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Gleneagles, PGA Centenary: Hole-by-hole review

AUCHTERARDER, Scotland – OK, let’s get over the fact that it’s not a links course. Nor were any of the last eight European Ryder Cup venues. And say this for the Gleneagles Resort’s PGA Centenary Course: It’s got much more substance than recent sites such as The Belfry’s Brabazon Course in Sutton Coldfield, England (1989, 1993, 2002), Valderrama, Sotogrande, Spain (1997), The K Club in County Kildare, Ireland (2006), and Celtic Manor Resort’s 2010 Course, Newport, Wales (2010).

The Jack Nicklaus design, opened in 1993 and ranked No. 42 among Golfweek’s Best Modern GB&I courses, sits in the Ochil Hills region of Perthshire in central Scotland, 50 miles’ equidistant from Glasgow (to the southwest) and Edinburgh (to the southeast). There’s easy highway access, great views of the golf course from spectator mounds and amphitheater, plenty of stadium-style seating and some exciting match-play holes.

It might not be the course to select to play during your first five visits to Scotland, but as a playing field suited for modern championships and as a blank canvas for what is biennially the most exciting golf event on the calendar, it will serve the occasion perfectly. For the 2014 Ryder Cup, Gleneagles-Centenary will play to a par of 72 and measure 7,243 yards. It’s been a fixture of the European Tour calendar since 1999 and thus more familiar to the European Ryder Cup team than to the American. But a few days of practice rounds will offset any imbalance there.

Here’s what to look for on the tube during what appears to be about 26 1/2 hours of live TV coverage.

For starters, get ready for lots of luxurious images of the Gleneagles Resort itself. The self-styled “Riviera of the Highlands” opened in 1924 as an elegant country outpost within easy rail link of major cities. The five-star resort, 850 acres in all, includes two legendary James Braid-designed course, The Kings and the Queens, as well as 232 guest rooms, a spa, equestrian center, fishing grounds, target shooting stations and falconry. It’s all very lush and very posh.

The Centenary Course is equally lush, with dense, cool season grasses (Poa annua/bentgrass greens; bentgrass/fescue fairways; and roughs comprising fescue/Poa annua/rye) that have grown in very well during what turned out to be an ideal summer.

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Hole No. 1: Par 4, 426 yards

Straightaway, right into the panorama of Glen Devon to the south, which sets the landscape tone very nicely. “Bracken Brae” (Fern Hill) calls for a layup (260 yards max) off the tee to a flat spot short of the fairway bunker right and before the landing area gets very narrow. There’s no gain in hitting a drive here since from the lay-up area it’s a simple short iron (circa 165 yards) to a green canted 30 degrees from front left to back right, protected front right by a moderate bunker. The one intriguing hole location is way back right, above the bunker and over a steep fall off. Miss the approach left – easy to do since a shot aimed at green center that goes a bit off center left or long is gone – and the down-and-away recovery will be very dicey.

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Hole No. 2: Par 5, 516 yards

A simple hole where 4s will dramatically outnumber 5s, this despite the occasional risk of a 6. “Wester Greenwells,” the name of a ruined croft that once stood here, demands a drive that avoids a very reachable fairway bunker 289 yards out on the left side. Steer it a bit out to the right and the approach is only 225-230 yards – a tad longer than down the inside of the dogleg left but much safer. The real trick here is a two-tier green perched above a pond on the left and three steep bunkers on the pond’s side of the green. The back third of the green is very difficult to access in two – unless the players flight a perfect long iron or rescue shot in. The prevailing wind here in late September is about 8 mph out of the west, which means this southwest-heading hole should be playing into a bit of a hurting breeze.

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Hole No. 3: Par 4, 431 yards

“Schiehallion” (Hill of Scotts) is one of those twisty, wisty, maddening holes that defy landscape logic. That’s because it’s a reverse-camber hole – turning right uphill, while the landform tilts to the left, kicking the ball away from the ideal line of play. A few brave souls will carry the triple bunker formation on the inside of the dogleg – if they can fly it 300 yards, uphill 20 feet. So deep the bunkers and so thick the rough on that side that if they land the drive a tad short or right, they will never be able to hit the green in regulation. The putting surface, perched another 15 feet above the main landing area, is tucked way right, over two fronting bunkers and has another one of those raised tiers, this one back left.

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Hole No. 4: Par 3, 211 yards

“Cowden Beastie” (Golden Bear) is an elegant par 3, slightly uphill, with the green in full perfect view of the tee. In fact, behind it, overlooking both the fourth tee and third green, is a huge, south-facing spectator stand with one of the best vantage points on the entire course. The winds out here in central Scotland can be fickle, even those that “prevail,” and if the weather shifts a touch and this hole ends up playing into a head wind or a strong crosswind, par will be a very good score.

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Hole No. 5: Par 4, 461 yards

This is the No. 1-handicap hole on the course for good reason. This 461-yard par 4 calls for a semi-blind shot into the prevailing westerly/northwesterly wind through a narrow chute of trees. The Gaelic name for the hole, “Crookit Cratur,” means “twisted and undulating,” which is a very good description of the fairway that gets narrowest at the main landing zone, 290 yards out. From there, it’s a middle or short iron to a wide green perched over a very ominous marsh pond covering the entire front right entrance to the putting surface.

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Hole No. 6: Par 3, 201 yards

“Mickle Skelp” (Small Hit) is a lovely downhill par 3 played from a dramatically exposed tee to a natural amphitheater of a green sitting just beyond a creek. The wind is likely to be helping, with the shot in measuring 180 to 220 yards, depending upon hole location. The difficulty isn’t the creek, which sits 12 yards short of the green front; it’s a putting surface that falls away to the back at its midpoint and propels incoming shots long, into very steep snarly rough, from which up-and-down recovery will be a very delicate matter.

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Hole No. 7: Par 4, 468 yards

“Larch Gait” (Larch Walk) is the first par 4 on the course where a player can blast driver with confidence and see the entire landing area. The main obstacle to avoid is a very steep of fairway bunker out on the right, 268 yards to reach and 290 yards to carry. A power fade off the tee takes care of that tee, leaving a short iron into a green that seems strangely suspended in mid air, unbunkered, with an infinity edge and thus little means of visible support. Indeed, the putting surface is one of the more subtle, tricky ones out here, with three distinct levels to it and yet no discernible transitional slopes that tell you exactly where the elevation shifts begin. It’s also a green very much exposed to the winds, which will make putting tougher than on most of the other surfaces, which tend to be cocooned in semi-enclosed spaces.

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Hole No. 8: Par 4, 419 yards

“Sidlin Brows” refers to a series of hillside undulations that form the chief strategic feature on this bold dogleg right par 4. Four steep bunkers cut sharply into the elbow at the prime landing area, 273 yards to reach and 305 yards to clear. They’d be tempting to try to carry, especially when the hole plays to a prevailing wind over the right shoulder. However, the recent growth of extremely heavy rough on the far side has effectively raised the risk ratio beyond the point of an effective reward payout. In other words, players will bail out to the right probably with less than a driver, and simply confront the green sitting 10 feet below them from 120-140 yards out with a wedge and a clear, unimpeded path home. If ever they would shorten this hole to the 342 yard tees it would make for an ideal short, tempting, drivable par 4.

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Hole No. 9: Par 5, 618 yards

“Crook O’Moss” is named for the source of the water supply that fills the three ponds on this long, uphill par 5. Astonishingly, it’s one of only two holes at Gleneagles-Centenary with fairway bunkers on both sides of the landing area. If the tees are moved up to 564 yards, as they might well be in better ball and the singles matches, this hole will be reachable in two. Otherwise, it’s basically a three-shot hole with a tough, uphill drive to a convex landing area that bleeds out on both sides into sand. From there, the safe, smart second shot will be a middle iron to the left, steering clear of two central bunkers 50-75 yards short of the green – and well left of a huge lake that guards the last 200 yards into this perched green. The entire hole forms an ideal setting for spectating on a grand scale.

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Hole No. 10: Par 3, 208 yards

“Sleekit Howe,” or Tricky Hollow, is another fine spectator-friendly hole that simply spills out from tee to green in simple, unimpeded fashion and yet contains some engaging rolls along the way. It plays straight down the prevailing wind from the west, making the shot considerably shorter than the scorecard yardage – in part because the green feeds steadily away from the line of play. There’s a great back-left hole location, tucked behind a very big greenside bunker there, and it brings into play a rather steep falloff into low-cut surrounds.

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Hole No. 11: Par 4, 350 yards

“Laich Burn,” is named for the stream that forms an irrecoverably steep water hazard 30 yards in front of the green on this 350-yard par 4. Unless PGA European Tour officials break form and move the tees up, this will be strictly lay-up in foursomes and individual matches. The only time we might see someone go for the green from the regular back tee is by the second player in better ball – if the first player is safely in the fairway. Generally, however, it’ll be a lay-up, anything from a 4-iron to a fairway metal off the tee to a yawning, wide landing area with no central or flanking hazard to worry about. From 100-125 yards out it’s a flip wedge to a large green atop a plateau, with the second half forming a deck that’s protected short right and far left with very steep bunkers. There will be a ton of birdies here at virtually no risk.

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Hole No. 12: Par 4, 445 yards

“Carn Mairg,” (Hill of Sorrow), is one of those awkwardly conceived, ill-defined holes that have no shape or reason from tee to green. But both teams will have to make the slog from tee to green, and along the way they’ll go uphill to a fairway that narrows down to a main landing area marked by a string of three bunkers right and very coarse rough left. From there, the second shot is slightly uphill to a green that only shows its front third – the rest of it folded up and over behind a yawning front bunker.

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Hole No. 13: Par 4, 481 yards

“Wimplin’ Wyne,” (Meandering Turn) is a good description of this long, delayed dogleg left with one of the toughest driving zones on the course. The main landing area slopes away and makes it hard to hold onto the fairway – where the drive zone narrows and feeds out into a bunker on the right, 300 yards off the tee. Drives that don’t carry the left side get short-sided in rough or caught behind overhanging trees that limit access to the green. Here’s another green that falls away in the back from the approach line. That leaves precious little room for a properly struck short- or middle iron to stick.

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Hole No. 14: Par 4, 320 yards

“Nebit Knowe” (Pointed Hillock) is further proof that it’s hard to mound up an otherwise flat field and make it interesting. At least they tried here, with a crumpled fairway, dotted by fairways center, left and right starting from 200 yards off the tee and continuing to the green. Here’s the smallest, most heavily contoured green on the course, with three distinct levels and roll offs in every direction. Standard strategy here will be for the second player in better ball to go for the green, as well as anyone down in a singles match. But it’s really not at all clear on this hole if there’s any reason not to hit driver, since the penalty for landing in a fairway bunker is not all that severe.

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Hole No. 15: Par 4, 463 yards

“Ochil Sicht” (View of the Ochil Hills) is the strongest, most demanding par 4 at Gleneagles-Centenary. The hole is a double dogleg, with a generous-looking fairway that misleadingly steers players to the right when in fact the ideal line is down the more dangerous-looking left side. The prevailing crosswind, from the right, steers drives off course. But for drives that hold the line and avoid a very steep bunker 290 yards out on the right, the putting surface, sitting 20 feet below the fairway, then presents an elusive target. And yet it’s the largest green on the course, 50 yards deep, but only 22 yards across and aligned along an axis that sets up from the left; approaching from the right makes for an awkward angle across more bunkers protecting the near side of the green. The rolling green, which runs up, over and then back up to the rear, is slightly convexed and favors a left-to-right shot to a hole location on the left; conversely, it calls for a right-to-left approach to a hole location on the right side. It’s the most complex hole out here, one that will see few birdies and many holes won with pars.

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Hole No. 16: Par 5, 518 yards

“Lochan Loup” (Leap Over the Small Loch) offers the only centrally placed fairway bunker at Gleneagles-Centenary. Unaccountably, at 215 yards to carry it’s not in play for Ryder Cuppers, just for the rest of us. It’ll also be a big surprise if anyone all weekend ends up waterlogged in the diagonally arrayed pond that ends 80 yards short of the green. Again, such is the gap between everyday golfers and these world-class golfers that they will not give it a thought except when laying up out of the rough or from some nasty fairway bunkers way to the right off the tee. For most players in whatever style of match – better ball, foursomes or singles – this will be a two-shot hole where birdie will more likely halve than win and par is likely to lose. Unless, that is, the prevailing head wind really kicks up and conditions get nasty; in which case, this hole could suddenly get very exciting.

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Hole No. 17: Par 3, 194 yards

Naming holes can be a contrivance. When a fairly basic par 3 is called “Ca Canny” (Be Careful) you know it’s a forced matter. Whatever. Here’s another one of those amphitheater holes ideally suited for spectating on a huge scale. This hole is unusual in that most of the trouble is long, thanks to a slightly raised green that falls off steeply back right and back left into deep bunkers. When the hole is cut on the plateaus to the rear, players trying to be bold with their middle irons will find themselves scrambling to make par.

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Hole No. 18: Par 5, 513 yards

“Dun Roamin’ ” is one of those oft-redesigned holes that shows how hard it is to make a short par 5 compelling for Tour-quality players. It’s only 513 yards, but uphill and forming a reverse camber at the tight landing area off the tee. But the real issue is the green, perched up, 40 yards deep and only 14 yards across, with both flanks falling off steeply so as to form a very elusive landing strip for a bold second shot. A veritable stadium has been created to overlook the last 200 yards of the hole, but with only one out of six Ryder Cup matches reaching the final hole (historically), the throngs gathered here (and at premium rates!) might end up watching much of the action on vast screens.

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