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 Links, which opened in 2004. The simplistic way to describe it would be as Ayrshire’s answer to Kingsbarns.
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.
However, Dundonald Links 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.
Dundonald Links is a little flatter than Kingsbarns, which features significant elevation changes. While it’s true that the fairways of the former often gently ascend to the 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 Links does not rely on sweeping views of the ocean. 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 can safely find a green in regulation and yet still walk off with a bogey.
The first of what is an outstanding collection of par 3s 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 5 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 illustrates the challenge and charm of Dundonald Links, 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 a course called 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 aforementioned 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 5 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.
It’s a high-octane conclusion that reminds one of another difference between Dundonald Links and Kingsbarns – the former is clearly more testing.
Located between the likes of Glasgow and Western Gailes, Royal Troon, Prestwick and Irvine, history is the one area in which Dundonald is not able to compete with its neighbours has much to live up to in this special part of Scotland.
As time goes on, though, it becomes ever more difficult to tell that it was ever anything else than another ancient links on this blessed Ayrshire coastline.
• The course and club at Dundonald Links are set to get even better with work under way on a £25 million luxury golf lodge development, which includes the building of a new clubhouse. In addition, Phillips will return to Dundonald to oversee improvements to the course that will total around £1 million.