gleneagles (pga centenary) - 14 POINTS
Jack Nicklaus claims that the parcel of land he was given as a canvas in Gleneagles was the best he has ever had. Given the mediocrity of the course he built the only conclusion can be that he made a right horlicks of it. I am hardly being particularly controversial with my assessment of the PGA Centenary course. There is a great article from Alistair Tait in the Telegraph here which pulls most of the criticism together in one place! Of the insults gathered here I hadn't heard the one from Lee Westwood before where he says that 'My kids could have come up with a better design than that in one afternoon' - maybe a little harsh but it depends on his kids I guess.
I have played the course twice, and attempted to walk it for two days at the Ryder Cup, and my opinion hasn't changed massively over time - despite the changes they have put in. Firstly, the course is laid out in such a way that many tees are a very long walk (or more likely a short drive) from the previous green and normally up hill to a Nicklaus tee facing a left to right fairway on a long par 4. That makes the course pretty much unwalkable for many people. Personally I prefer my golf to be played on foot, ideally coming off one green and walking 10 paces to the next tee. It's one of the many things that makes courses like St Andrews and North Berwick so great. Well, forget that on the PGA course - a buggy is pretty much de rigeur. Maybe that helps the course from an economics point of view - at £50 a pop that's an extra £100 per tee time that the course gets. For those interested in your golf course economics there's an interesting article here on the rise of the golf cart in the USA.
My second problem is that the course is just, well, dull. There is very little to get excited about - before going back to watch the Ryder Cup I could recall pretty much nothing about the course apart from the 1st (one of the nicer holes) and the 18th (a boring slog). Now, they did some changes a couple of years ago to try to make the course a little more interesting but it was only the very lightest touch of lipstick on a pig. Nicklaus has basically built one of his American resort courses in the middle of Scotland, and not one of his better ones. Some architects are famed for being all over every course they design with regular site visits and constant tinkering to see their vision come to life - Tom Doak would be a classic example of that. Others are more, how would you say it, 'hands off'. I heard a great quote from a course builder who was working on a Colin Montgomerie and someone asked him what Monty was like. The reply came 'I don't know yet, I'll see him at the opening for the first time'. Nicklaus would seem to fall into the latter camp. You could argue that may not really matter. Many of the early pioneers of golf design knocked courses out almost on a weekly basis it seems, but they seemed to do so with a flair and a vision beyond the Nicklaus template which we see here
My third criticism is to do with the conditioning of the course. On the two occasions I played it - once in May and once in August - it was poor, the first of those just horrific on the greens. This picture is of one of the better greens on the course, seriously. And you know what, there was NO mention of it before either booking or going out on the course - how dishonest is that? The greens have now all had sub-air systems put in which will help a lot but the fairways really suffer a lot through poor drainage and are frequently slit, sanded or rough looking. I am a fairly frequent visitor to the two other courses up there and the PGA always looks like it is suffering in some way. As a result the course plays very long as the ball will not scamper down a sodden, slit or sanded fairway.
So all in all, I can see virtually nothing to recommend the PGA course to you. Jack Nicklaus churned out a drab affair which pales in comparison to the King's and Queen's courses. One of the most disappointing aspects of the money-focussed decision to take the Ryder Cup to Gleneagles is found now on the Gleneagles website which says, 'The PGA Centenary has taken the lion’s share of visitor golf at Gleneagles in recent years'. What a shame.
BOOKING THE COURSE
Gleneagles has some ridiculous ideas as to the price of a round of golf on their courses. If you book direct with the club as a non-resident then then the green fees range from £75 in the winter months to £185 in the summer. I don't believe that this gives any kind of value so you need to be more creative to find value! The course offers afternoon rates which are best value for a fourball, if you tee off after 1.30pm that gets the cost down to £95 a person in the summer. Tee off after 4pm and that drops further to £70 a person if you are in a fourball - and bear in mind you can happily be playing at 10.30pm at the height of summer so the late time isn't really an issue. You can book those times on the website here.
Another option is to look at combining accommodation with golf. The hotel itself can be eyewatering expensive if you book directly but if you go through a golf tour operator like golfbreaks.com then the price can actually drop nicely as well as get an OK price on a tee time. Look out for some of the offers they have there and it's always worth giving them a call to see what they can do.
There is something pretty special about Gleneagles - it is in many ways like a step back into a bygone era. The hotel sits above the golf courses and is a fairly grand affair. If your budget can stretch to it then it would be hard not enjoy a night's stay here. There is a range of restaurants from the informal Deseo to the Michelin Starred Andrew Fairlie, a good swimming pool/spa as well as plenty of Scottish country pursuits. Golf-wise the King's is the best course on the site - it's challenging but never unfair and the course fits in wonderfully to the surrounding, the Queen's is a great short course for a second round.
If you are not staying at the hotel then the nearby town of Anstruther has a couple of nice restaurants and pubs as well as some B&Bs to stay in but you may want to go to nearby Perth which is a pleasant city of 50,000 people on the banks of the Tay. I haven't played any of the other local courses but Blairgowrie, the other side of Perth and about 45 minutes drive away, has a good reputation. St Andrews and Carnoustie are both only an hour away and you are less than an hour from Edinburgh airport so it's pretty easy to add Gleneagles to most itineraries on the east of Scotland.
A word though on when to visit. While most links courses can be enjoyed all year around you can only really plan to go to Gleneagles in from April to October. Outside of that it may be playable but do not bank on it. The courses can get very wet and are often under snow as well. Even if they are open they can be very boggy so best to plan on a summer visit unless you get lucky out of season.
The Gleneagles Hotel
Scotland PH3 1NF
Phone: +44 (0)1764 662231