Resort spotlight: Gleneagles, Scotland
“Pretty as a picture.”
“If a man can’t play golf here then he can’t play.”
“This is as beautiful as golf gets.”
Not, in fact, phrases taken from an in-house press release suggesting to journalists how to describe Gleneagles, but words spoken by the great American Walter Hagen, his compatriot ‘Wild’ Bill Mehlhorn and the usually dour Scotsman George Duncan.
The three players were talking about what was then a fledgling King’s course way back in 1921, when James Braid’s masterpiece was given its first examination as Golf Illustrated sponsored a side to cross the Atlantic to play Britain’s finest.
Those glowing sentiments expressed during this Ryder Cup forerunner nearly a century ago indubitably remain accurate today. And I didn’t even have to include Lee Trevino’s famous quote about the Perthshire resort:
The hotel and amenities stand comparison with anywhere in Europe. By ‘anywhere’ I mean any hotel or resort, not just ones with golf courses attached.
Gleneagles is simply the finest golf resort in not just Britain and Ireland but the whole of Europe. Ranking lists are obviously the peak of subjectivity, but this is one No. 1 no-one can quibble with. There is robust reason to suggest there isn’t a better all-round golf resort in the world.
It starts with an enormous advantage over almost every other resort in GB&I; three courses that are all of an exceptionally high standard. One is a fixture in any GB&I Top 100 Courses ranking, one is usually in those same lists and the third is a Scottish Top 100 staple that also happens to have hosted the Ryder Cup.
Only St Andrews Links Trust, Carnoustie, Wentworth and Woburn in Britain can match Gleneagles for 54-hole quality – and none of those have hotels directly attached.
Then you add in the hotel and the amenities, which stand comparison with anywhere in Europe. By ‘anywhere’ I mean any hotel or resort, not just ones with golf courses attached.
Gleneagles might be best known for golf, but hundreds of guests stay here every month who have no intention of playing golf or probably even know there are any courses.
The facilities are extraordinary, and add significant ballast to the resort’s self-styled title ‘A glorious playground’.
Whoever came up with that moniker was spot on. This is exactly the sort of place where even usually sensible people live to excess. Where you drink way too many cocktails in the American bar until the early hours but such is the anticipation of what the next day brings, you are somehow feasting on the peerless breakfast by 7.30am, with one eye on your 8am tee time on the Queen’s.
If a man or woman can’t enjoy themselves here, they aren’t alive, ‘Wild’ Bill might have said.
Then after golf you’ll all-too-willingly wander into the Dormy Clubhouse or the adjacent tapas-style Auchterarder 70 club for a long lunch that is probably accompanied by a little refreshment.
In normal resorts you’d give yourself the afternoon off and relax in your room.
At Gleneagles though, you’ll prefer to head off to archery and try your hand at that. Or have a go at shooting. Or attempt to drive an amphibious 4×4 vehicle through a woodland swamp. Or play tennis. Or take part in falconry or a gun dog exhibition. Or lose an afternoon in the spa.
No matter what you like doing in your leisure time, you’ll be able to do it here – at an elite level. And to the things you already like doing, add in 20 other things you’ve never tried or even thought of doing.
If a man or woman can’t enjoy themselves here, they aren’t alive, ‘Wild’ Bill might have said.
Even the arrival is special, with only the drive into the town of St Andrews matching it for anticipation and excitement.
After sweeping through the entrance to the resort and starting your journey up the drive, on your left sits a small building in the shape of a clock tower.
That’s the starter’s hut for the King’s – all whitewashed walls, lead-framed window panes and immaculate tiled roof… it is better appointed than my house – and as you pass it you can drink in the 1st hole of the premier course here.
Then on your right the hotel appears in view through the trees, across the stream. It is not Abu Dhabi flash. It is not Florence pretty. It is not Bruges quirky. Instead it is handsome, imposing and steeped in pedigree.
Already, you are are consumed by the atmosphere and history of one of Britain’s classic hotels.
When it opened in 1924, it was the culmination of a dream held by Donald Matheson, general manager of the Caledonian Railway Company.
Matheson had the idea of creating a ‘Grand Hotel’ here while travelling through the breathtaking moorland landscape on one of his trains. He wanted guests to arrive via his trains and spend their time playing his golf courses and staying in his hotel. It’s worked out quite nicely.
It was Braid’s nous that was by some distance the most powerful tool when the King’s and Queen’s were formed.
By the time the ‘Palace in the Glens’ welcomed guests for the first time, Braid’s courses were already feted, having opened five years earlier.
The five-time Open champion is widely lauded for his portfolio, but he has surely rarely worked more effectively than on this property in Auchterarder.
It was not an unpromising site, with long ridges, flat-topped mounds and enclosed hollows created by sand and gravel deposits from the last melting of the ice sheet. But in creating these two masterpieces he was aided by the toil of men wielding nothing more destructive than a pick and a shovel; Braid’s nous was by some distance the most powerful tool when the King’s and Queen’s were formed.
The Scottish architect embraced the terrain with typical elan, creating a collection of distinctive holes. While most holes play in isolation from each other, it does not come at the expense of blocking out wonderful views of the Ochil hills.
The King’s, the resort’s premier course, opens with an all-world classic.
Under 400 yards and with an invitingly wide fairway to hit with your first swing of the day, it takes something fairly ugly not to feel ‘in’ the hole after your drive.
But while the tee shot is forgiving, the second is a devious challenge, the acutely elevated approach played to a target atop a hill so steep that it would never be the site for a green today. It would be at least partly flattened.
It is predictably easy to come up short and run up a quick six on this par 4, but the view from the elevated 2nd tee can help soothe any angst.
The Kings course is what made Gleneagles famous and I think we are on the right journey to make it even greater.
It offers an especially good panorama across the glens and now is a much more inviting shot by virtue of the increased playability the resort has been promoting, with rough on the left here being cut back to provide a much wider target.
Indeed under the new ownership of the Ennismore, Gleneagles has been on a curve of improvement. For those who visited previously, that will seem basically impossible to actually do, but it genuinely is notably even better these days.It has extended across the resort, from refurbished restaurants and bars to starting the hotel’s own food range. The courses, naturally, have been part of this investment.
“The King’s would not be designed that way now with modern equipment, so golfers get to play the ‘old way’ and I think we are managing the course and experience just as it was always supposed to be,” director of golf Gary Silcock, formerly of The Belfry and La Manga, tells NCG.
“The King’s is longer than the Queens, short than the PGA Centenary. It has the challenge of the PGA Centenary but the rewards of the Queen’s. The Kings course is what made Gleneagles famous and I think we are on the right journey to make it even greater.
“The courses have been on a journey for all of them to play different.
“Previously, they were all maintained in the same manner and just different in length and topography. In the last few years they have evolved.
“The first major change was bunkering on the Queen’s and King’s; new bunker liner allowed bunkers to revert to how James Braid designed them. The reduced man hours in maintenance allowed the team to move fairways back to the original design and there is 40 per cent more to hit now.
The stellar first par 3 to a table top green at 5, the part-blind drive at 7, the cool short 8th and the down and up 9th then complete a hard-to-beat front nine.
“The fairways on the King’s and Queen’s have now had more focus in cut height (8mm) to provide tight lies as you would play on a links, while this also provides longer drives, something our members have enjoyed. With the ball now running, the bunkers that once were in the rough our now in the fairway are getting more use.
“We were also very keen to further enhance the PGA Centenary course after its 2014 Ryder Cup fame; fairway height is now 15mm meaning the ball ‘sits up, ready to be hit’, which is very handy with bunkers that protect the greens or to carry water.
“We now feel that all three courses offer something different for everyone, all three have always been world class but now they look and feel different.”
After the stellar opening pair, highlights come quickly on the King’s, Scotland’s finest inland venue.
The rollercoaster 3rd is the next, with a fairway dominated by large mounds and deep hollows then a marker post to fire your approach towards given the green that is totally obscured by a high ridge.
The classy first par 3 to a table top green at 5, the part-blind drive at 7, the cool short 8th and the down-and-up 9th then complete a hard-to-beat front nine.
It is matched by a high-calibre closing stretch.
The 13th is called ‘Braid’s Brawest’, the name he used to give his favourite hole; here it is a strong par 4 with a fascinating S-shaped fairway across the glacial terrain.
Next comes the all-world classic of 14 – one of the most brilliant sporty two-shotters in Scotland – which is a downhill bunker-dominated hole and then a cute par 3 to an angled narrow green guarded by nine bunkers takes you to the strategic sloping 17th.
The grandeur of the hotel is now in full view as you steer your last drive down the deeply corrugated fairway before returning to the flat landscape alongside the 1st for the final putt of the day.
As Trevino said, “If heaven is as good as this, I sure hope they have some tee times left”.
Essentials for your trip to Gleneagles
Getting there: Gleneagles’ back story – through Matheson – hugely helps here, because amazingly there is a train station a mile from the hotel. So that means anyone living in the south of England can get to within five minutes of their bedroom by doing nothing more arduous than changing at Edinburgh. You can fly into Edinburgh or ideally Glasgow too, but it’s also worth noting how good the road access is. It looks a long way north – and indeed it is – but it is motorway for all but the last mile. Uncrowded motorway too, once you’ve got past Preston if coming up the M6. Equally, once at Gleneagles you will never touch your car; it simply isn’t required on site.
Off the course: Where to start! There is a huge spa complete with hairdresser, a phalanx of treatment rooms, an indoor pool that extends cunningly into a heated outdoor jacuzzi, a huge children’s play area, a teenager’s heaven with computer games plus air hockey etc, horse riding, gun dog training, falconry, shooting, fishing, world-class tennis courts, croquet on the pristine lawn outside the hotel, and off-road driving. As well as the three courses there is a Par 3 course, chipping greens, and superb practise facilities.
Price point: No-one will be surprised to learn Gleneagles isn’t a cheap option. For most people a stay here is a significant outlay. My view on this is that it is worth every penny, as a treat. Possibly a once-in-a-lifetime one. Because it is so special and it is so good that you simply cannot fail to have a wonderful time here, no matter what the weather does.