Until the coronavirus took its grip, Scotland’s newest golf course at Dumbarnie Links in Fife was set to open its doors to the public early next month. Who knows when that will actually happen now due to the sport being in coronavirus lockdown in its cradle. But, by all accounts, former Ryder Cup player Clive Clark has created a gem on the north bank of the Firth of Forth between Leven and Elie.
Like many others, Richie Ramsay is looking forward to his first visit, having spotted the potential in that particular site long before it was earmarked as a project for Clark, an Englishman who is based in the US. Ramsay, in fact, knows quite a lot about potential sites for new courses in Scotland, having taken a keen interest in course design in recent years.
“I’ve been doing a lot of research over the last two or three years into golf course design going back to the 1920s. I’ve even gone as far as studying the satellite images on Google Maps looking along the coastline of Scotland trying to find the dream spot to build a golf course,” the three-time European Tour winner revealed. “I did look at Dumbarnie about five years ago after I drove past there.”
Scottish course designers were responsible for the growth of the game, with pioneers like Old Tom Morris and Willie Park Jnr followed by others, including James Braid and Donald Ross. More recently, eight-time European No.1 Colin Montgomerie has been involved in the design of courses in far-flung places. Ramsay is building up his knowledge in the hope he can put his stamp on courses, either new or old, one day.
“I do a lot of research into golf course design because it’s definitely something I’d be interested in doing,” added the Edinburgh-based Aberdonian. “I don’t know the differences in soils, etc, I’m not that technical. But, from a design philosophy, I understand what makes pros uncomfortable but is still playable for amateurs. I think I’m quite good at that.
“We’re playing pro-ams every week and I see how guys struggle and see what makes me uncomfortable with tee shots in regards to where bunkers are. So I do my research. I do go away after a day and think about golf course design because it’s good to have another thing to focus on rather than just thinking about my game.”
Both as an amateur and professional, Ramsay has played courses all over the world, but some of his favourites are close to home. “Royal Aberdeen is my home course and my favourite,” he admitted. “Then there’s Kilspindie – what a golf course that is. I played it last year with a male and a female, both mid-to-high handicappers and we all had a blast. I was trying to drive greens, trying to break 60 and they were enjoying their own challenge because it’s that kind of course that’s enjoyable for all.
“Muirfield is always a joy to play. It doesn’t matter what time of year, it’s generally in brilliant condition. There’s other little gems like Kingussie, Newtonmore or the nine-holer at Carrbridge – just brilliant. Boat of Garten was a James Braid design. I really enjoy Nairn and some of the holes at Peterhead and Fraserburgh are brilliant as well.”
While crafting that “dream course” one day is the perfect scenario, Ramsay would be equally happy to get the opportunity to make tweaks to established courses but in a sensitive way. He’s a traditionalist, after all, when it comes to the Royal & Ancient game.
“If I had a design philosophy, it’s that less is more,” said the former US Amateur champion. “When I was younger, I used to play Royal Aberdeen and people would say to me ‘you should go away and play this course or that because it’s really good’. Sure enough, I’d go and play it but, while it would be a good golf course, Royal Aberdeen still stood out for me. Sometimes you don’t realise what you have and in that area we’ve got Royal Aberdeen, Murcar and Cruden Bay.
“I have looked at potential sites, but I’m more interested in the renovation of courses and making sure that they keep the tradition that was originally intended. Clubs are at this funny situation where they need to have their course playable but a lot of them want it to host Open qualifiers or a good event. Maybe not a Scottish Open, but still a good event.
“And I see committees spending a lot of money on golf courses and then having to go back and redo all the work again. It’s a shame, especially on those old traditional links courses which have great character and are enjoyable to play. Yeah, they might not be the hardest course in the world but, if you ask nine out of ten people walking off the 18th hole, ‘did you enjoy yourself?’ they are going to say yes.
“Budgets are tight everywhere and I’ve seen some guys go to courses and just destroy them, take away the character. Then members complain that they don’t like it and having spent all this money you have to go back and redo some of it. That’s a tough thing to swallow.
“For more than a hundred years some of these golf courses have been passed down from generation to generation and I think it’s the golf club’s duty to do the same. So that when they leave, the next generations to come have the same opportunity to enjoy some of the best golf courses in the world. We are very lucky in Scotland to have so many of these great courses and the links turf when it gets brown and bouncy is brilliant to play on.
“I’d love to be a consultant at the moment. If a club was to say, this is what we’re going to do, what do you think of it? Because I see some places where they add a bunker and you think you’ve just taken out all the options. Now you’ve no choice but to take a 5-iron off the tee and then you’ve got a 4-iron to the green. Sure that bunker makes it harder but it also doesn’t make it as enjoyable and all the divots are in the same place now.
“So on realising the mistake you go back in and spend five grand to take out a bunker that cost you ten grand to put in. So you’ve spent £15,000 on something that’s not good for the golf course and has taken all the attention of the greenkeeping staff away from the rest of the course. It’s hard enough for golf clubs to make money these days without bad decisions costing them dearly.”