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21st Century Links

Robert Lowell
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

A trip to play at St. Andrews or Ballybunion or Royal Dornoch is much more than a golf junket, much more than just shots and putts, or pars and bogeys. For those who play golf with a passion, even a reverence, for the game, trips to the old Meccas of the Links are pilgrimages to its very origins. Golf has been played, according to historical mythology, at St. Andrews since the fifteenth century when shepherds knocked rocks into holes with sticks, bearing up against the winds that raced across the beach from the North Sea. It was on this blessed links land that the game began. Seaside golf, or what we now define as links golf, was not only the game's early standard, but has come to be seen by many as the ideal venue for its practice.

From St. Andrews the game spread to seaside courses throughout Scotland, to Muirfield, Western Gailes, Carnoustie, Dornoch, and from there to England, to St. Georges and Cinque Ports and Birkdale. The game took root along the Irish coast, at Ballybunion, Portmarnock and Lahinch. Where land met the sea, where grass could be grown that withstood the saline assault, the game flourished.

Golf courses moved inland over the course of the last century. The natural demographics of urban populations and the availability of land in the hands of real estate developers turned most designers away from the sea. On top of that, with naturalists and activists surrounding every dune and guarding every beach, new seaside golf courses were delayed or squelched by environmental impact studies and legal challenges. But in a few cases, men with a passion for the game have brought golf back to the seaside. They've cleared the legal hurdles and followed their own passion for what the game once was and what it still can be today. These men have built the new links, courses that are every bit as true to their heritage, and every bit as grand. Only six miles from the Old Course at St. Andrews, there is Kingsbarns. Just down the road a bit from storied Lahinch we find Doonbeg. And on the southwest Oregon coast, not close to anything except a golfer's soul, are Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes.

These new courses, all built at the turn of the twenty-first century, are pure expressions of the links game. They are set by the sea, influenced by the wind and come with a natural grandeur that all the bulldozers in North America could not achieve. They are throwbacks to another time, though with a sensibility to modern desires.

Kingsbarns is the dream of Americans Mark Parsinen and Art Dunkley, Californians who happened upon the chance to build a new course within the midst of the old game. Their site, along the North Sea in County Fife, Scotland, is an amphitheater where all attention is focused on the course and the water.

"You could not have built this site; it had to be there," says Parsinen. Parsinen hired a young architect, Kyle Phillips, and set to work over the late 1990s building a course that was very much suggestive of the 1890s. With decades of experience living and playing golf in the United Kingdom, Parsinen had a vision and a passion for links golf. He set about realizing it at Kingsbarns.

"We wanted to do everything carefully and cautiously so it wouldn't look manufactured," says Parsinen. "We built the course in the field. Most of the earth moving was done at the perimeter of the course to make sure we focused the views on the sea and make it sort of a sanctuary for playing golf."

As a golf course, it is terrific. As a sanctuary, it works. There is a pureness of spirit at Kingsbarns that rivals its ancient neighbors back in St. Andrews. The clubhouse is small and cozy. The drive into the course takes you from Fife farmland, around a field of blazing yellow mustard, into a haven.

The object at Kingsbarns, as it was on the old courses, was to discover the holes rather than just manufacture them. The long par-5 12th sweeps its way along the sea and is every bit as much a hole as the 18th at Pebble Beach. The 16th is a shorter par 5 that works its way through modest duneland. Much of the work at Kingsbarns went into establishing a challenging set of greens. Many are broken into sections and if you don't land in the correct section with your approach shot, three-putts are the rule rather than the exception.

"Some of the transitional areas of the greens are really sort of like hazards," says Parsinen. "It isn't just a matter of hitting a green here but getting in the right section. That might actually involve shooting away from a pin because if you go for it and are short or long, you have a lot to contend with."


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