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Is your game ready for Scotland's ultimate test?
Very few people have played Guthrie Castle Golf Course, which is set in a private estate and has a membership of one - American millionaire Dan Pena, who owns the castle and built the course eight years ago for his 50th birthday. He wanted it to be the ultimate challenge and, because he was building it for his own amusement with his own money, he deliberately chose to overlook many of the concepts associated with golf course design, such as 'fairness', 'equity' and the concept of giving a sucker an even break.

Mr Pena makes the wager that no-one will play his course for the first time and get within 10 strokes of his or her handicap (and any women golfers who take up the challenge are obliged to play from the same tees as the men) and it's a bet he's unlikely to lose too often, if at all. He certainly didn't have to pay up when I, off a 10 handicap, went round his par 69 (6,032 yards) layout in 95 - and felt rather pleased to have done so well.

So how tough is tough? If you really want to know, stand on the 4th tee at Guthrie Castle (pictured above) with a 4-iron in your hand and you might learn. The hole is 178 yards and the first lesson is that nearly all handicap golfers delude themselves about how far they hit the ball. Yes, I might normally expect to hit the ball 178 yards with a 4-iron, assuming I strike it well but that's total distance, of which at least 10 yards, possibly 20, will be roll once the ball hits the ground. At Guthrie Castle's 4th there is no such luxury. The green is a tiny target, about a quarter to a third the size of most greens. It is perched alongside a loch, which runs all the way from tee to green and all along the right.

Short of the green is nothing but water and bull rushes - go in there and the only thing you're likely to find is the infant Moses in swaddling cloth. Hit the ball long and you're in trees and rough. The only possible bail-out is to go high and left, over trees and if you make the shot you're then faced with an almost impossible chip down a steep bank to a green that runs away from you towards the water. Truth is, the only way to play the hole is to keep re-loading until you hit a pure shot, which must find a gap about 15 yards wide and 15 yards deep. When I played the hole it was in the company of a seven and a 12 handicapper and all three of us hit an original ball and then two provisionals, just to make sure.

And that's just one hole.

Another wager that Dan Pena likes to make is that you won't finish the round with the same ball with which you started and once again, I don't think he needs to keep a supply of ready cash on hand in order to pay out.

The course is certainly idiosyncratic, involving as it does a blind par three, the tee shot of which means driving over two other greens, drives for which the potential landing area is about 10 yards wide, and the penalty for missing is severe, uniformly tiny greens, virtually no bunkers but lots of sloping fairways, deep woods and the kind of rough where you find your ball, put down your bag and lose the bag. Because of all of this it takes two things, apart from a bit of golfing ability, to play Guthrie Castle.

First, leave your ego at the gates. Golfers are notoriously good at over-estimating their ability, remembering the best shot they ever hit and assuming that's their standard. If you play GCGC with an unrealistic attitude of what you can and can't do you will be burned, and burned badly.

Second, enjoy the day. Take the course for what it is and not what you might expect. The greens, for example, are sand based, most definitely not built to USGA specifications and a one-putt of longer than three feet owes as much to luck as judgement. Most importantly, throw away any pre-conceived ideas of what you consider is 'fair' on a golf course. Enjoy it for what it is and you'll have a fabulous time, in a beautiful setting. Try and prove your macho golfing credentials and bring the course to its knees and there will only be one winner - and it most definitely won't be you.

To give you an idea of the mindset of the man who built the course, ScottishGolf suggested to Dan Pena that perhaps a dropping zone or two might be appropriate - especially on the 4th hole, described above. He replied, in part: 'We have had drop zones but got rid of them. Our logic was simple. Golf, like life is tough. Scoring low on this course isn't for everyone, it's a matter of tasting the experience.

'If you are in competition with others it seemed unfair for a person who can make it to the designated green, for someone else who can't to be only penalised two strokes. To my way of thinking it would be like letting someone use a shorter tee because they can't reach the long par fours. A high skill set should be worth a great deal and rewarded - here they are. And after all, they are using handicaps.'

All of this becomes relevant to club golfers up and down the country because, for the first time ever, Guthrie Castle is opening its doors to the paying public, so now you too can test yourself against the ultimate golfing challenge in Scotland. For the month of October, 2003, anyone can book a tee-time because Dan Pena is welcoming all-comers in aid of charity. In association with Radio Tay's 'Caring for kids' initiative, Guthrie Castle is taking bookings at £30 a head, £10 of which goes directly to the charity. Initially the deal meant you must book a fourball, or rather, pay £120 for a tee-time, irrespective of the number in your group but that has now been amended, so twoballs, singles or threeballs can also take advantage of the offer.

As part of the package you can get bacon rolls or soup on arrival, after nine holes (when you might need it the most) or at the conclusion of your round. Places are strictly limited, with only five times a day being offered (9, 10 and 11am, 12 m/d and 1pm) but not only will you get to play the course but also stand a chance of winning a prize worth £1,700 - the lowest net score recorded during the month of the 'Ultimate extreme golf challenge' will win two tickets to Guthrie Castle's New Year Extravaganza.

The limited places are for three reasons. First, it's a tough course and rounds can consequently take a long time because on any given hole chances are that least one of the players will have to go searching for a ball at least once. Second, the layout is idiosyncratic, with fairways criss-crossing each other in a weird mosaic of design that has to be played a few times, I suspect, before you truly understand the logic. Third, although there are 18 holes there are only 10 greens, so you may have to wait to play your approach, even if the other group is five holes ahead of yours.

If you want a fun day out with like-minded friends, it's an almost irresistible lure. If you're proud of your ability and want to show it off, or a high handicapper who hates losing golf balls, best not bother.

Did I enjoy my round?
Would I want to play the course again?
Can I get back to you on that?

Click on the graphic below to book your time or view a map or call 01241 828691.

Martin Vousden

©    25 - SEPTEMBER 2003

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