Adam Lawrence got a feel for golf's past within a few miles of St Andrews.
It's not often we golfers can get a taste of how the game used to be.
Even when we travel to play courses that have existed for hundreds of years, the level of conditioning we experience is a world away from the equivalent even forty or fifty years ago. Although in towns like St Andrews, Carnoustie or North Berwick we can walk the same links as did Old and Young Tom and their ilk, it's farcical to pretend we are playing anything like the same golf course. And that's even before we get on to the vexed question of equipment changes. Which is why the Kingarroch Golf Course project now underway at Hill of Tarvit, only fifteen or so miles from St Andrews in the golfing heartland of Fife, is so exciting.
Dundee jute magnate Frederick Sharp bought the 503 hectare (1,223 acre) estate of Hill of Tarvit in the early years of the twentieth century, and, in 1905, enlisted Robert Lorimer, later Sir Robert, the leading Scottish architect of the day, to rebuild the house, then known as Wemyss Hall after its seventeenth century owner.
Sharp was a keen golfer and member of the Royal & Ancient's Rules Committee: it seems reasonable to suggest that, as a Dundee businessman, he chose to make his home on the south bank of the Tay at least in part for golfing reasons.
Frederick Sharp's eldest son Hugh was also a passionate golfer. It's not entirely clear when the Sharps decided to create their own golf course on the estate, but a 1924 plan of what had by then become known as Kingarroch Golf Course shows clearly the location and routing of the nine hole facility. But estate records and local memories fill in some of the gaps: it is recorded that locals were allowed to use the course free of charge after 2pm, and that nearby bed and breakfast owners took advantage of this privilege to advertise golf along with their accommodation. This must have annoyed the family, who promptly closed the course for two weeks! Local legend also has it that players practicing for competitions at St Andrews would stop by to use the course for preparations, and that these visitors included one Open champion.
The Sharps' passion for golf is made even clearer by the tremendous collection of seventeenth century Dutch paintings, each of which clearly features players indulging in 'kolf ' on the frozen rivers and canals. The collection is now on display in the house.
Hill of Tarvit came into the possession of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in 1949, on the death of Elisabeth Sharp, Frederick's daughter. It has been open to the public since 1977, but now, just over 100 years since the Sharps came to live on the estate, it is once again to play a part in the story of golf.
Edinburgh businessman David Anderson, along with a group of volunteers, determined to restore the Sharps' course to play. Anderson, an engaging enthusiast if ever there was one (he is prone to referring to himself as 'Old Daw', after the legendary St Andrews golfing figure of the same name), made contact with Scotland's greatest modern amateur golfer, Peter McEvoy, and the team is making steady progress towards its aim of having nine holes of golf in play. And, in keeping with the historic importance of the house and estate, the golf course too will be a museum – all play will be with vintage hickory clubs, of which Anderson has built an impressive collection.
An early decision was that the course could not be returned to its original layout. Although the routing survives on the 1924 plan, it shows a large number of crossing holes that, even with light play, would be an unacceptable safety risk today. So McEvoy has routed nine new holes in 'Golf Field', and, along with his team of volunteers, has begun the process of building the course. With budgets closer to 1907 than 2007 levels, this is an exercise in slow-but-steady.
Even at this fairly early stage, though, a number of holes have taken exciting shape. Anderson, in keeping with the period, is eschewing par ratings,preferring to quote slightly more generous bogey scores. The bogey five fifth hole will be plenty tough enough with vintage equipment, though. McEvoy has built a couple of bunkers near the green, and, although they are not finished, I hope he will have a second glance at their forms, perhaps returning them to a more rudimentary look in keeping with the early 1900s feel.
The sixth hole, which plays back towards the house from the far side of Golf Field, will be a strong two shotter, putting especial pressure on the drive. Two large mature trees pinch the fairway just beyond driving distance, and to get a good line to the green the player will have to favour the outside of the dogleg right. The hole also features an eighteenth century 'condie' or drainage ditch, which was uncovered during construction works, and which has been restored to full functionality and, in many places, exposed so as to create a small crossing hazard.
The seventh is a fine one shotter to a green banked slightly into the slope above the condie, with a small bunker right in the middle of the golfer's view. With the flag anywhere near the trap, and the knowledge that players of the 1910s had only niblicks to escape sand, it will be a bold shot to aim for the stick.
I am full of admiration for David Anderson, Peter McEvoy and everyone else involved at Hill of Tarvit. They have undertaken a project that has no financial motivation, only the desire to add an extra attraction to a historic estate, and to allow golfers to recreate the experiences of those who came before us. Compared to many of the courses we review in Golf Course Architecture, this will never be grand, never host tournaments, never win awards for its conditioning. But it will be a direct link to the roots of the game, and for that we should all extend our gratitude.
This article appeared in issue 10 of Golf Course Architecture, published October 2007