There aren’t many of the most iconic links courses in Britain and Ireland that don’t have Old Tom Morris’ fingerprints on them. The Old Course at St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Prestwick, Muirfield, Lahinch, Rosapenna and the Royal trio of Dornoch, Portrush and Co. Down to name but a select few, but here’s one I’m not sure you’re familiar with.
A shade over 30 miles from the Down coastline sits the Isle of Man, and on the island’s southern coast you’ll find Castletown Golf Links, laid out by the great man himself back in 1891. The phrase ‘hidden gem’ is a much-overused term when talking golf courses, but there are few more worthy of the accolade than Castletown.
Located on the Langness Peninsula – known locally as ‘Fort Island’ – Castletown Links sits elevated on the Peninsula’s rocky cliffs, effectively surrounded on all four sides – there is a narrow strip of land connecting the peninsula to the greater island – by the Irish sea of which it offers unrivalled panoramic views.
But it’s not the scenic setting that sets Castletown Links apart – God (or Mother Nature) provided Old Tom with an enviable canvas with which to work, but the materials and means are but a fraction of true artistry. Morris’ routing and green complexes remain largely unchanged, but the game was still in relative infancy back in the late 19th century and was rapidly evolving.
Alister MacKenzie – who designed Augusta National and Royal Melbourne among others – was recruited to lengthen and ‘modernise’ the course just before the outbreak of the first World War, and Philip MacKenzie Ross – who rebuilt Turnberry – made additional changes in the years following the second World War, and this is the course as it plays today.
The true genius of Old Tom Morris’ original routing is that nature itself is the biggest challenge. In the years before heavy-duty machinery, hazards were largely natural, and the rocky outcrops, sheer ravines, colourful heather and gorse, and wispy and wild fescue all provide a delightful blend of challenge and beauty. And that’s before the most natural defence of all comes into consideration – the wind.
Despite having the firm, quick-drying turf synonymous with links golf, and the true-running greens that this also affords, the exposed setting of Castletown Links means that there is very little protection from the elements. There are no high-rise sand dunes to offer shelter and though the headland terrain is subtly undulated, once the ball gets airborne it is at nature’s mercy.
But that’s links golf at its finest – challenging but fair, offering adequate reward for sufficient risk, and never, ever boring.
Though Castletown’s visual allure – and it really is spectacular – will leave a lasting impression on anyone who plays it, it is certainly not a golf course that relies on optics alone. Though the sea is visible on every hole, and never far away, it’s not until the index-one fifth hole that it truly comes into play. Known as the ‘Road Hole,’ it’s a right-sweeping dog-leg, flanked to the left by beautiful, yellow gorse, and to the right by the narrow coastal road. A terrifying tee-shot, especially into the wind, with no shortage of balls coming to rest on the beach which is directly next to the road, and less than forty feet from the fairway.
As impressive as the opening nine is, Castletown is a golf course that really saves the best till last and the closing stretch is comparable to any of the finest courses in the British and Irish isles.
The 14th is an architectural marvel, presenting completely different challenges and strategic options depending on wind direction and course setup. The 15th is another par-4 that’s a stiff challenge in any weather due to the complexity of the green, and the 16th is a par-3 with the Irish Sea providing the backdrop to the putting surface.
Deep ravines come into play on 17 and 18 – both par-4s, the former a magnificent and picturesque hole with a drive over a rocky inlet, and the latter a sweeping left-to-right dogleg with the crevasse to be carried on the approach to the green.
The Isle of Man is, of course, best known for the Tourist Trophy (TT) – the annual motorcycle road race that sees riders circumnavigate the island’s back roads at break-neck speed and with dare-devil bravado – so given the limited accommodation on the island, visiting golfers are best advised to avoid the last week in May and first week in June.
Road racing fans are a special sort of adrenaline junkie, but the sights, sounds and seduction of Castletown Golf Links are sure to set any golfer’s heart racing.
For more information visit https://castletowngolflinks.com/