Many of the layouts featured in our GB&I Top 100 lists are gifts from nature. They required minimal attention from a designer’s eye rather than extensive perspiration from the brow of landscapers. It appeared as if the land on which they are located was simply left there for the purpose of laying out a terrific golf course. Lahinch, Royal Dornoch and Royal Porthcawl spring to mind. Natural beauties all of them.
Then there are courses which required the skill of an architect and the muscle of machinery. They are a new breed of classic courses and among their number is Dundonald. The simplistic way to describe this outstanding new course in Ayrshire would be to conjure up images of Kingsbarns, which again played host to the Dunhill Links last month.
Both required the movement of a great deal of earth, both are located on prime Scottish links sites and the same man, Kyle Phillips, had a hand in the design of both.
So, there are similarities, not least in terms of the greens – which are exacting in the extreme. Generally, both clubs keep the putting surfaces running relatively low on the stimpmeter – otherwise the challenge, for ordinary golfers, could simply become excessive.
However, Dundonald is not merely a west-coast Kingsbarns, not that such a suggestion would be anything other than a compliment. Indeed, Kingsbarns undoubtedly overshadows Dundonald in terms of aesthetics. Hardly a dagger to the heart of its Ayrshire cousin given the former boasts some of the most spectacular views and scenery on any course in these isles.
Kingsbarns, being older, is also more mature and the evidence of the work of bulldozers is less obvious. Time will help to disguise the small remnants of evidence of man at work at Dundonald.
Dundonald is also flatter than Kingsbarns, which comprises large variations in elevation. While it’s true that the fairways of the former often gently ascend to elevated greens – notably at the 6th, 8th, 11th and 15th – there are few sharp rises or falls.
It is also less ‘linksy’ in the classic sense than Kingsbarns. It is further inland for a start, being bordered in part to the west by Western Gailes, another majestic Ayrshire links. Dundonald is only really three years old and even then in its early days it was only enjoyed by a select few members from its sister course, a little place you may have heard of called Loch Lomond.
Dundonald does not benefit from sweeping views of an intimidating sea or secluded bay. It is, rather, a wonderfully challenging course where the breath is taken away by its relentless quality.
The main thrust of the idea behind Dundonald is that it can be used as a winter course for members of Loch Lomond, which closes between October and April. Another major difference is that the general public actually have a chance to play Dundonald. Indeed, over the winter you can do so for just £50 including coffee and a bacon roll.
It is hardly your archetypal society venue but that is remarkable value for money given this is a course every bit worthy of staging championship golf. Indeed, it proved a perfectly suitable layout on which to test the world’s finest players in the 2017 Scottish Open the week prior to The Open.
Phillips’ real skill on this project was hiding the paper mill, whose presence certainly illustrates Kingsbarns’ aesthetic advantages. It can still be seen but hardly detracts from the experience. Thus, full marks to Phillips in this respect.
Dundonald does not, on the other hand, benefit from sweeping views of an intimidating sea or secluded bay. It is, rather, a wonderfully challenging course where the breath is taken away by its relentless quality.
“My desire was to create a championship Ayrshire-style links course that felt and played as though it was an old rediscovered course, by integrating newly constructed features with existing site features,” explained Phillips.
The 1st is a good example. A generous opening fairway gives way to a green protected by bunkers and played to a backdrop of a coniferous forest. The 3rd sees the introduction of the ditches which dissect several fairways and make club selection as well as shot execution such an exact science at Dundonald.
Here, the play is to steer left off the tee and then cross the hazard with the second shot before pitching onto the green. Once there, a new challenge begins, that of lagging your first effort close to the hole.
It is entirely typical of the challenge ahead. Rarely is the luxury of a flat putt afforded and even from close range you frequently find yourself aiming outside the hole. It is what makes the course so difficult to score well on: time and again you find a green in regulation only to walk off with a bogey.
The first of what is an outstanding collection of par threes arrives at the next, although this one is unusual in that a sand trap does not await those who have underestimated the strength of the prevailing wind.
An awesome par five follows which is a genuine three-shotter for all but the strongest players. The majority will require a short-iron third to a quite evil green that seems determined to deflect all missiles away from its heart.
This opening quintet perfectly illustrate the challenge and charm of Dundonald, a true championship links which requires nothing but well-struck shots in order to savour its test. It can be an absolute brute at 7,300 yards off the championship tees but frankly those are areas of the course which only professionals should tread.
Mere mortals can choose teeing areas which amount to either 6,830 or (probably) more appropriately 6,400 yards and therefore enjoy the test but not be totally beaten by it. The second of those wonderful short holes arrives at the 6th, encompassing a ditch running down the length of the green on the green.
One of the few remaining features of the previous course (of the same name) to exist on this land – in between it was Southern Gailes that was never finished – appears on the next in the shape of a steep slope rejecting any running approaches which do not possess enough pace. It is Dundonald’s very own Valley of Sin.
The 8th is possibly the pick of the front nine, not least for the views across to the Isle of Arran but also for the gorgeous location of the elevated green with trees behind and dunes to either side.
An original Dundonald bunker lies in the middle of the 9th fairway and, with a ditch a valuable guard to the angular green, it is a tough finish to the outward half – especially if the pin is cut on the impossibly shallow right-hand shelf.
The par-four 10th is long but relatively free of trouble – at least until another trademark undulating green – before the vintage 11th comes into view, a short hole which would not look out of place on any of our ancient Open venues.
Just a flick with a short iron at no more than 125 yards, the astute shot is right of centre from where the ball will gather to the middle. Aiming left is foolhardy rather than brave as anything short will find sand or roll back 20 yards, while running through the back into a pot bunker that is virtually underground does not even bear thinking about.
Views of the Firth of Clyde are evident on the short par-four 12th where a drive down the left will avoid a blind second. On the other side of the wall is the recently extended Kilmarnock Barassie while beyond the Glasgow-to-Ayr railway line is the afore-mentioned Western Gailes.
After a sweeping par five to an elevated green, the final par three plays every inch of its 215 yards off the tips. It signals the start of the most demanding of finishing stretches. The 16th is surely the toughest hole on the course, not least thanks to a bunker in the middle of the fairway precisely where you would like to position your drive. Even then it will require a wood for most to get home in two.
A strong finishing par five awaits after that, the longest hole on a mammoth course. Sand awaits down the right while a cross bunker catches mis-hit seconds before a ditch and pot bunkers intimidate the approach to the green.
A high-octane conclusion to the most powerful of modern links courses, the climax reminds one of another difference between Dundonald and Kingsbarns – the former is clearly more difficult.
Traditionalists may prefer the century-old links dotted around Dundonald, courses which were cut out of classic linksland rather than created by man and bulldozer. Located between the historic likes of Glasgow and Western Gailes, Royal Troon, Prestwick and Irvine, Dundonald has much to live up to in this special part of Scotland.
It may just be, though, that as Dundonald matures, it becomes impossible to tell that it was ever anything else than another ancient links on the blessed Ayrshire coastline.