By Jeff Brooke
LEVEN, SCOTLAND | Many golfers travel to the Fife region in eastern Scotland to play some of the world’s oldest courses, including the most ancient one of all, the Old Course at St. Andrews. On my most recent visit there, I played the newest.
This wasn’t so much about snubbing tradition as it was about seizing a rare opportunity to see, walk and play a big-time course in its infancy, just as the finishing touches were being made but before its gates are thrown open to the public.
Dumbarnie Links is nearly ready to launch and its big reveal is highly anticipated, not just in Fife and in Scotland but also around the golf world. But the COVID-19 pandemic has put the course’s debut in limbo. Dumbarnie's announced opening date is May 16 and the course's management team still hopes for at least “a modified opening,” but any plans are – at best – uncertain, given that the pandemic remains unpredictable. Much of Great Britain is in lockdown and the Scottish golf industry is closed until further notice.
Regardless, the sprawling links on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, an inlet off the North Sea, is ready to take its place (eventually) alongside Fife’s legendary layouts.
I was there late last fall, before the virus reared its crowns on the other side of the world, eager to take my first steps in Fife and expand my Scottish golf experience beyond the other two trips I had made to the country, to Dornoch in the Highlands and East Lothian on the other side of the firth.
Although I didn’t tee it up on the Old Course, or any of the other six public layouts under the St. Andrews Links Trust (sacrilege, I know), I wandered through the town, stuck my toes on the hallowed turf near the Old’s 18th green and stopped at the Hams Hame Pub & Grill across the road for pints and food. This alone was enough to imbue me with the past of the place before I headed off to see the future.
Dumbarnie is just 20 minutes from St. Andrews, sitting on what its architect, Clive Clark, calls a “truly magnificent site.” We might write off his comment as the usual hyperbole that precedes many new golf ventures, but it’s hard to disagree.
The new links is on a sloping, 340-acre property that is fronted by a mile and a half of beach. One only needs to stand on the elevated first tee, looking downward toward the Firth of Forth or peripherally across the wide expanse of serpentine fairways, to feel the majesty.
From its highest points looking down, the former grazing ground for cows is now a photogenic moonscape of humps and bumps and ripples and columns of dunes.
Individual holes are their own little enclaves, such that players on one hole rarely will see players on another. At the same time, the firth and its far shore in East Lothian remain in view on the majority of holes.
“This was laid here by the Almighty to play golf on,” says Malcolm Campbell, a driving force behind the project, borrowing a phrase that Old Tom Morris once said of Machrihanish Golf Club’s land on the other side of Scotland.
Putting a golf course on the Dumbarnie property, former pastureland that is part of the Earl of Crawford’s Balcarres Estate, has been pondered and discussed for more than 20 years. One of the original ideas was to create a tight, classic, out-and-back links along the firth’s shoreline but the finished product is nothing of the sort.
The flat, sandy plain along the coastline is still part of the layout but the estate owner ultimately decided to make available some of his inland fields that are on a higher level, too.
So Dumbarnie is now a links with two wide tiers that run parallel to the coastline, divided by a subtle escarpment. (An abandoned railway bed also cuts horizontally through the course.) The ground from the top of the property, where the rustic-chic clubhouse is to sit, slopes down some 100 feet before reaching the firth.
Clark took advantage of this expansive canvas.
The 74-year-old architect, a former touring pro from England with a Ryder Cup on his résumé and about 30 other courses to his credit as a designer and renovator, used two existing sand dunes near the firth to inspire his vision. He then moved a staggering 500,000 cubic yards of dirt around the property to create more dunes – 600 more, in fact, of all sizes – and corridors for the holes.
Individual holes are their own little enclaves, such that players on one hole rarely will see players on another. At the same time, the firth and its far shore in East Lothian remain in view on the majority of holes. (And when it’s not, such as when a player is facing away from the firth, the soaring Largo Law – an extinct volcano – and farm fields fill the eye.)
From its highest points looking down, the former grazing ground for cows is now a photogenic moonscape of humps and bumps and ripples and columns of dunes. “Thus the course was created, rather than picking our way through original sand dunes,” Clark says.
I’ve heard that some of the early visitors said the course looks like it has been there for 100 years already, which is Clark’s highest hope, although a true links aficionado still will see the artifice. This is no Old Course or even New Course, nor any of the lesser-known but revered links in Fife, including nearby Elie or Lundin Links, the latter of which I also played during my visit to great delight in a driving rainstorm.
Dumbarnie is light on quirks and blind shots; the routing is anything but natural. And at least one feature, a pond in front of the otherwise strong par-4 10th hole, might be downright disconcerting to some links lovers. (In fairness, though, water running down the property’s slope does naturally collect there).
Dumbarnie is more a modern, manufactured links like nearby Kingsbarns, which was to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2020 and ranks among the world’s top 100 courses. The newest Scottish course even emulates Kingsbarns’ business model – public, hefty greens fees (£235, or almost US $300) and advanced levels of service and amenities, under the management of OB Sports of the United States.
I enjoyed the course a lot, even if my personal preference is for an understated links that follows the natural lay of the land. (When your introduction to links golf is on Royal Dornoch, that preference gets ingrained.) Dumbarnie is walkable and user-friendly, with its big open-fronted greens; it has lots of risk-reward; it revs up the imagination and invites all the creative shotmaking you travel across an ocean to try. And those views.
As Tom Coyne wrote in his charming book, A Course Called Scotland, about his encounter with Kingsbarns, he arrived with a prejudice against a modern links but left a changed man.
“I felt confident in my closed-mindedness and satisfied with my antidesign proclivities, and I was almost sad to see my philosophy discarded at Kingsbarns,” he wrote. “ ... I quickly learned that I had been dumb to judge the new guy for being new.”
As much as I liked Dumbarnie, I equally enjoyed meeting the people behind it. The Earl of Crawford’s son, Lord Balniel, welcomed me into his 440-year-old home on the estate one evening during my visit. He shared the story of how his ancestors arrived in Britain in the 800s from northern Belgium and, through service to William the Conqueror and other deeds, eventually were granted courtesy titles and then land in Fife in the 1500s.
The family added to the estate’s property in 1974 with the purchase of neighboring land, where Dumbarnie sits now, even though they had no clear idea what to do with it. “This land has fantastic potential, we thought," Lord Balniel said. “What the potential is we had no idea. But we knew it had potential.”
Golf isn’t in the family blood – art collecting, equestrian and nature are more their things – so they didn’t immediately see the links. But others did. Campbell, a local resident and esteemed golf journalist, took regular walks through the property and couldn’t believe there still existed such a large swath of virgin links land in Fife.
“It was like the golf course was already there,” he says.
Campbell approached Lord Balniel with the idea of a golf course and tried to broker a plan with developers who could bring the land to life. Plumbing titan and golf entrepreneur Herb Kohler, owner of Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, was among those interested.
Lord Balniel rejected some of the early proposals because they included housing or accommodation on site. He wanted something simpler, in tune with the bucolic setting.
“I’m not a golfer but I love landscape,” he says. “I love nature and I didn’t want to lose that.”
The wheels didn’t truly begin to turn until Campbell got in touch with his long-time acquaintance Clark, whose design business is based in La Quinta, Calif.
“It needs to have a Kingsbarns-type deal, high-end, top-100 golf course built on it,” Campbell told Clark. “It’s an opportunity you can only dream of.”
Clark not only ended up being the architect of Dumbarnie but he also organized the financial support, rounding up investors who purchased 60 shares at $290,000 each. The links became a reality and soon it will become one more reason for golf pilgrims to visit the Home of Golf.
“It’s been a vision for me since 1993,” Campbell says. “I never thought I’d live to see it.”