Duke's Course

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By Sean Dudley

Set on a hillside a few miles inland of the Home of Golf, the Duke's Course has, since its opening a decade ago, been something of an outlier in St Andrews' golfing circles.

When US plumbing giant and, now, golf resorts operator Kohler Company, the owner of Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, bought the Old Course Hotel, it thus acquired the Duke's too. So far so good: a five-star hotel in this setting needs its own golf property, and the unique status of the St Andrews Links means that visiting golfers cannot necessarily guarantee the tee times they want on the public courses.

But do golfers really travel to St Andrews to play a course like the Duke's? This has been the central problem for the course's operators throughout its history, and, in truth, until now, the answer has been a resounding 'no'. Kohler's decision, therefore, to hire American architect Tim Liddy to renovate the course had a clear aim: turn the Duke's into something that offers something new for the area, and that will attract sufficient attention to draw golfers' minds away from the links for a day, at least.

More cynical, or less generous commentators, might say that he has tried to do this largely through window dressing.While this would be an unfair comment – there has been real change to the Duke's – the first thing that catches the eye is the random, shaggy sand blowout style of bunkering popularised in the US by designers such as Coore and Crenshaw and Tom Doak's Renaissance practice.

Such bunkers are intended to look more natural than other forms, such as the revetted potholes that have become the standard on UK links, or the large, freeform 'jigsaw pieces' of much American parkland golf, a look that has colonised the UK and Europe of late. And that they do, at least in the context of a sandy site.

On the clay soil of the Duke's though, say critics, such bunkers are merely a fashion.

They are, though, a successful fashion, in the US at least. Since the firm of Coore and Crenshaw built Sand Hills Golf Club in the duneland of Nebraska in the mid- 90s, a high proportion of the most acclaimed new courses have been created with this sort of look. Even established firms of architects, not known as minimalists or naturalists, have begun to adopt the style when conditions suggest it – take a look at photographs of Nicklaus Design's new course at Dismal River, only a few miles from Sand Hills in Nebraska, or the much-touted Erin Hills in Wisconsin, built by Hurdzan/Fry and awarded a USGA national championship before it even opened. It has not, though, reached the UK to any great extent, perhaps one reason why the reaction to the revamped Duke's has been mixed. There is truth in both these arguments.

Part of the problem is that this style of bunker has not really been built in this country recently, although as old photographs of heathland courses such as Sunningdale show, it's not unlike the way that bunkers looked in the earlier days of inland golf. On a clay site, all bunkers are artificial, and we therefore need to accept that bunker style is essentially a matter of aesthetics and playability. It is interesting to learn, for example, that Doak's company is creating revetted bunkers – albeit not the ultra-neat revetted edges of recent Open venues, on its first UK course at Archerfield in East Lothian.

Another, perhaps unfair, source of criticism has been the early stage of the course's evolution at which some photographs began circulating. Touring the course this summer with superintendent Andy Campbell, it was easy to identify the bunkers that had been created the previous year, against the ones that were younger. These blowout bunkers need the grasses around them to grow in and soften the edges; where this has happened, the bunkers fit their landscape much better. The new ones, by contrast, stand out from the environment like a sore thumb. By next year, they will surely have gone the way of their older cousins.

Campbell also showed me another important aspect of blowout bunkers – that, in the end, they will find their own, natural shape. In several places, the effects of the Fife wind on the exposed Duke's site is, literally, blowing sand out of the bunkers, and the edge is thus finding its own way. Clearly, there are limitations to this process – there is no natural sand on site – but it is a pleasing aspect of the style.

All this debate about bunkering styles obscures the most important part of the renovation – does it make for a good golf course? Architect Liddy has come in for some stick by referring to the original Duke's as a 'links-style course' in these pages, with Peter Thomson for one retorting that he had never seen it as anything other than parkland. The new look tries to be heath, and achieves its goals quite successfully, given that the soil underfoot is about as far from heath as it could be. There is an open, heath-like feel to the spacious property, and planting is pursuing that goal. Silver birch and pine trees are common; gorse is establishing itself, and there are even a few areas of heather. Campbell says the intention is to create more.

In the heat of this summer, the course was clearly playing fast. No fairway irrigation has been installed, a surprising decision given the high-spec of everything else in the Old Course Hotel complex, but this does mean the course's staff will be forced to walk the walk with respect to conditioning.

Conditioning will be a key issue. The heavy soils on the site have led to playability problems in the past, and Peter Thomson, in his letter to this magazine (GCA issue 4, p5), agreed that the land was far from ideal for golf. Substantial amounts of new drainage has been added, but Andy Campbell and his team face an ongoing battle to improve the soil's percolation and to keep the course dry.

There is some progress in this regard though: an almighty storm had raged the day before my visit, and although some wet patches were in evidence, most of the water had drained away.

Liddy's biggest changes have come to the last four holes, which he rerouted to reduce the amount of climbing involved in the holes. These holes work quite well, although I personally find the use of bunkers set above the home green and behind a narrow swale to be a little peculiar. Liddy told me his intention was to make the recovery shot, on what is a relatively short par four, a little more difficult – the swale means the golfer must think about how he will get his ball down onto the green, rather than simply blasting it out of a bunker cut tight to the putting surface.Maybe it's a foible on my part, but bunkers elevated above the level of the green struck me as odd.

Only time will tell for the Duke's. I can say that the course looks and feels pleasing, although at over 7,500 yards and par 71 from the very back tees, it is astoundingly long. Perhaps the most dramatic visual shift is the par three third, at which, as the photograph shows, the marsh in front of the green has been replaced by a massive waste bunker as one might see at Pine Valley. Again, this is a look that British golfers are simply not accustomed to, and several I have spoken to regard it as sand overkill. But, as superintendent Campbell told me, it has significantly improved playability on the hole. Previously a mishit tee shot found a soggy grave in the marsh; now the player can venture into the waste bunker and recover. The course gives the golfer a chance – now it's time for golfers to give the course a chance.

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