It’s sad I know, but I’ve got a Great Britain & Ireland map on my office wall with a pin pushed into all the venues still to play and the one that occupied Castletown Golf Links, on the Isle of Man, has been bugging me quite some time now.
Time, money, injury, scheduling & logistics had all caused problems over the past few years but in the early Spring of 2019 I finally bit the bullet and set sail to Mann, a self-governing British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea.
I actually exaggerate how difficult it is to get to because it’s accessible daily by boat or plane. I booked a return trip on the Steam Packet ferry from Liverpool to Douglas which is approximately a 2 ½ hour crossing, however, you do need to be on-board at least 45 minutes before it departs. I stayed at the Sefton Express; a modest but functional hotel about a five minute drive from the golf club (also located adjacent to the airport for those who wish to fly) and booked a two-day pass at the golf links. I left my house at 8am on a Thursday morning and was tucked up back in my own bed on the Friday night by 10pm. I’d played two rounds on what is a unique and wondrous golf course.
The weather was not kind on the first day; in fact it was downright awful. I managed a dry-ish 10 holes (more emphasis on the “ish” than the “dry”) in a howling gale before the heavens opened and I got well and truly drenched on the back nine. I’m writing this review a week or so later with a sore throat, chesty cough and snotty nose which I positively attribute to my Thursday afternoon round. Despite knowing I would be coming back in the morning, with an improved forecast predicted, I was determined to complete my round and regardless of the brutal conditions the majesty of the course still came to the fore.
As it turned out Friday was much better weather-wise and although the sky was leaden there wasn’t a drop of rain and the three-club wind was simply perfect for a course that offers width from the tee and lots of strategy into the greens.
Set in a truly stunning location on Langness Peninsula the links at Castletown is just about as raw, rugged and rustic as they come (never underestimate the value of the 3 Rs!) It is a style of golf that suits my eye and lends itself to pure links golf, often played along the ground and where missing on the wrong side is treacherous but equally fun in terms of recovery. Situated mostly well above sea-level the course is flanked by a couple of bays on two sides and dramatic cliffs on the third; a stretch of coastline which if not the better of Turnberry then certainly its match. Because you are mostly some way above sea level the panorama is not only exceptional but also varied.
The original Castletown Club was formed in 1892 and holes were laid out on the present site in the early 1900's by Old Tom Morris, widely regarded as the modern pioneer of golf. Following the Second World War, the course was re-designed and restored by the very well-respected architect, Mackenzie Ross, and it is now largely the course which is in play today.
Rabbit holes litter a few of the fairways, dry stone walls come into play, rocks protrude from the links at times. All magic stuff and befitting of the surrounds. The land is quick draining and with wispy fescue and clads of heather the scene is set for great golf.
Not dissimilar to the island’s “Three Legs” symbol the links plays to three distinct limbs. The first tee and 18th green, located close to the clubhouse and an abandoned hotel, are on a protrusion of land jutting out into the sea. Meanwhile, at the furthest point the seventh hole extends back towards town whilst the 15th green is the end-point of the course towards the south.
The routing of the course is tantalising good with several high points early on, a little dip in the middle before a grandstand finish of the highest order.
I was particular impressed with the majority of the first ten holes. The first is an awkward little son of a bitch…. but all the better for it! With a wind whipping off the left the hole plays as a 253-yard par-four and should be an early birdie opportunity, and at the very worst a safe par, but the raised knob of a green can cause innumerable problems.
The semi-dell green at the third is another early delight whilst the fourth and fifth are two outlandishly good par fours. The former legs sharply to the left around a steep bank of gorse and bracken before you play to a taxing little green. The next has an elevated drive (over a house!) to a fairway several feet below which follows the curvature of the bay and wonderful driveway into the golf club - on the other side it has a rocky beach for a neighbour. To cap it all off the green is tucked tight to the road at the far end of this sensational hole.
Holes six through to ten are absolutely rock solid in terms of design with lots of low-level ground contouring, fine green sites and rollickingly good golf to be had. The first every Derby horserace was held on this section of the course – most likely the 7th hole.
The pick of the bunch may just be the short 8th – the first par-three we encounter – its plateau green location is so good it doesn’t require a single bunker. I also enjoyed the ninth with its hogback fairway and an approach which feeds in from the right.
There’s nothing particular wrong with holes 11 through to 15. In fact taken individually they are all very good holes with some excellent green complexes and putting surfaces but as a run of holes they lack the magic which the rest of the course has in abundance. They are mostly played on flatter land, or in the case of the 14th and 15th slightly uphill, which into the wind did feel like a bit of slog. They may add to the “championship” credentials of the course - which stretches to 6,841 yards (par 72) from the blue tees - but there is less shot-making and fun to be had on this five-hole stretch despite a lovely wee hole (the 13th) which does its best to break up this sequence.
All is quickly forgiven as we turn for home and play three holes along some of the most impressive coastline you will encounter and this makes for a closing stretch which is just about unmatched. The first is a par-three which incorporates a lot of subtlety into its thrilling setting where one must work the ball left-to-right for the best result.
The 17th is the main showstopper though with a drive right over the cliffs and crashing sea to a fairway far below. It’s a hole of immense beauty and drama.
Finally, the 18th was a work in progress when I played it - a new fairway will soon be an option down the right (close to the cliffs) offering a shorter route to a green located the other side of a deep crevice. The alternative is to play to the safer lower left fairway but at the expense of additional yardage. On paper this could be one of the most brilliant and ingenious finishing holes in golf but the jury must remain out until it is fully open.
Castletown is probably not visited by enough people to raise its stock in the golf course ranking world. The top 100 website – of which I am a big admirer – ranks it as number one of the Isle of Man but it does not make their top 100 GB&I list and because it understandably does not fall into the English links section it is difficult to see just how close it comes to making it. It can’t be far away though and in my opinion I would probably have it in there so hopefully it’s knocking on the door and next time it may just squeak in.