On 26 June 2015, I took a ride in a time machine with Steve Isaac, the Director - Golf Course Management at The R&A. Steve and I journeyed back to the early 1900s to play a round of golf at Kingarrock Hickory Golf Course, which is located on the Hill of Tarvit estate on the outskirts of Cupar, Scotland, about 30 minutes by car from St Andrews. Upon entering the estate, we were welcomed into a slower and gentler era by the gracious Edwardian mansion that is the focal point of the property. Although currently owned by the National Trust of Scotland, the estate was previously owned by Frederik Sharp, a wealthy industrialist from Dundee. Sharp and his family were sporting enthusiasts and their property boasted tennis courts, lawn bowling courts, croquet fields, hunting areas, and even a curling rink. Recently, a grounds map was discovered which revealed that the Sharps had also built a golf course on the property, long since reclaimed by nature. Recognising the historical value of this discovery, the National Trust chose to restore the course to its former glory, preserving as much of the original course design, detail, and management practices as possible. Walking onto the course at Kingarrock is akin to stepping one hundred years back in time.
As Steve and I entered the pro shop, we were greeted by Andrew Bentley, the head golf professional. Andrew graciously explained the nature of golf equipment in the early 20th century, as well as the composition of clubs used by the Sharp family. The woods were made from a dense hardwood, and the shafts were crafted from hickory, hence the term, hickory golf. The heads of the irons and wedges are metal but are not grooved. And the putters have more than 10 degrees of loft. Each bag is slender, and, with only five clubs, it is also lightweight. Having familiarised ourselves with the equipment, we selected a set for play, comprising a brassie (wood), mashie (a low lofted iron), mashie-niblick (a mid-iron), and niblick (a high lofted iron) and a putter. After more than ten years of carrying fourteen metal clubs and assorted weighty accessories through up to 36 holes per day of competitive golf, picking up a five-club bag of real woods and irons was akin to shedding downhill ski boots after a day of alpine skiing. I felt as if I could float to the first tee.
As we perused over our club choices, we also chatted with the greenkeeper, Owen Browne. Owen explained the basic management practices of the course, which, not surprisingly, tread far more lightly on the land than many modern practices. I learned that the course is never irrigated, chemical fertiliser application is kept to an absolute minimum, and the fairways are mowed with gang mowers similar to those used by the Sharp family’s greenkeeper.“
While some golfers today might describe the greens as uneven, in my view they were perfect, because every effort has been taken to replicate precisely what the Sharp family would have played on.
Clubs in hand, we then ventured out to play the 2,022 yard, nine hole course. Even though Kingarrock is relatively short by modern standards, this length is perfectly suited for the early 20th century equipment. Because the equipment is much less forgiving than what we play with today, the course is pleasantly challenging. For example, the brassie I used had a smaller face than a modern day 3-wood and required you to hit an even smaller sweet spot just to make the ball travel a respectable distance (around 200 yards). The niblick I used around the greens did not have any bounce, which made striking chip shots solidly a formidable challenge (bounce is the flange on the bottom of modern wedges that ‘bounces’ the club off the grass, making them much more playable). Even so, I found that being limited to only five clubs was a bit of a relief; choosing the “right” club was dead simple.
As we strolled down the fairways from tee to green, perhaps what impressed me the most was a refreshing air of simplicity in both design and management. The grass on tee boxes, fairways, and greens was longer than on modern courses. Fairways included patches of clover and daisies, while the greens are a mixture of bentgrass and fescues interspersed with a few renegade patches of clover and pearlwort. By modern standards, the greens are slow, and likely measure between six and seven feet on a Stimpmeter, but they tended to roll quite well, with only an occasional bump from a slightly more energetic blade of grass. While some golfers today might describe the greens as uneven, in my view they were perfect, because every effort has been taken to replicate precisely what the Sharp family would have played on.
As Steve and I adjusted to the shorter yet more precise play of the course, I noticed a shift in my mindset: I felt a closer link to nature than I usually experience on a modern course. This course was clearly part of and belonged to the natural world and reminded me that my purpose on it was to enjoy a relaxing game and a peaceful walk through the countryside. This communion of the natural and the managed was evident by the way the course blended into the landscape. Because the fairways included a variety of species (“weeds” in modern parlance), the fairways tended not to stand out from the surrounding vegetation. In stark contrast to modern courses, I was not playing on a neon green strip of perfectly manicured, monoculture grass that abruptly gives way to native vegetation. Instead, I was playing on a mix of grasses that gave way to rougher patches, which blended into real woods, on a historic country estate in Scotland, and I was loving it. This course drew me into my surroundings in a way that I have only rarely experienced while playing golf.
As I reflect back on the time travel we experienced during our round, playing Kingarrock Hickory Golf reminded me that enjoying a game does not require 7,000-plus yard courses, with perfectly managed tees, monoculture fairways, carpeted greens, and equipment designed to send a ball into the next zip code.
At Kingarrock, I played a short course, with weeds in the fairways, slow greens, and I used equipment over 100 years old. And to be perfectly honest, I walked away feeling that I had just completed one of the best rounds of golf in my life.