Every time I drive south over the (now toll-free) Tay Bridge I begin to feel a peculiar sense of belonging. It seems only yesterday I was at university in St Andrews but my graduation was closer to 10 years ago than five. No, its not actually the four years I lived in the Kingdom of Fife that gives me such an affinity with the small region. The real reason is that golf has its home in Fife and wherever golf calls home I know I must be welcome.
Fife is bursting with courses but any golf-loving visitor to the region is magnetically drawn to St Andrews like a moth to a flame. Following the pilgrim trail, this journey must start in the Auld Grey Toon.
Think golf in St Andrews and youll probably picture: the Swilken Bridge, Hell Bunker and the Road Hole. Its not surprising; the Old Course is the most famous in the world. But the town is blessed to have five, soon to be six, further tracks to choose from. The New Course is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. It may not have the history of the Old but the quality of the layout certainly challenges elder brother.
The first round I ever played in St Andrews was on the New. I was 17 and had just finished moving into my shoebox of a room in my hall of residence. I pretty much ran all the way to the links to see if there was a chance of a game. It was a balmy September evening, the gorse was in bloom and the course was deserted. It took only a couple of holes for me to decide this was heaven on earth.
The New is, of course, not so new. Designed by the legendary Tom Morris, it was opened for play in 1895. Its a traditional out-and-back links with classic gorse-lined holes, narrow fairways, pot bunkers and undulating greens. For me, its one of the best links layouts in Scotland.
Just a couple of miles from the links, looking down on St Andrews from within the boundaries of beautiful Craigtoun Park waits a totally different golfing experience. Owned by the Old Course Hotel one of the most luxurious in Europe The Dukes has a heathland feel. Originally designed by Peter Thomson, the course was recently remodelled by American architect Tim Liddy. He lengthened a number of holes, softened the edges of the bunkering and changed the finishing stretch. With spectacular views of the town and across the Firth of Tay towards Carnoustie, The Dukes provides an excellent alternative to the links courses on the edge of West Sands.
Myriad of courses
Looking at a map of Fife, St Andrews appears to be the regions heart. Roads run like arteries from it into the countryside. Each one sends golfers in different directions to explore the myriad of courses Fife has to offer.
Head down the A91 through Cupar and youll reach Ladybank. I played here a couple of months ago and Ill summarise the experience: springy turf, heather-lined fairways, pine trees, beautiful greens, blue sky and lovely meaty broth in the clubhouse.
With the trees encroaching on several holes, accuracy is crucial and I dont think Ive ever played so many Seve-style recovery shots in a single round. A punched 5-iron under the branches of a pine on the 17th that rolled up to 3ft will live long in the memory. In my mind, only Blairgowrie can rival Ladybank as the best inland course in Scotland.
Take the A917 south along the coast from St Andrews and within 10 minutes youll be at Kingsbarns. Kyle Phillips is amassing an impressive portfolio of course designs but Kingsbarns remains his finest. Making use of the incredible natural golfing terrain (golf has been played on this land since 1793), the holes cross the undulating links, many clinging precariously to the edge of the sea. Standing on the tee of the monstrous par-5 12th or the striking par-3 15th I challenge you not to feel a tingle of excitement.
Continue round the coastline of Fifes East Neuk past Crail, Anstruther and Pitenweem and youll come to Elie. Golf was played on the Earlsferry Links as far back as the 15th century and five-time Open champion James Braid grew up playing here. The course is marvellous and full of character. From the old submarine periscope on the 1st tee (used to check the fairway is clear) to the testing 18th with a ridge running down the centre of the fairway, Elie is unique.
Ive never managed to post a sensible score here but always feel great excitement at the prospect of returning. Thats the sign of a good course.
Further down the coast back towards the Forth Bridge, Lundin Links can be divided into distinct sections. The first four holes forge out along the seafront. All played into the prevailing wind, its an uncompromising start. Turning away from the sea, a short par 3 precedes three short par 4s still on the narrow coastal plain. Then, at the start of the back nine, you make your way up the hill to a stretch thats more parkland than links with spectacular views across the Firth of Forth. The par-3 14th takes you back down to sea level and the run for home. The approach to the 18th is one of the most intimidating in UK golf a long shot to a narrow target with the clubhouse looming behind.
Ive only played Burntisland once and it was with a five-year-old golfing sensation called Reece Murphy. My abiding memory of that game was his short game considerably better than mine. But I was also impressed by the course. It may not be that well known in Fife but its a layout of some quality. Although it offers views of the Forth, its really a parkland course with trees and shrubs lining the fairways rather than heather and gorse. The terrain is undulating and the holes varied.
On the other side of the M90, just south of Dunfermline, Pitreavie offers the chance to play a fine parkland course designed by Dr Alister MacKenzie. Its not long at just over 6,000 yards, but with very changeable terrain plus trees and streams to negotiate, the layout requires concentration from start to finish. Last time I played Pitreavie my playing partner holed a chip from just off the edge of the 18th green to win our match one-up. I can confirm the greens run extremely true.
Fife may cover less ground than Greater London but its packed to the gunnels with golf courses of quality and renown. It will always be most famous for the links of St Andrews but theres an enormous amount of golfing opportunity to be taken advantage of along the coast and further inland. I recommend you make the pilgrimage.
St Andrews New
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