The sixth hole at the Kingsbarns Golf Links measures only 337 yards from the championship tees, which doesn't sound like much for a par four, but there was so much more to it this summer day. The wind was blowing at 30 mph, twisting golf umbrellas into pretzels and bending flagsticks into parentheses. It was raining too, and my driver felt slippery as I surveyed the fairway's two-tiered landing area flanked by menacing bunkers. Past the green, the land looked as stark and forbidding as a moonscape, especially under the threatening skies. The steel-gray North Sea, pocked with whitecaps, tossed around a couple of lobster boats. I needed not only to clear the two hazards but also to hit my ball slightly to the left toward the massive punchbowl green. With such a big tailwind, a straight shot would only end up in the knee-high fescue.
"I have a lot to think about here," I said to my caddie, Alan, a fortysomething local whose glasses were spotted with rainwater. "Don't worry," he replied in a classic brogue. "Just hit it to the right of the bunker with your draw and you'll be fine." His words calmed me, and my shot soared past the bunkers and ran down to the front of the green.
"That's what I like about this hole," Alan said as we walked off the tee. "Classic risk and reward, and it doesn't matter that it's so short. You get the green if you hit it right with this wind, but you are in trouble if you miss. It's one of the things that makes this such a great links."
Great indeed. Just two years old, Kingsbarns is already regarded as one of the best links in Scotland. And that's saying something, considering the track is just six miles southeast of the Old Course in the village of St. Andrews, where the game has been played since the 1400s and a track built in 1895 is still known as the New Course. (It was there that the game was banned by King James II because he felt it was keeping his subjects from their archery practice.) You would think such youth and such proximity to the most revered layout in the world would make it hard for Kingsbarns to attract any attention. "But it gets plenty because it's that good," says Dr. Bradley S. Klein, an award-winning author and noted golf-architecture critic. Sir Michael Bonallack, former secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, one of the game's governing bodies, and a five-time British Amateur champion, agrees. "Kingsbarns is just extraordinary," he says. "It must be seen to be believed, and once seen, it will never be forgotten." There is even talk of the course getting a British Open and becoming a regular part of what is known as the "championship rotation."
Kingsbarns lies just outside a tiny town of the same name on the coast of Fife. With its gaping pot bunkers, wind-swept dunes, heaving greens, and bleached grasses, the 7,126-yard, par-72 course is nothing if not dramatic. Five holes touch the shoreline, and the green for the par-three 15th sits on a tiny peninsula that bears the full force of the wind. The rest of the track rises from the water in gentle terraces, funneling to a small stone clubhouse with a modest bar and restaurant.
To the uninformed, Kingsbarns Golf Links looks like it has been there for decades, with a layout that appears to follow the natural contours of the land. But workers moved and shaped some 400,000 cubic yards of earth to give this former cow pasture a raw and rugged links feel. Even more surprising, this quintessentially Scottish course was created by two Americans: owners Mark Parsinen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and Art Dunkley, a real estate investor and financier.
Parsinen worked closely with California architect Kyle Philips to design the layout. It wasn't the first one on the site; a crude nine-hole links course wound through the dunes as early as the 1790s, and a golf club and improved nine-hole track were founded there in 1815. During the Second World War, the Ministry of Defense took over the layout and adjacent beach for military exercises. Once the war was won, the government gave the Kingsbarns villagers the choice of reclaiming the golf course or building a new town hall; the town hall won out.
Remnants of the old course can be found on the current track, including number six, and the next hole we played that morning, the par-four seventh, which at 436 yards from the medal tees was a much tougher test, even with the wind still at our backs. At 154 yards, the par-three eighth required only an eight-iron in the near-gale that buffeted the track and made the rain feel that much colder.
The wind changed direction on the ninth, and it took three solid shots to get onto the green. Two quick putts, and my entire foursome scrambled to the halfway house for hot coffee and a little whiskey. I was about to ask if the weather was always like this, but then I saw the course superintendent drive by in a golf cart equipped with windshield wipers.
The thought of playing golf—or any sport, for that matter—in such conditions seems foolish, but adverse weather is an essential part of the game in the land of its birth. It is not unusual to start the day as I did, wearing only a pair of pants, a short-sleeved shirt, and a sweater vest, and to finish it wearing two or three more layers—even in the middle of summer. The weather changes so quickly and so often that you feel as if your caddie should be carrying a suitcase along with your clubs.
Staying warm and dry is only part of the challenge; you also have to battle the elements with your swing. That means hitting balls low when the wind is coming at you, hitting them high when the gusts are coming from behind, and never overswinging. That's what we all tried to do on the 12th, a stunning 566-yard par five that hugs the shore much like the 18th at Pebble Beach. The wind was gusting so fiercely off the water that I had to put my drive up over the rocks bordering the beach and let it be pushed back onto the fairway. I followed a strong three-wood down the middle with a seven-iron from 155 yards that I purposely kept low and bounced onto the green, where I two-putted for par.
On number 13, which played in the opposite direction, giving me a huge tailwind, I had to loft a short iron way out to the right and over a pot bunker so deep and cavernous it looked like it could swallow a Mini Cooper. The wind carried it over the hazard and a good 20 yards to the left of the green. One of my playing partners was not so lucky; his ball ended up in the greenside bunker I had just avoided. He managed to extract his ball—only to chip it right into a bunker on the other side of the putting surface. "I once saw a fellow put his ball in four bunkers on one hole," my caddie commented wryly.
Like any good links course, the fairways and greens are big and generous enough to make Kingsbarns playable even in the most wretched conditions. There's plenty of room off the tees, and angles from which to attack the greens are plentiful. You can almost always find a way to avoid the wind and run your ball up to the putting surface, and there is lots of space once you get there. "It plays the way a links course should," says David Scott, the director of golf at Kingsbarns. "It gives you many options, and it makes you think."
My head was hurting from all the thinking I'd had to do by the time I stood on the 15th tee. The wind was now directly in our face and gusting up to 35 mph. According to my mental calculations, the 185-yard shot was suddenly playing at least two clubs longer; numbers 16 and 17 were just as difficult. Even though 18 put us back downwind, none of the players in my foursome really felt any advantage, probably because we were too cold, tired, and wet to exploit our meager edge. But we quickly warmed up over a pint of ale and a bowl of soup in the stone clubhouse, and an hour later we were on our way out for a second round. The rain had stopped, and a few shafts of sunlight had broken through the clouds, illuminating patches of the ocean. By the time I stepped back onto the sixth tee, the wind had completely changed directions.
"I think I need to reconsider my strategy here," I said to Alan as I peered toward the green, wondering what I was going to do this time around.
"Don't worry," he said, handing me my driver. "Just hit it to the right of the bunker with your draw and you'll be fine."
Greens fees in high season (June to November) are $200. Kingsbarns, Fife, Scotland; 44-1334-460860; fax 44-1334-460877; www.kingsbarns.com. The course is closed from December through March.
Inn and Around
Perched on a cliff overlooking the River Tay and the North Sea, the new ST. ANDREWS BAY resort feels very much like the inn at Turnberry on the western coast of Scotland. Opened last year by Donald and Nancy Panoz, who also own the Château Elan resort and winery in north Georgia, the sprawling $80 million retreat includes a 209-room hotel, a superb spa, and a fitness club that counts Britain's Prince William as one of its members.
Rooms are spacious and equipped with DVD players and high-speed Internet connections. The best is the Kingdom of Fife Suite, which has a balcony overlooking the bay, a full kitchen, a dining-room table for ten, two dressing rooms, and a king-size sleigh bed.
As befits a 520-acre resort in the birthplace of golf, there are also two new championship 18-hole tracks. The 7,049-yard, par-71 DEVLIN was designed by Bruce Devlin, the Australian pro and eight-time PGA winner. It winds along old farmland by the North Sea, where the wind blows hard and cold. Water seems to surround the green on the par-five seventh hole, and also on the par-three eighth, where it looks as if you are hitting your tee shot right into the drink. The 7,037-yard, par-72 TORRANCE was designed by Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance with input from late golf legend Gene Sarazen. Thrilling holes include the 14th, which has a treacherous cliffside green.
Rates from $285 to $3,140 (for the Kingdom of Fife Suite). St. Andrews Bay, St. Andrews; 44-1334-837000; fax 44-1334-471115.
Playing the Old Course
The Old Course in St. Andrews is not only the most ancient track in the world, but also one of the most difficult public courses to get on. Men must have a handicap of 24 or better, women 36 or better—but that's the easiest hurdle. In winter, short days allow for a measly three hours of start times. The course is closed on Sundays and for two weeks in both March and November. And, of course, many of the slots are set aside for members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, whose clubhouse overlooks the first tee, and amateur and professional competitions. But there are still a few ways people outside the R&A can manage to play:
LET SOMEONE ELSE DO THE LEGWORK The easiest and most reliable way to get a tee time is by booking a golf trip with any of the reputable operators who secure a very limited number of advanced reservations each year. One of the best of that bunch is Perry Golf, based in Atlanta (770-641-9696; www.perrygolf.com).
CALL MONTHS IN ADVANCE A much greater long shot is to try to get a tee time through the St. Andrews Links Trust, a charitable organization which manages the Old Course.
ENTER THE LOTTERY More than half of all starting times each year are put into a lottery at the Links Trust, where a minimum of two golfers can enter either by telephone or in person. Slots are drawn each afternoon for the next day's play. While that's not a very promising situation if you are traveling from overseas, it can work out if you're already in Scotland and have some flexibility. Monday's tee times are drawn on Saturday, so if you're really motivated, you can actually jump the Pond in time for a round.
FILL A FOURSOME If you are in the area, try stopping by the Old Course early in the morning. There may be a threesome in need of another player.
GO OFF SEASON Because of the tournament schedule, September is by far the hardest month to get a tee time. October, May, and June usually provide the best opportunities.
St. Andrews Links Trust 44-1334-466-666; email@example.com.