In common with many amateur golfers, I have a naturally repeatable slice. All the more challenging when you hear apocryphal stories about one of the world’s oldest and greatest links courses at Dunbar, where the fairway pinches in to a matter of yards between the sea and a seemingly endless wall that would give Jon Snow the shivers.
The East Links lie at the end of a famously historical stretch of coastline and are overlooked by the town of Dunbar, just like St Andrews does its own courses. All hug the coastal fringes, pitching man (and ball) against nature at every turn. In common with them all, the wind is the arbiter of a good round or a card-wrecker. With holes squeezed into a narrow strip of land between the exposed beach, spray-covered rocks and The Wall (more of that later) by Old Tom Morris, Willie Park Snr, Ben Sayers and James Braid the 6,600 yards East Links par-72 gives you a good indication that this is not a walk in a 400-year old park. As a regular Open qualifying course and host to many championships in its time, this ancient site of Scottish golfing history rightly commands its own respect. It also commands some amazing views which, as it transpired, would take my mind off a steadily depleting number of golf balls in my bag.
The course sits either side of The Wall, a beautifully constructed old stone barrier, built over 200 years ago by Napoleonic war PoWs imprisoned on the Bass Rock, to hold in the deer on the Duke of Roxburghe’s park. In places it is around 8ft tall and omnipresent during my round. For a slicer, it gets into your head and I’d rather have a lucky bounce back than see my ball sail across the top and into the trees. The Wall didn’t really come into play for me on the opening two short par-5s which sit parallel to each other. The prevailing wind gave me a chance of reaching the first green over its protective burn and nearby pond in two, but no chance on the flip around into wind. Between me and the green eight bunkers awaited my natural fade down the right-hand side of the fairway. I found two.
The short par-3 third hole falls gently to the coast, protected by seven bunkers, a Club House and a Pro Shop. Stunning views began to make an appearance, and especially in that Narnia moment when I walked through the hole in the wall to the 4th tee. Dunbar has been described as the Pebble Beach of Scottish golf yet, in truth, more holes lie on the sea shore here than at its comparative US course. The views from this tee give insights to other Tom Morris courses; Battery at Machrihanish and its fairway beyond the Atlantic; the coastal run at Balcomie in Crail. You can see the sea from every hole here, a feature reserved for only a few links courses and such is the open nature of Dunbar. Bunkering is generally light, the threat of gorse is occasional but the short rough and the wind here are enough to make matchplay a more welcoming option.
By the time I reached the old buildings of the Vaults at the 7th hole I was already a sleeve down. Accuracy counts here more than distance and given that 10 holes have an OB to contend with and 9 count the beach as a hazard I could feel the pressure. The Barns Ness lighthouse, the Bass Rock and the endless skies above the sliver of the Fife coast take my mind off the rising wind strength. At the 11th hole I’m at the sea shore once more, into the loop and the target is to keep the ball to the left. A new sleeve of balls was opened, and one was promptly dispatched towards Elie.
The 13th hole gave some respite as the wind tucked in behind me once more, and I managed to hang on to a par before turning back into the “breeze” and onto arguably the signature hole of the course. For as many balls as I was losing to nature, it wasn’t getting me down at all… in fact, it gave me a much greater respect for those who could, and still can, tame these links in all weathers. Not just the visiting professionals and talented amateurs, but the stalwart members who do battle on this same coast as Cromwell did some 370 years ago.
Walking off the 15th green and immediately onto the 16th tee reminded me of holes at Shiskine, the way golf courses used to be with green and tee almost touching each other. As I stood contemplating my shot, a ball trickled off the green and down to my feet. The wind was so strong now, I couldn’t hear the chap shouting. Must happen a lot, I guessed. Was there a nod to this 16th hole when designing the 15th at Kingsbarns? Perhaps. It felt like it, with the spray lifting now into my face and the fairway disappearing in front of me to a narrow strip of land. I over-cooked it though, and instead of losing a ball to Poseidon I managed to bounce it off the path and over The Wall.
Two more burns navigated, plus the curve of the wonderfully sandy shoreline of the 17th fairway finally brought another Narnia moment when I walked back through the hole in the stone wall to a more parkland setting. Teeing it up on the 18th, I sensed the OB and The Wall… and the wind. This time I was lucky, and the sliced ball bounced off a perfectly-positioned rocky outcrop and back into play.
Reaching the green, my bag was noticeably lighter than it was 4 hours ago but I really didn’t mind. I’d always wanted to experience this stretch of golfing antiquity and on any other day I’d be inwardly cursing the lack of dimples in my bag. But with these views, and this history, and that one great shot at the 5th to three feet, it’s lived up to its promise and I have some great memories to share again, and again.
Words - Murray Bothwell
Photography & Film - Ross Cooper