A modern-style design with large greens, gigantic bunkers, water hazards in abundance, tree-lined fairways and thick rough make for a challenging golf course. It is also very long and despite having several tee boxes this is essentially a golf course for the competent player.
Willow Valley doesn't get off to the best of starts. The opening hole is a medium length par four and is littered with bunkers either side of the narrow fairway. The main problem is that you are unable to see much of the fairway, none of the bunkers and the green is out of sight.
The second is a very difficult hole with a narrow sliding fairway, bunkers at the 200 yard mark, out of bounds down the right and a pond in front of the green which must be carried from playing off a downhill lie. It is arguably a good hole but would make a much better 17th than coming so early in the round. Many a card has been ruined before your day has really got underway.
I don't think the third hole has really turned out how the architect had hoped. It is a split fairway par five that usually requires a couple of mid-irons followed by a wedge to reach the green. Once again there are plenty of hazards and whilst longer hitters do have the option of trying to carry onto the second part of the fairway with their drive in my opinion it is too risky for the potential reward.
Things do pick up from the fourth but again a forced carry is required to reach the green at this long, uphill par three. The green is also very shallow considering the length of tee-shot. The fifth is a nice hole dog-legging slightly to the right and played to a raised two-tiered green. The sixth is a neat par three with a water hazard short of the green for anything shy of the required distance.
The seventh is a par-five but the approach is blind and therefore you are always unsure if you have cleared the water that guards the front of the green, unless you are coming in from less than 100 yards. Hole eight is another long, uphill par three with bunkers short of the tricky green and the front nine is concluded with a lengthy par four with a stream running directly across the fairway at driving distance.
Hole 10 also has a restricted drive although there is a very well-positioned bunker about 150 yards short of the green which requires your lay-up to be precisely judged. The 11th is played along the hillside before the signature 12th with its double lake. This could have been a great hole but it doesn't quite work for me. Hole 13 is a par four up the hill to a raised plateau whilst the 14th comes back down in the opposite direction to an island green. The 15th, a medium length par four, is perhaps the best chance of a birdie and comes before a downhill par three then a climbing par five as you head for home.
The final hole is one that will stay in the memory and is probably the best on the course. It's not a long par four but it has a lake down the left which cuts in across the front of the green. The landing area for your tee-shot is quite narrow and slightly hog-backed so a straight shot is the order of the day.
My main problem with Willow Valley is that there are far too many forced carries and many of the holes do not give the average golfer enough options in how to play the hole. When I visited in June 2013 the semi-rough was very penal and made it almost impossible to stop the ball on the greens with no option of running one up. It's a course that will really beat you up if you're not playing well.
Lovers of ground game, of which I am one, will not like this course but from speaking to members on my last trip the course is packed out seven days a week with repeat visitors so there is obviously demand for this type of course.
The complex also has the 'Pine Valley' academy course and a nine-hole par three track which apparently offer a slightly less demanding round of golf.
There is something about Elie that puts you under a spell. It is a truly magical links that, after just one round, has won a place in my heart and mind forever.
There’s very little that hasn’t been written about the golfing mecca that is St. Andrews.