St. Andrews's Hidden Golf Courses
These oft-overlooked golf courses are worth the trip to Scotland.
St. Andrews and the surrounding Kingdom of Fife, on Scotland’s east coast, present golfing visitors with such a bountiful harvest of links that there’s no single “correct” itinerary that best covers the region. Many first-timers head straight for the slate of courses played in the European Tour’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship—the Old Course (see “Booking the Old Course”), modern classic Kingsbarns (greens fee, $295; Village of Kingsbarns; 44-1334/460-860; kingsbarns.com) and, crossing the nearby Tay Bridge into Angus, Carnoustie Golf Links (greens fee, $215; 20 Links Parade, Carnoustie; 44-1241/802-270; carnoustiegolflinks.co.uk). Perhaps the St. Andrews New Course (greens fee, $110; 44-1334/466-666; standrews.org.uk), a tough-as-nails layout with the fastest greens in town, might be thrown in for good measure. These are all top choices, and of course the Old, with its supremely intricate design providing a different playing experience every time out, is an essential. But to make the most of one’s time in St. Andrews, one should never simply be a big game hunter. Mixing in some of Fife’s less-heralded courses adds quirk, variety, fun—and likely a few more birdies.
In St. Andrews
It’s often overlooked that the St. Andrews Links Trust (standrews.org.uk) manages seven courses in and around the town, including the Balgove (greens fee, $20) and Strathtyrum (greens fee, $40) courses, both of which are beginner-friendly, with fewer hazards but the same wonderfully crisp links turf as their big brothers. Those looking for a stronger challenge on a full-sized course in town might try their hand at The Duke’s (greens fee, $185; Old Station Rd.; 44-1334/474-371; playthedukes.com), part of plumbing tycoon Herb Kohler’s St. Andrews mini-empire. Renovated in 2006 by golf architect Tim Liddy, who also added five new holes, The Duke’s is a stylish heathland design that would likely garner more attention were it situated in any other neighborhood. Holes like the seventh, a long dogleg right that begins with a dramatic drive from a hillside tee, and the 13th, a tricky par four with disarming views of St. Andrews, are well worth seeing. But make no mistake, this is not a links. While the turf is reasonably firm, The Duke’s can’t help but play more like an American course. For that reason, it’s probably better to schedule a visit early in the itinerary, before all those little swing adjustments it takes to play links golf set in.
Fife’s two newest courses opened the same week in the summer of 2008, and they couldn’t be more different. One of them, the Links Trust’s Castle Course (greens fee, $190), debuted with the hype of a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster—and similarly mixed reviews. The other, which would not look at all out of place in an episode of Downton Abbey, opened (or, more accurately, reopened) quietly after a 69-year fallow period to become one of the most delightful golf experiences in Scotland. Tucked away in the verdant hills west of St. Andrews, Kingarrock Hickory Golf Course (greens fee, $40 for nine holes and $55 for 18; Forester’s Cottage, Hill of Tarvit, Cupar; 44-1334/653-421; kingarrock.com) is a nine-hole, 2,022-yard country estate course that is played exclusively with antiquated equipment. Proprietor David Anderson, always nattily attired in tweeds and plus fours, provides visitors with hickory-shaft clubs and replica golf balls from either 1898 or 1924. These clubs—for example, a mashie with a perfectly smooth face, a niblick resembling a designer spatula or a driver bearing the signature of a 19th-century Open champion—are eccentric, to put it mildly, in both looks and performance. Hickory shafts bend far more readily than steel, and once out on the course, golfers quickly find that in order to make clean contact, their swing must take on a languid, half-speed rhythm. This adjustment builds an element of comedy into the proceedings—even the most skilled players are bound to hit a few laughable shots—but the beauty of it is that it’s impossible to take this version of the game too seriously. It’s still Real Golf, just on a smaller scale. After all, a par four of a mere 200 yards becomes plenty challenging when a good drive flies only about 150. The click of the soft ball against the persimmon clubhead reverberates through the player’s hands and arms, a reminder of what modern technology, in its eternal quest for greater distance, has taken away from the game. Afterward, Anderson often joins visitors in the pro-shop cottage, where the yarns of the day are spun over ginger beer and homemade shortbread cookies. Kingarrock, in essence, is the kind of place that can change the way one thinks about golf.