A Magical Links Experience in Scotland
Feature by Golfshake Equipment Expert & Howley Hall Head Pro Ryan Rastall
Earlier this year, some friends and I decided to organise a golf trip in the UK. For obvious reasons, our usual international break was difficult to arrange and when we heard that the European Tour's Dunhill Links Championship was cancelled, a plan began to form.
We decided to organise a trip to the Home of Golf and after calling in a few favours, speaking to some contacts and lots of legwork, I was able to book four fantastic golf courses.
Our group comprised of four players:
- Scott Parry, PGA Professional and incoming Head Professional of Bramhall Golf Club in Cheshire
- Matt Howard, keen golfer and member of Chester Golf Club playing off 6 handicap
- Aaron Edwards, nomadic golfer masquerading off 8 handicap
We all took the long trip to St Andrews separately due to the COVID regulations in place for Scotland, which wasn’t ideal but at least we could still travel. After a 4-and-a-half-hour drive north, I arrived in Golfing Graceland at 8pm and met the guys at a local bar for some food. We then got down to the important details of agreeing handicaps, a format for each day and who was going to play with who during our first round the following day at Kingsbarns Golf Links.
Day 1 - Kingsbarns
We arrived at Kingsbarns just prior to 10am for our tee time at 11.30. We really wanted to experience everything that this exclusive golf course had to offer and were promptly welcomed by the staff who handed us a fantastic Kingsbarns gift pack including stroke saver, bag tag, ball marker and special wind tees in case the conditions warranted their use.
Luckily, the sun was shining and although it was windy, I would imagine a Fife native would regard it as a benign day. We took full advantage of the free bacon sandwich and coffee on arrival from the refreshment hut before making our way to the range.
It must be said that the practice facilities are immense! The huge grass practice tee accompanied by shortage area set us up really nicely for the round ahead. Having played the course before, I knew that one of the tougher tests around Kingsbarns was the greens, so I promptly made my wau to the expansive putting green to try and sharpen my skills before the real test to follow.
I think it's safe to say we were all nervous standing on the first tee. Not only does the first hole require an accurate shot but having chosen to play it from the back tees, it also required a decent strike. Luckily, all four of us were up to the challenge and as I stated in the video, we all striped it down the middle.
As the round progressed, we all remarked at how beautiful the course was and the constant views of the sea, while each hole being framed by dunes really forced you to commit to your tee shots and although the fairways were a little more generous than some links courses, the slopes on them often funnelled your ball into certain areas which made the holes play narrower.
Some of the shorter par fours that the longer hitter may fancy hitting driver towards the green really do require an extremely accurate shot to avoid the deep rough, gorse and dunes. It is almost pointless to get greedy around this course which prompted me to hit an iron off the tee. As I mentioned before, the severe slopes on the greens and immense size of the green complexes mean that hitting the greens isn’t too difficult, but you will regularly be faced with putts of 50-60 feet which will test even the best of putters.
We decided to play a four-round individual stableford to decide who would win the inaugural Dunelm Links trophy and also have a combined stableford match play each day in pairs. This really kept every hole interesting and made sure that we all had to keep plugging away to grind out every point.
As you can tell, we are a competitive bunch and as you can see from the video, the first round match did not go well for me and Matt, as we were soundly beaten by Scott and Aaron. The singles competition was close after round one with Aaron's 30 points leading the way and showing how tough the conditions were.
We all left the course having enjoyed every second of the round and would absolutely love to return for another game soon, but hopefully next time I will bring a much better golf game with me!
After a shower back at our apartment, we headed into St Andrews for a meal at the Tailend Restaurant, which was absolutely great. This was followed by a few beers in town and a relatively early night ready for round two on Friday morning.
Day 2 - St Andrews Jubilee Course
The second day started with renewed optimism that I could rediscover some form and put a bit of pressure on Aaron who was my pairs partner on the day. Obviously, the most famous course in St Andrews is the Old Course, but the other courses including the Jubilee offer amazing value for money, and if they weren’t in the shadow of the most famous links in the world, would be regarded as fantastic courses in their own right.
On the day, the strong wind really played havoc with our golf games. Apart from Aaron who had what felt like 20 putts in 18 holes and hardly missed a fairway. His 37 points in those conditions was seriously impressive. Self-confessed links specialist Scott was a close second with 35 points. Matt and myself however really struggled with our high ball flight and complete inability to control our game in the savage wind.
The entire front nine played into the prevailing wind which felt like a real slog and presented some challenges to us all. The Jubilee is a much tougher proposition off the tee than the previous day at Kingsbarns with any missed fairway leading to a tough search for a ball or a reload from the tee due to the long punishing rough. It was perversely enjoyable as it showed all of the weaknesses in my game and a complete inability to mentally cope with having to hit four clubs more into every green and effectively chip your ball around the course.
My poor golf aside, the course is extremely testing and when turning to play the back nine, we could see the famous old town in the distance with the imposing R&A Clubhouse dominating the foreground. For the avid golfer, this really is as good as it gets and makes you truly appreciate where you are.
After the round we also paid a visit to the famous Jigger Inn located just off the 17th fairway of the Old Course where between the four of us we revelled in our successes as well as drowned our sorrows while providing some post-game analysis and enjoying a great lunch.
Due to the late tee time the following day at Carnoustie, we decided to enjoy the St Andrews nightlife right up until the 10pm curfew and head back to the apartment.
Day 3 - Carnoustie
Our 14:30pm tee time on day 3 meant that we had a leisurely morning taking in the sights of St Andrews. We had breakfast at a local cafe followed by a walk around the town and departed for Carnoustie at 11:45. The drive from St Andrews to Carnoustie takes you across the Firth of Tay and into Dundee where you can see the stylish V&A Museum alongside the RRS Discovery Museum dedicated to the famous Antarctic research vessel that carried Scott and Shackleton on their first successful expedition.
Having played Carnoustie before, I couldn’t help thinking that some of the fortitude shown by these famous men may help me when battling the infamous ‘Carnasty’.
When arriving at the famous links, the first thing I noticed when we got out of the car was how much stronger the wind was here than in St Andrews. Although the two courses are only around 12 miles apart as the crow flies, the relatively benign conditions we left behind were replaced by a stiff breeze which would be helping us as we teed off the first, but unfortunately meant that the famous 18th hole which we all know destroyed the Open dreams of Jean van de Velde, would be into the wind!
As we walked into the brand new clubhouse to check in, we were met by the Claret Jug sitting there resplendently in a glass case. This immediately made me think about all of the memories I had of past Open Championships held on this amazing course. From Paul Lawrie’s triumph in 1999 to Harrington and Molinari’s wins more recently.
This place also holds a very special and sentimental place in my heart as my dad qualified for the Open here in 1975 as a young 21 year old upstart and experienced what it was like to tee it up on the grandest stage of them all. Tom Watson went on to win that year after pre-qualifying at Monifieth just down the road (same as my old man) and these were his first ever experiences of links golf.
When entering the shop we were all given a great welcome pack including a scorecard, stroke saver, tees and a pencil then made our way out to the putting green. I would say the only negative about the Carnoustie experience is the distinct lack of practice facilities and not really what you expect when visiting such a prestigious venue. The experience on the course more than makes up for it and even though the wind was constant, you can see from the video that it was very sunny throughout.
From the moment you hit your first tee shot, you are forced to concentrate and hit good golf shots on a regular basis with very little room for error. The golf purists amongst you will love the test and those of you that tend to be a little erratic are in for a tough day. I must say I did not play my best but enjoyed every minute, particularly the iconic holes such as 6th (Hogan’s Alley), 14th with the ’Spectacles’ bunkers and of course the toughest three finishing holes I can think of.
We played from the white tees which makes these three holes even tougher. The par 3 16th was playing 245 yards into the wind and required an absolute rip with a two hybrid to get anywhere near the green, and one of the group had to hit a driver. The 17th is an island fairway which played downwind and is one of the toughest tee shots on the course. The shot into the green also requires a well struck approach with a huge mound short of the green meaning you have to fly it all the way onto the green to avoid a tough downhill chip to a firm green.
If you manage to pass these two examinations, you are then faced with one of the toughest finishing holes in golf and the Barry Burn running down the right and in front of the green with out of bounds all down the left side. Pretty simple right?
We absolutely loved it and I can’t wait to take on the challenge again. We just about finished as the light faded and made our way back to St Andrews having been thoroughly duffed up the course.
We decided to go for a beer in BrewDog St Andrews to talk over the day’s golf and recount stories of our round as only golfers do! Reliving each and every shot in detail before deciding we should put the bad golf behind us and look forward to the Indian takeaway we had ordered back at the apartment.
Final Day- Dumbarnie Links
I was extremely excited about playing Fife’s newest golf course at Dumbarnie and had heard fantastic things about it. As the bright sunshine flooded into the apartment, we were treated to the most stunning Scottish morning with very little wind, and although it was cold, this was as good as it gets on the east coast in October. We were lucky enough to be only the second group out on the course and only had a two ball in front, so it really felt as if we had the course to ourselves.
Although the off course amenities aren’t quite finished, this is still an extremely special place to visit. It has the feel of Kingsbarns and had extremely large greens that were very firm and presented a true links test. In many ways Dumbarnie is a modern links course with many changes in elevation and larger greens than some of the other and more traditional links, but it is the course I enjoyed the most (probably because I finally played well).
The conditions suited my type of golf and the firm greens also suited me more than the others due to the tremendous height that I get on most shots. Every single hole was framed by the dunes and really made you feel like you were the only players out there at times. The views were also great, especially from the elevated tees where you could see the entire property stretching out towards the sea, and the fact that it was also bathed in sunshine added to the experience. The extreme slopes on the greens meant that some local knowledge would be beneficial as often you had to play to the wrong part of a green for the ball to funnel towards the pin you were aiming at. Although the course commands a hefty greenfly similar to that of Kingsbarns, it is an amazing experience and one I would highly recommend to anyone.
Overall, our trip was great! This crazy year and restrictions associated with it put our trip under threat continually, but we had an amazing time on some brilliant courses, and I personally can’t wait to play them all again soon.
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