oregon's Bandon Dunes in 1997, got the contract. Privately, the Links Trust was hoping Kidd, on the limited budget it was giving him, would produce something akin to its Eden Course, a 1914 H.S. Colt design on the flank of the famed Old Course. At worst, the Trust would settle for another Strathtyrum, the short, bland, nearly featureless Donald Steel design that opened in 1993.

What they got (after Kidd negotiated an increased construction budget) was a souped-up version of Kingsbarns, the remarkable dirt-pile design six miles down the coast unveiled in 1999 by Americans Kyle Phillips and Mark Parsinen. Kidd now admits Kingsbarns was the inspiration and role model for him and his team. If they couldn't outdo that competition, they would know they had failed.

Kidd left no earth unchurned at the Castle Course and retained just one tree, a sycamore on the first hole. The fairways contain constant humps, bumps, mounds and moguls, its greens are radical in their slopes and its turf throughout is 80 percent fescue, 20 percent bent. Its rugged perimeter dirt-pile topography consists mainly of flattop buttes and asymmetrical mounds, positioned to leave the artful impression they were deposited and shaped by howling winds. (Such dunes now block views of the unsightly treatment plant between the second and eighth holes.) The bunkers are deep and ragged, truly nasty looking.

The course is one of obscure targets, unpredictable bounces and exhilarating challenge. Its finish is nothing short of spectacular, the par-3 17th and par-5 18th hugging seaside cliffs on the right, a double dose of the thrills found on the eighth at Pebble Beach. In St. Andrews fashion, the 18th green is a double green, shared by the par-4 ninth.

The Castle Course (named in a contest by Edwin Burtnett of Tampa, Fla., for Kinkell Castle, which stood in the spot back in the Middle Ages) is scheduled for a formal opening in June when the clubhouse is finished. Its high-season green fee is just 10 shy of the Old Course's 130 tab, but it will be worth it. Like the Old Course, it is a mandatory walk, and it is wise to take a caddie.

In the meantime golfers can get a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the creation of the course in Scott Gummer's The Seventh at St. Andrews: How Scotsman David McLay Kidd and his Ragtag Band Built the First New Course on Golf's Holy Soil in Nearly a Century. All the book lacks is a pop-up page that would show the Castle Course in all its ragged, jagged glorious relief.

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