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A new golf course in Scotland has to be different - and Forrester Park, Dunfermline, certainly is
One way is to offer something different - which is a lot easier said than done in a small country with so many super courses - but this is clearly the route adopted by Forrester Park, near Dunfermline.

In a nutshell: the golf is good, the clubhouse magnificent and the dining superb. But there's more. Golf is a business and no business will succeed if it doesn't attract customers back time and again, so both service and facilities have to be first-class and here is probably where Forrester Park will survive and prosper while many others would not.

To pick just one example you need look only at the clubhouse. Seen from the course (from where you get the best view) it is an attractive but fairly unremarkable building - and then you step inside. The feel, flavour and dicor are all reminiscent of a centuries-old stately manor or castle, with high ceilings, moulded cornices on the walls, marble floors, leather armchairs and that quietly confident feel of old money. And yet part of the building used to be a cow byre and none of the dicor is more than three years old. It offers an astonishing example of what can be achieved with some money but significantly more good taste and hard work.

The hardest trick of all, though, is to produce something that looks as if it wafted from the pages of Country Living or Tatler magazines and yet feels welcoming, friendly, down-to-earth and very much geared to the needs of golfers - yet Forrester Park manages it with aplomb. The feel of quietly understated luxury even extends through to the locker rooms, which would not look out of place at Loch Lomond, Gleneagles or Skibo Castle.

But if, like me, you feel uncomfortable in posh restaurants where a snotty maitre' de always seem to wear an expression of mild distaste that lowlife such as us should presume to enter his fiefdom, fear not because Forrester Park is nothing like that. It has, instead, pulled off the tough balancing act of being elegant without being elitist, smart but not stuck-up, and it offers class and comfort without condescension.

But before you sample the aprhs golf you'll want to test yourself against the course. Forrester Park is almost neatly summarised by its first hole (pictured over), a strategic, thinking test that relies more on precision than power, and accuracy rather than brute strength or distance. It is only 317 yards, so a drive and flick should see you home but a water hazard runs across the far side of the fairway, and both meander from right to left. But find the short grass from the tee, (with a long iron by most and a wood for shorter hitters) and the stream now snakes across the front left of the green. No matter where you put the ball, the stream is in play on both your drive and approach and anyone who walks off with a four will be pleased. It offers proof yet again, if it were needed, that some of the best par fours in the world are short holes.

And that experience is repeated several times during the round - water is in play on nine holes but, with the possible exception of eight and 17 from the medal tees, heroic carries are not required and where you put the ball is more important than how far you put it. The course is shaped around a natural valley with some holes being on the far side, some on the clubhouse side and several straddling it - and the stream and water hazards that sit at the bottom of it.

The overall length is 6,299 yards (yellow tees) and 6,760 (medal tees) it's a par 72 with two par threes and two par fives on the front nine, but only one of each on the back. There are few fairway bunkers but more are being added all the time and the greens are large - and incidentally built to USGA specifications and in summer, I suspect, frighteningly fast. They are also well contoured and in 18 holes I only faced one straight putt - which I missed through not having seen a subtle left-to-right borrow.

It's debateable how much relevance this has but in my group there were handicaps of seven, eight and 10, two biggish-hitters and one who is not (me) and yet we each played a match against the other two and all were only decided on the final hole. To my mind that's evidence of a fair test but a neutral observer might argue that we all played equally badly.

What we agreed on, though, is that the round was immensely enjoyable and, in the bar afterwards we could all recall most if not all the holes after just the one visit - always a good sign of a literally memorable course. Because of the valley the layout bestrides, a number of drives are blind but that just makes you want to go back and play them again, now you know where you're trying to go. It has, inevitably, some of the pitfalls associated with a new layout (it opened in July 2001; the first new course in the Dunfermline area since 1950), such as plantations of newly-planted trees - from which you get relief without penalty - and that indefinable 'not been here long' appearance but this is unavoidable.

But now for the most astonishing thing of all. Forrester Park was virtually hand-built by the owner, Robert Forrester, and his father, who bought the land 30 years ago, family, friends and whoever else could be persuaded to drive a JCB, lift a spade or dig a ditch. A driving range was opened first and whenever a pro or good amateur came to practice, he or she would find themselves collared by the owner and asked an opinion on what would make a good layout. After much distillation of ideas it became obvious that there was virtual unanimity on how the 18 holes should take shape.

'We asked them to come up with plans and nearly all of them produced the same, or similar, ideas,' says Robert Forrester. 'Then we went ahead and built the course ourselves; we laid the greens, dug up the fairways, dug all the drainage channels and so on. We almost literally picked the course up, put in the drainage and laid it all back down.'

Robert Forrester is an enthusiast and to hear him talk about drainage is like listening to Rick Stein discuss the merits of a prawn, but because of the topography of the land, drainage was a crucial issue and one about which he will still wax lyrical if given a moment's encouragement.

'Yes, it's hugely important,' he says, 'and even now, if someone plays the course, whether visitor or member, and reports that there's a damp patch somewhere or a bit of standing water, we'll investigate and if necessary put in more drainage to sort it out. But the result of such an approach is that our greens, for example, can cope with 11 centimetres of water an hour.'

Another result is Forrester Park's proud boast that it intends not only to stay open as long as humanly possible but in winter to be played from proper tees to full putting surfaces - no mats or temporary greens here. This is partly because it is, according to its owner, only the second course in Scotland to be built to USGA sterilised greens specifications (the first is a little track in Fife called Kingsbarns). What this means is that all the aggregate used to build the greens and help provide the many layers underneath the putting surface are sterilised before being laid, so that no fungus, moss or other unwanted life form is introduced during construction, to rear its ugly and unwanted head at a later date.

An even bigger surprise, considering the professionalism with which the course is now presented, is that none of the central figures that built it are golfers. Robert Forrester says he can hold a golf club properly but that's it. And frankly, it's difficult to see when he might get the chance to ever play the course he built. He rises at four every morning to visit the local fish market in order to buy the freshest produce he can for the clubhouse, and then it's off to Glasgow - a considerable drive, being as it is on the other side of the country - for fresh fruit and vegetables. Frankly, he makes your all-American, go-getting, workaholic CEO look like a slacker.

And like many restless, some would say driven, people he's never satisfied and freely admits that Forrester Park: 'Is, and will continue to be, a work in progress.' In keeping with this philosophy, a new members area is being built, incorporating a pro shop, that will offer the sort of food that golfers want and expect after four hours of probable frustration.

'Golfers rarely support their clubhouse in a way that would allow it to develop,' Robert Forrester says. 'They tend to play their round, possibly have a quick snack and go home. We want to attract them to stay longer and will be providing a menu just for them, along with their own private area. They may only want burger and chips but if that's the case, we will make it the best burger and chips that can be had. We want to offer excellent, five-star service but coupled with the sort of food that golfers want after a round.'

But that's only half the philosophy. The other half is that the two clubhouse restaurants currently in operation will provide haute cuisine of impeccable standard, at an affordable price, to anyone who wants it.

'The member can have an average lunch in the Blue Room for £10, or have a five-course meal in the Acanthus restaurant for £30,' the owner says. And of course, non-members are more than welcome. The membership ceiling has been set at 520 (£470 joining fee and an annual subscription of £488.55) and only 20 vacancies remain but Forrester Park is also committed to the idea of positively encouraging visitors, both to play golf, practice on the driving range, dine in the restaurants or just take coffee in the drawing room. And at the moment the golf is astonishingly good value - currently green fees are set at £20 and £30a round (weekdays and weekends respectively), rising to £30 and £45 in the summer.

Forrester Park is a good test of golf. Not a good test 'considering it was virtually hand-built by non-golfers who had no idea what they were letting themselves in for,' but a good test. Full stop. But while it is the course that will initially attract golfers, it is the clubhouse, the restaurants and that all-important atmosphere, mood, or ambience that will make them dwell a while or bring them back.

To book your round at Forrester Park

Martin Vousden

©    24 - FEBRUARY 2004

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