Kingsbarns is, in golfing terms, where the old world meets the new. Just a couple of miles away from St Andrews, and the Old Course that dates back some 600 years, is a links yet to celebrate its fifth birthday. In the Kingdom of Fife that is filled with the historic and revered, it is very much the new kid on the block. Yet this is no ordinary new development. Dismiss immediately preconceptions about clubhouses surrounded by scaffolding, greens that would shame the local municipal and fairways still pitted with stones.
Kingsbarns is new, it is true, but only in one sense of the word. For a start, it lies on real golfing land, as you might expect in this part of the world. Secondly, golf has been played here since 1793. In fact, the 7,100-yard layout that Kyle Phillips designed just a few years ago is the third incarnation of Kingsbarns.
The initial nine-hole course fell into desuetude, and it was brought back to life only for the RAF to commandeer it during the Second World War. So when Phillips and his team first viewed the property, several holes merely had to be uncovered, rather than designed.
However, with money no object, the authorities had rather grander plans than that. The result is a course where the sea can be seen from every single hole. Hence the motto on Kingsbarns’ crest: “Embracing the sea”.
It has been designed as a true links; but incorporating modern architectural ideals. That makes it fascinating from a design perspective alone. In general terms, the likes of Alister MacKenzie and HS Colt had the advantage of working with naturally outstanding sites in the first half of the last century.
The modern course designer, by contrast, often works with less initially promising sites, but has the ability to sculpt the landscape to suit his purpose. In this case, Phillips had both.
It is his ability to harmonise Kingsbarns, taking the best of both schools yet blending them together, that sets its apart and makes it arguably the finest new course to open in Britain in the past 50 years.
Make no mistake, Kingsbarns looks and plays like a links – but don’t expect to be confronted by a mixture of the eccentric and the blind like you might find on many other courses around here. On most occasions, the challenge – as well as the ocean – is clearly visible from the tee. Ruggedness is combined with more manicured beauty.
The greens are huge, and most of them severely undulating making four putts a distinct possibility if you don’t put your faith in the yardage book. There is a distinct premium on strategy here, despite the length from the back tees, with holes often designed so that they can be played in two different ways. Risk and reward is a common theme.
On most occasions, the challenge – as well as the ocean – is clearly visible from the tee. Ruggedness is combined with more manicured beauty.
To score anything approaching well, you’ll need to think carefully about where to direct your tee shots and club selection needs careful attention. Like all links courses, length is only one element to take into account. Apart from the ubiquitous seaside breeze, Kingsbarns features some significant changes in elevation that can call for a two-club adjustment in themselves.
Even what Kingsbarns lacks in history is worked to its advantage. It is a work in process, still evolving, and when the club decides, for example, a certain green is too severe – something that has already happened on more than one occasion – it is swiftly redesigned.
As you would expect, the holes are ideally balanced. There are long, strong, tough par fours – mediated aptly by a couple of cuter versions. The short holes are a mixture of the spectacular and the subtle. And the par fives, at least three of which are simply stunning, can be reachable in two or hard to find in three.
To complete the effect of a traditional Scottish links, the designers even discovered its very own burn – the Cambo – during the construction process. Phillips moved plenty of earth when he created this course, yet only rarely does the suspicion arise he went too far.
For the most part he has merely accentuated the natural, creating amphitheatres of certain holes and a course that operates on two levels, much like two levels of the same patio.
That is how he is able to offer the constant ocean views while each hole retains an individual feel of being played down its own corridor. Needless to say on such a course, there are some notable highlights.
An early one is the par-five third, sweeping down to beach level from the tee before rising again to an evilly contoured green. All along the way, pot bunkers await should you dismiss strategy and resort to blasting.
If you like to use the contours of the land to your advantage, try playing the short 8th when the pin is on the left-hand lower level. Alternatively, face a putt or chip that must literally tiptoe its way over the crest if it is to hold the green.
Then, after three relatively low-key holes, prepare to walk through the woods and emerge on the 12th tee. This 606-yard par five (from the back tees) follows the curve of the shore before eventually reaching the massive green.
The most spectacular of the short holes, if not the best, is the 15th, played to a green set over water and fronted by rocks. Kingsbarns closes down over winter (there are no members here) and that helps ensure it is never presented in anything other than perfect condition.
That means you’re guaranteed – weather permitting – to see the course at its best. An expensive treat it may be, but few who have played here complain. A round at Kingsbarns is a genuine experience, and one that will linger long in your memory.