For most of us in the U.S., a golf trip to Scotland is a bucket list item for certain. Even if you have been a dozen times, there are so many courses to play that every trip can be new golf eye candy coupled with amazing experiences. Whether on a famous links course or one of the inland parkland beauties, playing in the home of golf is an experience not to be missed.
We just returned from my first (but hopefully not last) trip to Scotland. We saw a couple of days of the Open Championship, and also played two rounds of golf. The final day was spent walking, from the first tee to the 18th green, the Old Course at St. Andrews.
An Experience Unlike Any Other
With apologies to Jim Nantz, our trip to the Kingsbarns Golf Links was everything I could have hoped for, and then some. Alice never quite got her game going with the consistency she hoped for; however, I had my best round of the year on a new, and tough, golf course.
In the eighth decade of the 18th Century, at the same time as the Thirteen States were declaring their independence and the Constitution of the United States was scripted, the Merchants and Lairds of Kingsbarns drafted articles to form the Kingsbarns Golfing Society.
—David Malcolm, Golf Historian
Kingsbarns as we know it was designed by Kyle Phillips and opened in 2000. It has co-hosted the Alfred Dunhill Links, along with The Old Course and Carnoustie, since 2001. It also was the site of the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2017.
I’ve heard of Kingsbarns for years, but other than knowing it had a great reputation, I had no knowledge of the type of course it was, other than a “traditional Scottish links” course. After doing some research, I found out that it was on every “Top of” list ever published. Just a few include:
- 30th in “World’s 100 Greatest Courses”- Golf Digest 2017-18
- 17th in “Top 100 Courses of UK and Ireland – Golf Monthly, 2017-18
- #1 Scotland’s Best Golf Experience – Scottish Golf Tourism Awards, 2014-15-16
There are many more, but you get the idea.
We booked a vacation package and had a variety of courses to choose from, and Kingsbarns was my first choice. It so happened it was the first of the two courses we would play (the St. Andrews Castle Course being the other).
Thursday morning at 0800 was our tee time. We showed up around 7 a.m. in order to hit some balls, roll some putts, get acquainted with our caddies which I had booked separately (probably the smartest decision I made the entire trip), and just soak in the experience as much as possible.
The stone clubhouse could easily fit into just about any American golf environment. It’s large but not pretentious, with a dining area on the back that overlooked the course and the Firth of Tay. It has a nice pro shop with significant swag options for taking back memories or gifts.
The car park is large enough but not nearly as large as one would expect from a major resort course in the States. My guess is because so many golfers come in vans or via shuttles of some type. Therefore, the amount of parking needed doesn’t equate to what we would expect. For example, we spoke with a foursome who parked next to our car as we both were loading up after the round. All four of them were in a large van they had rented, and that was not uncommon.
The practice area was large, with free range balls and a short game area complete with practice bunker, my first up-close-and-personal look at a Scottish stacked sod bunker with brown Scottish sand.
I’m certain all the caddies at Kingsbarns are excellent or they wouldn’t work there. There are 80+ full-time and about that many more during this peak time of the season. However, it would be a hard sell to try and convince me that we didn’t have two of the best–Michael for me, and Alan for Alice. Our playing partners, a father and son duo of Brian and Matt from Cleveland, also had two friendly and helpful caddies.
Just one example that explains what I mean about excellence: I had asked Michael before we teed off to take a photo of Alice and myself on the first tee. What I didn’t know until we made the turn was that he had grabbed my camera and had taken a series of photos and videos of Alice, myself, and the course in general throughout the round, giving me an unsurpassed visual pictorial of the day. That level of service immediately became the norm for the next four and one-half hours.
If there can be perfect golf weather in Scotland, then we had it. It was the talk of the caddies, the ladies in the pro shop, the waitress at the 19th hole afterward, and just about anyone we ran into. Imagine San Diego weather– that’s what we had that day. Sunny, just a little breeze, temperature around 80 degrees. I had started the morning in a wind shirt that came off before I left the practice area. Our caddies had on vests which were part of their uniforms, and all of them were removed shortly into the round as well.
On the one hand, we had perfect golfing conditions; on the other, we didn’t experience true Scottish links weather. But we would a few days later at the Castle Course, so we didn’t miss out!
The Front Nine
There is no other way to say this, so you either believe me or you don’t. The two biggest obstacles we had during the round were, a) to not stop and gaze at the amazing scenery on every hole, and b) to keep up pace of play rather than stopping for photos and taking in the sights at every opportunity.
The views and vistas were unsurpassed. The ocean was visible from every hole, usually from every point and every shot of every hole. Somehow, Phillips was able to lay the course out so that it looks natural, but allows the holes further from the coastline to be a little higher in elevation, so the ocean and coast are still visible.
I chose to play from the green tees, at 6350 yards, as did our two male playing partners, which made the tee shots logistically simple, since we were all hitting from the same place. Alice played the red tees, 5257 yards, certainly no pushover for a shorter hitter.
The first hole is as far removed from the coast as we would get, and that is probably a good thing as it allowed all of us to focus on golf, at least for the first couple of shots. A slightly uphill par-4 with a wider than average fairway –smart course design to allow even a mishit drive the chance be in the fairway. A drive, mid-iron just right of the green, chip and two putts and I had a solid bogey to start. I’ve certainly started worse.
The second hole is when the scenery really starts. The second is a downhill par-3, 170 yards with the Firth of Tay seemingly just behind the green. It was so clear that we could see the white specks of corporate tents of Carnoustie just over the bay. I reach the green, two-putt for par, and I feel this may be a good scoring day along with just being a good day.
The third hole is a short par-5, and the tee shot was the first of about 27 different Kodak Moments we would experience. The hole borders the ocean which is on the right, and because the tide was in, and because they have 20-foot tidal changes, Michael said it was as pretty as it could get. So naturally a few extra photos were taken of all of us. A decent drive, a really solid 3-hybrid, sand wedge to about eight feet and a putt that used its last roll to die in for a birdie! Even par after three holes! I told Michael we could quit now.
Hole four is a par-4 and reverses course, playing alongside the third. Five, six, and seven are also par-4s, with six being a short risk/reward uphill challenge. Being one-over and feeling confident (cocky?) I risked and pushed the drive into the tall fescue. An easy par turned into a double, which is what those holes are supposed to do.
The eighth is the second of the par-3s, and is memorable due to the stand of trees lining the green from behind. The sea is visible to the left of the large two-tiered green. I hit a 9-iron to the 140 yard pin, and was on the left side of the green putting for birdie. The bad news is the pin was on the right side on the upper tier, a good 80 feet away. My first putt was 76 feet, and the second putt snaked in for one of the better two-putts of my life.
The ninth is a long dogleg right par-5 that brings you back to the clubhouse. It is one of the few holes that doesn’t have a full-on view of the Firth of Tay, so concentrating on the shot was marginally easier. A routine par, and after adding it up, I just shot a 40.
There is a halfway house where we stopped for a sandwich and especially for liquid refreshments. The heat and sun were beginning to drain all of us.
Two thoughts occurred to me as we made our way to the tenth tee: There were no pot bunkers, or at least none that I had seen, which made the course much more “fair” (if that’s an appropriate term to use for links golf); and it was extremely playable. The fairways were wide, and while every hole had undulations and dips and swales, they weren’t extreme. Most balls that were hit offline were findable.
The Back Nine
Holes ten and eleven, both par-4s, are probably on the highest points of the property, and play toward the same tree line that runs behind the eighth green. They are furthest removed from the coastline but their elevation still allows for stunning views. Bogeys on both of these holes were disappointing, especially the 360 degree lipout I had on number ten. Still, I’m playing some pretty solid golf.
Twelve drops us back on the coastline, this time with the coast to our left. The gentle dogleg left is another reminder to try and focus on the golf and not as much on the scenery, although the views are just as spectacular here as elsewhere. My second birdie of the day here, and I’m back to having one of those special rounds again.
Thirteen is a short par-3, a “reverse Redan” if there is such a thing, with the green 45 degrees left to right from the tee.
Fourteen is a short, straightaway par-4 and the easiest hole on the course, according to the handicap on the card. I’m not sure I knew that at the time and let my guard down, but I came away with a sloppy double-bogey.
Fifteen is a gorgeous par-3 that is played to a promontory green that juts into the coastline. Trees border the tee shot and left side of the green, with water and coast on the right and behind. By this time, the tide that was completely in on the third hole was completely out, exposing several feet of rocks along the coastline a startling visual of just how much and how fast the tide shifts in this part of the world.
Sixteen and seventeen follow in line, with the coast on the right of both. All three of these holes, at any point, were excuses to stop and take in the scenery as well as the outstanding course architecture.
Eighteen is a tough finishing hole. The first half is uphill, then it turns left and down to the green, which is guarded by a burn in front, requiring the second shot to be all carry. I pulled a 5-iron to just left of the green, but in the tall fescue just a few feet away. A chip to a downhill pin left me ten feet for par….and a 79. The putt broke more than Michael and I expected, and I finished with a bogey for an 80, but it is the most enjoyable 80 I have ever shot in my life. (And I keep thinking of that 360 degree lip-out on #10)
I was only in one bunker, about halfway through the back nine. I hit it from that bunker in front of the green, to one to the side of the green, then got it up and down from that one for an unusual bogey five.
I was in a gorse bush. A gorse bush is simply a bundle of really sharp spikes on sticks. The “bush” in question was about three inches off the ground and maybe 18 inches in diameter. The ball was easy to see. And after one attempt to pick it out, I quickly learned beating it out with a club is the only way to deal with gorse.
I readily admit my list of “world-class” golf courses is limited. I have not played Pebble Beach, or Bandon Dunes, for example. But based on the absolutely stunning scenery, superb conditioning and world-class customer service, it would be hard to convince me that there are courses anywhere that are significantly better than Kingsbarns. Golf Digest has it #30 in the world for a reason!
It’s expensive, and worth every penny. And every British Pound Sterling, too. It ranks at the very top of my golf experiences. If you’re in the St. Andrews area, you have to play Kingsbarns.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy Shooting Your Age!