Kingarrock Hickory Golf: Less technology translates into more humanity
Another day, another drive up the A68 toward Edinburgh. But this time, I circumvented the city to the northwest and took advantage of the Forth Road Bridge to cross the firth en route to Cupar, the last town of significance heading east before you reach St. Andrews.
Rather then continue on lemming-like to the game’s birthplace, though, I peeled off to the right along the A916 toward the Hill of Tarvit. There, below its crest, I found a turn-of-the-20th-century manor house. And in its front yard? The former owner's personal 9-hole golf course.
Today the house and the course, named Kingarrock for the farm it displaced, are under the care and feeding of the Scottish National Trust. Apparently the powers that be are a clever lot. The had a brilliant idea: Why not let people out on the wee course, but only as it was played in its pre-Depression heyday? So that means shouldering canvas bags loaded with no more than a handful of hickory-shafted clubs. It means using a ball that flies only about 85 percent as far as today’s supercharged pellets. And it means, if you really want to go all in, wearing plus-fours and a flat-top Scottish bunnet.
With the exception of the attire, how could I resist?
So I dialed up their website and sent an email to Andrew Bentley, Kingarrock’s golf assistant. He secured a 1 p.m. tee time on Halloween, the last day of their playing season. If that window had closed, it wouldn’t have reopened until Easter 2015. Whew!
Hickory History 101
My curiosity piqued, I arrived well ahead of my appointed time, giving Andrew plenty of opportunity to tell the property’s story. And it’s a good one.
It starts in 1904, when Frederick Sharp, who’d made a fortune in the jute trade, relocated his family from Dundee north of the River Tay to Tarvit so he could make better use of his membership in the R&A and test his game on the links at St. Andrews. He designed the mansion to fit his family's existing furnishings (most of us can barely afford to do the reverse). And, like the one-percenters of our day who have the discretionary income to install putting greens in their backyards, Sharp converted the front yard of his estate into a golf course, so it would always be at the ready for friendly matches with family and friends.
Alas, all too soon Sharp’s best-laid plans began to unravel. First, he died in 1932 at the age of 70. His son and heir Hugh, engaged to be married, was killed in the infamous Castlecary Rail Disaster of 1937. And then World War II delivered the knockout blow, demanding that the frivolity of a golf course be converted back into pastureland in support of the war effort.
Fast forward to 2002. The Sharp family had come and gone and a new family, the Andersons, now owned the property. They had no idea that golf was once played there until they came across a course map buried among other artifacts. The find was confirmed by a 100-year-old resident of nearby Ceres, who had lost his vision but not his memory of the routing, having played the course as a youngster. So the decision was made to bring the track back to life. In June 2008, play officially resumed.
Arming for Battle
After the history lesson, Andrew invited me to choose my weapons from among several sets of authentic hickory sticks. No replicas here! Each bag contained either a driver or brassie (equivalent to a 2- or 3-wood with a brass soleplate to protect the head), a cleek (think 1- or 2-iron), a mid-mashie (aka 6- or 7-iron), mashie niblick (essentially a 9-iron) and a putter.
He also gave me a choice of golf ball: 1898 or 1924 versions. Unlike the clubs, the balls are new but specially made to emulate the characteristics of the original Haskell ball, the first to employ a solid or liquid core wrapped in rubber windings. That design, invented by Coburn Haskell in 1898, superseded the gutta percha (which replaced the featherie) and held sway until the dawning of those rock-hard two-piece Top-Flites of my youth, and its ultimate demise with the launch of the original multi-layered Titleist Pro V1 in 2000. I went with the 1924 version (the year printed on the Kingarrock Golf Course map), which meant playing the course to a par of 34. Opt for the 1898 ball and, to compensate, you get a par of 37.
One other tidbit about the balls: Each is imprinted with the words, “Wait for it.” Kingarrock attributes the adage to Bobby Jones, who won the Grand Slam in 1930 using hickory-shafted clubs. Essentially, it’s a reminder that—compared with steel-shafted sticks—you need to slow down, complete your back swing and rely more on your hands and wrists to generate clubhead speed rather than your upper body strength. I couldn’t help but think those three words also made for a rather poignant philosophy by which to live your life. But, as usual, I’m probably reading too much into what is, in the end, just simple physics.
A handful of Reddy tees—named by Dr. William Lowell who, in 1925, patented the ready-made wooden pegs (vs. mounds of sand) we still use today—completed the setup.
A Stripping Away
Andrew pointed me in the direction of the first hole and off I went, back in time, on my own.
Strictly as a golf course, Kingarrock isn’t much to write home (or on the Internet) about. It has a bit of terrain to it, some well-placed trees and enough roughhewn bunkers to make things interesting. But the Scottish Trust takes a minimalist approach to maintenance, in keeping with the throwback theme. So the turf, at least on this last day of October, was decidedly squishy and hairy.
But the quality of the holes really isn’t the point here. Rather, it’s all about reconnecting with 100-year-old weaponry in contrast to the space-age materials and computer-aided designs of today. And after I got the first tentative swings out of my system, I have to say it was pretty darn cool!
Think of it this way: Hickory golf is like stripping away multiple layers of paint and shellack that have been applied to a piece of fine furniture over the years until, once again, you can feel the grain of the original wood.
First to go is your score. Andrew gave me a scorecard. But after it became clear that I had no idea where the ball would go (through the air and along the scruffy surface of the greens), there simply was no point in filling it in.
Next is any pretense of distance. The equipment, at least in my hands, virtually eliminates the majestic tee shot or the towering approach. The results are muted. You’d best adjust your expectations accordingly or you’ll be doomed to disappointment.
A Building Back Up
In its place, though, is something far more satisfying. The cliché is that hickory delivers greater feel. But it’s more than that really. It’s a connectedness—from hands, through the shaft, to the head and into the ball—that steel and urethane simply can’t match. So that when you do catch it flush on the clubface’s tiny sweet spot, the sensation truly is exquisite. And as you watch your ball climb skyward in alignment with your intended target, you can honestly say to yourself, “I did that! It wasn’t the technology. It was me!”
In the end, isn’t that what we long for when we play golf? At just 2,022 yards, Kingarrock might operate on a much smaller scale, physically speaking, then today’s puffed up layouts that—particularly at the professional level—simply can’t stretch far enough to keep up with the equipment makers. But that doesn’t mean the emotional scale is similarly diminished. If anything, the rewards of hickory golf are far greater than steel. They’re less manufactured, more real. Less machine, more human. Less external, more internal.
Entranced, I navigated my way around the first eight holes with the same ball (they loan you four to start, just in case) and stood on the elevated 9th tee, with its lovely view of the mansion in the distance, wishing I had enough time and daylight to go around again. Then reality, as is its wont, rudely reasserted itself: I crushed the driver, my best contact of the round, only to hear my ball strike the very tree way off in the distance that I’d aimed at, thinking it was out of my reach.
The search for my dimpled orb proved fruitless. But my hickory experience was no less fulfilling. Rest assured, it won’t be my last.