SCOTLAND’S MOST IMPORTANT COURSE
At Faraway Fairways we were recently asked which was the most significant Scottish golf course that has ever been built? We came to an unusual answer, but before we attempt to justify our unlikely answer we need to eliminate some of the more obvious ones
We dismissed the St Andrews Old Course on semantics. Sure, we can’t argue with its significance. It’s pretty well impossible to do so, but was it actually “built”? It’s not as if the course has an accredited architect after all. As a piece of design it sort of evolved, and was eventually adopted, and yet we were struggling to argue that it wasn’t built too. How do we explain its existence otherwise?
Prestwick also went through our thought process. As ‘home of the first Open’, Prestwick claims the genesis of tournament golf. This event is the foundation of when golf transitions from a private leisure pursuit into a sport, and with it the multi-billion-dollar industry it becomes. But is this really the result of Prestwick? If it wasn’t Prestwick that hosted the event in 1860 would it simply have gone elsewhere? The significance of this development is in doubt, but surely it’s the idea and concept rather than the course that is responsible?
Perhaps Turnberry, as the world’s first purpose-built golf resort has a stronger claim? On a global scale it probably does. The golf resort has certainly made an impact on the industry in countries like America, Spain and South Africa, and has made a major contribution towards stimulating a wider industry. Such developments in Scotland however, with the possible exception of Gleneagles, have been relatively low key. You couldn’t really say the roll-out of golf resorts has framed Scottish golf.
In the end we came to a very surprising conclusion, and felt that perhaps Kingsbarns might be the most significant course built in Scotland
Before Kingsbarns was built in 2000, there’d been very limited new course development in the second half of the twentieth century. What major projects that were undertaken, had tended to do so inland. Letham Grange, 1964, once held lofty expectations of introducing a world-class garden course in the mould of Augusta. In 1972 Gleneagles added the Jack Nicklaus designed Centenary Course. Scotland’s most successful venture was arguably the Tom Weiskopf designed Loch Lomond, 1993, was the only course that made it onto the World’s top-100 list since before the first world war.
The story for the links courses was no less restrained. The significant courses that tended to be opened were those fulfilling an expansion role at existing clubs. Then along came Kingsbarns.
It’s perhaps worth remembering what the sceptics were saying at the time. Although there is evidence of golf having been played at Kingsbarns dating back to 1793, and there was a nine-hole course there more recently, the strip they chose to work was essentially an unremarkable parcel of farming land rather than links terrain. It was going to require a lot of earth working and imaginative design to sculpt anything out of it. There were no shortage of nay-sayers suggesting it couldn’t be done, and not a few who even said it shouldn’t be done on grounds of sacrilege. When Kingsbarns opened however it met with near universal approval. What Kyle Phillips and Mark Parsinnen had achieved was confirmed when the ‘new’ course entered the world’s top-100 list at around the number 50 mark
As designers have scoured the globe in pursuit of dramatic landscapes, and investment had found its way into non-traditional locations, European courses naturally began to fall behind. Since the 21st century only Otiavos Dunes (2001) in Portugal has made an entry into the elite club, although you might argue that Konnikirjke has also done so, albeit on the back of a refurbishment of a much earlier design. In the same period, Scotland has been responsible for more new entries than the rest of the continent combined, three, and there has to be reasonable expectation to think Ardfin might join the lists the next time they’re compiled, as too might Dunbarnie.
Is it possible to trace a line from Kingsbarns to Castle Stuart? Well the answer to that is yes. It seems highly likely that Castle Stuart wouldn’t have happened if Kingsbarns hadn’t. The Scottish Open venue of Dundonald also resolves to the same design stable. It’s probably fair to say that Donald Trump marches to a different tune, but Scotland’s third, 21st century entrant on the prestigious list can’t have been deterred by watching the progress made by Kingsbarns.
The Renaissance Club is another possible development to draw its confidence from Kingsbarns. Tom Doak’s only Scottish course adopted a business model of expensive annual memberships rather than paid day rates. At face value this was perhaps a questionable decision. With Muirfield, North Berwick, Gullane, Dunbar, Kilspindie, Luffness and Craigielaw (another 21st century creation) for company, golfer’s had less expensive alternatives. Since then however, the Renaissance Club has loosened rules on access and introduced its ‘once in a life’ offer, and also been acknowledged with the 2019 Scottish Open
It isn’t just the top-100 list though. Machriahnish Dunes resolves to the same epoch, as does the St Andrews Castle course albeit we’d accept that the influence here was the need for the Links Trust to provide another high-quality supply-side solution, and this development probably owes much more the Fairmont courses of Kittocks and Torrance, than it does Kingsbarns.
The most recent legacy of Kingsbarns however has to be the Dumbarnie which opened in 2020. If Kingsbarns was accused of building in the shadow of St Andrews, then things have come a full circle as Dumbarnie has been built in the shadow of Kingsbarns. You know what they say about imitation and flattery? Again the architecture team have had to use an escarpment of unpromising low-grade farming land with a links strip on the shoreline to fashion out a world-class golf course. The investors certainly have global ambitions, and a green fee that is perhaps closer to Castle Stuart’s is also a declaration of intent and belief in the status that they feel their new course can achieve. If Dumbarnie joins Kingsbarns in the world’s top 100, then that’ll be four courses that Scotland has added in the space of 20 years. That’s more than it managed in the entire century before (only Turnberry and Loch Lomond resolve to this period)
SOME COURSE HIGHLIGHTS
Any course that achieves such acclaim has to have something going for it beyond hype. Golfer’s can be quite harsh something that promises high and delivers low. For many critics the timelessness of Kingsbarns was what struck. No lesser a judge than Tom Doak was quick to pour praise
“As a piece of construction work, Kingbarns is one of the best projects I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself, because the re-shaping and grassing of the landscape was so well done. For me the 4th and 5th holes on the upper-deck may be the best of the bunch”
The fifth green earned the approval of Tom Doak
The hole that was used in the media and quickly plastered over the sports pages of newspapers was the arresting twelfth, a par 5 that arched around the shoreline to a green ticked in the corner. Today it is widely ensconced amongst the very best par 5’s that Scotland has to offer
The 12th hole was the one that the golf media latched onto
The other hole that quickly caught the imagination is the par 3, fifteenth, a green place on the edge of a small headland that juts into the sea and requires a tee-shot over the waves
The fifteenth ‘Rocky Ness’
Kingsbarns we might argue helped to set off a new dynamic wave of investment and design and that has seen Scotland pull further clear in establishing Europe’s predominant golfing venue. Kingsbarns is, The Mother of Dragons. As we noted, no other European country has come close to matching Scotland during this period. It’s difficult not to conclude that if Kingsbarns hadn’t happened, few of the investments that followed in the 21st century would have either. Does this make Kingsbarns Scotland’s most important course ? It might do.
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