By Jason Scott Deegan
Senior staff writer, Golf Advisor.com
Perthshire, Scotland — Maybe I’ve been doing this Scotland thing all wrong.
My normal plan of attack right off the overnight flight is playing a round of golf to keep me awake and help my body adjust to the time change. But, inevitably, I end up feeling like a punching bag about 4 p.m. that afternoon.
My jetlag disappeared much quicker at Gleneagles on my latest trip overseas, thanks to an early check-in and a nap. A steady rain that cancelled an afternoon round led to more half-conscious down time. Oh boy, it felt good and set the table for one of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve experienced across the pond.
I don’t normally condone wasting a day of golf zonked out in bed, but when you’re at Gleneagles, relaxing is specifically the point. New owners purchased the famed resort in 2015 and immediately began upgrading the historic property. Ennismore, the leader of a private investment group that bought Gleneagles, owns two Hoxton-branded hotels in London and another in Amsterdam.
Gleneagles—even following a successful run hosting the 2014 Ryder Cup Matches—still tends to be overlooked by Americans, who are off chasing links-laden itineraries instead. That’s just silly. One look at the rolling hills of Perthshire wins over every guest. This is beautiful country and not all that far north (roughly an hour) from the Glasgow and Edinburgh airports.
Best of all, the variety of the golf courses, recreational opportunities and restaurants won’t be surpassed wherever you go in the world.
Gleneagles: The golf
The new owners didn’t take long turning their attention to improving all three courses: the King’s and Queen’s and PGA Centenary. Each plays completely different from the other, while delivering the similar striking views of the surrounding countryside. Improving course conditions has been the mandate for all three.
The PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles, the Ryder Cup venue, is bold and brawny—like many other American parkland courses it emulates. Golfers can walk its hilly terrain although many ride carts. The Jack Nicklaus design lacks a little bit of the fun factor of the other two, but it’s certainly the shot-maker’s challenge you’d expect. The ladies of the 2019 Solheim Cup are next on the tee.
Gleneagles’ King’s Course, a James Braid design dating to 1919, celebrated a rebirth of sorts in June. Changes in maintenance practices have cut back the rough and widened the fairways, bringing back the original character of this classic track. Old bunkers that were hemmed in by rough are now back in play.
“By restoring The King’s back to Braid’s original design, we’re providing golfers with a lot more choice,” said Gary Silcock, Gleneagles new director of golf. “The PGA Centenary is a modern course with pristine, defined and immaculate contouring where you can really fly the ball and take an aerial approach onto the green. The King’s and The Queen’s, on the other hand, are traditional heathland courses that play like ‘inland links,’ where you can pitch, bump, run and manufacture shots, using the contours of the land to get the ball in the hole.”
The King’s, a Scottish Open host from 1987 to 1994, feels like a whimsical golf obstacle course. Dramatic hills heave and lisp, creating blind shots and demanding lies. The first green rises three clubs above the fairway. The third fairway reminds me of “The Wall” in Game of Thrones, except it’s full of thick grass instead of slippery ice. The aiming stick at the top of the hill is the only sign of a hidden green.
The Queen’s Course, another Braid that’s two years older, will celebrate its centennial in 2017. It’s a mini-me version of King’s, playing only 5,926 yards. Don’t let that fool you. Most of the par-4 holes run long. It’s the five par 3s and sole par 5 that make the Queen’s appear easier. Starting at no. 14, the finishing stretch is stocked with interesting holes. It’s a fun round.
All the courses operate out of the Dormy Clubhouse. A new bar inside, Auchterarder 70, named after the hotel’s original telephone number, delivers two pints of atmosphere, along with healthy dose of local craft beers and snacks. Guests can place table orders from a wall-mounted crank phone, just like the good ol’ days.
The Gleneagles Hotel
The Gleneagles Hotel, which celebrated its 90th birthday in 2014, shares a similar pedigree and majesty with the incredible Fairmont Banff Springs in the Canadian Rockies. Local railroad companies built each grand hotel in a beautiful setting away from population centers. Both continue to be timeless vacation escapes, even for non-golfers. Gleneagles hosted the G8 Summit in 2005.
Thirty-five of the Gleneagles Hotel’s 232 bedrooms, including 26 suites, have been refurbished under the first phase of a renovation led by the new owners. As much as I loved my spacious room, I tried not to spend much time there.
Each afternoon, it was on to a new adventure after golf: the spa, shooting clays, training “gundogs” and practicing the ancient art of falconry. All were equally entertaining.
The facilities at the Spa by ESPA were fantastic and the massage even better. At the Gleneagles Shooting School, I found out I’m probably a lower handicap with a shotgun than I am with a club on the course. I blasted plenty of “rabbits,” tiny target clays that run along the ground to simulate hunting game.
The Gundog School, promoted as the first school of its kind in the world, is an animal lover’s dream. A black lab named “Beagle” obeyed my every command, walking by my side whenever I went and fetching a fake duck I tossed. I wish my dogs at home had half the discipline of Beagle. Resort guests are welcome to visit the dog kennels any time to pet Beagle and friends or to board their own animals.
My next pet, “Victor” the hawk, ate some meaty snacks right from my hand. Falconry is known as the “Sport of Kings,” and I can vouch for that royal feeling when you’re handling such a regal bird.
All these activities work up an appetite. I didn’t even dine at the finest restaurant at Gleneagles—the Michelin-starred Andrew Fairlie—and never felt neglected.
The Century Bar, located just off the hotel lobby, has been stylishly redecorated. It houses one of Scotland’s finest collections of old and rare whiskies. A design team restored original paneling, added art deco-style lighting and incorporated a brighter colour palette. Wider windows bring the views of the outside in.
The daily breakfast buffet and dinner at the Strathearn are always top class. For a treat, order the salmon, which is delicately cut and prepared fresh, table side.
Deseo, modeled after a Mediterranean market, serves great fish and steak, and features an all-you-can-eat dessert bar where everybody overindulges.
Don’t feel guilty. Splurging is the reason you booked a vacation at Gleneagles in the first place.