Duke’s of hazard

A heathland course on the most venerated stretch of links land in the world? Welcome to the testing Duke’s Course at St Andrew’s.

You don’t go to St Andrew’s – the home of golf and the most venerated stretch of links land in the world – and play a heathland course, do you?
Well, actually, yes you can and with good reason, as Matt Cooper found out in October.
The night before
Day one of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship comes to a close. I’ve been watching the stars of the European Tour, the stars of stage and screen plus the stars of middle America’s boardrooms play Kingsbarns and the Old Course. Now I’m heading inland to a reception at the Duke’s Course. Upon arrival at the clubhouse I am astonished – and a little embarrassed – to be greeted by a kilted bagpiper and a gaggle of staff at the entrance: there is someone to take my coat, someone to offer a drink, someone to offer a nibble and finally Clodagh, the marketing manager, to answer my questions. It crosses my mind that I’ve turned up to the wrong venue and I’ve been mistaken for one of the many celebrities in town. But I bluff it just in case.
After taking a drink and being introduced to a few people I step out onto the balcony overlooking the 9th and 18th holes. Before me is a splendid scene. In the distance is the old town and below me the fairways are a verdant green, the bunkers a brilliant white, the trees are about 20 shades of green and brown, the fescue grass is blond and shaggy, and the heather a bright and beautiful lilac. Inspired by the wispy grass which tops the bunkers my first thought is “Whistling Straits” (host course of the 2004 PGA Championship) which earns me brownie points with David Scott, the course manager (and my playing partner next morning), because the course was recently re-designed by Tim Liddy, who worked with the legendary course designer Pete Dye on the construction of Whistling Straits.
I also get talking to an American journalist who has played the course both before and after the changes. “They’ve done a great job,” she tells me. “Really improved some holes and the work they have done on the bunkering is just fantastic. They used to be very modern pot bunkers.” I look down on the 18th hole; the bunkers look anything but modern and pot-like. “They look great now don’t they?” she says, reading my mind. “That long grass and the worn edges make them look like they’ve been here so much longer than they have.” As the sun-dips behind us, the old town disappears into the dark and we are called to our tables for dinner.
Fine dining
Over an excellent Thai curry I chat to Elspeth, the local GMTV video journalist. She’s got experience of dealing with the various moods of the celebrities before, during and after their rounds at the Dunhill. Apparently – and perhaps not surprisingly – it pays to keep an eye on their scores and the weather if you want the best lines. I bear it in mind for the rest of the week. After the curry, we can’t resist one particular desert. “I’d like the lemon cheesecake with the fruit sausage,” I say to the chef at the buffet. “The what?” he asks non-plussed, before sheepishly admitting that the cheesecake is to be accompanied by nothing more adventurous than a fruit sauce. Magnificent typo, but what a pity – I was really looking forward to a Heston Blumenthal-style lemon cheesecake with slices of (or should that be a drizzle of?) fruit sausage. Not to worry though – it tasted just as good as the curry (although very different, of course).
Next morning
At 8 o’clock next morning I make my way to the pro shop to meet Ayden Roberts-Jones, the club professional, and David Scott. Wasting no time, David and I throw our clubs onto the back of a buggy and drive over the range to hit a few balls. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of ranges – those rock hard mats inevitably lead to a series of disastrous shanks. But the Duke’s range has lovely soft mats with a bit of give and I find myself hitting a series of confidence-boosting – and very straight – 7-irons.
Teeing off
As we play the first hole David and I chat about the course’s history. It was conceived as a solution to the problem facing the Old Course Hotel: because the St Andrew’s links courses are a public facility, hotel guests have no golfing privileges. Great for the town and the world of golf; not so great for a five star golfing resort. The answer was to offer something different – to venture inland and create a heathland course of the highest quality. The five-time Open Champion Peter Thomson designed the original course and then in 2006 the resort owners Kohler turned to Tim Liddy to renovate and redesign. “We wanted to change a few things that we felt weren’t working,” David explains. “We were also keen to get on to the Top 100 course list. Tim’s done a great job and we’ve achieved our aim.” David is doing a great job, too, securing a birdie four with a solid up and down from the rough. I get a bogey six after duffing my fairway wood.
First impressions
It is hard not to be impressed visually by the Duke’s. The view that greeted me from the clubhouse the previous night was no mirage: the colours and textures are so varied there are times when the tee shots – which are all beautifully framed – give the impression of having been created by CGI. After hitting my tee shot on the second, one other impression is formed: I am thankful for having David’s course knowledge. As will be the case throughout the round, the tee box is initially a very intimidating place with tree-lined fairways plus lots of bunkering and mounds fringed with wonderful yet scary fescue grass. “Before the changes,” David tells me, “the fairways were really tight, far too tight for a course like this. We’ve made it a much fairer test.” The fairways continue to look tight but in reality, with a few hints, they are less than fearsome and I contrive to find every fairway (or fringe of the fairway) bar the seventh (due to a particularly nasty hook).
The third hole
Michael Parkinson once wrote of the par-three third hole at the Duke’s Course, Woburn: “It is the most photogenic hole in all of Great Britain.” Well get this – I played there earlier this summer and it really is a stunning short hole. But so is the third hole at the Duke’s Course, St Andrew’s. Stood on the tee, looking down a funnel of trees, I feel like I am playing one of the great Surrey sandbelt courses. It is hard to believe that I am a mere two miles from the Road Hole. The raised green has subtle borrows and is protected by run-off areas and three bunkers. The twist is that between the tee and the green lie two huge white bunkers; a very modern touch but it really does work. I made a complete mess of the third hole at Woburn (shanking my tee shot into the trees) but here I hit the green and two-putt from 15-feet for par.
The greens
The putting surfaces are swift and trustworthy. David tells me they are about 10 on the stimpmeter (the greenkeeper tests the greens every day in order to keep a consistency around