As viewers tune in to the Golf Channel beginning today to watch the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, they will see golf being played on all the usual suspects in the St. Andrews area: the Old Course, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns, world ranked courses all. Other than the one additional St. Andrews course* which comes with the Old Course tee time, those three are the only courses most visiting golfers ever play. That’s a shame because East Fife is blessed with numerous links worthy of play. So many that you could stay a week, play a different seaside links every day and never play the same course twice. Just ask the members of Mayacama Golf Club pictured above because that’s exactly what they did in 2011.
Whenever I’m asked where to play near St. Andrews by those who are looking to take the road less traveled, there are four historic gems I recommend. Here they are in alphabetical order. With apologies to Robert Frost, I say play them and it will make all the difference.
Crail Golfing Society (Balcomie Links)
Founded in 1786, the Crail Golfing Society is only a smidgeon younger than the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and the Royal & Ancient of St. Andrews. The present links were laid out by Old Tom himself in 1895. Though shortish at less than 6000 yards, I find them quite sporting with several testing holes and fine greens. The clubhouse, perched high above holes 16 through 18, offers some of the best views in golf.
As you near the sea, look for remnants of the anti-invasion devices which were liberally strew about the area during World War II. The flat beaches and adjacent land could serve equally well, it would seem, as a links course or the spear point of an amphibious assault. During the early forties, the efforts of the British military authorities were decidedly in favor of the former usage as opposed to the latter.
Climbing the hill from the 18th green to the clubhouse after the round may produce a sense of deja vu for those familiar with Golf in the Kingdom. Rather like Mr. Iron’s course, isn’t it?
Elie (The Golf House Club)
The most apt description of Elie is unusual…in every way, in every sense. The links are old. Golfing records here indicate play on these grounds as early as 1589. It was then a mere sliver of land which now comprises the western portions of the course, and it was severly disputed for more than 250 years. Local farmers claimed the land belonged to them and ploughed up great portions of the course until the 1830s when the Royal Burgh of Earlsferry successfully sued for golfing rights to supercede grazing rights. There was no formal golfing club, however, until the Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club was formed in 1858.
The acreage of the golfing grounds was so meagre that the club did not even have room for a clubhouse until a purchase in 1873 nor room for a full 18 holes until 1896 when some nameless soul laid out the current design. The clubhouse construction led to the club’s unusual name. Those who added the 1873 land formed the Golf House Club to raise funds for the venture and subsequently attracted so many members of the competing Earlsferry and Elie Club that the latter finally disbanded in 1912. In some ways this is most unfortunate in that it was this club that five times Open champion James Braid joined at age 15. Many of his early records were lost with the passing of the club.
But what of the course, you enquire? Unusual, most unusual. No par fives; only two par threes; a submarine periscope to determine whether one is clear to hit a blind drive over the hill on the first hole. Some super holes; some funky; some regretfully ordinary. Ken Nagle rated the 225 yard, par three third as one of the best in Scotland. Braid called the 379 yard, par four thirteenth “one of the finest in all the country”.
Lundin Golf Club
Rarely do I quote directly from a club website but in this instance I completely agree with the Lundin GC description of its course and readily admit I couldn’t have written it more succinctly:
A magnificent James Braid designed golf course (and) …a qualifying course to The Open Championship when played in St. Andrews, Lundin Golf Club is renowned for its beautiful greens and some of the most demanding short Par 4’s in the game of golf. A complex links course with open burns, an internal out of bounds (the old railway line), and strategic bunkering, Lundin presents a challenge for the thinking golfer where position from the tee rather than distance will yield just rewards on the scorecard.
Panmure Golf Club
Although the course seems a bit short by modern standards, it is nonetheless challenging enough to be inextricably linked to the British Open and superb golfers who compete therein. In final qualifying for the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, for example, the winning score over two rounds was merely 5 under par. In addition to 2007, Panmure served as a Carnoustie qualifier in 1931, 1968, 1975 and 1999 and as a St. Andrews qualifier in 1979 and 1990.
When Ben Hogan came across two weeks early in 1953 to compete in his only British Open, he chose to practice at Panmure, away from the hubbub of Carnoustie. His goal was to learn how to play the smaller British ball and to play on links where he could not take his customary long divot. He also was exposed to the customs of Scottish golf when informed that he would be granted access to the clubhouse unlike other golf professionals who were not permitted inside the members’ areas. He chose to take his meals in the clubhouse kitchen with the stewards and the local professional. The result of his time at Panmure? He won the Open by four shots and set a Carnoustie course record of 68 in his final round.
The secret of Panmure’s ability to challenge even the best golfers in the world despite it lack of length is the course favours accuracy over distance with wayward shots severely penalized. Moreover, once the golfer reaches the greens, he finds their century of maturation has produced a plethora of slight dips and swales almost invisible to the eye. A learned Panmure member I know once remarked that Panmure’s greens are very much like a novel by James Joyce, impossible to read!
Do make an effort to meet the genial members while you enjoy their Indian themed clubhouse, a remnant of Dundee’s past dominance of the jute trade. Making their acquaintance may result in an invitation to visit the R&A clubhouse as Panmure has more members of that club amongst its members than any other club except HCEG.
*When you decide to save hundreds of dollars on your Old Course tee time by purchasing it directly from the Links Trust instead of through a golf tour company, you will pair it with one of three other courses. Here’s the local skinny on the three: the New Course is the best design, the Jubilee is the toughest and the Castle offers the best scenery.