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Auld landscape, new links: Golfing in Scotland

St. Andrews, a town as recognizably Scottish as the kilt and sporran, is a starkly beautiful tumble of sandstone buildings blackened with age and cathedral spires that thrust like medieval pikes into the sky.

Looming at cliff-top are the picturesque ruins of St. Andrews Castle, once the administrative heart of the Scottish Church. And dominating the busy downtown is the University of St. Andrews, founded in 1413 and the oldest and most prestigious university in Scotland.

But the Auld Grey Toon, as St. Andrews is known, is most famous as the birthplace of golf. First played more than 550 years ago on the oceanside site of the iconic Old Course, golf is the lifeblood of Scottish tourism, annually pumping more than $292-million into the economy. Now, a decade-long building boom has seen a succession of new championship courses open throughout Scotland, offering even past visitors more reasons than ever to come back.

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"There are so many emerging golf destinations around the world that Scotland has to keep building new courses just to stay competitive," says former European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance, now a golf "ambassador" for the VisitScotland tourism office. "Really, it's a question of survival."

Tourism officials are hoping that the new courses coming on line, together with the heavily promoted Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebrations, will help to reverse declining numbers in a nation where tourism employs one in every 11 people. Recent surveys reveal that hotel occupancy has slumped by 4.1 per cent in the past year.

Homecoming, a yearlong program of events and festivals to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of poet Robert Burns, is expected to draw tourists from around the world. The program will also showcase golf, whisky and other key elements of Scottish culture.

An extra incentive for golfers considering a visit is Drive It Home 2009, an online promotion offering more than $5-million worth of free tee times at a wide selection of the country's 550-plus courses. Another focal point of Homecoming will be the British Open golf championship, July 16 to 19, on the Ailsa Course at Turnberry Resort.

St. Andrews - a must-play destination for every well-travelled golfer - is anticipating a banner year. The town is still riding a wave of publicity from the launch last June of the Castle Course, the first tournament standard layout opened by the St. Andrews Links Trust (which operates seven courses, including the Old Course) since 1914.

Designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd, the course takes its name from Kinkell Castle, which once stood where the nines of the new layout begin. McLay Kidd, who made his reputation with his brilliant work at Oregon's Bandon Dunes, has magically transformed formerly barren land just south of town into a gnarled and wild links-style layout that heaves and tumbles along seaside cliffs.

Every hole at McLay Kidd's unforgettable course affords spectacular views of the church spires and old town wall of St. Andrews across the crashing bay.

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No Scottish course since the opening of nearby Kingsbarns Golf Links in 2000 has been so eagerly anticipated - or received such rave reviews. Located 9.6 kilometres southeast of St. Andrews, Kingsbarns, a masterful seaside layout by American architect Kyle Phillips, is credited with igniting a countrywide building boom that has seen the launch of such high-profile courses as Dundonald Links (2003), Spey Valley Golf Course (2006), and the Renaissance Club (2008).

Of particular interest to Canadians was the 2007 launch of The Carrick on Loch Lomond, designed by Toronto-based golf architect Doug Carrick. The gorgeous heathland-style layout at the De Vere Cameron House hotel near Glasgow is the first Scottish course built by a Canadian.

First weaving through open meadows, the course detours around inland lagoons and dramatically climbs uphill before climaxing with a stretch of three holes on the rugged shoreline of Loch Lomond. The Carrick, which will host the Ladies Scottish Open tomorrow through to May 3, is reputedly the only course in Scotland where golfers play the front nine holes in the gently rolling Lowlands and the back nine in the craggy and sloping Highlands.

Though tourism officials agree that Scotland has to keep building courses to maintain its position atop the golf world, new projects often must overcome the objections of environmentalists and anti-development groups.

Donald Trump's plan to build a $2-billion golf course, resort and luxury housing community on prime links-land just north of Aberdeen was stalled for more than two years by locals who didn't want such a large, North American-style development in their backyard. There were also concerns that the project would damage the area's rare 4,000-year-old sand dune system, a site of scientific interest and an important habitat for plants and animals.

Calling Trump's development of "great economic and social benefit" to the country, the Scottish government finally pushed through approval for the plan last November.

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Far more warmly received was a sweeping $55-million plan by developers to transform the remote Kintyre Peninsula village of Machrihanish (a three-hour drive from Glasgow) into a world-class golf destination with dozens of time-share cottages, a refurbished main street hotel, a private airstrip and a new links course by McLay Kidd, the red-hot designer of the Castle Course in St. Andrews.

Set for a soft opening on May 2, Machrihanish Dunes is a stunningly natural course full of hollows, hillocks, bumps and slopes. Unlike the Castle Course, where McLay Kidd had to truck in tons of earth to mould every hole, Machrihanish Dunes was shaped more by Mother Nature than man, the seaside landscape already seemingly made for golf.

At one point, the new course abuts Machrihanish Golf Club, a classic beauty built by Old Tom Morris in the 1870s and the village's other claim to fame. Despite Machrihanish's inconvenient location, expectations are that the knockout combination of the new and old courses - both world-class links - will be impossible for golfers to resist.

But these days not even the most ideally situated Scottish golf courses can afford to take their success for granted.

So fierce is the competition in St. Andrews that the two championship cliff-top layouts at the Fairmont St. Andrews hotel, though less than a decade old and ranked among Scotland's top courses, have undergone major renovations. The Kittocks Course (formerly the Devlin) reopened last October, and the Torrance Course will be ready in time to host the men's Scottish Senior Open Aug. 21 to 23. The changes were part of a $31-million upgrade to the 209-room North American-style property.

With the spectacular new Castle Course next door and the Old Course just down the road, it's expensive work keeping up with the neighbours.

Pack your clubs

Where to play

CASTLE COURSE 44 (1333) 466666; Green fee $215.

KINGSBARNS GOLF LINKS 44 (1334) 460860; Green fees $240 to $292.

CARRICK ON LOCH LOMOND 44 (845) 3752808; Green fee $228.

MACHRIHANISH DUNES 44 (1586) 810000; Green fee $169.

MACHRIHANISH GOLF CLUB 44 (1586) 810277; Green fee $90.

FAIRMONT ST. ANDREWS 44 (1334) 837000; Green fees $124 to $169. Packages available.




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