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21st Century Links

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

(continued from page 2)

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."

It was the natural approach that drove Greg Norman's design of Doonbeg, a perfect links site on the west coast of Ireland just north of the Shannon River. Lahinch, one of the great links layouts, is to the north and Ballybunion is across the Shannon to the south. Doonbeg was created by the American company Kiawah Development Partners, which is headed by Buddy Darby. KDP is the developer of Kiawah Island, South Carolina.

"I try not to be emotionally attached to the land until I get the business points worked out, but this was absolutely wonderful land," says Darby. "It has been in the development process for several years and there were environmental issues. But it seemed worth the effort to work through those issues, because when are you ever going to get another chance to own a perfect site for a links golf course?"

Along with settling the environmental issues, which primarily consisted of protecting an endangered species of snail, Darby hired an architect with whom he had never worked before. Norman originally had been retained by the previous developers of the property, another American firm known as Landmark National. Norman has been fabulously successful in the worlds of golf and business. He's had a golden touch with everything he does, from being one of the world's best golfers to owning vineyards to designing golf courses.

When he first saw Doonbeg, Norman realized what he had in his hands. "What a special place it was," says Norman. "Simply because it might be the last seaside links course ever built in Ireland. The property is spectacular and any designer would dream of having an opportunity to work with a piece of land like Doonbeg."

Norman knew what he wanted to do with it -- almost nothing. Here was a place where he could discover holes if he just looked closely. "A lot of the course was built with a shovel and a lawnmower, rather than a dozer," says Norman. "The challenge in designing the course was picking the right routing and disturbing as little of the natural beauty as possible. Even if we had moved a lot of dirt, it would not have resulted in what we wanted. It's hard for people to imagine that all the undulation in the earth at Doonbeg is natural."

The first hole is almost too good to be true -- it must be one of the most spectacular opening holes in the world. It's a par 5 from an elevated tee that descends gracefully to a green sited in a natural dune bowl. To the right of the fairway landing area is an old thatched barn that was to have been moved originally, but Norman felt it gave the hole more visual appeal and instant age.

The course moves from the farmland behind the dunes to the spectacular dunes themselves. A wonderful stretch of three dune holes begins at the 13th, a short par 5 with a lot of teeth. After a blind drive over a ridge, a second ridge must be negotiated by players going for the green in two. That ridge is fronted with nasty bunkers so penal as to force lay-ups by all but the most talented and the unintimidated.

One of the world's most memorable short par 3s follows, one that will rival the seventh at Pebble Beach. The 14th is just a wedge to a shelf green suspended from the side of the dune. Hit the green or face oblivion. When the wind blows, who knows what kind of club will work on this little gem?

The 15th is a longish par 4 that tumbles downhill to another dune bowl green. The dune wraps around the right front of the green as well, forcing a carry over it to pins in the center and right-hand side of the green. This hole will test a game and a psyche.

An unusual feature of the course is that to get from the 17th green to the 18th tee, players must cross over the first fairway. Then the par-4 18th sweeps along the coastline to the south, with an intimidating tee shot through high dunes. "The most important aspect was not to overengineer it," says Norman. "With this course we took my long-standing minimalist approach to a new level. Less was definitely more."

For Darby, Doonbeg combines his passions for business and for golf. "I'm a pretty picky person, but now I would find it difficult to change anything," says Darby. "We've looked at its playability and it's fair, no harder than Ballybunion or Lahinch. I've played 18 holes and only lost one ball."

Mike Keiser knew what he had the minute he saw more than 1,000 acres of land on the southwest Oregon coast near the little artist-colony town of Bandon. "I thought it was perfect," says Keiser, co-owner of American Recycled Greeting Cards in Chicago. "It was covered in gorse, which was perfect. It was by the sea, which was perfect, and it had big dunes, which we really haven't touched at all and may never. I had one guy come here and break down crying because they reminded him of the dunes where he grew up in Michigan. And you know what? People who come here to play golf say, leave them alone. What we've done with the golf courses is enough."

Keiser has two golf courses, a lodge and a pair of restaurants at the resort. He started by building Bandon Dunes Golf Course. It was designed by Scottish architect David McLay Kidd. Keiser could have gone after any top golf course architect, but, "I wanted someone who was going to focus their attention solely on this project," says Keiser. "I didn't want someone who would be running from course to course."

What Kidd came up with is a natural routing that brings the course down to the sea and along the shoreline before returning to its inland origin. Six holes play along the Pacific, with the par-4 fifth hole seemingly lifted right off the shores of the United Kingdom.

After Bandon Dunes opened to rave reviews three years ago, Keiser asked Tom Doak to design a second course, Pacific Dunes. Like Norman's work at Doonbeg, Doak took a minimalist approach, choosing to go as much as possible with the natural contours of the land. When Pacific Dunes opened in 2001, the reviews were even more glowing. Here was the truest of all courses in the American links land, an instant classic. Its par-3 holes alone, featuring two back-to-back along the Pacific, are worth the trouble to get there.

"My feeling was that if it was natural and could work, leave it alone," says Keiser. "I wanted pure, classic golf. I wanted them to find the holes rather than push the dirt around to create them. What I think we ended up with are two courses that closely approximate the great links of Scotland and Ireland. I am very proud of the way they turned out."

And like some of the storied links of the old country, the Bandon Dunes Resort is remote. It takes time and determination and two, sometimes three airplanes to get there. But once American golfers found out that there were genuine links in their own country, they found a way to get there.

"I was thinking that the courses would do 10,000, maybe 12,000 rounds apiece, per year," says Keiser. "We've been doing 20,000. Our lodge has done well, the first restaurant has done well. People have heard about it, heard that they aren't going to get gouged [$140 greens fees] and have been coming."

From Scotland to Ireland to Oregon, men with vision and determination have taken the game back to its roots. They have made something new old again, returning to the standard of links golf that remains timeless. In doing so, they have touched the soul of the earth, and of golfers everywhere.

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