Sometimes people get things just right, and in this case it's Clive Clark. Where have you heard that name before you may ask? Those blessed with a decent vintage will remember a young Yorkshireman sandwiched between Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tony Jacklin in the pursuit of Roberto De Vicenzo at Royal Liverpool in 1967. This was Clive's best opportunity of landing a Major Championship, but he went on to capture 5 professional wins and made the Ryder Cup team in 1973. Those of a more recent generation, and the millennial connoisseurs of the game, may recognise Clive from his career in golf course architecture with some of his more celebrated work taking place at Woburn, Indian Wells, La Quinta and The Hideaway. His latest work, and labour of love, is Dumbarnie Links just 9 miles from St Andrews. Clive founded, designed and developed the course - which opened for public play in Spring 2020.
Hundreds of people have dreamed of building a championship links golf course. Probably dozens have distilled this idea to the next level, perhaps looked at the very few untouched coastal areas of the UK or Ireland that would lend itself to the fast-running, seaside style of play. Some may have proceeded to this advanced stage but encountered environmental, political opposition or excessive red tape. A couple may have even fell at the final hurdle - the bottomless pit of financial obligation. Dumbarnie Links is one of the very few success stories and joins Kingsbarns as a new golfing masterpiece near the Home of Golf.
The course at Dumbarnie is a spectacular showpiece of links golf, and one that has been designed with a very high degree of thought towards its eventual patrons. Those are the visiting golfers who will enjoy Dumbarnie for a day within the overall experience of a golfing vacation to Scotland. While it would require a dissertation sized work to properly do justice to Dumbarnie's design features, there are a few that stand out -
- The opening tee shot. You're a tad fragile from the previous night's post-dinner cocktails and perhaps even a little bleary eyed from the early morning hotel wake up call. The last thing you need is a demanding tee shot that requires you to thread a 300 yard drive through the eye of a needle. The elevated first tee at Dumbarnie is the ultimate comfort blanket. The widest of fairways (not quite Old Course dimensions but not far behind) gives you a warm welcome to the links, and the downhill gradient of the fairway means you can creep inside 150 yards of the green with anything that catches a reasonable amount of the clubface. This is all good news for the 99% of golfers who tee it up here with no aspirations of breaking par. For the scratch golfers and professionals, a completely different question is posed. Do you want to risk hitting it close to a burn 100 yards short of the green to give yourself an ideal yardage? Or do you play safe and lay well back to leave yourself a 7 or 8 iron in? Undeniably it's a good problem to have but one that needs answered.
- Dual Fairways. Some traditionalists turn their nose up at such designs, but it's important to remember that the Old Course at St Andrews is almost entirely composed of similar options off the tee. Play left to the fat part of the fairway (or even the wrong fairway) and face a demanding approach, or play down the dangerous righthand side of the course to reward yourself with easier angles. Setting a distinguishing feature or hazard between the two targets enforces decision-making and makes for an even more exciting shot selection. Holes 5 and 15 here are excellent examples of how a dual fairway can elevate a hole to a compartment in your mind where you can't quite figure out what the correct play is. The tougher tee shot / easier approach may also require green ticks from other variables such as weather conditions, form, current score and even mood. There is however no better feeling than committing to an aggressive game plan and walking off the green with the satisfaction of having been rewarded for brave, skilled play.
- Exciting finish. The round builds to a crescendo with a reachable par 5 (15th), teasing par 3 (16th), and drivable par 4 (17th) before the stage is set to fight it out against a tough finishing hole. Lots can happen over this closing stretch, and with tournament golf it will make for compulsive spectating. It's not unimaginable that an eagle/birdie/eagle/birdie finish could be achieved, but a lapse in concentration or poor execution could easily see the four holes played over par. The 99% of patrons mentioned above will suffer all elements of the emotional spectrum that keeps a golfer coming back for more - elation, success, failure, tragedy, and indefatigable hope. The short term pain gets very kindly washed away with the offer of a dram of whisky upon completing your round. One of many touches that mark Dumbarnie as the best client experience in Scotland.
Which leads us on nicely to suggest it may be more useful to comment on Dumbarnie as an overall experience rather than a stand-alone golf course - and there are many strong reasons for doing so.
The main man on a day-to-day basis at Dumbarnie is David Scott. General Manager by title, but his humility is such that those two words are rarely found adjacent to his name. Think of a 6 foot 4 inch slim Scottish version of the revered ex-Seminole and Oakmont Professional Bob Ford and you have David Scott. Someone that everyone wants to work for, someone who's name is permanently etched with distinction in the PGA, someone that excels in the commercial running of a golf course, but most importantly someone that has that innate ability to let the arriving golfer know he's about to have one of the most enjoyable golfing experiences of his life. And he can confidently do so because the preparation has been fastidiously put in place for that to happen.
Understanding the journey of a golfer, from the initial booking, through to arrival, and the golf shop and bar experiences with positive and engaging staff, is critical.
The tone is set upon arrival. A player's assistant gets the day off to a smiley positive start with the collection of clubs and a quick tour of the facilities. But this is where what's 'expected' develops into something that little bit different. Upon entering the clubhouse you'll notice a very boutique'y, urban, upbeat playlist - more akin to a Grammercy Park hotel than that of a Scottish clubhouse - but it works. It lets you know from your first step into the property that there's going to be no stuffiness, no awkward waiting staff, no unease. The message is very clear at Dumbarnie, you're here to enjoy yourself. The likelihood is that you'll probably be talked into a Bloody Mary and sat down at a table beside the floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the panoramic Firth of Forth. When the time comes to stretch the limbs and pop a few advil, you'll be shown to a tournament standard practice range. Once you get the good shots out of your system and start seeing the ball move in an erratic left-to-right flight path it's time to tee it up at an extremely exciting golf course.
The post-round hospitality is even better than the prelude. Treat yourself to a relaxing dram, freshen up in the luxurious facilities and sit down to a lively lunch. When customer service is carried out to the N'th degree there's a mutual respect that exists between staff member and client. This is very evident when you look around the hub of the clubhouse - The Old Barn. Everyone is smiling, laughing, having a great time. And all done in a very classy manner. The overall objective is enjoyment, and in Dumbarnie's case, enjoyment with a capital E.
Crossing the Swilcan Bridge on The Old Course, enjoying lunch at Muirfield and aiming down Hogan's Alley at Carnoustie will always be what golf in Scotland is about. These are the foundations of a great golf trip. But why should a newly designed links course aim for the same historical heritage, over-use tartan motifs in the clubhouse or stock a pro shop that resembles the tourist traps on the Royal Mile? Dumbarnie has had the bravery to stand out from the crowd, be inclusive, and live or die by its three main pillars - which are a fantastic golf course, a fun environment and industry leading service.
Dumbarnie is a course that's going to be positioned very close to the centre of itinerary building at Connoisseur Golf for years to come, not at the periphery or as a filler venue. It's a course that you will enjoy immensely regardless of how you play, and an overall experience that will live long in the memory.
We thank Clive Clark for the perseverance in creating what can only be described as his Magnum Opus. We thank David Scott and his team for the forward thinking and service skills required to separate the experience here away from many of its peers. Enjoy.