Kingsbarns is on a Par with Links of the Past

Financial Times

When Alfred Dunhill recently announced that its Nations Cup tournament, hitherto held at St Andrews every October, was to be replaced next year by a pro-am competition over three links courses on Scotland’s east coast, the name of one of the host venues must have caused a deal of puzzlement. The Old Course at St Andrews, together with Carnoustie, fitted perfectly into Dunhill’s stated ambition of making the tournament a celebration of links golf, but Kingsbarns?

Situated six miles from St Andrews on a winding, craggy road that leads to Crail, Kingsbarns only opened for play last July. So, one was entitled to ask: what was a new course doing in such revered company? I had the good fortune to play it recently, and here is my verdict: it fully deserves to be bracketed alongside two of Scotland’s mightiest links courses.

Indeed, I would go so far as to describe it as the best course built in Scotland since Turnberry was remodeled after the Second World War. It is even better than Loch Lomond, undoubtedly the best inland course built in Britain in the past 20 years.

What a wonderful day it turned out to be for this golf writer, who usually visits much-hyped new courses with a sense of trepidation. Three months ago I played the new Marquess course at Woburn , in Bedfordshire, which was equally laden with praise but for me was a huge disappointment. Big greens, big bunkers, cart-paths; if the weather had been 20 degrees warmer, I could have been in Florida.

So many new courses in Britain are too heavily influenced by architectural trends that have emerged in the US . Take another lavishly built new venue, the Wentwood Hills course at the Celtic Manor resort, near Newport in south Wales . Half the course is situated in the beautiful Usk valley while the other half threads its way around mature woodland. It ought to be a beauty but is not because its American architect has contrived a series of holes around two manufactured lakes. The holes should fit in with their surroundings, but they do no such thing: the designer has laid out the same kinds of holes all over the US.

Golf has been played at Kingsbarns since the late 18th century. The nine-hole course that existed before the Second World War was taken over by the Ministry of Defense, which saw the beach at Kingsbarns as a natural invasion point. In 1945, the village was given the option by the government of money to rebuild the town hall or the golf course. When the villagers decided on the former, the small Kingsbarns membership joined the nearby Balcomie links at Crail.

Efforts were made several times to resurrect golf at Kingsbarns in the early 1990s, before the right combination of people somehow came together in 1997. They were a mix of Americans and Scots, with the Royal and Ancient Club at St Andrews also offering financial assistance.

The architect was an American called Kyle Phillips . He used to work for Robert Trent Jones Jr’s design company, and anyone who has played the Royal Westmoreland course in Barbados , the Four Seasons venue on Nevis or the Cabo Real course in Mexico will be aware of his expertise in garnishing windy layouts with seaside aspects.

Phillips’ work at Kingsbarns stands as a textbook illustration of empathizing with the land he was given to work on. At the 18th hole, for instance, he does not seek a grandiose signature hole with which to finish. Instead, he studied the original plans and built a hole as close in keeping as he could to the 18th hole that was in place a century ago.

It features a burn in front of the green and, when the bulldozers were removing 30ft of earth to find it, they also discovered a delightful old iron bridge. Needless to say, it is now a feature of the hole. Kingsbarns offers some of the most outstanding sea views to be found on any British links course.

Just one hole reminded me of America , and Phillips can be forgiven for that. The hole in question is the par-three 15th, which sits snugly along the shoreline. It is similar to the spectacular par-three 16th at Cypress Point, which was built in California by a Scot, Dr. Alister Mackenzie.

At Kingsbarns, an American returns the compliment. We were lucky with the day. It was one of those crisp autumnal mornings, a gentle wind blowing from the east and the sun illuminating the bay. Like most golfers on such days, we pondered our luck in finding ourselves on a sublime links course with many good holes and a number of outstanding ones. The compact clubhouse also fits in well with its surroundings.

At Pounds 85 a round, Kingsbarns is as expensive to play as the Old Course, which will no doubt put off some who are unaware of what it has to offer.

It is worth it, however, for it is one of those links courses that, once seen, is not forgotten. The fact that it was built in the final years of the 20th century rather than the 19th or 18th centuries simply adds to the wonderment.


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