Letter from St. Andrews: A Glimpse of Seven

I’m sitting in a little trailer, high atop a hill precisely two miles east of the center of St. Andrews. The trailer is unfurnished except for a simple table and three chairs occupied by me and two gentlemen with whom I’ve come to chat. Our conversation has barely begun when one gets a call on his cell phone. It’s not good news.

“Oh Christ, no,” he says. Several seconds of awkward silence elapse as he listens, staring blankly out the trailer’s filmy window. Finally he sighs, “Well, you know what to do.” He returns the phone to his pocket and looks solemnly at the other fellow, his boss.

“The cows are back on 16,” he says.

And why not? The two chaps in the trailer are golf course designer David McLay Kidd and his chief architect, Paul Kimber. We’re at the construction site of the first major course to be built in St. Andrews in more than 100 years. No. 7, as it is known for now, is the hottest topic in northeast Fife. After three years of permits and politics, it’s finally beginning to take shape and everyone in town is salivating for a peek—even the bovines.

Kidd, a 35-year-old Scot whose father, Jimmy, is the director of agronomy at Gleneagles, beat out more than two dozen architects to land this, the highest- profile job of his career, one already boasting impressive credentials. Then unknown, Kidd grabbed the golf world by its knickers in 1999 with his minimalist masterpiece at Bandon Dunes, and two subsequent courses—Queenwood outside London and Nanea on the Big Island of Hawaii—have won widespread praise. But the St. Andrews assignment has put him at center stage and he plans to make the most of it.

“Our aim is to take people’s breath away,” he says, smiling broadly. “We have an opportunity to do something very dramatic here, and I think we’re on our way.”

There is no denying the majesty of the site—220 acres of headland 60 feet above the North Sea. On a clear day the view north extends 20 miles across St. Andrews Bay to Carnoustie and Arbroath, while just down the hill, beyond a broad stretch of beach known as the East Sands, are the spires and gables of St. Andrews.

But this land is not links, which leaves Kidd in an ironic spot. With Bandon Dunes, he gave America arguably its first true links course; now he will give St. Andrews its first non-links.

Photo by Kevin Murray

“There just wasn’t enough sand in the soil,” he says, not disguising his disappointment. For the past century, the site has been a potato farm, set on clay-based turf that does not allow fast-running links golf. By contrast, six-year-old Kingsbarns (located 20 minutes from St. Andrews and the course to which No. 7 inevitably will be compared), though sculpted from farmland, benefited from the sand-rich subsurface. It played like a links from the day it opened in 2000. “I would love to have had that kind of turf,” says Kidd, “but things aren’t always what you want.”

Like construction budgets. The St. Andrews Links Trust set aside 3 million pounds ($5.5 million) for No. 7, about half the budget of an average course. That has limited Kidd’s ability to make dramatic changes in the terrain. He has excavated and repositioned roughly 250,000 cubic meters of dirt—not an insignificant volume, but a hill of beans when compared, once again, with Kingsbarns, which saw twice that amount of earthmoving.

Still, No. 7 will look nothing like its six sisters down the hill—The Old, New, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum and Balgove Courses—which are essentially flat. “In doing research, I came across an old sketch of the property, going back to the 1500s,” says Kidd. “There was a castle on the point and the land was very raw and rugged. Our aim is to return to the pre-agricultural landscape—a humpy, windswept brae overlooking the sea.”

Although the overall property doesn’t feature jaw-dropping changes in elevation, the individual holes will have plenty of pitch, heave and roll, thanks in part to an unorthodox process that grew out of an early meeting of Kidd’s crew.

“I was saying that Bandon Dunes was a cinch to design because of the terrain—the land forms were all there naturally and all we had to do was drop in the tees and greens, as opposed to here where we’re working on a featureless hillside. At that point, my head shaper, Mick McShane, said, ‘Let me create those land forms for you.’”

The result was a sort of three-step agri-sculpture. Once the routing was set, Kimber led the broad-stroke grading of the holes—the overall up-, down- and sideward movements—with a bulldozer. Then McShane (who was also the principal shaper at Kingsbarns) did the finer sculpting with a backhoe, using a 12-foot-wide bucket to fashion the humps and dips that give each hole its personality.

Once the tees, fairways and greens were placed, a third crew member made a final pass using a three-foot-wide scoop to “tease” areas of the turf into crests and chocolate drops that will grow fescue whiskers to evoke a ragged look.

“Our hope is to create an antithesis to the pristine perfection of Augusta,” says Kidd. “We’re consciously building tees that are misshapen, that aren’t level, and fairways that have the kinds of bumps and surprises you see on the Old Course.”

The ridged, rippled fairways are expansive. They need to be, because the site is completely exposed. “I’m a little concerned about how it will play in a heavy blow,” says Kidd, “but at Bandon Dunes I was petrified. The wind along the Oregon coast is actually fiercer than in St. Andrews—50 miles an hour is nothing. We came out OK there and I think we’ll be OK here.”

On some holes Kidd has adopted a gambit epitomized by world No. 1 Pine Valley: fairways that appear less generous than they actually are. Unlike at Pine Valley—or anywhere in St. Andrews for that matter—No. 7 will offer five sets of tees, ranging from 5,300 to 7,200 yards.

The greens also are large—between 4,500 and 9,000 square feet—and their sand-based root zones have been extended 20 to 30 yards into the fairways to allow for running approach shots. But some targets are less welcoming. The billowing green at the par-4 14th, though one of the largest, has shoulders that shrug off shots in the merciless manner of Pinehurst No. 2, and for those who manage to hit and hold the surface, three-putting will be not a danger but an achievement.

No. 7 also offers something new for St. Andrews, where you can count on one hand the number of par 4s and 5s on the town courses that deviate more than a few degrees from dead straight. Half the holes are doglegs, with the most dramatic turn at the 18th, a par 5 that winds clockwise nearly 180 degrees along the cliff, culminating at the prime spot on the property, the northernmost point, where 16th-century Kinkell Castle once stood.

In all, seven holes run along the cliff—the final four on the front nine and the last three on the back (with 9 and 18 sharing the only double green on the course). “And every shot will be played with the ocean in sight,” says Kimber. “I went out and checked—it’s 35 sea views for 35 swings.”

Only a handful of courses in the world can make that claim, and most are in Hawaii. The signature hole—surely destined to become the most photographed in Scotland—will be the par-3 17th, playing 190 yards over a chasm (think of the third at Mauna Kea) to a green backdropped by the Auld Grey Toon.

As of late November, roughly a third of the course was seeded and growing in, a third was fully graded and a third was still in the creation stage. As with all the St. Andrews courses, the landscape will remain pure—no houses or hostelries. But there will be concessions to modern golf: a dedicated clubhouse, a full practice range and a fleet of motorized carts.

A “soft opening” is expected in late 2007 with full-time play scheduled in early ’08, likely through both a daily ballot and advance reservations. (By then No. 7 will have a name—the Links Trust is planning an international contest to choose one.) The green fee for non-residents likely will be around 100 pounds ($180).

Ironically, some locals have been vehemently opposed to No. 7, contending it is not necessary. But if David Kidd’s vision reaches full flower, rest assured: This course will be frequented by more than just the cows.