PERTHSHIRE, Scotland – Caird Miller, a former bank manager with a round face that seems permanently twisted into a welcoming smile, thrusts a pair of “Wellies” and thick hunting jacket in our direction with a snort, “You never know with the weather.”
In this slice of Scotland that’s not entirely true. To be precise, what you get is a steady diet of Mother Nature’s full repertoire, which is why Miller left nothing to chance as he marched his American visitors out of the posh Gleneagles Hotel to a trout lake for a fly fishing lesson. The weather did not disappoint.
It’s mid-July and the day alternates between a cold wind and light rain followed by bouts of warmth and sunshine, a familiar weather pattern perfectly suited for fly fishing if not the continued evolution of the hotel’s PGA Centenary Course.
The layout reopened in April after a Jack Nicklaus-led nip/tuck in preparation for the 2014 Ryder Cup. Of all the changes – which included 50,000 tons of displaced soil and 30,000 square meters of new turf – it was the installation of a state-of-art drainage system that promises to keep the focus on the ’14 matches, not the mud (see Cup, Ryder 2010 in Wales).
In this Miller had no doubt, either in the Centenary layout’s ability to withstand whatever weather may come or the home side’s chances. “It will be in good shape to give you a good stuffing,” he laughs without looking up from his fly.
Whether the European team, which has not lost on home soil since 1993, is up to the challenge remains to be seen, but it seems the Centenary Course, a distinctly American-style parkland design, will be ready for what is sure to be an agronomic challenge.
In fact, the ’14 matches may become known as the SubAir Cup if the weather follows its traditional September script, which is to say wet. The SubAir drainage system was installed in all 18 greens and officials also followed the “Better Billy Bunker Method” that was developed at Augusta National Golf Club to ready the layout for whatever may come, rain or shine.
“Some of the technology we’re using really is at the cutting edge,” says Scott Fenwick, the hotel’s golf and estate manager. “We’re the first club in the U.K. to have a fully installed SubAir system on all 18 greens – which should help the greens withstand some of the vagaries of Scotland’s climate.”
In addition to preparing for whatever Mother Nature can dole out, Nicklaus reworked the original design to also test the world’s top 24 players, or your average 24-handicap for that matter, with significant changes to nearly every hole.
The most dramatic alterations occurred at the 18th hole, a par 5 played up a hill to a natural amphitheater. The championship tees were elevated and fairway lowered to give players a better view of the landing area and create more of a risk/reward opportunity.
“It was considered an American-style course when it was first built (1993), but now it’s fitting in better with the landscape,” said Billy Murray, the hotel’s golf marketing manager.
Perhaps, but the Centenary Course – dubbed the Monarchs when it first opened – has a lot of growing to do if it is going to catch up with the adjacent King’s and Queen’s layouts, James Braid-designed gems that opened in 1919.
While the Centenary is straightforward and all about shot-making, the King’s and Queen’s are quirky, littered with blind shots and seamlessly placed amid the rolling hills. Ascend the hill from the first tee on the King’s Course and step back in time when this enclave was a railway stopover to points north.
It is the dichotomy of Gleneagles, a fusion of old (ageless architecture and holiday staples like falconry and fly fishing) and new (a modern spa and an adventurous off-road course).
For Gleneagles, which has hosted numerous European Tour events including this year’s Johnnie Walker Championship, the ’14 Ryder Cup will serve as a reintroduction that has been years in the making. From the makeover of the Centenary Course to a complete overhaul of the iconic hotel the matches will be the metaphorical split in the road for the venerable hotel.
Like the Ryder Cup, Gleneagles has grown up, reinvented itself and, as much as one can, readied itself for the onslaught from what is expected to be record crowds and, yes, Mother Nature.
It was on the off-road course, which is the one slice of Gleneagles life that relishes rain and mud, where the Ryder Cup experience strangely comes full circle.
From his passenger seat instructor Duncan Eade smiles his approval as a modified Range Rover lurches its way up a rutted hill along the River Knaik: “The more you force it the harder it is to go along,” he figures, and the thought occurs that is the perfect metaphor, for Gleneagles and the 2014 Ryder Cup players.