Strange, how the new becomes familiar and part of the established landscape.
Two decades ago an innovative, classically inspired public golf course opened up on the East Coast of Fife, Scotland, 10 miles south of St. Andrews. Kingsbarns Golf Links was the first of its kind for this country: a coastal layout with firm, fast fescue fairways and stunning views of the North Sea on every hole. It was a risky venture in a country noted for its parsimonious ways - priced upscale, with no compromises as to its intended market.
Now, 20 years later, it continues to thrill and inspire and is a mainstay of every serious golfer’s journey to the Old World.
It opened the doors to a number of prominent seaside efforts around the country, all of which sought to compete in the coveted upscale market: St. Andrews-Castle Course, Machrihanish Dunes, Castle Stuart in Inverness, Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire, Ardfin Golf Course on Jura and, soon to debut, Dumbarnie Golf Links east of Leven, Fife.
Unlike those successors, which all broke new ground, Kingsbarns reopened older golf land – the site of 9-hole Cambo Links, which occupied the ground from 1797 to 1939 off and on until it was finally closed at the beginning of WWII. As remaining evidence of the vintage grounds, the stone-lined burn fronting Kingsbarns’ 18th green dates back to that founding year of 1797.
The original links had been reclaimed by wind and dunes scrape by the time an American business visionary and golf enthusiast by the name of Mark Parsinen turned up on site in the mid-1990s and selected it after surveying dozens of other potential locales in the country for a new golf course. Parsinen teamed with financier Art Dunkley to build the course, and they hired a former Robert Trent Jones Jr.-design associate Kyle Phillips, to design the 18-hole layout.
Phillips by then had acquired a lot of experience in Europe. He had also worked closely with Parsinen on development of a real-estate-related, core 18-hole private course outside Sacramento, California named Granite Bay Golf Club. At Kingsbarns, he had 220-acres of coastal land to work with, and the trick here was to integrate the golf with the heavily used Fife Coastal Trail. Walkers have rights in Great Britain to wander where they want, including on private land and certainly along the shore.
Parsinen, who died this past June, was a stickler for aesthetics and environmental detail. You had to be able to get planning permission on a site like this. You also had to get everything right to bring it into a highly competitive market. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews had enough faith in the project that it helped fund it – not for equity but to secure tee time access for local golfers and the members of local golf clubs.
Among the many consultants brought on board to ensure Kingsbarns had the look and feel of a links was (former) St. Andrews greenkeeper Walter Woods. Cultivating quality fescue is a finicky proposition under the best of conditions. It was all the more difficult at Kingsbarns since much of what seems so natural today had to be built in through construction of dunes. A large part of the 220 acres was outside the original Cambo Links and, in effect, flat farmland.
Parsinen and Phillips worked hard to terrace in the holes to elicit more of what hey called "the sea aspect." The trick was not to afford an undifferentiated view of open water but to highlight the drama of where the sea touches upon land. What make Kingsbarns so powerful are not just the variety of golf shots but also the thrill of those coastal views on just about every hole.
A decade ago Parsinen ceded his share of Kingsbarns to head up north to develop the Gil Hanse-designed Castle Stuart property. Meanwhile, the tee sheet at Kingsbarns has remained busy during the March-November season that it’s open (Green fees: $325-390). Its rank among the world’s premier courses is secure, and besides proving a thrill to daily-fee players it has been in the spotlight for championship golf. Since 2001 it has been one of three co-host facilities (along with the Old Course at St. Andrews and Carnoustie) to the European Tour’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and will again do so Sept. 26-29. In 2017 it was home to the Ricoh Women’s British Open, won by I.K. Kim.
Kingsbarns’ intimate Georgian-style clubhouse manages to combine a museum-quality collection of golf artifacts with comfortable changing rooms and a pub-like atmosphere. Caddies can be requested in advance. To help promote the game’s development the facility has initiated a (unique-to-Scotland) caddie-training academy that draws from the area’s school system.
As for the golf course, it is a thrill to walk for the way its returning nines bring players into contact with the coastline. The routing roughly describes a double figure eight, with the opening holes heading right out to sea and then traversing the open ground of that old Cambo Links. The back nine crosses modest woodland where the Fife Coastal Trail comes into direct contact with the golf holes.
With tees measuring 5,257 yards up to 7,224, the par-72 layout provides plenty of options for golfers willing to test both the ground and the wind. The beauty and variety of the site are such that long par-5s, like the 12th hole, at the farthest southern stretch of the property, can one day play beyond reach in three shots for average golfers yet the next day can readily be found in two strokes. Such is the nature of golf when “the sea aspect” prevails.