Dumbarnie Links: The incredible story behind Scotland’s newest golf course

Dumbarnie Links 1

Of the 40,000 golf courses scattered around the world, only 246 are bona fide links layouts. That was one of the conclusions drawn by George Peper and Malcolm Campbell in their excellent book True Links.

It is, therefore, entirely appropriate that Campbell had a hand in the creation of No.247 – the magnificent Dumbarnie Links.

Located near Upper Largo, just ten miles from golf’s spiritual hometown St Andrews, Dumbarnie Links is one of the most eagerly anticipated new golf developments to open in Scotland in a generation.

Occupying a huge, 345-acre site and sprawling along a mile-and-a-half of spectacular coast on the Balcarres Estate, owned by Lord Balniel, Anthony Lindsay, this is a development that has been many years in the making.

Twenty-five years, in fact.

That was when Campbell first noticed the potential of the land on Lord Balniel’s estate. A resident of Upper Largo himself, the respected golf writer and historian had observed the plot on numerous occasions and, as golfers do, wondered what kind of course it could be transformed into.

That’s how it stayed, a whimsical concept, until a chance conversation with his long-time friend and collaborator Clive Clark.

Englishman Clark enjoyed a distinguished career as a professional, winning multiple events and finishing in a tie for third in the 1967 Open Championship. He also represented Great Britain & Ireland in the 1973 Ryder Cup at Muirfield.

However, it is as a golf course designer that he has really made his mark on the game. As the designer of 35 golf courses in Europe and the United States, he began his work in the design industry with a successful partnership with former BBC commentary colleague Peter Alliss before setting up his own firm when he moved to the US.

Lake Winnipesaukee, Belgrade Lakes, Indian Wells, The Hideaway, Alcaidesa – he designed them all. However, there was one thing missing from his CV: a project in Scotland. Besides the obvious cachet of designing a course in the home of golf, Clark had another very personal, vested interest in designing a course in the cradle of the game, with his grandparents having hailed from Aberdeen.

After talks to realise that ambition at another site in the country fell through, he was chatting on the phone to Campbell when the subject of Lord Balniel’s untouched land came up.

“It must have been about six years ago,” says Clark. “Malcolm said he knew of a site a couple of miles from where he lived that was pure links. It’s not very often you hear that and, coming from Malcolm, who has invested so much of his career to researching the world’s links courses and who has an innate understanding of what they are, I was immediately interested.”

In short order, Clark checked it out himself. Needless to say, it made a great first impression.

“I loved it immediately,” he adds. “For one thing, it had views to die for. I also liked the fact it was so close to St Andrews and the fact that it was, as Malcolm described, genuine links. That’s a rare thing to find in golf these days, so I was immediately excited about what it could become.”

However, having an idea and being excited isn’t enough. There are three more things you need to get the ball rolling on a new golf course: land, money and permission.

• REVIEW: Does Dumbarnie live up to the hype?

Convincing Lord Balniel to sacrifice a significant proportion of his property to the project was step one. “That took a little while,” says Clark. Eventually, they came to an agreement on a long-term lease.

Next, was raising the cash to fund the development. “Again, that’s not something that happens overnight,” says Clark. “The sums you’re talking about are pretty significant.” How significant? In the region of £11million, apparently. Still, Clark managed to sell 14 investors – mainly Americans – on the potential of the course and they joined him in stumping up the cash required.

Onto the final hurdle: planning permission. “We had a team of around 24 consultants who worked on our proposal to ensure that what we submitted to Fife Council was as comprehensive and compelling as possible,” adds Clark. “That took about a year and then it sits with the council whilst you work to satisfy various conditions. It is a forensic process that involves meetings with councillors, the public, you name it. It’s an extremely robust procedure.”

Finally, early in May 2018, the project was green-lit.

Dumbarnie Links was a ‘go’.

* * *

Dumbarnie Links 2 Dumbarnie Links 3

SOME FIVE-THOUSAND MILES FROM UPPER LARGO, in an office in Arizona, a phone was ringing at OB Sports Golf Management’s Scottsdale headquarters. Founded in 1972, OB Sports has been involved with 140 different golf courses, including 35 completely new projects. With the exception of one in the Bahamas, all of their work had been concentrated in the US and Mexico.

That is until Clive Clark called them with an intriguing proposition.

“He told us that he was close to securing a deal for a brand new, authentic links course close to St Andrews and he wanted to know if we’d be interested in partnering with him to bring it to life,” explains Luke Beardmore, the Senior Vice President of Agronomy, Construction & Landscape at OB Sports. “I don’t think we waited for him to finish what his sentence before we replied, ‘We’re in.’

“I’ve been working in the golf course industry for 30 years since I started mowing greens at the age of 14 to pay my way through college. So, the opportunity to work on a project like Dumbarnie Links was a dream come true. I mean no disrespect to any of the other projects I’ve worked on when I say that this is the pinnacle.”

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Landscapes Unlimited was then hired to transfer Clark’s design from the paper to the land. Over the last forty years, the Nebraska company has established itself as the world’s biggest and most trusted golf contractor, having worked on more than 1,800 courses, including Erin Hills and Augusta National.

They broke ground on May 29, 2018. Five months and 600,000 cubic metres of moved earth later, the build was complete. More than 600 dunes were built from scratch, as well as 142 bunkers, a mixture of small revetted traps and larger, ‘natural’ hazards.

“This wasn’t like other developments where you have to work within the existing dune-scape,” says Clark. “We basically had a blank canvas.”

Throughout 2019, the course was allowed to bed-in ahead of its May 2020 opening. And as photographs started to leak online, excitement began to build.

* * *

Dumbarnie Links 4

DAVID SCOTT HAS ENJOYED a long, distinguished career in the Scottish golf industry. After being part of the executive team charged with launching Kingsbarns Golf Links in 2000, the PGA Master Professional moved to the Old Course Hotel Golf Resort & Spa where, among other things, he was responsible for the operation of The Duke’s Course on the outskirts of St Andrews.

It was there that, in autumn of 2018, he first heard rumours of a big new links course being built down the coast.

“I got in touch with the project manager who kindly invited me down to have a look around in December 2018,” he said. “My first impression was ‘Wow!’ The visibility that day was perfect and we could see right over the water onto the fine links lands of Muirfield and North Berwick. I loved it instantly.”

In January 2020, Scott joined the team as Dumbarnie Links’ new general manager. “It feels like I’ve an intravenous drip attached, feeding me adrenaline,” he says. “I’m just loving every minute of the journey. I often wake up at 4am and think about the day ahead, and what’s to be done. I have 100 plates spinning but it’s so worth it to be part of this project.”

A 16-man greenkeeping team is led by former Old Course supervisor Grahame Taylor - and that's just for starters. “In high season, we expect to have roughly 50 associates and around 60 caddies,” says Scott. “It’s a big operation.”

* * *

SO, WHAT OF THE FACILITIES? Unlike other new developments that open with bombastic dreams to host tour events, the approach of those in charge at Dumbarnie Links is refreshingly different.

“Our entire ethos is about fun,” says Clark. “We want this to be a golf course that all golfers can enjoy, irrespective of their handicap.”

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That much is evident from his design. For one thing, the fairways are extremely generous, averaging 45 yards in width. If you do go off-line, the wispy rough will be well managed so that, more often than not, you’ll find your ball.

“We’ve made Dumbarnie with the golfer in mind,” adds Clark. “We want them to enjoy their round, not spend it hitting 3-iron into every green and having to trudge around thick rough looking for their balls. That’s no fun for anybody and fun is what Dumbarnie is all about.”

Scott adds: “Most golfers should stand on the tee and feel optimistic about hitting the fairway, rather than be thinking, ‘Crikey, I’ll be lucky to hit this one, as it looks so tight.’ We would rather they be thinking about whether the left side or the right side of the fairway is the best option.”

None of which is to say that the course is easy. Far from it. The greens are large but have multiple tiers and subtle borrows, whilst the strategic questions posed by the split-fairways and driveable par-4s will test your brain as much as your brawn.

The trade-off comes courtesy of the spectacular views. The Firth of Forth is visible on virtually every hole, eight of which play directly towards the water. The panoramas from the first, sixth, ninth and 18th tees – positioned on the more elevated part of the course – are particularly breathtaking.

A huge driving range and excellent practice facilities are complemented by a large clubhouse, which has floor-to-ceiling windows offering an unobstructed view down the first hole towards the sea.

Stretching to 7,600 yards from the tips, it is clear that Dumbarnie Links is ideally positioned to host big events. However, the average golfer is the top priority and, with a forward tee reducing the layout to just over 5,300 yards, every player is catered for.

“We want people to have a first-class, unforgettable experience on and off the course,” says Clark. “Even though we’re not following a membership model, we want our visitors to feel like they are members for the day, from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave. Dumbarnie Links is for the people to play. My ultimate wish is for them to leave and be desperate to return.”

The chances of that happening, it must be said, are exceptionally good.

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This article first appeared in issue 178 of bunkered. To subscribe and receive every edition of Scotland's only golf magazine delivered direct to your door, click here.

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