The green fee at glorious Gleneagles varies from £70 to £175 according to the time of the year and whether or not you’re staying in the magnificent hotel but it matters not which course you play – Kings, Queens or PGA Centenary. Very unusually for a resort with three courses, possibly uniquely, there’s no stand-out, this-is-the-one-you-brag-to your- mates-you’ve-played course. A good case can be made for each that, if you only have time for one round, this is the one to tee it up on.
From the very outset one hundred years ago, when five-time Open champion James Braid first set foot on the perfect moorland turf and admired the most glorious of settings, the intention was to create three courses. The Kings came first and although construction was interrupted by the First World War, it opened to great acclaim on May 1, 1919 and has more than held its own ever since.
Despite being over 500 feet above sea level, it possesses quite a few of the characteristics more commonly associated with the sort of genuine links courses with which Braid would have been very familiar. Foremost amongst these is the resilient turf on a gravelly sub-soil.
The striking undulations, sandy ridges, rough hollows and incessant breezes will have reinforced the familiar linksy feel but the ravines and towering pines will have presented refreshingly novel challenges. But Braid embraced them enthusiastically.
Although at a tad under 6,800 yards it’s not especially long by modern standards, the dramatic elevation changes render calculating distance decidedly tricky and make it feel longer than it is. The now iconic first that stares you straight in the face and is home to the steepest bunker in Gleneagles, if not the whole of Perthshire, provides an accurate foretaste of what lies ahead as the Kings is the hilliest of the three, has more sand that the other two and boasts the largest greens. As he looked up at the opening hole, Lee Trevino remarked, “If heaven is anything like this, I hope they save me a tee-time.”
Whereas the Kings is an outward looking course with spectacular views over the nearby Ochil Hills and the Grampians and Trossachs beyond, the Queens is more inward looking with imposing pines atop ridges providing shelter and creating a genuine sense of intimacy.
Also designed by Braid but initially only nine holes, the full 18 on the Queens opened for business in September 1925. Not quite 6,000 yards off the back tees and consequently significantly shorter than the Kings, it is often thought of as the younger sister and mistakenly regarded by some as the easiest at Gleneagles. “In my opinion, it’s the most underrated of the three,” remarked Andrew Jowette, the Head Professional.
What it may lack in yards, it would appear to make up in popularity as a straw poll among members revealed it to be comfortably ahead of the other two. Even the taxi driver who drove me up there said it was the best and you couldn’t find a more authoritative and reliable source than that, surely!
“Those who don’t know it very well think it must be short and easy, which it most certainly isn’t,” observed Jowette. “The first six holes are often into the wind, incredibly tough and are exceptionally strong. You have to get through them and then make your score.” As with the Kings, significant elevation changes put a premium on distance control and correct club selection.
Survive the first half-a-dozen and then admire the next six holes, which are quite breathtakingly beautiful. With the yellow from the gorse and broome gradually giving way to purple as the heather flowers in late summer, the scenery is simply dazzling.
Originally christened the Monarch’s course when it opened in 1993, what is now known as the PGA Centerary was designed by Jack Nicklaus and is very different from its two near neighbours. At 7,300 yards, it is the longest inland course in Scotland and has clearly been conceived on the grand scale.
It’s unmistakeably a stadium course with generous fairways, splendid vantage points and deliberate matchplay holes that should make for a memorable Ryder Cup this September. Quite a bit of tweaking was carried out last winter in an effort to improve it further and no fewer than 12 holes were altered. The most significant changes were made to the ninth and 18th, both of which are par fives and should offer up some birdies, eagles and witness significant swings in fortune.
“It’s not the most difficult golf course in the world but it wasn’t meant to be,” observed Nicklaus. “I didn’t want to ruin it for the guests and members. “
It’s the only course at Gleneagles where you don’t need to produce a medical certificate in order to take a buggy, which goes some way to meeting the criticism that it’s more than a few yards from quite a few of the greens to the next tee.
There are some who feel it’s too ‘American’ and will therefore play into the hands of the enemy. They would rather the Kings had been chosen as the Ryder Cup course. In answer to that the experts explain the PGA Centenary is the only one that could accommodate the 45,000 or so spectators who will descend on Gleneagles next September.
Perched up on the hills of Perthshire and originally owned by the Caledonian Railway Company, Gleneagles is a great deal more than three superb golf courses. Since its doors first swung open in the middle of the roaring twenties, the imposing and impressive five-star hotel has entertained royalty, film stars, numerous sportsmen and women, loads of celebrities and plenty of the rather well-heeled.
Standing serenely at the top end of that famous drive amidst perfectly manicured lawns, neatly trimmed hedges and colourful flower beds, it exudes quality and evokes an era when the rich and famous visited with the sole purpose of enjoying themselves. And even though times have changed and fashions moved on, the same single-minded determination to have fun is still at the heart of the Gleneagles’ experience.
Incidentally, although the occasional young eagle that’s been evicted from the nest does, from time to time, put in a fleeting appearance overhead, the name Gleneagles derives not from soaring great birds but from the Gaelic ‘eaglis’ meaning church.
Possibly to make up for any avian disappointment, there is an extremely impressive falconry at Gleneagles that houses dozens of magnificent raptors. There are regular sessions where you can learn how to handle the birds and, for those who fancy it, there’s the chance to accompany Harris Hawks as they go in pursuit of game birds and rabbits.
As well as hunting, not unsurprisingly, there’s shooting and fishing as well on the 850-acre estate, not forgetting horse riding, carriage driving, show jumping, archery, gundog handling, off-road driving, croquet, cycling, walking, swimming, tennis and wildlife photography.
For the less energetic, there’s an award-winning spa, hair salon, nail bar and a range of shops including one that only sells whisky.
There are several dining options including a rare restaurant that boasts two Michelin stars and the popular Dormy Clubhouse. Inspired by the jazz age glamour of the 1920s, The Bar is the social heart of the hotel. By day,
it's great for coffee and shortbread or an informal lunch. In the evening, the lights go down, the music plays softly and extensive but informal research is carried out into the 120 single malt whiskies on offer. Here’s hoping this is where the American team will congregate on the evening of Sunday September 28, 2014 to drown their sorrows.