Polly, Craig, Stu and I played here on 26 September 2011. This is Craig, Stu and I close to the 1st tee. The PGA National Centenary (catchy name, eh?) is of course the venue for the 2014 Ryder Cup, so we'd been keen to play it to see what lies in store for the teams, spectators and TV viewers. The Ryder Cup match will be played from the Blue Championship tees and from there, the course measures a formidable 7262 yards. Craig and I opted to play from the White tees, giving us a course of 6776 yards, Par 72. Stu went for the Yellow tees, giving him a slightly more manageable 6307 yards to negotiate and Polly was off the Red Ladies tees, at 5270 yards. Polly and I had stayed at Gleneagles Hotel overnight, enabling us to play the course the next day at a reasonable price and negotiate a discounted deal for the guys to join us, minimising our costs, an important factor since we've still got a lot of travelling etc to do in order to complete our challenge of playing every Scottish course.
There had been heavy overnight rain and although it was still a bit damp underfoot when I'd played the Hotel's Pitch and Putt course before breakfast, the PGA National course was absolutely saturated, with casual water affecting most shots. Indeed, we were often splashing our way through puddles or finding that the ground would sink a few inches under our weight (and I'm only 180 pounds!) We were left wondering what state the course would be in should some really wet weather arrive before or during the 2014 Ryder Cup. We'd heard rumours of the match being brought forward to avoid the kind of weather-related problems that affected the match at Celtic Manor, but it's been a wet summer in Scotland this year, so we're left hoping that the weather in 2014 will be kinder. The ground conditions meant that there was no run on the fairways and the greens were slower than we'd expected. Accordingly, the PGA National course proved to be an absolute beast on the day and if I'd known just how heavy the ground would be, I'd have joined Stu on the Yellow tees. As it was, even my good tee shots and fairway woods were still short on the par 4 holes and we all struggled to reach greens in regulation. The views of the Perthshire countryside were as stunning as they are on the other 2 main courses at Gleneagles (the Kings and Queens Courses), but in the contest of Man v Course, the course won hands down in my case.
Apart from the extreme difficulty of the course itself and the wet ground conditions on the day, my other impression of the course is that it's very long walk, with some demanding elevation changes. I've been working as a caddie this year at the Renaissance and Archerfield courses, so I'm well used to carrying bags round championship length layouts. I suppose it's inevitable that a course layout needing to accommodate large crowds needs space for crowd circulation etc. but I'd not want to be on a big bag here for up to 5 rounds in 3 days!
I'm also struggling to identify an obvious signature hole with the kind of wow factor that I'd been hoping to see. Maybe the 6th on the front 9, a 176 yard downhill Par 3 played over a pond, as shown here. This hole is called "Mickle Skelp" meaning "small hit" but with the wind against and the tee well above the green and exposed to the wind, I needed my 7 wood just to get to the fringe at the front of the green. Another bogey on the card and still no par. In fact, I'd been struggling to find fairways and greens, sat out of bunkers (and get out of them!), so after 6 holes I was 2 under level 6s. Not good and further 6s on holes 7-9 meant I was out in 52.
The 10th is a downhill 190 yard Par 3 and I'd finally reached a green in regulation, only to 3-putt from 20 feet. Polly had hit a superb tee shot to within 3 feet and missed from there but at least she'd registered a par. I thought the bast hole on the back 9 was the 16th, a 518 yard Par 5 with the third shot played over a pond uphill to a narrow green (or in my case, the 4th shot!) Another double bogey there and I was still parless. The 17th was only 179 yards downhill into the wind. I'd found a greenside bunker, got it out to 10 feet, so a good chance - missed!
I'm not sure what to make of this, the 18th, a steeply uphill 484 yard Par 5, with the green set in a hollow surrounded by banking that forms a "natural" amphitheatre that, come the Ryder Cup, will no doubt provide space for stands that will accommodate a large gallery of spectators. Played without such additions, the 18th was just a slog that petered out far from the club house, leaving a decent Par 4 length walk over a soggy field to the car park. We all felt a sense of anti-climax on completion of the round and although I'm sure that this course will provide a strong test come the Ryder Cup, it's not one that will feature in my own list of top Scottish courses. There are many other Championship courses that could host an event as big as the Ryder Cup, but I suppose money talks louder than common sense.
For the record, I'd limped around in 103, with 34 putts. OK, the conditions weren't the best and I'd been too ambitious to go for the White tees, but a net 93, 21 shots above par and no pars or birdies? Not my worst round, but at least I'd scored a birdie and had a few good pars when I played the Celtic Manor course before the 2010 Ryder Cup, and had happy memories when watching that event on TV. Watching the 2014 event, I hope I'm not thinking back to my 8 at the 3rd after failing to get out of a bunker (that I should never have been in) and my tired 7 up the long 18th etc. Maybe the scars will have healed by then, but for now, at least I've played the course as part of our challenge. However, I doubt I'd rush to play it again.