Friday, October 12, 2012

Kingsbarns Golf Links

New pictures updated from my recent trip to Kingsbarns. I like the course more every time I visit.

18th green
The exciting finishing hole at Kingsbarns Golf Links, Scotland

The first golden era of golf course design was in the 1920s when some of the best all time architects were alive and designing: Alister Mackenzie, Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast, H.S. Colt and George Thomas. "The Roaring Twenties" were also a time of unprecedented global prosperity with markets booming around the world. Of the 100 top courses in the world an astonishing 28 are were built in the 1920s.

We are lucky to live in the new golden era of golf course architecture. Kingsbarns (ranked #65 in the world) is one of the new generation of courses that have graced the world in the 1990s and 2000s, specifically having been built in 1999. The new golden era is characterized by architects such as David Kidd, Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and Kyle Phillips, the designer of Kingsbarns. This new group has designed many new courses that rank in the top 100. This new generation of world-ranked courses follows a dearth in good design. During the entire forty year period between the 1940s and the 1970s, only nine courses were worthy of inclusion on the top 100 list, and most of them were toward the latter half of the period and were designed by Pete Dye.

Part of the reason we are in a new golf course design renaissance is the favorable economic environment we find ourselves. A new generation of multi-millionaires, fueled by entrepreneurship and rising real estate and capital markets, have had both the vision and the money to put together some of the these great new courses.

Kingsbarns, located in the Kingdom of Fife, south of St. Andrews in Scotland, is a course I like very much. I have been fortunate enough to have played Kingsbarns three times on two different trips.

1st fairway
The great 414-yard opening hole at Kingsbarns takes you right out to the North Sea

The course is varied and interesting and a lot of fun to play. A lot of land was moved to build the course and critics of Kingsbarns cite this as something that detracts from it, since it is not pure links land. Hogwash! The course is great and feels and plays like a links course.

3rd fairway 1
The 516-yard Par 5 third plays along the water and is a terrific hole

From my point of view, there really is no let-down at Kingsbarns. I find the opening holes to be very exciting. The third, in particular plays along the North Sea and is a great par five in the dunes. If your blood isn't pumping with excitement by the time you reach the third green you need to have your pulse checked. The green, seen below, is demanding. Be sure to avoid the deep bunker front, right.

3rd green
The third green at Kingsbarns

The fifth hole is a 424-yard par four that plays back toward the opening hole. Your approach shot is over some big humps, hollows and gorse, seen below. The hole's name, "Tassie", means small cup or goblet and refers to the punch bowl nature of the green.

  5th green
Approach to the fifth green at Kingsbarns

I have been keeping track of the greatest holes in the world as I progress through the courses, and Kingsbarns has a couple on my list. The driveable par four sixth hole is on the list.

  6th from tee 
The world-class driveable par four sixth hole at Kingsbarns

The sixth is 337 yards and the tee shot is over a little valley. The play is to the right since a strip of land protrudes out of the hillside. If you can hit your ball about 220-240 yards, it will ride the slope all the way down to the hole. A hole-in-one is possible and eagles are also in the offing. The hole's name "Auld Links" refers to the original 1793 Kingsbarns 9-hole course that existed near this part of the course.

6th green
The fantastic sixth green at Kingsbarns

The sixth green is set in a little cove, and as you expect from a short hole, the green is difficult with a lot of undulations. Laying up into the valley isn't really the play from my point of view, since it leaves you with a blind shot to the green. It is tons of fun to play this hole. The hole reminds me of the sixteenth at Royal County Down, because you have to hit your ball over a valley to land it on the green if you are going for it.

8th green 
Green on the par 3 eighth hole at Kingsbarns

The par three eighth hole, seen above, plays only 168 yards from the back tees and 132 from the front. It also plays down hill and possibly down wind as well. As you can see, the green is two tiers and the lower tier is 10-12 feet below the upper. A very good hole.

Memorable holes on the back include the par five twelfth hole that is often compared to the eighteenth at Pebble Beach, rightly so. In my opinion, the views at Kingsbarns are as good as those at Pebble Beach, as is the hole. Avoid the big bunker guarding the green on the left side. There are some old stone walls down on this part of the course too, which add to the charm.  I also like the par 3 fifteenth hole, which plays over water. And the long par 4 seventeenth hole has a diabolical green! 

What do I like so much about Kingsbarns? It has everything I like in a course:

1. An interesting routing, not just an out-and-back layout
2. Holes of varying length which test your skill on short shots as well as long. I'm not a big fan of having to hit 80% of your shots all day as long shots.
3. Six holes along the Ocean that rival any course in the world for scenic beauty
4. The ability to hit a variety of shots - bump and run, pitches, and a variety of wedge shots
5. Challenging but fair greens - some contoured significantly, some not, but appropriate for the size of the green and the type of hole
6. An intelligent use of terrain and elevation - some uphill shots, some downhill, but not overdone.

The course should rank higher in the world rankings in my view. It is, I believe, the first modern course worthy to be put on the rotation to hold an Open Championship. To me, the place the feel of a Scottish equivalent of Bandon Dunes.

About 80-90% of the people that play Kingsbarns are visiting Americans. They have a great caddie program as well and I recommend taking one. The clubhouse is great and I recommend the onion rings.


Anonymous said...

Alternatively, it could be seen as Scrooge McDucks Olde Scottish Golf Links. If Disneyworld were to design a Scottish links-style course this sham would be their idea of perfection. It looks seriously artificial. It's been constructed for the average player, and in that, along with the superb location, it succeeds wonderfully, but hold an Open? It would need to be reworked to provide a challenge for a good player. It can be a tough course, but only due to the over-the-top greens. The place and the experience are far superior to the course.

Anonymous said...

Not an out-and-back layout? Only because, as at Western Gailes the clubhouse is in the centre rather than at one end. You still play, for example from the 4th to the 12th, 8 out of 9 holes in the same direction, just like, say, Royal Dornoch or Troon. The course puts no pressure on you from off the tee. The stats show that at the Dunhill links there are more fairways hit by the pros than at St Andrews, hardly the tightest course in itself. The bunkering is designed to look good rather than to get much play, and I'm afraid to say the whole place looks so artificial that it is actually one of the few courses that afterwards has left me annoyed. I really looked forward to playing this course having followed its development closely, but it let me down badly. Great setting, great facilities, great use of the land for the views, otherwise deeply disappointing.

Anonymous said...

I've been round Kingsbarns 8 or 9 times since it opened. Initially I hated the fact that it looked so artificial, but, although it will always be obviously false, it's improving. The maturing gorse is softening the dunes and now the artificiality is an irritant rather than anything more. This means that when I play there now I can appreciate the setting much more. I would say it has the best setting of any major Scottish links golf course. Sure the West coast links, particularly Turnberry or Machrihanish, are better at their best, but none has a full 18 holes of outstanding vistas, with nothing inland to spoil the view. However, now that I've played it enough times, I have to say the course itself, and it's challenge, is pretty dull.
Last time I played there I was inaccurate, though long, from the tee. In fact I only hit 2 fairways - quite an achievement given their width. Despite my inaccuracy I felt happy to use my driver on all 14 non par 3's. Looking back after the round it was obvious that there was never any reason not to. So much for it being a course of decision making. There are decisions, but the answers are too obvious. For example, at the 6th, the decision is whether to carry the bunkers or not, but the margin for error and lack of hazards over the bunkers mean that if you can carry, you go for it. Simple fact. A great hole would have real trouble close by so that a bad drive over the bunkers would leave you standing on the tee hitting a provisional. Knowing that this might happen, playing short would be an option, even if the carry was definitely on. That's real decision making in golf, and Kingsbarns doesn't have it.
My driving may have been bad, but my approach play was even worse. Yet I still had 13 GIR. I even made the green from fairway bunkers. On a links course!!! That's wrong. The course is way too straightforward, certainly for The Open, and even for the likes of me who gets his kicks in golf from being tested. Give me Troon, Carnoustie and Muirfield any day.
Now you've probably worked out that if I hit 13 greens with appalling approach play, then I had, given where I was, some pretty big putts. And it's true, I putted superbly to 'only' have 38putts, (I average 30). But if I'd been as far from the pin on the aforementioned courses, I'd have had 50 shots to hole out due to bunkers, bushes or rough. I guess I don't like big greens, at least not 18 of them. Sure, there's a joy in two-putting from 100 feet, but not as much as an up and down from a similar distance when facing all sorts of trouble between you and the pin.
I still love the place, one of the finest settings in Scottish golf, and given the land there are inevitably good holes - especially the 12th and the 18th, but to me, it's poorly designed. Then again it wasn't designed for me, but for mass tourism, most of whom are likely to ever play there once, and it takes at least 4 or 5 plays to get to know a track half decently anyway. Or 100 if it's Prestwick. What a course... said...

I have played Kingsbarns not less than 30 times over 7 years. The differences between year one and seven have been noticeable; the softening of the dunes, the gorse planting program, the redesign of several poorly conceived greens, etc. When your commenters say artificial, I wonder if it's more because Kingsbarns is a new construction or because it has a manufactured feel to it. Personally, I cannot think of another course that successfully plays cat and mouse with you more than this one. It's not the Old Course or Dornoch but you're still in heaven.

Steven Crew said...

I had the distinct pleasure of playing Kingsbarns in 2008. It is my favorite course to have ever played. Breathtaking views and challenging golf on a spectacularly kept track - who could ask for more?

Anonymous said...

Having played many Scottish links courses, I would say that Kingsbarns has been my most enjoyable golfing experience, and surely that is what it is all about. It may not be brutally tough, but is tests many aspects of your game, and it has no hokey or quirky holes like on Elie, Crail or North Berwick. 10/10 vote, and to me in 2014 it did not appear too artificial.

Anonymous said...

My group played Kingsbarns in 2014 along with Carnoustie, Turnberry, St. Andrews. If you take away the tradition of the others Kingsbarns would rate as the best.