It would be understandable if Dundonald Links felt just a little threatened by Ayrshire’s embarrassment of golfing riches.
After all it sits within minutes of storied Open venues such as Royal Troon and Prestwick Golf Club. Another, Turnberry, is 30 minutes down the coast. Wonderful Western Gailes is within a wedge. Barassie, Glasgow Gailes… the list goes on. Dundonald Links is well and truly surrounded.
There is, however, no hint of that here. Why? Well, for a start, Dundonald Links has played host to world’s best men and women. The likes of Rory McIlroy, Georgia Hall, Patrick Reed and Michelle Wie visited when Dundonald staged the 2017 men’s and women’s Scottish Opens. But that’s not all. These days, this is far more than just a championship links course. The next chapter of Dundonald’s story is unashamedly ambitious and bold.
We’ve been invited to Ayrshire to witness the realisation of that vision. This may once have been a golf club which hosted European Tour events without a clubhouse, but as we pull in through the gates and wind our along the driveway here, it is clear that Dundonald’s desire to become one of the UK’s best golf resorts is far more than just words.
Everywhere you look there is evidence – opulent hotel rooms, luxury golf lodges and a sprawling clubhouse rising from the ground. We have been invited here to test drive one of the 18 purpose-built luxury golf lodges which are tucked, almost out of sight, behind the dunes that frame this links. The promise is not only of a great experience on the course, but off it too.
Ayrshire holds few secrets from me. As a child I had learned the game on this coastline, spending my summers exploring everything it had to offer as I fell in love with the game. This felt, in one sense, like a journey home. And yet, so much of what I found still took me by surprise.
Dundonald is a study in contrasts. The stereotype is that this is Ayrshire’s new kid on the block. This course didn’t exist in the days when I was learning the game nearby. Architect Kyle Phillips, who designed Kingsbarns, was only brought in to develop the site in 2003. And yet dig a little deeper and you realise that stereotype falls short. Golf was being played here more than a century ago on a course known as Southern Gailes.
At the time it opened in 1913, this was one of the longest golf courses in the world, measuring 6,700 yards. The impressive clubhouse boasted accommodation, a smoke room and even modern toilets. The outbreak of the World Wars would change its path dramatically.
During the First World War, the course was closed for five years. It reopened successfully though, attracting James Braid to update the bunkering on Willie Fernie’s original layout. The outbreak of World War Two, however, would prove altogether more damaging for Dundonald. The site become known as Dundonald Camp and was turned over to the military as troops moved in to rehearse for the D-Day landings. Within a week, locals say, the golf course was unrecognisable – crushed under the weight of marching soldiers, amphibious tanks and the tools of war. Once the war was won, Dundonald was forgotten and lost to time, the course almost erased from sight. Golf on this land became a memory which belonged only to locals.
That was until the 2003, when it was awoken from its slumber. Old bunkers undisturbed by war were somehow rediscovered, unearthed and incorporated into the new design. Against all odds golf was once again restored to this links land, giving rise to Dundonald Links.
The new layout is a championship course in every sense of the word. It has been designed to be able to cope with an assault from the very best players in the world, measuring more than 7,200 yards from the tips and framed by dunes which provide the perfect viewing spots for crowds. The four tee grounds on each hole mean Dundonald can also provide a more comfortable challenge for you and I, thankfully, but it is unquestionably a challenge.
Dundonald is a links, rather like Formby, with genuine and surprising variety. There are stretches of holes which are framed by pine trees. There is water too, albeit used sparingly, to challenge you to think strategically, particularly on the par-5s. The bunkering can be fierce, both from the tee and around the putting surfaces, while the green complexes are sprawling and stacked with sweeping slopes, swales and shelves. It is a fair test, though, from first to last. The fairways are wide enough to encourage you to pull the driver and the rough penal enough to make you think twice.
The back 9 stood out, particularly the stretch which begins with the par-3 11th, then runs along the railway line which divides Dundonald from Western Gailes before ending on the 16th green. The views across the Firth of Clyde to Arran and Ailsa Craig are memorable and when the sun shines, as it did for us, the evening light is nothing short of spectacular. Beauty is all around in this ecosystem. Those who look closely will spot beehives around the links as well as the rare ‘small blue’ butterfly, which had left the region and has now returned, having been given room to spread its wings once more.
That is no accident. The environment and sustainability has been considered at every turn. The stunning two-storey clubhouse features a planted roof to encourage local flora and fauna to set up home here and the building has been finished with local Whinstone, quarried nearby.
After a long, sun-kissed day on the links, it was time to put our feet up and return to our lodge. What we found was a home from home, a place of genuine comfort and luxury, but also a place where all the little details which make a golf trip special had been considered.
The team who designed these lodges were either golfers themselves or listened carefully to people who are. Golf bag storage areas, drying rooms, large screen TVs, barbecues, en-suite bathrooms, pool tables, a cooler area to chill your drinks while you walk out of the sliding doors and onto the communal short game area outside.
You never really want to put your clubs away for long on a golf trip, so once dinner was eaten the games began once more, and a chipping competition continued long after the sun had dropped into the Firth of Clyde. In fact, it was only once the sun had gone down and the holes became shrouded by darkness that chips began to go into the hole, which tells you all you need to know about our short games.
As a resort, the offering at Dundonald Links is hard to fault. What the team here have done is create something that has been thoughtfully planned and brilliantly executed. It is luxurious, polished and elegant. The end result is a destination that must now be considered the ultimate base for anyone looking to plan an Ayrshire golf trip.
What we found when we went to play other courses nearby and told them we’d come from Dundonald, was a sense of excitement about what is being created here. Ayrshire unquestionably deserves more acclaim than it gets and much of what has held it back in the eyes of some has been a lack of high-end accommodation to service its unquestionably high-end golf courses. Problem solved.
So far from being threatened by its many stellar golfing neighbours, Dundonald Links has done something here that not only builds on its own burgeoning reputation within the game, but also enhances each of the golf clubs that sit close-by along this beautiful Ayrshire coast.
Everybody needs good neighbours, right?
*Ben Smith was a guest of Dundonald Links