Course History: The Endless Charm of Gleneagles

That Gleneagles would one day host The Ryder Cup, which will be the case when Europe seeks a successful defence against the United States on September 26-28, 2014, seems to have been written in the stars.

That Gleneagles would one day host The Ryder Cup, which will be the case when Europe seeks a successful defence against the United States on September 26-28, 2014, seems to have been written in the stars.

For not only did the illustrious resort survive the threat of the First World War, but it emerged in the “Roaring Twenties” to become recognised by the rich and famous as “The Riviera of the Highlands.” Now, little more than a century after Donald Matheson had the vision for a Grand Hotel, Gleneagles will celebrate its 90th Anniversary year by welcoming the 40th edition of arguably the most enthralling show in golf on a course designed by a man recognised by most observers as the greatest golfer to ever replace a divot.

Jack Nicklaus, whose record of winning 18 professional Major Championships from the 1962 US Open to the 1986 Masters Tournament represents 25 years of unparalleled sporting supremacy, states, unequivocally, that “Scotland has always been considered the ‘home of golf’ and, in some ways, it has felt like a second home to me.” All of which is hardly surprising since he made his Walker Cup debut in 1959 at Muirfield, where in 1966 he won the first of his three Open Championships. The other two were secured in 1970 and 1978 on the Old Course at St Andrews, where in 2005 he said farewell to Major Championship competition.

Nicklaus has always believed that a course should both challenge and inspire. When his layout opened in 1993 at Gleneagles as The Monarch’s Course, it achieved all that and more for the Hotel guests. Subsequently, the demand for quality golf shots and decision-making has been enhanced through a collective effort by Nicklaus Design and Gleneagles to ensure that the re-named PGA Centenary Course is a true modern-day challenge to confront the players captained by Paul McGinley and Tom Watson.

Matheson was taking time out in 1910, from his role of general manager of the Caledonian Railway Company, in the picturesque surroundings of the Scottish Highlands, when, in his mind, he conceived the idea that would become Gleneagles. He submitted his proposal in October, 1912, for a “Grand Hotel” and three golf courses, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Vision is in the eye of the beholder and, with hindsight, sometimes too easy to see. So while there can be no question that the Perthshire hills provided the perfect setting for such a Grand Hotel and golf to come together, it nevertheless required commitment, energy and foresight on the part of Matheson to keep his dream alive as the First World War interrupted construction.

The King’s Course, officially opened on May 1, 1919, then followed by The Queen’s Course—initially nine holes—were both creations of James Braid, winner of five Open Championships and the leading golf course designer in the 1920s and 1930s. Still, work on the hotel did not resume until 1922. The Grand Opening Gala in June, 1924, was a lavish affair, and came a full 14 years after Matheson, by profession a civil engineer and architect, had his dream, while holidaying in Strathearn, that a hotel possessing the cultured razzamataz of the grand establishments on the Continent could be built in the valley through which his company’s railway line ran, so providing the perfect mode of transportation at that time for discerning guests.

Those guests, enjoying the luxury of The Gleneagles Hotel and the relaxing challenge of the golf, could not help be smitten by the majesty of the scenery as Ed Hodge in his excellent book “Jewel in the Glen – Gleneagles, Golf and The Ryder Cup” so eloquently writes: “With the sun emerging above the verdant Ochil Hills in the foreground and the uplifting magnificence of the rugged Grampian Mountains and the Trossachs beyond there are few settings that inspire such breathlessness.”

Braid, on being engaged by Matheson, instantly recognised—just as Nicklaus would more than 60 years later—that the land of sand and gravel, deposited when the last ice sheet finally melted some 15,000 years earlier, was perfect for golf courses. In appointing Braid, Matheson also knew that the quality of the courses would provide the opportunity for professional competition, which started with a tangible link to The Ryder Cup when an historic, first-ever “International Challenge Match” was played on The King’s Course between British and American professionals on June 6, 1921, as a prelude to the Glasgow Herald 1,000 Guineas tournament taking place.

Nevertheless, while the match and the tournament won the plaudits of the players and the spectators, the Americans were not entirely impressed by their accommodation, since construction had only just re-started on the hotel. They were compelled to fetch and carry their own water to the five waterless railway carriages in which they were housed in a siding at the station near Auchtermuchty in Fife.

By the time that Nicklaus first visited Gleneagles—for a famous “Big Three” match with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player on The King’s Course in 1966—there was no talk of the resort hosting The Ryder Cup. Yet Ian Marchbank, the Gleneagles head professional from 1962 to 1992, admits to in 1971 “trying very hard to promote Gleneagles as a potential venue” despite being aware at the time that the next edition would be taking place at Muirfield.

Nicklaus was, of course, by that time the master of the fairways in full flow towards building a career record which included a remarkable 18 professional Major Championships—six Masters, five US PGA Championships, four US Opens and three Open Championships—and, although in no way diluting his quest for titles (he would eventually win in total 120 worldwide), he was already embarking in golf course design. That would evolve into the family-run, globally acclaimed Nicklaus Design, now with a résumé built over more than 40 years.

When The 2014 Ryder Cup is played on The PGA Centenary Course, his company will have in 36 countries and 39 US states approaching 400 golf courses open for play, including a fourth of the courses having played host to a professional tournament.

It was in March, 1988, that Nicklaus signed a contract with Gleneagles to build his first course in Scotland with the aim being to create a 21st century challenge that would complement the existing King’s and Queen’s courses. The new course would be built on a site occupied at that time by the courses named Glendevon, opened in 1980, and Prince’s, which began life as the Wee Course in 1928 and was extended to 18 holes in 1974.

Nicklaus was an obvious choice and not simply because of his reputation as a player. He had developed, unquestionably, a design company which for many astute observers was the best in the world. Moreover, he believed wholeheartedly in creating courses that were aesthetically pleasing and had not lost sight of the fact that everything he was able to pursue in design and business followed because of his ability to play golf.

Even so Nicklaus’ determination to put back into golf something that would further enhance its values had much to do with his desire to design courses and, indeed, gave birth to the dream to build Muirfield Village Golf Club just outside his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and conceive the concept of the Memorial Tournament.

Making a contribution to the future success of the game whetted Nicklaus’ appetite and in Muirfield Village and the Memorial Tournament he has a legacy of which he is justifiably proud.

Now The Gleneagles Hotel and The PGA Centenary Course are about to take their place in the history books. Nicklaus, following a first planning meeting with then Managing Director Peter Lederer and Golf Courses and Estate Director Jimmy Kidd, described the land on which he would go to work in Scotland as “the finest in the world I have ever been given to work with. Great terrain; nice rolling turf; a lot of terrific places; beautiful views—when you see the views.” You could almost hear Braid saying much the same as the challenge began on the then Monarch’s Course, which was officially opened on May 15, 1993, and re-named The PGA Centenary Course on January 1, 2001, to commemorate the PGA’s Centenary Year.

Time stands still for no man and golf, similarly, requires constant review. Gleneagles had made some minor changes but then Nicklaus was invited to return to modernise and re-invigorate the layout because as Patrick Elsmie, the Managing Director of Gleneagles, points out: “When we started looking at what we thought we might need to do to The PGA Centenary Course some years ago we had a very simple motto: We wanted to have memorable holes for the fantastic match-play event that is The Ryder Cup, but we wanted it to be known as a fantastic course, for everyday play, not just because it’s going to have three days of The Ryder Cup. It was a great opportunity for us to hook those changes onto The Ryder Cup. To re-engage with Jack was exciting.”

Nicklaus explains: “When we built the course it was a pretty challenging layout. With the equipment and the golf ball—in 1993 we were still using wound balls—and everything going much farther, it needed alterations. So we set out to make it more relevant in today’s game, from some of the bunkering to the strategy.”

The PGA Centenary Course has successfully hosted a European Tour event since 1999, in its present form known as the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, but the work undertaken during the winter of 2011-12 transformed the course with changes being made to no fewer than 12 holes, in addition to the bunkers on all holes being remodelled. The most significant alterations were to the ninth, which is like beauty and the beast as it is both aesthetically striking and artfully challenging, and the 18th holes.

Nicklaus Design supplied Gleneagles with a very detailed and extensive plan on how to develop the 18th and then left it with them to make a decision based on time and available resources. Nicklaus explained: “Among the adjustments we collectively decided to move forward with was to place a bunker off the right side of the first landing area. Obviously the more you challenge the bunker, the better the opportunity to reach the green in two. We also added a group of diagonal bunkers short and right of the new green which gives the golfer three options on how to play the hole—hit short and right and leave a pitch; play left to open the green for a pitch; or take it all the way home.”

In a nutshell, the ninth and 18th are now par fives that provide a risk-and-reward element that transcends the course, offering the opportunity for the players, especially in the match-play environment afforded by The Ryder Cup, to raise the excitement level. The lowering of the 18th green to create an amphitheatre effect has installed the space for more spectators to enjoy those matches which go to the wire.

The flow of The PGA Centenary Course has, however, not changed. You start out playing southeast towards the famed Glen of Eagles, sweeping up the Ochil Hills to the summit of the pass below Ben Shee, which joins it to Glen Devon. As you move westwards, the course, which now sits so naturally in the Perthshire countryside that it might have been there since the 1920s, the rugged Grampians provide a breath-taking backdrop with the majesty of Ben Vorlich and the mountains above the Trossachs.

There is a bewitching kaleidoscope of colours every step of the way, with the lush panorama of the rich Perthshire straths framed by tall pines, beech and firs, silver birch and golden gorse, purple heather and dominant-brown ferns in a spectacular moorland setting dotted by burns and lochs. The charm of Gleneagles is endless, with the call of wild geese, duck, grouse, partridge, pheasant, snipe and woodcock. Perhaps there has never been a more appropriate setting, given that Samuel Ryder, the seed merchant who provided The Ryder Cup for competition, named his business the Heath and Heather Company.

Coincidentally, The Gleneagles Hotel and The Ryder Cup began life in the “Roaring Twenties,” recognised as the breakout decade for sports across the modern world, and when the hotel opened on June 7, 1924, the music was broadcast all over Britain by the BBC. Such is the appeal of The Ryder Cup there is no question that the attention of the whole world will in late September, 2014, focus on the teams of Europe and the United States and on The Gleneagles Hotel with The PGA Centenary Course that Jack Nicklaus built.

Mitchell Platts