LEVEN, SCOTLAND | Though Dumbarnie Links only opened as recently as May 2020, it already features alongside the Old Course and the New, Carnoustie, the Castle Course, Crail and Kingsbarns as a “must-play” venue in the Fife area of Scotland.
There is a simple explanation as to why it has shot to the top in so short of a time, and it all starts with the “Wow!” prompted by a glance through the all-glass reception area of the clubhouse. Eyes are drawn to the first tee and, from there, to a wide expanse of the Firth of Forth and its vagaries. Regardless of whether it is the call of the tee or the sea, the visitor cannot wait to get out there.
Dumbarnie is the 32nd of Clive Clark’s designs across Europe and the U.S. This Englishman, a former Ryder Cup player who finished joint third with Gary Player in the 1967 Open, enjoyed 20 years in the BBC commentary box alongside the late Peter Alliss before pursuing his dream of becoming a golf course architect, firstly in conjunction with Alliss and later on his own.
In the ’90s, Clark moved to La Quinta, California, where he and his wife, Linda, have stayed ever since. A renovation of La Quinta and his original design at The Hideaway are among his most famous projects in the States, while Dumbarnie is his latest success story on this side of the Atlantic.
Clark has never lost touch with friends at home, among them, one Malcolm Campbell, a former editor of Golf Monthly magazine. Campbell and his wife were staying with the Clarks at La Quinta a few Scottish winters ago when, over the dinner table, the conversation turned to Clark’s unrequited search for a good stretch of potential linksland. “I can’t complain,” he said a little ruefully, “because there are plenty of designers who never get that chance.”
Campbell stopped him in his tracks to make light-hearted reference to what would be the perfect site just down the road from his home in Lower Largo, Fife. The only snag was that it was part of an estate belonging to one Lord Balniel, whose family came from Belgium in 1100.
Such was Clark’s reaction to the above, Campbell agreed to try and speak to His Lordship and, when the latter heard Clark’s plans would take in nothing more than a course and clubhouse, with nothing in the way of a housing development, he pricked up his ears.
Clark then got together a band of 17 investors, 16 of whom were from California and one from London. That done, 24 consultants were called to help with the planning side of the operation. “Twenty-three wouldn’t have been enough,” Clark said before giving an idea of the intricacies of that process.
Among other things, the local council was concerned about badgers. Were they breeding? Cameras were set up to follow the animals’ movements and, as it turned out, there was just the one badger on the property who, as luck would have it, was more interested in foraging than finding a mate.
Another question – this one came when Clark and the rest thought they were past the worst – concerned the gas pipe which ran under a section of the land before heading under the Firth of Forth toward Muirfield.
Who knows whether council members were thinking that divot-taking golfers might crack the pipe or whether they were more concerned with the golfers’ weight. Whatever, the council decreed that only a limited number of people would be allowed to avail themselves of this new facility. As Clark pointed out, the number they suggested would have been enough for a full complement of staff but no golfers.
When, at last, the council gave the go-ahead to the project, Clark was left to wonder how that body was going to feel about the effects that a 142,000-strong Open crowd (2013 figure) might have on the said pipe when the championship returns to Muirfield.
Though the Clarks came back and forth from California to follow the progress of Dumbarnie Links, the pandemic put a stop to all that. To their chagrin, they missed out on the early reactions to Clark’s creation, and it was only in the summer of ’20 that the couple were able to fly over for the Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open. The LPGA players loved it, likely as did everyone who was watching this LET and LPGA co-sanctioned championship on TV.
Requests for starting times have been pouring in ever since.
"Most of them talk about the tranquility of the place, the fact that it’s a course for all standards, and that it’s thought-provoking.”
Clark, who spent three months of this year based in the area, cannot wait to hear the apres-golf comments. That September day when I had a clubhouse lunch with him and Linda apparently was typical. Every time he saw a fresh bunch of visitors putting out at the 18th, he excused himself from the table and hurried off to greet them.
“Firstly,” explained Clark, “I like to know what appealed about the links and, secondly, I’d like to think that they enjoy discussing this and that with the architect.”
He may or may not have given a wide berth to those who have played the last via the bunkers, but the feedback he had over the three months was never less than positive. “I’ve probably been speaking to about 20 people a day, and most of them talk about the tranquility of the place, the fact that it’s a course for all standards, and that it’s thought-provoking.”
In the case of the third of those observations, he refers to the number of holes offering alternative routes. The 17th, one of three drivable par-4s, is a hole where the braver members of the golfing fraternity will take one look from the gloriously-elevated tee and envision their shot sailing on to the green. (Lydia Ko made an eagle in the final round of last year’s Scottish Open.)
Those who miss likely will end up in a “particularly gnarly bunker,” to use Clark’s words, or rough. In other words, many a wise soul might be persuaded by his caddie to opt for a sensible shot down the fairway next time around.
The caddies, incidentally, are a special breed at Dumbarnie. No one gets to be a regular at the club without a thorough interview, while only the more cheerful of the species need apply.
“The caddie,” said David Scott, the Dumbarnie course manager, “is arguably the most important person a player is going to meet during a visit to our club. A man and his caddie are going to be locked together, for better or worse, for around 4½ hours, so a good relationship between the two is imperative.
“Everyone who comes to the course,” he added, “is treated as a member for the day, and our aim is to ensure that from the moment people arrive, to the moment they leave, it’s going to add up to the best of experiences.”
From the music in the locker rooms to the merry chatter in the bar, Scott and the rest would seem to have hit the right note.
Top: Dumbarnie Links' third hole, from behind the green