SCOTLAND’S CLIFF-TOP GOLF COURSES
Any article about the virtues of cliff-top golf will invariably find itself using the word ‘drama’ at some point. It isn’t difficult to see why. Few experiences capture the symbiosis between golf course and sea as a commanding cliff-top course with what are typically stunning vistas, infinity holes playing out to wild a open-ocean and awe inspiring wave actions that might best be described as humbling. America’s Pacific coast has led the genre. Cyprus Point and Pebble Beach are clear standard bearers. Many of the Caribbean courses have also sought to make use of cliff-top locations Ireland’s Old Head course, laid out on a narrow headland jutting into the Atlantic, is another example, but what of Scotland. In truth Scotland’s cliff-top golf courses haven’t really taken off to the same degree, despite having a coastline capable of supporting
With its fjord coastline, the country that perhaps shares most with Scotland might be New Zealand. With Kauri Cliffs established work had begun on Cape Kidnappers. In 2004 the Tom Doak designed course opened to great acclaim. The aerial photographs that were released had most people simply saying “wow”. Doak was quickly invited to build East Lothian’s Renaissance Club, his only course in Scotland to date. Those in the know were alert to what was shaping up in New Zealand and perhaps there was a sense that Scotland was missing out a bit here?
It’s perhaps a little bit perverse that the place that seems to be slowly emerging as Scotland’s premier cliff-top golf course centre is actually St Andrews. For centuries St Andrews concentrated on the spur of links land protruding into the Eden estuary. As new courses were added it became harder to squeeze out a links experience from what was left. With the real estate running out the net was cast around for new spots. It was as if someone said “hang about a minute, there’s a series of cliffs about two or three miles south of the town that no one’s looked at”.
Kingsbarns, opened in 2000, had shown that the demand hadn’t been exhausted. Built on a raised beach it wasn’t really pure links land, nor was it a cliff-top course. The first course that could be legitimately added was the Torrance course in 2002, a commercial venture, the St Andrews Bay Leisure development, linked to the Fairmont hotel. The Torrance course, as the name suggests, was fronted by Scotland’s Sam Torrance, but it was equally a collaboration with Denis Griffiths and Gene Sarazen as the trio set to work on some promising, but largely flat farmland to sculpt links character into the landscape to create something of a hybrid. It was quickly followed a year later when the adjacent Kittocks course was opened with many of the same objectives. If anything the Kittocks course had gone further in trying to create a links experience on a cliff-top, but the general feeling was that the Torrance course was perhaps the better of the two, and quickly established itself as a to Final Open Qualifying in 2010, and the Scottish Seniors Open between 2009 and 2014. The idea had been to create two courses of similar quality so as to invite guests to play a double-day. In 2009 the Kittocks was subjected to a renovation with a couple of holes from the Torrance course added to reinforce it and achieve a degree of parity to the point where it isn’t easy to separate them now.
The St Andrews Links Trust, in fairness, weren’t slow in seeing the opportunity here. They quickly followed suit and in 2008 the David McKlay Kidd designed Castle Course opened, marking a trio of St Andrews cliff-top options. It naturally took a bit of time for the links purists to accept these interlopers into the St Andrews family, but today the Castle is amongst the most photographed courses in Scotland. It isn’t difficult to see why. The views out to sea combined with the backdrop of the town itself are stunning.
The St Andrews, Castle Course was built on agricultural land atop of the cliffs to the south east of the town
– Image by Kevin Murray
So where is Scotland’s cliff-top potential? One of the more obvious candidates is the coastline of east of Dunbar stretching to the English border. Indeed, we already have a pathfinder down there at Eyemouth. The par three, sixth hole is already established as one of Scotland’s most demanding. Indeed, many a good judge regards it as the hardest hole in Scotland. It’s certainly a dramatic one! Like so many cliff-top courses, the centuries of wave action has carved out a deep gully that the surf roars into below. This creates two headlands. Nature has bequeathed us a tee box and a green! A carry of 170yds needn’t be that demanding on the scorecard, but on this exposed spot the wind is rarely an ally, and if you fail to catch it clean? Forget it. You are toast! Just don’t bother looking for the ball, that’s somewhere in the waves below. Tee it up again, or consider the bailout route to the right before it becomes too expensive to continue donating golf balls to the North Sea
On the north Aberdeenshire coastline, Royal Tarlair’s 13th hole, ‘the Clivet’, is another notorious beast that makes use of a narrow headland that snakes its way towards a precipitous drop. Positioning a green on the edge was both cruel and obvious!
Perhaps the most dramatic prospective potential for Scotland’s cliff-top golf courses however can be found in non-traditional golfing regions? This will require developers and investors to weigh up the conundrum of accessibility, and maintenance. If there is a candidate anywhere, it’s possibly to be found in the extreme north and the Arctic facing coastline. This is where Scotland’s highest cliffs and most dramatic can be found. With courses like Royal Dornoch, Tain, Brora, and Golspie being no more than two hours away, you might just about be inside the outer extremes of the travel to golf’ isochrones. This would be a terrific addition to the Scottish portfolio
Another possibility might be the western Highlands, Scotland’s fjord coastline. The scenery comes tailor-made, but we’re talking about remoteness here. If you were able to create a critical mass of courses capable of supporting a three or four night stay, it would stand a chance, but who wants to risk leading this?
Our St Andrews with Fife Tour probably has the most cliff top options. For details …