ELIE, SCOTLAND - No one knows for sure how long golf has been played in this idyllic burgh in the Kingdom of Fife. It is certain, however, that people have been wandering the grassy linksland running from the village center down to the seastrand and whacking balls about with sticks for over half a century. At a time when most people still thought the world was flat (the roiling, rumpled fairways of the local links notwithstanding), golf was already a community game in Elie, and a hot topic of public debate.
Despite a 1471 Act of Parliament prohibiting the populace from playing golf (for fear it was distracting soldiers from archery practice), the good citizens of Elie and neighboring Earlsferry hit balls in whatever direction they liked, making up their own holes along the way. This semi-controlled chaos (not so unlike a Rotary Club scramble today, really) continued for a solid 300 years, aided by the King of Scotland in 1599, who granted a new charter to the Royal Burgh of Earlsferry, confirming the "ancient" right of the citizens to play golf on the Earlsferry Links.
Today's 18-hole, 6,251-yard (par 70) course encompasses that original golfing land, and the 4th through 7th holes still appear much as they were 400 years ago. Indeed, time and nature alone are responsible for today's layout. According to Sandy Sneddon, Club Secretary of theGolf House Club, Elie, "The course gradually took shape over centuries, and it is only in the last 120 years that it became the present layout. There was no official completion date or course architect, other than nature."
After a good bit of legal wrangling, during which the staunch townsfolk defended their links from the owners of the bordering Grange Estate - who ploughed up a large parcel of land in the middle of the course in the early 1800s - the first Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club came into being in 1858. Today's successor, the rather queerly named Golf House Club, Elie, was formed in 1873 in order to raise money to build a clubhouse for the expanding course, which to this day doesn't really have a name; it is identified usually as simply the Links at Elie.
This gradual, almost organic evolution of the links here is what makes Elie a must for the golf connoisseur. The quirky, quizzical confabulation of holes includes no par fives, only two par threes, a half dozen short par fours, as many blind tee shots, and one of the best four-hole strings of seaside holes in the Kingdom of Fife.
As soon as you arrive at Elie's links, you know you are in for a memorable round. The clubhouse - which has also grown piecemeal from the structure built with the money raised in 1873 - looks like a massive English cottage. But it is the starter's shed that draws the most attention. Its history, apparently like everything having to do with this storybook venue, is unique.
"The Starter's Hut," explains Club Secretary Sandy Sneddon, "originally stood on the cliffs at Kincraig, above the 13th and 14th holes, during the Second World War as a rest hut for soldiers on guard duty. There were several large guns situated on top of the cliffs to attack any German ships entering the Forth Estuary, the concrete gun emplacements still being there today. After the war, the Club bought the hut, and, after trying different methods of allowing the Starter to see over the hill on the 1st hole, in 1966 a Member purchased the periscope of HM Submarine Excalibur, which had been decommissioned, and it was installed in the hut. The Starter is now able to see not only over the hill but also most other parts of the course."
The starter himself, who is a gruff Scot of few words but a sharp wit, graciously allows visitors to peer through the periscope over the high ridge that rises 100 yards beyond the first tee, blocking any view at all of the course from players. It is very helpful to get a feeling for what lies beyond when first teeing it up here, but beware: Knowing that OB and other assorted hazards lie in wait to the right doesn't make that first drive any easier.
From the blind tee shot at the 417-yard 1st, some golfers will think to themselves, "Who would have designed a course like this?" As already pointed out, however, the answer is "No one." Only nature and time can be given credit - or blame, depending on how well you play it - for the singularity of the layout. The first wonderful surprise comes at the 287-yard 2nd, where a short, seemingly dull uphill par 4 culminates in a broad, deep green lying atop a portion of the ridge encountered on the first hole. When you reach the top of this crest, the entire village of Elie comes into view, spreading out at your feet as if it were intended purely as the backdrop for a well-rolled putt.
The 225-yard, par-3 3rd plays back downhill, and the green is set at somewhat of an offset angle from the tee boxes. Australian Kel Nagle, winner of the 1960 British Open rated this as one of the best par 3s in the country, especially if the wind was blowing. The fairway of the 367-yard 5th hole brings new meaning to the term "undulating fairway." Perhaps this is why the hole is named "Doctor" - you might need seasick pills after walking from tee to green.
On No. 8 (381 yards), you're likely to encounter joggers and dog-walkers on the road separating the fairway from the green. Golfers yield right of way to the pedestrians, since the linksland owes its existence to the townsfolk, after all.
The stretch of holes from No. 10 to No. 13 is second to none in Fife. The 285-yard 10th plays down to the jagged shoreline. Big hitters are tempted to go for the green from the tee, but the shot is completely blind, so it can be intimidating. The shot here is usually into the teeth of the wind, as well. But if you can keep a nice, long ball straight, you may just come over the hill to find yourself near the putting surface. However, if you go left, long, or right, trouble awaits, most prominently a high, craggy fescue-covered hillock on the left. But whether you card a birdie or bogey, be sure to scan the rocky jetty for seals as you walk to the next tee.
The 11th is a 125-yard par 3 that usually plays with a wicked crosswind. To the left is the sea, to the right is fescue. It is a tasty appetizer for the main dishes: The 468-yard 12th and the 387-yard 13th, two of the finest par 4s to be found on any seaside links. No. 12 sweeps from right to left, hugging the beach tightly on the left side.
James Braid, five-time winner of The Open who was born in Earlsferry and learned to play at Elie, called No. 13 "the finest hole in all the country." A deep swale (which was filled with rocks during Braid's day) cuts the fairway in half at just under 200 yards off the tee. This one-time hazard can be carried easily today (unless the wind is up), but the approach to the deep, narrow green still requires a strong iron applied with a deft touch. The green, which hunkers at the foot of the Kincraig cliffs, runs away diagonally from the fairway, and is guarded on the left by a deep hollow. At 44 yards from front to back, it promises to leave careless approach shots with wickedly long putts.
Elie offers all golfers - and especially foreigners (who account for about 30 percent of the 4,500 visitor rounds played here annually) - the essence of the Scottish golf experience. For 38 pounds for 18 holes (just 50 pounds for all-day play) purists will feel like they have stepped through a portal leading to the golden age of links golf. Although Americans especially might feel a bit cramped amongst the cluster of tees and greens around the 12th fairway (Heads up!), the course is an undeniable treat.
The day I visited, rain was chucking down in fits and spurts, and the wind gusted to 30 miles per hour, all of which allowed me to experience the course as it was meant to be played. Some drivable par 4s played like long par 5s into the wind, whereas others became reachable with long irons when the wind was at my back. Despite the rain, the greens were hard and unforgiving - no ball marks to repair at all - but perfectly drained and as true as any in Scotland.
A testament to the course's quality is its tournament history: Until the early 1970s, the course hosted the British Seniors Championship, and the Scottish Professional Championship has also been played here. According to Sandy Sneddon, who has served as Club Secretary for twelve years, the course has not ever been an Open Qualifying course simply because the members have wanted to avoid the disruption.
And who can blame them? After 500 years and some hard-fought legal battles, the good people of Elie and Earlsferry have earned the right to golf on their beloved linksland whenever they choose. The rest of us relative newcomers to the sport are just lucky that they are generous enough to share.
The Golf House Club, Elie
KY9 1AS, Scotland
Tel: +44 (0)1333 330327
Yardage and par: White-6,251, par 70; Red-5984, par 74
Green Fee: 38 British pounds for 18 holes, 50 pounds unlimited play
Other Information: Walking only, no women allowed in the clubhouse during the day, pull cart rental available at the well-stocked pro shop, ballot in operation in July and August, no visitors on Sunday from May to Dec., dress code: smart casual
Practice Facilities: 2.5
Club House/Pro Shop: 3.5
Pace of Play: 5
Par 3's: 3.5
Par 4's: 5
Par 5's: N/A
Overall Rating: 3.7
August 25, 2002
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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