American Angle

Golf Monthly
By Lorne Rubenstein

In a place, St. Andrews, Scotland, where all things royal and ancient are embraced, a thoroughly modern links called Kingsbarns makes a bold statement…

“Kingsbarns might well be one of the last true seaside links sites capable of development in Scotland. Mere words cannot convey just how extraordinary the place is. It must be seen to be believed. And once seen it will never be forgotten.” –Sir Michael Bonallack Captain, Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

It’s so easy to jump on a bandwagon. “Have you seen the latest Gwynneth Paltrow/Matt Damon film? You’ve just got to check out the new Carlos Santana CD. Man, this Atkins Diet is going to be THE ONE that works for life!” Universal truths are few and far between, but surely one of them is that most folks get awfully excited about something that’s new and wonderful. A new car. A new driver. A new necktie. It’s all good. A shiny new object adds a splash of fun, a spark of hope, a gleam of optimism into our everyday lives. Face it: Change is exciting.

I, on the other hand, generally like things just the way they are – and were. I’m quite happy driving the car I’ve had for the past seven and a half years. I’m more than content to flip to American Movie Classics and catch a Alfred Hitchcock thriller or Marx Brothers comedy in black and white. I’d be perfectly fine wearing my old Topsiders into the next millennium if I could just locate a reputable cobbler in the small resort town where I reside. I like doing first drafts in longhand on yellow legal pads before I turn to a mouse, keyboard and monitor.

It follows, then, that I prefer my golf the same way. I’m a history buff and an unabashed fan of classic golf courses. I love all things old. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise you that I am absolutely enamored with the Old Course at St. Andrews. Indeed I am. My first trip around I was so awed on the first tee that I nearly hyperventilated. It was the first golf course on Earth. It was home to the game’s first professional, Allan Robertson, who was also the first man to break 80 there. It was also home to the Tom Morrises, Young and Old, victors in eight of the first 12 British Open championships ever played. Names such as James Braid, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus all have won major championships over the Old Course.

However, my most recent visit to St. Andrews opened my eyes. The object of my attention, and affection, was not the Old Course at all. It was a new course, called Kingsbarns. After two trips around the infant Kingsbarns Golf Links, I can tell you that it’s not greater than the Old Course – yet – but it’s easily more spectacular. And it’s significantly better than the other layouts in and around the Auld Grey Tourn, including the New, the Jubilee, the Eden, the Strathtyrum, the Balgove and the Duke’s. Combining the best of the old and the new in design and setting, Kingsbarns provides 18 fresh reasons to visit and linger in St. Andrews. It may very well be the most important new Scottish course since Turnberry was rebuilt after World War II.

Kingsbarns Golf Links lies six miles south of St. Andrews on the curvy A917 road near its namesake village on the way to Crail. The village name dates to the 11th century, when Scotland’s King Malcolm visited St. Andrews to collect his dues. In the case of grain, notes St. Andrews golf historian Bobby Burnet, he would store it in barns on land just outside of town in the ‘King’s barns.’ Today, dues and grain have been supplanted by green fees and grass seed. But much of the richness of the present tapestry can be traced to events that took place between then and now. One of the reasons Kingsbarns possessed such strong character and presence right from the get go stems from the site itself, which is steeped in golf tradition.

Historian Burnet points out that on this same ground lay a rudimentary links where the game was played as early as 1793. What is verifiable is that Kingsbarns was home to a golf club and nine-hole course in 1815. Now that Kingsbarns is up and running again, this makes it the 12th oldest United Kingdom club still in existence with its own course. Vestiges of the old nine-holer remain in the present course’s “Lower Bowl,” comprised of holes 6,7,16 and 17. This plot of golfing ground is simply marvelous links land, rumpled to perfection, which provides an endless variety of lies, stances and shotmaking opportunities.

The little old nine-hole course was, like many European subjects, a victim of World War II. In 1939, the Ministry of Defense pulled the plug on golf at Kingsbarns. The land and adjacent beach were used for military exercises for the remainder of the war. Following the cessation of hostilities in 1945, the government gave the village a choice: reclaim the links or build a new town hall. When the vote fell to the latter, the three dozen or so remaining members joined the nearby Crail golf Club to the south. From several holes at Kingsbarns, you can clearly see the distant Crail clubhouse perched on a rise.

After several aborted efforts beginning in 1994 to revive the course, the right team settled into place in 1997. a combination of local businessman Gordon Begg, american developers Mark Parsinen and Art Dunkley, and architect Kyle Phillips breathed new and vibrant life into a fallow ground. Begg is a retired merchant banker, Parsinen a Stanford MBA and Dunkley a Harvard MBA. Don’t think for one minute, however, that the three are a trio of stone-faced bean counters. No sir. They’re as passionate, interesting and genuinely warm as any player – or – caddie you’d find on the first tee of the Old Course a few miles down the road. The affable Phillips is no slouch himself, having designed courses in more than 20 countries on behalf of his own firm or as vice-president of Robert Trent Jones Jr. Golf Course Design, where he worked for 16 years.

Whether the near-scratch handicap Parsinen is listed as co-designer or consultant, the only thing that matters is that he and Phillips crafted a truly incredible layout. Parsinen became enamored with classic British golf courses while taking other kinds of classic courses at the London School of Economics, then cut his teeth as developer and design consultant at Granite Bay Golf Club near Sacramento, Calif., a LINKS “Modern Classic” in 1996. Phillips is a master at routing windy, seaside courses, as illustrated by his efforts at Aruba’s Tierra del Sol, Mexico’s Cabo Real, the Four Seasons Resort course on Nevis and Royal Westmoreland in the Barbados.

Honestly, they got everything right. Every hole provides views of the sea, and seven holes play over it or adjacent. There are modern touches of the spectacular – witness the Pebble Beach-like, left-curving, 590-yard, par-5 12th, and the all-carry, have-your-camera-ready, 215-yard, par-3 15th. Needless to say, the aesthetics at Kingsbarns are sensational.

What makes it truly great, however, is the design itself, which is varied, fun, challenging and sophisticated all at the same time. Large greens and wide fairways, both edged in tawny and wispy “lion’s mane” fescues, are properly proportioned to receive wind-blown drives and approaches. The variety in both routing and pacing is superb. I love the views from the “Upper Bowl” holes, but I also am bowled over by the traditional “linksy” contours of the lower holes. The 330-yard, par-4 sixth can be negotiated in a half-dozen ways, while the very next hole, a 470-yard par-4, features two fairways and demands brute force.

Kingsbarns has been supported with financial assistance from the Royal & Ancient, no doubt because the course will provide an attractive alternative for its members, who otherwise play the majority of their golf on the overcrowded Old Course. Trust me, this newcomer is a worthy substitute. Says Kyle Phillips of Kingsbarns, “When I first saw the property, I wondered how the guys at Pebble Beach felt when they first walked on the site.” Kyle, in 85 years, folks may be wondering the same thing about you.


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