Mark Alexander visited Canadian architect Doug Carrick's new Scottish course, built in a reclaimed quarry along the lochside.
It might have been one of the mildest autumns on record, but it didn't feel like it teeing off at The Carrick in October. The new addition to the De Vere stable of courses looked ominous in the dim light as the unseasonal weather brought heavily laden clouds down from the Highlands.
Many other venues would have been overshadowed in such conditions, but not this new heathland course situated on the banks of Loch Lomond. It simply shone in the oppressive light. Goodness knows what it'll look like in the summer sunshine.
It's taken six years to transform the former quarry into a prestigious championship-standard course, a feat recognised by the Ladies European Tour which has selected The Carrick as the venue for the return of the Scottish Ladies Open after an absence of 12 years.
The course, which is due to open in June, has reportedly cost £9m to build and is being touted as the most expensive in Scotland. It's in good company. Take a short water-taxi ride up the loch and you'll find yourself at Loch Lomond Golf Club, famous for its restrictive membership policy (only 12,000 rounds are played there each year and that includes the Scottish Open), and its stunning Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish design. The stablemates may share the west bank of Loch Lomond but their bond goes far deeper than just geographical proximity.
"Originally, the site was to be the public access sister course to Loch Lomond," says Stewart Smith, director of golf at The Carrick. "The idea was to have a hotel with off-road driving and clay pigeon shooting, and a public access course on the Carrick land."
The project was ditched following September 11 but with plans already afoot for a golf course, De Vere stepped in. By May 2004, planning permission had been granted and work began on site. It would take another two years before the Doug Carrick design was transferred to the shores of the loch. As Smith explains, it was a process that adopted a more traditional approach than its neighbour.
"It was always the intention to have a fairly old-fashioned minimalist approach," he says. "That's what the planners wanted and that's what we wanted. Something that would blend into the topography of the land and use the natural backdrop of the glens and the loch, but with a Scottish feel. It needed to be something different from our neighbour, which has a very American, parkland look. We've gone for something different with brown fescue grasses, revetted bunkers and a dark sand which is what we use for top dressing."
The course takes its name from the man who designed it, but also has links to Robert the Bruce – once the third Earl of Carrick. Since Carrick also means 'rocky place' in old Scots, a more apt name would be hard to find for a former gravel extraction site that provided the building blocks for the A82 that runs alongside the western periphery of the course but remains cleverly hidden from view.
"The land is completely different to Loch Lomond," Smith explains. "It's a very gravelly, free-draining site apart from a couple of holes where we did some major drainage work. It lends itself to being a fast-running heathland course. Drainage was uppermost in the choice of contractors which turned out to be a drainage company. It was something we knew we needed to get right if we were going to have 12 months of golf."
Year-round play was crucial for a development that incorporates 96 timeshare properties – 78 lodges and 18 mansion house apartments – and a £11 million clubhouse and spa. It also needs to be adaptable if it is to appeal to both the paying public and tour pros. As result, variety and playability were the watchwords during the design process which created a course measuring between 5,200 and 7,000 yards depending on which of the four tees is used (three holes have a fifth tee position).
As well as playability, the course needed to offer a local flavour and therefore incorporates a number of traditional Scottish elements including revetted bunkers and gorse. But perhaps most crucial of all are the grasses. "There's a lot of fescue," says Smith, "We've also used three different types of bent grasses on the greens, the main one being velvet bent which Ken Siems has tried up the road at Loch Lomond and reckons does well in this climate. There's also a bit of bent along with fescue in the tees."
The rough has also received the tartan treatment. "We wanted a more tall, wispy look so we've cut and bailed the rough this winter and we're going to control it so that it comes back a little thinner," says Smith. "We want the course to be playable because, at the end of the day, it is a resort course and we want people to enjoy their round. The back tees make it a good test while the forward tees make it very playable, but when you do go off the fairway you need to find your ball. But if you go 20 yards off the fairway, it's going to be tough."
In an area where rain is an ever-present possibility, keeping the rough under control will be a concern for Smith and his 18-strong team of greenkeepers. Dreich days can also play havoc with soft, absorbent greens. Dumbartonshire, for example, receives nearly 2,000mm of rain every year – almost double the UK average. This could explain the massive drainage project presently being undertaken at Loch Lomond (see GCA issue 3) and the meticulous forward planning at The Carrick.
But the Carrick course is making use of all this water to minimise its environmental impact. A recycling wash-off system has been installed by supplier Waste2Water to remove any risk of potential contamination arising from the day-to-day activities of the golf facility. Washing equipment, refuelling and chemical handling activities are all treated on asecure wash pad, biologically breaking down pollutants such as oil, and pesticides. The system re-uses the same water, reducing wash water usage by up to 90 per cent.
"From a percolation point of view, we went with a standard USPGA spec of gravel and sand," says Smith. "Being a heathland course, we wanted the greens to be a bit firmer than you get on some parkland courses. And we've probably achieved it – you have to strike the ball pretty well to make it stop. The greens are a little bit firmer than at Loch Lomond, but the spec won't be a lot different. Ours is more of a gravelly site and we've also put in the drainage." The greens are certainly beautifully configured with deep, intimidating revetted bunkers guarding most holes.
The surfaces feel firm but have a surprising amount of undulation which isn't immediately noticeable from the fairway. "They're all big," notes Smith. "Most of them are 800 to 850 sq m but they don't look it from the fairway. Doug has put in little runoffs that make them look smaller. In fact, that's a feature of the course – it looks tougher than it actually plays. I think people will come off it thinking it was a good test of golf that they enjoyed because they played well.
That's his ability as an architect." One of the most impressive aspects of the course is undoubtedly the views. Like LLGC, The Carrick benefits from 360 degrees of stunning landscapes. From the lapping waters of the loch to the imposing peaks and glens, the course is idyllically situated. However, unlike LLGC, The Carrick also has an elevated tier meaning that although only five holes enjoy shoreline positions, many others have jaw-dropping vistas.
"Some holes have turned out to be even better than I thought they would," says Smith. "The fourth lies between a lagoon and trees on the right. There are no bunkers but it's a very tight drive with a tough, intimidating second shot. There's no bail out – you've got to hit a good golf shot because there's water on the left and over the back there's a natural area.
Thirteen also plays very long with an uphill tee shot and probably the ball above your feet on the second. Possibly the most spectacular tee shot is the seventh because the line is right over the top of Ben Lomond and you've got a view of the loch for your approach. Fourteen is also a great hole with Ben Lomond once again as a backdrop." While the signature holes will undoubtedly be those bordering the loch's edge, the 14th defines The Carrick.
Measuring 194 yards from the back tees, the hole drops sixty feet to a large green surrounded by four bunkers. As ever, Ben Lomond provides a scenic distraction as does the loch, which is only 20 yards from the putting surface. Such a descent is possible because the course straddles the Highland fault line meaning nine holes are in the Highlands and nine are in the Lowlands. The ninth provides a climb of some 100 feet while the 14th delivers the descent.
The hole encompasses everything about The Carrick – the views, the relative simplicity of the design and its possible shortfalls. While the hole is tricky, it is certainly reachable for most players, the majority of whom will leave egg-cupsized pitch marks if they hit the putting surface. The potential for a potted green is almost unavoidable, especially on a damp day.
Elsewhere, the damp could cause other problems. In October, run-off streams had formed in a number of fairways and some bunkers had sprouted clumps of mushrooms. While admittedly there were still eight months before its official opening, the course was suffering from the rain. Drainage will be a nuisance for The Carrick's team but it shouldn't detract from the pleasure of playing a course that has been fantastically routed to combine incredible views with a formidable test of golf.
Mark Alexander is a Scottish golf journalist and photographer. This article first appeared in GCA issue 7, published January 2007.