St. Andrews Bay Resort proves new kid on the block can thrive
ST ANDREWS, Scotland - Any pilgrimage to St. Andrews must include strolling the streets from one end of the old town to the other. The shop and tavern-lined streets converge at two key points - the cathedral grounds on one end and the first tee/eighteenth green of St. Andrews' Old Course at the other.
At one end of town, Old Tom Morris and his son, young Tommy, are buried within cathedral ruins dating back to the 1100s. The Morrises dominated the British Open in its first dozen years, each winning four times. Old Tom survived his son and was a fixture at the Old Course until his death in 1908. His granddaughter has a apartment overlooking the 18th green.
Golf on the Old Course was first mentioned in print in 1457, when a decree from King James II insisted that archers stop chasing the little feather-packed ball and get back to shooting practice. The command proved ineffectual, of course.
In the face of so much history, it took a daunting soul to build new golf courses (designed by Americans, yet) and an American-style resort within sight of the old town's skyline. Entrepreneur Dr. Donald Panoz (founder of the luxury Chateau Elan resort group based in Atlanta, Georgia) bought 540 oceanfront acres three miles up the coast from St. Andrews, and built the $80 million, 209-room St. Andrews Bay Resort, spa and two golf courses.
Golf was the driving force behind the creation of the resort, and a dream come true for Panoz and his friend, the late Gene Sarazen, who saw the setting "and knew we had something special," says Panoz. With Sarazen as a consultant, both courses were built by the U.S. firm of Denis Griffiths and Associates, who worked with designer Sam Torrance (2002 European Ryder Cup captain) on the Torrance Course in 2001, and Aussie designer Bruce Devlin on the Devlin Course in 2002.
At the heart of the two courses is a $3.5 million clubhouse with a balcony facing the sea. Off to the west is the skyline of St. Andrews. Across the bay is the lighthouse of the Carnoustie Golf Course. To the east is the 17th green of the Devlin Course, under which lies the remains of a 500 A.D. fort where Roman sentinels once watched for invaders from the sea.
Head golf pro John Kerr believes the two courses will become as famous in time as the area's historic tracks. "With the designers involved and the setting, they're great courses," he says. "There aren't many courses with a better view, and they're challenging. The first pro-am we had on the Devlin, the scores from the white tees (not the back tees) ranged from 70 to 83. On the Devlin there are places you have to put the ball up in the air and fly the greens or you'll lose a ball in the thick rough.
"The Torrance is more traditional," he says. "You can bounce the ball into the greens. With the wind waving the tall yellow fescue, the Torrance rough is intimidating, but you can walk in and find your ball. It may grab your club getting out of it, but at least you can find it."
Both courses are checkered with ancient stone walls and stone bridges span the burn (creek) running through the Torrance. On the cliff-side perimeter, stone walls are overrun by flowering yellow gorse and broom, white quince, red campion, and tiny, delicate bluebells clinging to the precipice above the ocean.
Bussed almost constantly by winds, the Devlin is home to high rough and devilish bunkers. The over-sized greens, some serving two holes, look inviting but are subtly sculpted. The track follows rolling high ground around duck ponds, stone walls and copses of trees, then loops back to the cliffs, where the greens become optical illusions suspended against sea and sky, and confound club selection.
The finishing holes are superb. Seventeen, a long par-4 hole, is a blind shot over the crest of a hill. The fairway falls away to the right, 175 yards downhill to the seaside green. Go long on your first shot and you're in bunkers beyond the dogleg; fall short and you have to skirt the precipitous ravine called Kittocks Den. Eighteen is a well guarded par 3 with a backdrop of St. Andrews and the beach.
From the hotel the Torrance looks like a sea of rippling brown grassseamed here and there with stone walls. A traditional, walking only course, it becomes more impressive with every hole, unfolding with the character and forethought of a lovingly crafted quilt.
Though it looks as if it has been here 100 years, two things about the Torrance are unusual. Most links courses are deprived of sea views by a range of dunes. On the Torrance (and Devlin) the sea is visible from most holes. Secondly, few older courses loop back to the clubhouse on the ninth hole as these tracks do - a convenience most Americans expect.
We played the Torrance with chief greenskeeper Neil Ballingall, a pleasant fellow who is attentive to detail, as the condition of the course shows. His greens are fast and true, and the sand in his bunkers is precisely the right grain size (fine sand will blow out).
Scottish fairways are typically seeded in fescue and bentgrass, but the mix on the Torrance incorporates a bit of rye, says Ballingall. "It's a conference hotel (it has the largest hotel-based conference facilities in Scotland), so the rye makes the ball sit up for people who play infrequently. Yet the pros like it too, because they get the reaction they want from the ball."
There are no dull holes on the Torrance, but the back nine has the most spectacular ocean holes. At 14, a short par 4, the track drops to a pretty seaside green by way of a split fairway lined with a rock wall overrun with flowering bushes. The floral show extends along the next hole, a 183-yard par 3 where the wind calls the shots. The top-handicapped seventeenth hole is a par 4 with a brush-filled gorge and rock wall intruding on the fairway. Depending on the wind, it can be a long shot over the wall to the green. Eighteen is a long uphill par 5 that breaks sharply left on the third shot to a seaside green.
Heading home late in the day on either track, the setting sun casts a golden glow over the courses, and it's easy to pretend they've occupied this precious bit of land forever.
Where to stay
St. Andrews Bay, one of only four 5-Star International hotels in Scotland, is a stately, native stone edifice that blends seamlessly into the waving grasses of the golf courses that flank it. Inside, it is not like any other hotel in the area. There is a sense of openness and light throughout, especially in the two-story atrium that covers a vast garden-like sitting area and dining room. Prince William, a student at St. Andrews University, often comes here to sit and read.
The hotel has a modern full-service spa, exercise room and indoor swimming pool, and amenities such fax/computer ports in all the oversized rooms, suites and manor houses.
Where to dine
Though you'll want to roam the streets of St. Andrews and sample the pub fare for lunch between rounds of golf, the hotel is the place for breakfast and dinner. The breakfast buffet contains every Scottish and American food imaginable, including Allison's award-winning porridge, served with double cream and Drambuie. A dinner menu staple is fresh local salmon served in innovative ways, such as on a cavier blini topped with a poached egg and crème fraiche.
Bars in the hotel and clubhouse have a huge selection of single-malt whiskies. In the homey Kittocks Den bar, a waiter named Scott happily pours single malts and lingers to discuss the nuances of scotch. If you find the chairs and atmosphere too good to abandon for dinner, the bar also serves thick, luscious sandwiches and creamy soups.
The atrium dining room of the Old Course Hotel is a great place for steaks as you watch golfers making their way along the finishing holes.
The streets of old St. Andrews are lined with all sorts of shops, bakeries, pubs, book stores and, of course, world-famous golf shops where you can buy authentic souvenirs for yourself and friends back home.
The cathedral and the castle in town are certainly worth a tour, just to get a grasp of the incredible depth of history here.
Across the street from the Old Course is the Golf Museum, which contains enough great artifacts to fill a rainy afternoon, and the Royal & Ancient Clubhouse where the rules of golf for most of the world are decreed.
If you've been smart enough to arrange to play the Old Course, you'll have your moment on that very public first tee. If not - or after your round - lean awhile on the board railing and watch others try to curb their nervousness. The town has seven layouts grouped along this strand, plus a putting course.
St. Andrews Bay is in Fife, 50 minutes north of Edinburgh's international airport and on the north side of the town of St. Andrews.
From the St. Andrews Bay Clubhouse you can see the wide beach at St. Andrews where scenes in "Chariots of Fire" were filmed.
December 12, 2004