St Andrews may be affectionately known as the Auld Grey Toun but some its finest golf attractions are neither old nor grey – nor, strictly speaking, within the town boundaries. For while the Old Course, the R&A clubhouse and those stunning views of the West Sands will always be the Kaaba for any pilgrimage to this Scottish golfing Mecca, the growing reputation of four relatively new courses – all built on the bracing coastline to the south-east of the city since the turn of the millennium – has created an essential annexe at the Home Of Golf.
The prime land at St Andrews Bay, right on the city limits and with spectacular views into town and across the sea to Carnoustie, was snapped up by an American entrepreneur with a vision for a luxury hotel with its own 36 holes of golf.
A decade on and the imposing Fairmont Hotel is drawing discerning golfers looking to escape the immediate hubbub of Golf City while still being just a five minute drive from the historic centre.
Snaking around the hotel over 520 acres of ‘oceanfront’ property are the fairways of The Torrance and The Kittocks courses which have been reinforced as worthy additions to St Andrews’ golf portfolio by the resort’s recent £17m makeover.
Being also sandwiched between the world-renowned Kingsbarns, a few miles further out, and St Andrews’ newest course, The Castle, back towards town, the Fairmont has become an obvious draw for golfers – while not forgetting its roll call of celebrities, world leaders and even royalty.
As a student at the university, Prince William was a regular visitor to the gym at the Fairmont’s sumptuous spa, while the hotel’s main ballroom hosted the now infamous 2001 charity fashion show where Kate Middleton appeared in that sheer black lace dress which clearly captivated the young prince seated in the first row.
The Fairmont has understandably dined out on that, and on the morning of the Royal Wedding in April, the head barman was invited to mix the Prince’s favourite post-workout fruit cocktail as part of the BBC’s live broadcast from St Andrews.
Turning the heads of golfers, meanwhile, are the Fairmont’s two courses which, despite the obviously stiff local competition, have steadily raised their profile helped by the recent routing changes involving a plundering of holes between the two courses, as well as some new fairways, greens, tees and hazards.
Unlike the true linksland of the area’s historic courses, both The Torrance and The Kittocks are best described as rolling cliff-top parkland that has been transformed from prime farmland that previously dominated this corner of Fife.
The courses have matured quickly and the gentle contouring combined with a network of ancient stone walls, bridges and burns – all embellished with gorse and indigenous wildflowers – lend an authentic Scottish feel that tempers some of the more obvious Americanstyle resort features. More subtly, the inclusion of some rye grass among the fescues and bent makes for some more forgiving lies than normally associated with traditional seaside golf.
Suprisingly given their proximity, both courses have their own unique character. The Torrance is conceived as a walking course and has a quainter, more distinctly Scottish feel – not merely given the identity of its chief architect (Sam masterminded it with a little help from Gene Sarazen). It is undeniably a fine test, being both an Open qualifying course as well as a venue for several other top events. Barry Lane notched a unique double here this summer – retaining the Cleveland Golf/Srixon Scottish Senior Open title he won here last year when he also become the only player to have won both regular (Gleneagles 1988) and senior versions of the event. Lane finished in style, sensationally eagling the 561-yard final hole with its brand new green and bunker complex.
The Torrance can claim to have some nominations for the finest holes in St Andrews, most notably the par-four 16th that runs directly to the sea with a threatening out-of-bounds perimeter wall all down the left on the way to it’s ‘infinity effect’ green. Those familiar with the original layout may remember this as the original 14th but a nifty exchange of holes on this coastal stretch in the makeover masterminded by Gary Stephenson (of cult Scottsdale course, Whisper Rock, fame) has improved the climax of both layouts.
The old 17th on The Torrance, another standout hole with a rocky chasm to clear with your second shot – is now the penultimate on the The Kittocks whose finish is much improved having previously closed with the current 16th, a parthree whose quaint stone wall forms a controversial ‘backstop’ for your mid-iron.
Originally named The Devlin after its architect, the Australian Bruce Devlin, there was much debate on my recent visit about what a Kittock actually is. A flirtatious lady, an exotic local bird and the deep gully that forms such a feature of this course were all suggested in different quarters. The latter seems the most plausible, with the ravine bisecting the line of play most notably for the heart-in-mouth approach at the 4th and the tee shot at the 12th.
But other highlights include the exhilarating seascapes at the windswept par-four 7th that descends so curvaceously, and the aforementioned 17th, hard by the 100-foot cliff that runs from here all the way into town.
For all the undoubted pleasures of the Fairmont courses, the hotel is also famous as the obvious base for golfers visiting arguably the areas’ greatest course with a reputation as almost as essential a pilgrimage as the Old Course.
Opening in 2000, Kingsbarns Golf Links, seven miles south-east of St Andrews in the East Neuk of Fife was soon hailed by many as Europe’s finest new course of the last 50 years, while also making its way into several rankings of the world’s greatest golf courses (seemingly exempt from media convention that all upstarts – however impressive – should spend some probationary time before being considered truly great).
But then Kyle Phillips’ masterpiece looks, feels and plays as if it’s been there for a 100 years already, so magnificently is it fashioned into the landscape around two sweeping bays with magnificent views of the sea and coastline from every hole. And while golf has indeed been played here since the late 18th century, the few traces of earlier layouts found by Phillips play no part in this beautifully retrotinged links that genuinely succeeds in matching the heady highlights of the very greatest of established Scottish links, most obviously Turnberry and Dornoch.
As with those classics, Kingsbarns involves a joyous journey around a supremely atmospheric routing which, as well as the seascapes, takes in evocative elevation changes, rolling gorseflanked fairways and superbly characterful green and bunker complexes. Every hole is memorable in some capacity, with my favourites including the museum piece 6th: the most charming but treacherous of driveable par-fours; the shore-hugging 12th (reminiscent of the 10th at Turnberry) and the do-or-die approach at the last where you must carry the vertical bank that guards the green.
Look out, too, for the plaque on the 9th fairway from where Lee Westwood made an albatross in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship of 2003, generating some instant tournament trivia for the fledgling venue that is now also a respected Open qualifying course that plays to 7,181 yards from the tips.
Ultra purists might claim that the course technically is not a natural links given that the seaside farmland has been extensively fashioned by man and machine. But the vision, design and construction has yielded the real thing in most golfers eyes with all the earth moving blending effectively into the natural landscape. Meanwhile, the green keeping initiative works closely with The Sports Turf Research Institute creating exceptional playing surfaces year round that are equally part of Kingsbarns story and the envy of many.
Along with a cosy clubhouse and a revamped half-way house (with exquisite hotdogs), the club has a great online presence which allows last minute online bookings, while the Facebook page and Twitter account are well followed now that this cult course has gone mainstream with some 27,000 rounds per year.
Leaving aside the £185 green fee (though worth every penny, with visitors treated as VIP members for the day), I could happily play Kingsbarns everyday for the rest of my life, preferably with the Fairmont putting me up in perpetuity.
I’d live in one of the hotel’s fabulous suites (or any of the 209 tastefully appointed rooms) and eat every night at the resort’s Esperante restaurant where one of Scotland’s youngest gourmet chefs has already notched 2 AA rosettes and looks well on the way to Michelin star status. Then again, the food in the clubhouse matches the stunning views, with cod and chips from nearby Pittenweem being a speciality.
Of course, I’d venture into town occasionally to play St Andrews’ more established courses, eat at The Doll’s House, drink at MaBelle’s and brush up on my golf history in the British Golf Museum. Just yards from the R&A clubhouse, here is the largest collection of golf memorabilia in Europe, covering antique equipment, trophies, medals and captivating footage of golfing legends, including the great Bobby Jones’ speech from the emotional 1958 ceremony making him a Freeman Of The Burgh Of St Andrews.
Back at the Fairmont I’d swim in the pool every day while also making the most of the new spa collaboration with the Pure Lochside team whose health treatments include a special golfer’s warm-up massage that directly targets the muscle groups used in the golf swing. I indulged in this pre-round pampering before my tee-time at Kingsbarns and was suitably loose and relaxed for that big day out.
Of course, the Fairmont’s attention to detail is what you’d expect from a group whose empire now covers some 50 five-star hotels worldwide, far beyond the San Francisco flagship that first sealed its reputation.
And, here at the St Andrews branch, it’s not just Prince William’s gym that’s fit for a king.