Cover Art provided by Mr. Dave Baysden
Editor's note: When it came time to roll out our (long overdue) new website we wanted to do something celebrating the people we've met through golf and the places that are still out there for us to explore. We've only scratched the surface on who we need to meet and where we need to go. Jim Hartsell embodies that spirit to the fullest. I met Jim through Sweetens Cove a few years ago and we became fast friends. He's spent the last two-and-a-half decades exploring Scotland and digging deeper than nearly any American I know, non-Tom Coyne division. As an Registered Building Architect, he brings a unique perspective to golf travel, both on and off the course. We're thrilled to roll this series out over the next few months and hope you enjoy. - Tron
The Hidden Soul of the Game
Anstruther Golf Club - A Monument of Fun
By Jim Hartsell
War Memorial, Anstruther Golf Course. Located next to the 2nd green, this monument memorializes the men and women from Anstruther Easter and Anstruther Wester who died in WWI. Photograph by Jim Hartsell
"Golf is preeminently the game of the Scot: slow, sure, quiet, deliberate, canny even – each man playing for himself.” – Arnold Haultain, The Mystery of Golf, published in 1908
The town of Anstruther, about 20 minutes southeast of St Andrews, has everything you could wish for as a visitor on holiday in Scotland. It’s a beautiful seaside fishing village with pubs, shops, restaurants - all easily walkable – and with the first tee of a brilliant golf course right in the middle of it all. If you don’t have the best fish and chips you’ve ever had in one of the town’s many “chippies”, then you must be a vegetarian. The ubiquitous food staple of Scotland is prepared at a higher level in Anstruther. There is much for the non-golfer to enjoy in “Ainster”or “Anster.” (the local pronunciations). However, golf is our main focus. The game has been played on the links at Anstruther Golf Club, originally known as Billowness, since approximately 1890.
Recently there has been a growing acceptance of golf courses with less than 18 holes and/or a par other than 72, some of which I will examine in detail as this series progresses. Additionally, the idea that a course must have a certain mixture of long and short holes to be a real test of golf has come under welcome scrutiny. If there was one, Anstruther Golf Club would be a 10 on the Hartsell Scale. Easily described as – “A superlative golf course with unlimited architectural character, just exceptionally fun. Play it all day with your friends and then have fish and chips in the clubhouse, with a pint of Tennents.”
The par of a golf course is more or less irrelevant in Scotland; as the golf is so dependent on the conditions of the day. It may take two well struck shots to reach a par 3 or a par 4 might be driven with a well struck 4 iron. This is especially true at Anstruther, which is a totally exposed headland links. Additionally, the main objective in golf is to get the ball in the hole in less strokes than your opponent. Given these facts, does it really matter if a course is a par 34, 66 or 73? I believe that it does not. Any golfer would be pleased to go around Anstruther in level fours at 36. It has one of the most unique mixes of golf holes that I have ever played, with 4 par fours and 5 par threes for a total par of 31.
Anstruther Golf Club. Photograph by Jim Hartsell
Standing on the first tee - with the green located somewhere in the distance on a plateau at least 50 feet higher than the tee - you immediately know a special day is imminent. It is a scene unique in the world of golf. An imposing granite monument, originally dedicated to the local heroes of World War 1, sits at the top of the hill. It has silently watched over the links since 1920. Leave it to the Scots to place an important monument on a golf course, where it is sure to be seen and remembered on a daily basis.
Play at Anstruther is, of course, dependent on the wind. On the day of our visit it was steady at 15-20 mph, which I imagine is probably the daily standard. This gentle breeze completely changed direction between our morning 27 and afternoon 18, resulting in a drastically different golf course in the evening. Before lunch, the first hole played straight downwind. The steep summit could be reached with a well struck driver, leaving a traditional Scottish run- up shot to the green as the correct play. After lunch, the wind changed direction and the hill could not be carried with the tee shot, thus rendering the 2nd shot completely blind and vastly more difficult. Playing downwind, this 270 yard par 4 is an opportunity for a birdie. It would be wise to take advantage of this hole, because it is one of the few relatively easy chances on the course. This is one of my favorite opening holes in Scotland.
The 1st tee at Anstruther Golf Club. Photograph by Jim Hartsell
Once the summit of the 1st is reached, the joys of the Old Tom Morris designed links are fully revealed. The golfer can be forgiven for pausing a moment to take it all in – the town of Anstruther sweeping away below, the monument and the rocky shores of the Atlantic. The 2nd - a 160 yarder aptly named Monument - plays straight out to the ocean in a strong crosswind. The green is sited on the edge of the cliff with the expanse of the ocean as a backdrop; a memorable and testing par 3. Headland golf of this caliber is a rare and special pleasure.
The 3rd and 4th, both par fours, play on top of the plateau. The 3rd is a longish hole at 402 yards, has fairway bunkers to be avoided, but with a helping wind actually plays much shorter than the 4th at 286 yards. The 4th hole, Magazine, is one of the best par 4’s in Scotland. It plays along the clifftop, with the ocean on the right, dead into the prevailing wind. There is safety to the left. However, in taking the cautious route off the tee, the approach must played over an old stone wall and remnants of an old World War 1 arsenal building used for the storage of ammunition that was used for a gun training building on the 5th tee. The correct angle is down the right side of the fairway, but this brings the cliff into the equation. Whether you are bold or hesitant off the tee, the green seems to float above the ocean below. This is the Scottish golf of your dreams.
The 4th green at Anstruther Golf Club, viewed from the safe line off the tee. Photograph by Jim Hartsell
This brings us to the 5th hole, called Rockies. In my experience, it is a one-off in the world of golf. A blind, dogleg 247 yard par 3 played from the clifftop to well……the sky. It was once voted the toughest par three in the UK by readers of Golf Monthly, as a plaque by the tee proudly reminds us. I asked a friendly member in the bar if he thought it was indeed the toughest par 3 in the country, “Oh aye,” he replied matter-of-factly, “because it’s a par 4.” The majority of members do, in fact, treat the hole as a par 4. Many of the older men, and a lot of the ladies, play back down the 4th fairway to pitch straight down onto the green from the upper level. I played the hole 5 times and I am still at a loss to see how the green could actually be hit in regulation. There is a smallish strip of fairway on the beach level, where the green sits. There is the potential to lay up there as there, with an iron, and play a wedge in. All that said, a “bogey 4” on this hole feels like a very good score. It is an altogether beautiful, bizarre and laugh-out-loud fun golf hole.
The Rockies. Bizarre, fun and one of a kind. Photograph by Jim Hartsell
The 6th hole is another brilliant par 3 - with the green sited on the same lower level as the 5th - in the base of the cliffside. It plays 128 yards from both the lower Members tee, as well as from the much more dramatic Medal tee on top of the hill. In our ignorance and excitement, we had started our first nine of the morning playing the Medal tees. Climbing back down from the unbelievably good 6th Medal tee, we were caught red-handed by the Greenskeeper, who had shown up to work on the 5th green. “You shouldn’t be playing the Medal tees,” he said sternly. “Well, I’m sorry, it’s our first time here and there was nobody in the clubhouse when we started,” I said embarrassingly. He smiled and said, “Aye. In that case, I’m glad you got to see the view from up there, but stick to the yellow tees for the rest of the day.” This is the type of welcoming attitude that prevails at Anstruther.
The Medal Tee on the 6th. Photograph by Jim Hartsell
The tee shot to the 171 yard par three 7th (three consecutive par 3’s!) plays back over the 6th fairway to a green located back on the upper headland. I hit a full driver on this hole in three of our five rounds. Par is well-earned and will likely be a winner in virtually every match. At this point, we have climbed back up to the upper plateau level to play the par four 8th, a difficult and longish hole with an out of bounds fence down the left. A par here is also to be respected, for it will be hard-fought. This hole is very difficult when played into a strong wind. The closing 9th is a 230 yard par 3, playing back into town from the previous heights of the 1st green. It is a unique and dramatic finishing hole that is perfect for match play. It actually plays much more like a par four, reinforcing one final time that par is irrelevant at Anstruther.
In the welcoming bar, Matt Maclachlan, the friendly Clubhouse Manager for over 10 years at Anstruther Golf Club, came to our table to visit as we had our requisite Tennents and perused the bar menu. (There is a brilliant full service restaurant on the other side of the bar called fittingly, The Rockies.) He was genuinely interested in our feelings about the course and introduced us to a few of the members who were in for a late afternoon pint. In a wonderful phenomenon that I have only seen in Scotland, everyone we met was genuinely interested in our thoughts about their wee course. We had a lively discussion about how to play the 5th and where to get the best fish and chips in Anstruther. (The clubhouse received a deservedly high recommendation.) I followed up with Matt recently to talk about working at Anstruther: “Believe it or not when I first walked in the door I had no interest in golf and I wasn’t even all that keen on golfers. Needless to say, that is not the case today and those feelings were gone after only a few months in the job.”
I asked what he enjoyed the most about his job at the club: “I couldn’t narrow it down to just one thing. From the always changing fantastic views up and down the firth and the North Sea, the interactions with the members and visitors each day, the staff team we’ve put together, it all just adds up to a fantastic place to work. Everyone that walks through the door here gets afforded the same welcome, as if we’ve known you all our life. Whether it’s a member, visitor or just someone visiting the Rockies Restaurant, our aim is to have people say to themselves as they leave “well we will definitely come back here” and 99% of the time it works.” I can personally attest that it does work, as I plan on returning to Anstruther for a second time as soon as international travel is allowed once more. A more welcoming golf club cannot be found.
I touched on this in my inaugural piece in this series, The Hidden Soul of The Game. We only visited Anstruther by chance that day, because we were shut out of playing The Old Course. Missing out on The Old might seem an impossible blow to recover from on a Scottish golf trip. Instead, Anstruther Golf Club became a highlight of our visit to Scotland. It has now been almost two years and we talk about Anstruther every time my son and I get together.
After playing all morning, we decided to cancel an afternoon round at the historic Lundin Links so we could keep playing Anstruther. We did not want to leave. Walking off the 9th green, after our 45th hole of the day, I could tell that Jake wanted to keep playing. There was still enough daylight left for at least 9 more holes, but my old legs were failing. As I shook my son’s hand in the never-ending Scottish twilight, he said, “Dad, this is the most fun I’ve ever had playing golf.” I could only smile and say, “yes, me too.”
The view from the Anstruther Golf Club bar. Photograph by Jim Hartsell
Anstruther is famous for its fish and chips and deservedly so. You can’t go wrong eating fish and chips in the clubhouse bar at the club or at any of the several of the “chippies” in town. I almost always default to having lunch in the clubhouse, and in this case it was great. If you want something a little more adventurous, The Rockies Restaurant in the Anstruther clubhouse is excellent. The Dreel Tavern in Anstruther is also a brilliant restaurant that I would love to visit again. You should give yourself a few hours just to walk around the seaside town itself. It is one of my favorites in the world.
Fish and Chips at the Anstruther Golf Club bar. Photograph by Jim Hartsell
St. Andrews is only a 20 minute drive away from Anstruther. The town is one of the best places on earth, whether you are a golfer or not. Even if you miss out on playing The Old, as we did, an afternoon and evening walking around St. Andrews is worth the precious time away from the course. You may find a bookstore that you never want to leave. For food and other refreshments, everybody knows The Dunvegan, but it’s reputation is well-earned and is a must visit for a pint and/or a meal. We had a wonderful pub meal at The St. Andrews Brewing Company on a cold, rainy night, trying several of their excellent beers - the Oatmeal Stout and the Pale Ale received high marks from our table.
There are a multitude of accommodation options in and around St. Andrews. Over the years of my travels to Scotland, staying in the town itself has gotten quite expensive. We stayed in the wonderful and reasonably priced Scooniehill Farmhouse B&B, located in the middle of a beautiful farm in the hills overlooking the most famous town in golf. Sam, the proprietor, treated us like family - offering to wash our wet golf clothes and even drive us into town for the evening so we could enjoy ourselves responsibly. The full Scottish breakfast, which Sam customizes for every guest, will get you through a good part of your day. The view from Scooniehill Farm looking down into St. Andrews is something that you will dream about for the rest of your life.