It is difficult to imagine a brand new golf course immediately being rated above such great tracks as Royal Dornoch, Gleneagles (Kings) and Wentworth, not to mention Open Championship layouts such as Royal St George's, Royal Troon and Royal Lytham and St Annes but Kingsbarns has managed it.
In the most recent of Golf World's biennial list of the Top-100 courses in the British Isles, Kingsbarns leapt straight in at number 13. It is only the second time a new layout (it was opened for play in 2000) has broken into the top-20 (Loch Lomond was the first) and is the highest position achieved by a debutant. If further measure of Kingsbarn's qualities is needed, it is sandwiched in the list between Carnoustie and Ganton, and golf doesn't get much better than that.
And this is not just a reflection of British xenophobia, in its most recent listing of the best courses, America's Golf magazine (September 2001) rated Kingsbarns at 46th in the world.
So what makes Kingsbarns quite this good? First, comes the land on which it was built, a strip of coastline on the north Fife coast, just east of St Andrews. Every hole has a view of the sea and, although plenty of earth was moved in construction, like all great links layouts it looks as if it has been there since Samson picked up the jawbone of an ass and, instead of doing the sensible thing and using it to loft a pebble to a well-protected green, wielded it as a weapon and slayed 1,000 Phillistines. Many of the best golf courses seem to blend so seamlessly with their environment that they look as if they were created entirely by nature and Kingsbarns is among their number.
Second, and every bit as important, the designer, Kyle Philips, working in close association with owner Mark Parsinen, wanted to create a strategic course - on which virtually every shot caused the golfer to balance and measure risk versus reward in making their shot selection.
Third, and most critically of all, Mark Parsinen was absolutely adamant that playing Kinsbarns should be a pleasurable experience. In that sense it's reminiscent of Augusta National. Par golf is achievable if you're having a reasonable day; bogie golf is easy and an 18-handicapper should be able to get around in 100 or less. But go for birdies and take the aggressive line from the tees, or find the wrong part of the greens, and you could find yourself being severely bitten on the backside (in the anatomical sense of derriere, rather than the American sense of second nine holes).
This concept, and wouldn't we all wish that other designers were as committed to it, means that, whatever your ability, you should achieve Mark Parsinen's ambition for every visitor, and walk off the 18th with a smile on your face rather than murder or suicide in your mind.
His philosophy is that much of the course's defence should be centred around the greens - hit the right part and you'll have a makeable birdie or par putt; but go to the wrong spot on the putting surfaces and you'll be struggling to get down in two. In consequence the greens are, in the main, very big and this, along with their significant contours, led to the only real criticism the course has faced since it opened, and it came from Tour pros taking part in the inaugural Dunhill Links championship over the course in 2001 (along with St Andrews Old and Carnoustie Championship).
Europe's elite, along with a fair few of their colleagues from the US Tour, complained about the size and undulations of the ninth green, arguing that in some instances it was just about impossible to get down in two from some parts of the putting surface.
An entirely reasonable response might have been: 'Then don't hit your ball to those parts of the green,' but Kingsbarns listened and took note - an enduring part of the place's philosophy, as explained by director of golf David Scott.
'We are smoothing out the edges,' he says, 'listening to feedback, learning from our experience and listening to the pros when they play the Dunhill. It has been enormously rewarding, exciting and flattering to have the response we have had since we opened but we cannot rest on our laurels so we're looking all the time to see what the next stage of development should be.'
As a consequence of those early criticisms the ninth green has now been lowered by a foot and is much easier to play (but still no pushover). Other evidence of the desire to see visitors enjoy themselves is abundant. There's virtually no heather on the course for example, quite deliberately, and anyone who has ripped their clothes or skin to shreds trying to find a ball in or, suicidally, play out of the stuff will be forever grateful. And there are many of those small but important touches that make a day's golf a real experience. For example, practice balls on the range are complimentary, and anyone who doesn't take a caddie is given a yardage booklet.
To ensure that Kingsbarns is kept in the best possible condition, it is closed every year from December 1 to March 31 and the number of rounds is strictly controlled. David Scott explains: 'If we had 40,000 rounds a year the course would be punished so we are looking to cap it at 30,000 for the eight months that we are open.'
The policy, in essence, means that Kingsbarns is prepared to sacrifice additional revenue in order to do everything it can to make visiting the place a memorable and enjoyable experience. This belief even extends to the clubhouse design. It is not a sprawling behemoth that looks (and feels) like a modern hotel but rather a small, friendly building that really feels like a golf club. The food is solid golfer's fare rather than an elaborate menu of the world's most obscure delicacies and the staff are clearly conscious that in a service industry it helps if you're friendly.
But ultimately all of these things - clubhouse design, catering, practice ground and so on - are, while important, peripherals to the core product, which is the course. And it is here that Kingsbarns excels. It has a relatively gentle start, a run of holes, 12-15 that stand comparison to anywhere in the world (and that includes Amen Corner at Augusta National) and a great finish. There isn't a weak hole to be seen and the whole flows together in a seamless way that makes progress around the layout seem natural and almost pre-ordained.
The 12th is the hole that sticks most in the memory, being a par five that curves right-to-left around an adjacent beach and which appears to be a replica of the last at Pebble Beach (without that damned tree in the fairway). But while Pebble is more clifftop, Kingsbarns' 12th is right down at sea level, and is the better for it. It's followed by a beautiful, short par three, set against a stunning backdrop of rocks, a driveable par four (for longer hitters) and a longer par three that involves, if your nerve is strong enough, playing out over the water and trying to hit a draw to compensate for the prevailing wind, which is busily trying to blow your ball towards the sea. Get through those in par figures and you might not utter a prayer of relief, as you're supposed to do at Augusta, but you could lift your eyes heavenward for a moment in gratitude.
The only 'problem', if that is the right word, is that these wonderful holes could over-shadow the rest, which would be a pity, as David Scott explains.
'I think the sixth is a very under-rated short par four,' he says. 'It's driveable [287 yards from the regular tees but plays shorter because it's downhill from an elevated tee] but has that "wow" factor because of the view and is many people's favourite hole on the front nine.
'I also think 17 [408 yards] is a great and strong par four. You're playing to a subtely raised green and it's a classic of design.'
Add to that the challenging par five 16th, also along the shoreline, the delicate but tough par three 8th and a very good finishing hole and it all adds up to a blissful experience. But don't take my word for it. Sir Michael Bonallack, former secretary of the R&A and British amateur champion five times, said: 'Kingsbarns might well be one of the last true seaside links capable of development in Scotland. Mere words cannot convey just how extraordinary the place is. It must be seen to be believed and once seen it will never be forgotten.'
Kingsbarns has no members, but may at some point in the future. Visitor green fees are £125 for April and May and £135 for June onwards. There is also a popular scheme by which members of Scottish Golf Union affiliated clubs can book a fourball tee-time for a total cost of £200 (all prices for weekdays). But enough blather. Mug your granny, spend your children's inheritance but whatever you do, play this course at least once before you die.
You owe it to yourself.
Pictures, courtesy of Brian Morgan and Iain M Lowe
Contact details: Go to the ScottishGolf home page and simply key in 'Kingsbarns' in the course directory search engine (top right of home page).
|| 1 - APRIL 2003