KINGSBARNS, Scotland -- Eleven years after opening in the shadow of St. Andrews, Kingsbarns Golf Links has never been better.
It's also pricier than ever before. For 2011, green fees are 185 pounds, up 20 pounds from 2010, their most successful year to date.
But golfers continue to flock seven miles down the coast from the Home of Golf, and with good reason. You're getting a top-shelf golf experience at Kingsbarns: phenomenal sea views (better than what you'll get at the lower-lying St. Andrews Links Trust courses), plus European Tour-worthy conditions and shot values.
The course may be a few hundred years behind the Old Course at St. Andrews, but the maturity of the links really showed after a bizarre 2011 winter kept much of St. Andrews under snow for a month.
"The course opened this April stronger than ever," said Stuart McEwen, who has served as General Manager at Kingsbarns since 2000.
In its short history, the turf has taken root and the crew has figured out how to make the course shine brightest by ensuring they don't overbook the tee sheet. It's tough to find a flaw in the operation, even if the design is sure to reveal plenty in your golf game.
Kingsbarns is far different from Scotland's historic links
Kingsbarns is one of three host links for the European Tour's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which is held each fall alongside two Open Championship venues, the Old Course and nearby Carnoustie. It doesn't take more than a hole or two to discover Kingsbarns is an entirely different kind of links.
The course, designed by Kyle Phillips and Mark Parsinen, was molded into a three-tiered amphitheater, and the holes play like shelves along the sea.
While the sea views are constant, one of the ground's great walks comes after the 11th hole. After holing out beside the course's tree-filled corner down by the sea, golfers head down a shady path under trees (a rare occurrence on any links) and across a small bridge above a stream, then back up a hill to the 12th tee, where a long par 5 hugs the coast the entire way. There is a wide fairway and an even wider green, so golfers can swing with relative ease without much fear of finding the rocky shoreline.
While this vista is as pleasant a golf experience as Scotland can offer, the revealing moment from the crest of the par-4 18th fairway is meant to intimidate. The green sits atop a steep, shaved bank that slopes down to a burn. Playing into the wind, it will take all the might in your bag to get onto the green safely in two. And yes, scores of golfers will be watching in the clubhouse as you try and fetch your ball from the burn.
The spirit of St. Andrews is alive here in both large greens and deep, riveted bunkers that will impose real fear. The smallest of them can actually be the most penalizing. Just in front of the drivable par-4 14th hole is one so deep and small that you can't really get a full stance and swing in it, which can turn one of the rare birdie holes at Kingsbarns into a ball in pocket.
Kingsbarns Golf Links: The verdict
While 185 pounds can be a lot to ask for a round of golf, the experience at Kingsbarns comes with plenty of trimmings to justify the cost. There are more tee box options to choose from than most traditional links, and the driving range and practice area are footsteps from the first tee. The clubhouse has a fine bar and restaurant, plus a full locker room upstairs.
If you're balking at a green fee that's actually 45 pounds more than the Old Course, consider their repeat play offer that welcomes golfers back for half the cost if they play within seven days of their first round. That makes the cost about the same as two rounds on the Old Course, which doesn't offer a repeat play discount.
After playing Kingsbarns once, you'll certainly learn a few intricacies of the design, and a couple of greens may humble your putter. It's most certainly a course you'll want another crack at, especially to see some new pin positions as the greens here are large and can yield some sinister flags.
Also, like most clubs in Fife, Kingsbarns is accommodating to golfers who secure an Old Course lottery tee time the day they've booked Kingsbarns. If this happens, the club will be happy to rebook your group.
Caddies are available upon request, but call a couple of days in advance to secure one.
Stay and play in St. Andrews
If you're booking Kingsbarns on your Scotland golf trip, chances are you're in St. Andrews to see the best. Right beside the 18th hole of the Old Course is the Rusacks Hotel, a fixture in the town for more than a century. If you want to splurge, ask for the Young Tom Morris Suite, and you'll have your own private balcony overlooking the 18th green. It may very well be the best view in town.
Additionally, the Old Course Hotel, now under the ownership of Herb Kohler, features a spa, fine dining and guest rooms overlooking the famous Road Hole.
Even if you're not a guest of the Old Course Hotel, be sure to pop into the fourth floor and have a cocktail. It has the best view of the Old Course from above, and the hotel recently opened an outdoor balcony that offers views of the Old Course from a one-of-a-kind vantage point.