Dunbar Golf Club: The search for affordable and awe-inspiring links continues
Weather and golf in Scotland are inextricably linked, kind of like peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots or—in keeping with the local vernacular—neeps and tatties. Long before I set foot on the first tee, I check the three weather apps on my iPhone for a consensus opinion. It the outlook is dire, I stay put and read, write or simply dream about the game I long to play. But if I get a virtual thumbs up, I head out—yet pack the waterproofs, wooly hat and TurtleFur mittens just in case.
I am pleased to report that the latter scenario is transitioning from the exception to the rule, though the locals have warned me not to get fooled. No matter what the calendar says, winter might still have a few nasty tricks up its sleeve. Make it to May, though, and you’re home free. Mostly.
Still, the trend is encouraging. And it’s emboldened me to pick up where I left off last fall in my search for perhaps lesser known but still thoroughly enjoyable links courses—this humble blog’s primary reason for being.
Following the Golf Coast Road
So in clear but chilly conditions last week, I set the sat-nav for Dunbar Golf Club in East Lothian, about an hour’s drive from Kelso. This region of Scotland, roughly sandwiched between Edinburgh on the west and the North Sea on the east, is a veritable mother lode for links golf prospectors. To reinforce this point, three years ago the powers that be branded the 30-mile stretch of road from Musselburgh in the north to Dunbar in the south Scotland’s “Golf Coast Road.” Signs mark the trail, which winds its way past 22 courses, from headliners like Muirfield, Gullane and North Berwick to character actors such as Winterfield, Whitekirk and Kilspindie, just to name a few. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
Take Dunbar, for instance. Recorded evidence of golf being played near this seaside town dates back at least 400 years. More formally, 27 members formed the Dunbar Golfing Society in 1794, though its course—the West Barns Links—was all too soon claimed for Napoleonic military training and exercises.
The current club was established in 1856 and started with a rudimentary 15-hole track on the seaward side of a wall that remains a prominent feature of Dunbar to this day. Old Tom Morris, the man himself, made modifications in 1894 that extended the layout to 4,913 yards. In 1905, the club acquired an additional tract of land on the opposite side of the wall and used it to build what are today the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 18th holes. Then in 1922, James Braid—a five-time Open champion—joined forces with Ben Sayers of North Berwick to reshape the links into largely what we have at our disposal, stretching it to 6,425 yards. Additional renovations in 2008 stretched Dunbar to its current 6,597 yards from the tips.
In summary, Dunbar has the history and the pedigree to qualify as a first-rate links course. And based on my visit, it delivers the goods—and then some.
For me, the experience of a new course starts the moment I walk through the pro shop door. As per my modus operandi, I didn’t book ahead—instead showing up on Dunbar’s doorstep unannounced. Yet the two chaps behind the counter could not have been more welcoming, asking if I’d played the course before and apologizing for not being able to provide a more thorough introduction. But they offered me the tee, as a single, if I could make myself ready in 10 minutes. I accepted without hesitation, the perfect scenario given my dual objective of exploring unfamiliar turf and continuing my exploration of golf beyond swing thoughts. So, after suiting up and rolling a few obligatory putts on the practice green, I was off and walking.
And, I must say, Dunbar does get off to a wee bit of a pedestrian start with back-to-back par 5s followed by a downhill par 3. All three holes are sited on land previously called Deer Park that, true to its name, give the early going more of a parkland feel than that of a links. But on the plus side, they do serve as an excellent warm-up for what awaits you after you pot your putt on the 3rd and walk through the gap in the wall toward the 4th tee. That’s where you’ll catch your first glimpse of the North Sea and the adjoining linksland—where Dunbar’s heart and soul still reside.
The next seven holes lead you away from the clubhouse, hugging that stone wall on your right. The ensuing eight holes take you home, with the sea nearly always on your right. I tend to miss it left, so I had no problem with this. But if you’re a right-hander who has a propensity to slice the ball (or a lefty who’s prone to a hook), all I can say is: bring plenty of ammo. You could be in for a bit of a slog.
Blowing in the Wind
Dunbar, in keeping with its authentic links chops, is also thoroughly exposed. On this particular day, the wind was blowing from the north so it helped me on the way out and hurt, seemingly even more, heading back. According to my hosts, that’s the prevailing breeze. If you encounter the same, I recommend going as low as you can through the 202-yard par 3 10th hole. Odds are, you’ll give away some of those shots from the 11thon. To paraphrase Bob Seger, you’ll be playing against the wind.
Regardless of your heading, most of the holes traverse essentially level ground. One notable exception is the 9th, a big par 5 that opens with a blind tee shot over a rise and then sweeps down and to the right to a well guarded green. Another is the 13th, a midrange par 4 and the lone hole down the stretch with a helping wind. This time it’s the approach that’s blind. As a bonus, the green, nestled in a dell, provides a welcome respite from the elements as you gather yourself for the finish.
The signature hole, in my opinion, is the 12th. At 457 yards from the medal tees, it’s a brute of a par 4—especially since it’s normally played into the breeze. And just to make things even more entertaining, the green sits out on a point, bringing rocks and saltwater very much into play. Nasty stuff for your golf ball. But quite appealing for your smartphone camera. You’ll want to fire off a few of those shots no matter how the others are faring.
Bring Your Camera
In fact, when I replay my round at Dunbar in my mind, it’s the overall setting rather than the holes themselves that dominates. The course has served as an Open qualifier venue. So, even 160 years after its founding, it remains a stout test of golf. But the sight and sound of the waves as they steadily and unhurriedly make their way to land and the views of the town from the links are worth every pence of the £50 I paid in green fees as a weekday visitor.
Full disclosure, though, that assessment might be biased by the fact that my ball-striking left a lot to be desired. This search for a new way to play out of the silence remains very much a work in progress—mostly because, too often, the space between my ears is anything but quiet. But that’s a matter for another post.
What I can say for certain is that a visit to Dunbar will not disappoint. And you’ll get to enjoy its ancient charms for a fraction of the cost of some of it’s more high-profile neighbors. As winter gives way to spring and, eventually the glories of summer, I look forward to making a return visit.