Feature Interview with Darren Kilfara
October 2001

Darren Kilfara’s first book, A Golfer’s Education, has just been published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. He has written for Golf Digest magazine and worked for ESPN International as a soccer commentator. He graduated from Harvard University in 1997, with a year at the University of St. Andrews in 1995-96 which forms the backdrop for his book.

1. Please list, in order of preference, your six favorite courses in Fife (including any you have played since your days in school at St. Andrews).

  1. Old Course “ St. Andrews
  2. Kingsbarns
  3. New Course “ St. Andrews
  4. Elie (Golf House Club)
  5. Eden Course “ St. Andrews
  6. Jubilee Course “ St. Andrews

On another day I might rate the simplicity of the New Course ahead of the forced grandeur of Kingsbarns, but I was very impressed by both the scale and the variety of Kingsbarns on my first visit there. The Eden Course of 20 years ago would have probably rated ahead of Elie (and perhaps even the New Course), but even complete laymen in the field of golf course architecture should be able to tell that most of the holes on the revised Eden’s back nine shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near St. Andrews, much less the Eden’s front nine. What a terrible redesign ¦no driving range or practice complex could possibly be worth the Eden’s sacrifice.

2. What are three courses in Fife you have not played but wish you had?

My travels in Fife have thus far been nowhere near as extensive as they should be. I can’t believe I never made it down to see the original course at Crail, which from pictures and descriptions always looked like a perfectly quaint place to enjoy the simplicities of linksland golf. When I get there, I see I’ll now need to examine Gil Hanse’s new Craighead Course at Crail (view the course profile on this website to see why I’m interested). And for no good reason, I always mentally dismissed Lundin Links as an Open Championship Qualifying course of little repute “ without good reason, it seems, if Tommy Naccarato’s constant harping is anything to trust.

On a different note, I would also like to see the Duke’s Course, the inland course near St. Andrews owned and operated by the Old Course Hotel, if only to see if it is as mediocre as I’m afraid it is (and thereby to justifiably warn other golfers away from it).

3. What surprised you the most about the Old Course?

Its inscrutability. I’d seen the Old Course on television several times, had read extensively about it, studied a number of photographs of it, even played computer golf games modeled around it before I saw it for the first time, so I thought I’d have a pretty good idea of what I needed to do to score on it when I eventually played it. I was wrong. I knew it would be difficult to get to know the Old Course, but I didn’t fathom just how difficult. Unable to see the fairway bunkers from the tee, to gauge the effects of the slopes around the green, to even determine what my strategic options were (never mind pick the correct one), I tiptoed gingerly from hole to hole, taking what the course gave me rather than actively trying to ‘hit shots’ and play well. Many courses pose this sensation of uncertainty to you the first time around, but among the world’s great and good courses only the Old Course makes you feel this way round after round after round. Only after a few weeks of exposure to it did I even begin to conquer my tentativeness and assert my golfing abilities more positively.

Incidentally, I don’t think you should blame the average American or Japanese tourist for the relatively slow pace of play on the Old Course. I had nine months to get to know the Old Course; most people play the course only once or twice in a lifetime. Should they rush around the course, oblivious to its subtlety, or should they pause and at least try to figure parts of it out? One can argue that the wide variety of strategic choices on offer is the Old’s strongest feature. Shouldn’t these choices be savored, not hurried? Too, anyone who takes a local caddie for their one and only round on the Old is, in a sense, cheating himself “ the whole point of the Old, I’d have thought, is to make you make the right choices, not to encourage you to hire someone to make them for you. So by all means don’t get angry if it takes you four-and-a-half hours to finish 18 holes on the Old; instead, embrace the thought that perhaps someone, somewhere in front of you has gone to the proverbial source to learn something about what makes great golf course architecture great.

4. What did you learn the most about golf during your year in Scotland?

That the ‘scorecard-and-pencil’ mentality (which I have always possessed in abundance) often cited in the discussion groups on this website is both much worse than the average American golfer thinks it is and nowhere near as bad as many purists think it is. In many ways, A Golfer’s Education is about my struggles with ‘Score’, and how those struggles ultimately helped improve me as both a golfer and a person. I don’t want to give too much away for those who have yet to read the book (and I can hardly do justice to the theme in one paragraph anyway), but let me say this: while scorecards and pencils have done much to ruin the way golf is played in the United States, that does not mean that they are evils in and of themselves. I like to keep score “ always have, in fact “ and thereby to putt my ball all the way into the hole 18 times per round. No matter what the good Dr. MacKenzie and a number of his latter-day disciples may intimate, I don’t think this character trait makes me a bad person. There are a number of ways to enjoy the game, and as a single-digit handicapper who likes to tangibly measure his abilities, scorekeeping is one of those ways that suits me. It isn’t the best way for everyone; I’m afraid it is an unsuitable way for many Americans who think it is the only way. But when used properly, stroke play is one of golf’s greatest and most innovative developments. It gives the game a dimension and a dramatic pacing which few other sports have. And it gives an element of competition to the solitary participant in a way no other game, let alone sport, can match.

5. What did you learn the most about golf course architecture during your year in Scotland?

Most of the finer points I’ve learned about architecture have been retroactively taught to me through this website, so in one way this is a very difficult question to answer. While I’ve always appreciated great architecture, the study of it used to take a definite backseat to my pursuit of score! I suppose the most obvious thing I learned while I was in Scotland is that while there is a surprisingly wide variation of types of linksland courses (I thought there might be something of a sameness to the look and feel of a number of courses, whereas only Muirfield and the other Gullane courses really felt stylistically similar), not one of those types has been accurately recreated in America. It’s nothing most people reading this won’t probably recognize already, but whenever a course in the United States advertises itself as ‘Scottish-style’, don’t believe it! Spanish Bay, for example, was a course I’d thought (in my innocence and naivete) to be ‘Scottish’ in conception. In some limited sense it is, but although I love the finished product itself, I now understand how far even the fescue version of Spanish Bay (as opposed to the newer poa annua version) was from a true linksland experience.

6. Please compile your ‘All-Scotland’ Course, staying faithful to the hole numbers.

I’m really quite terrible at this kind of exercise (and how can you truthfully compare long par 5s to short par 3s?), and I don’t have total recall five years on from my Scottish adventures, so if I’ve left out one of your favorite holes, I’d probably trust your judgment over mine. Anyway, if you’ll allow me the latitude to pick several interesting holes (of varying quality) as worthy of mention beneath my ‘favorites’ for each number, here’s my list, with the par of each hole in parentheses:

The difficult secondGullane No. 1.

The difficult secondGullane No. 1.

  1. Machrihanish (4) –Honourable mention: Eden Course (4), Brora (4), Muirfield (4)
  2. Gullane No. 1 (4) –Honourable mention: Dornoch (3), Machrihanish (4), Boat of Garten (4)
  3. Cruden Bay (4) –Honourable mention: Gullane No. 1 (5), Machrihanish (4), Dornoch (4), Elie (3)
  4. New Course (4) –Honourable mention: Cruden Bay (3), Shiskine (3)
  5. Dornoch (4) –Honourable mention: Gullane No. 1 (4), Cruden Bay (4), Machrihanish (4)
  6. Dornoch (3) –Honourable mention: New Course (4), Eden Course (4), Reay (5), Golspie (3), Carnoustie (5)
  7. Machrihanish (4)–Honourable mention: Old Course (4), Loch Lomond (4), Gullane No. 1 (4)
  8. Cruden Bay (4) –Honourable mention: Dornoch (4), Muirfield (4), Brora (5)
  9. New Course (3) –Honourable mention: Jubilee Course (3), Loch Lomond (4), Muirfield (4/5)
  10. Machrihanish (5) –Honourable mention: Cruden Bay (4), Dornoch (3), Gullane No. 1 (4)
  11. Old Course (3) –Honourable mention: New Course (4), Tain (4), Brora (4), Muirfield (4)
  12. Old Course (4) –Honourable mention: Machrihanish (5), Southerness (4)
  13. Machrihanish (4)–Honourable mention: New Course (3), North Berwick (4), Cruden Bay (5), Muirfield (3), Elie (4)
  14. Old Course (5) –Honourable mention: Carnoustie (4/5), Cruden Bay (4), Dornoch (4)
  15. North Berwick (3) –Honourable mention: Brora (4), Nairn (4), Carnoustie (4)
  16. Old Course (4) –Honourable mention: North Berwick (4), Gullane No. 1 (3)
  17. Machrie (4)–Honourable mention: Old Course (4), Dornoch (4), Blairgowrie (3), Muirfield (5), Brora (4)
  18. Muirfield (4) –Honourable mention: Lossiemouth (4), Brora (3), Machrie (4), Old Course (4)
Surrounded by dunes: The clever 8th at Cruden Bay.

Surrounded by dunes: The clever 8th at Cruden Bay.

Bear in mind that I’ve yet to visit any of the great Ayrshire courses (Prestwick, Western Gailes, Turnberry and Troon “ in that order “ being the first four I’d like to play in that region).

7. You now live in England and have had the opportunity to play many of the special courses there. From a golf perspective, would you rather live in England or in Scotland?

Strictly in terms of the golf course architecture on offer, my vote would go to England, which almost certainly possesses the most sublime and extensive combination of great seaside and inland golf of any country in the world (including the United States). But English golf is a class unto itself; green fees and memberships, though cheap by American standards, are much more expensive than their Scottish equivalents, and consequently the English game seems to be more for members of the upper and upper-middle classes. For a full-rounded golfing experience, therefore, I have to give the nod to Scotland. It’s not as though one needs to play a different great course every day of the week to enjoy one’s golfing life, is it?

8. If you were forced to spend one week at one Scottish course and play only that course for the entire time, which course would you choose and why?

Who could ever grow tired of this course? The fifth at Machrihanish.

Who could ever grow tired of this course? The fifth at Machrihanish.

Machrihanish. There are other courses in Scotland which I like more “ not many, mind you “ from an architectural point of view, but the feelings I get from playing in Machrihanish transcend the normal Scottish golfing experience. I’ve made several week-long, springtime retreats to the Mull of Kintyre in the last three or four years, so I speak from experience on this point: you can go an entire week at Machrihanish in March or April without seeing another American. To be in Machrihanish is to become part of the community, and to play its golf course “ by yourself in two-and-a-half hours, or with a few of the locals in two hours “ is to be transported far, far away from the cares of the world. But then, what am I saying? I want to keep the place to myself. So shoo, all of you! Shoo!

9. Many American golfers will spend several weeks of their lives on golf trips to Scotland. What would they be the most surprised to learn about actually living there (as opposed to just visiting)?

Scotland isn’t perfect. Sounds fairly obvious, and yet the Scotland that most golfing tourists see involves a never-ending series of smiling B&B proprietors, clubhouse staffers and playing partners. By and large, its people are almost unfailingly friendly to outsiders; I suppose one could argue about the chicken-or-egg nature of this friendliness and the massive Scottish tourist industry. But Scotland has its own set of social problems “ crime, homelessness and drug addiction in the cities, grinding poverty and unemployment in the countryside, and so on. Although you probably won’t notice them during your vacation, these problems impact life everywhere in Scotland, even St. Andrews, and during your travels it might be helpful to remember that one man’s remote golfing paradise can be another’s jobless, impoverished hell.

Another simple yet salient point to mention: to have a properly-rounded life in Scotland, you have to do much more than golf! I had imagined that I would play at least 18 holes virtually every day that the weather was even remotely passable. On a typical diehard’s golfing vacation, that’s exactly what you do, but unless you’re a lot nuttier than I am, real life (even the ‘real life’ of a student) will intrude upon your golfing exploits regularly “ and you might be surprised how welcome such intrusions will seem from time to time.

10. In your opinion, what is the most underrated course in Scotland? Most overrated?

Underrated: Cruden Bay. When I ask myself the question, ‘If you were stuck playing one course for the rest of your life, which of these two would you rather it be?’, Cruden Bay compares favorably with everything else I’ve seen in Scotland. Its ranking may suffer because it’s too dramatic and too quirky for some critics, but there’s a great strategic golf course to be found in the packaging. And what packaging! To my eye there’s not a more visually appealing course in Scotland (to be fair, I haven’t seen Dornoch with the gorse in bloom).

(Honorable mention: Gullane No. 1, a ‘poor man’s Muirfield’ worthy of comparison with its more famous brethren; the Machrie course on Islay, a real roller-coaster ride with a high quirk factor and some wonderful views; and Brora, which most readers of this website will know about.)

No escape from the wind: The one-shot ninth at Gullane No. 1.

No escape from the wind: The one-shot ninth at Gullane No. 1.

Overrated: Loch Lomond. A fine parkland course which Golf World (UK) magazine currently ranks as the third-best course of any type in all of Great Britain and Ireland. The first printable word for this which comes to my mind is ‘travesty’.

(Dishonourable mention: Carnoustie, the one great course in Scotland which fails to arouse any affection in my heart; Muirfield, a great-but-not-that-great links course which somehow fails to add up to the whole of its considerable parts; Nairn, which should be talked of in the same tones as Lossiemouth, not Dornoch; and, oddly enough, North Berwick, which seemed to possess a far greater number of bland and uninspiring holes during my second visit than I remember from my first.)

11. Similar to the experience in the book when your friends from the US came to visit, what would you suggest, in hindsight, as the best ten-day trip for Americans to appreciate Scottish golf for the first time?

Ten days is not enough to see everything Scottish golf has to offer. That’s the conclusion we came to, anyway: too much driving around is a real drag on the experience (and the wallet, when you take British petrol prices into account). So what I’d recommend is an itinerary based around no more than three or four ‘base camp’ B&Bs. Even if you’re willing to do a fair bit of driving, it’s better to drive two hours from the B&B to the golf course and back again than to worry about the logistical hassles inherent in moving house every night. So while a course like Machrihanish has so much to offer a first-time visitor, it doesn’t really fit into most rational itineraries and should therefore be reserved for a return trip.

I can see four plausible base camps for such a journey:

  • Prestwick (for Ayrshire: Prestwick, Troon, Turnberry, Western Gailes)
  • North Berwick (for East Lothianshire, east of Edinburgh: Muirfield, Gullane, North Berwick, maybe Dunbar or Luffness New)
  • St. Andrews (for Fife and surrounds: the Old and New or Eden Courses, Carnoustie and one of Kingsbarns/Crail/Lundin Links “ plus Cruden Bay if you’re up for the drive)

Possibly Inverness (for Dornoch, Brora and maybe Nairn).

In ten days, it’s very tough to do more than three of them comfortably, and if you commit to the long trip to Dornoch “ four or five hours from St. Andrews, or six hours from Glasgow “ you’ll do well to do justice to more than two. St. Andrews has to be one of them, so as soon as you’re even thinking about coming to Scotland, try to book a tee time on the Old Course, and work your trip around that. (Less than six months in advance, and you’ll almost certainly be reliant upon the daily ballot or a package deal of some sort if you want to play the Old Course.) If you’re thinking about East Lothianshire, make similar advance arrangements for Muirfield. Apart from that, figure out whether you want to fly into Glasgow, Prestwick, Edinburgh or Inverness and plan your base camp strategy accordingly.

Apart from this advice, you can hardly go wrong “ you’re going to play some great golf regardless of what courses on the above list you pick “ but I would recommend that you seek out at least one course off of the beaten tourist track to see get a sense of what down-to-earth Scottish golf is really like. Brora would be ideal in this regard, but if you can’t get there try to squeeze in the likes of the old course at Crail, Lundin Links, Elie, or somewhere similar in East Lothianshire or Ayrshire. And try to play with some Scots while you’re there “ take your group of travelers and split it up into singles if you have to (which is also a worthwhile way to experience the Old Course if you can’t get a pre-booked time and then lose the ballot). The results should be well worth the effort!

12. What do you like the most about the culture of Scottish golf? The least?

Most: I love the classlessness of its society. Scottish golf says, ‘Come as you are, and we’ll take care of you.’ Scottish golf is ridiculously cheap, it has a very relaxed dress code, and it treats all men as equals far more often than not. The leap from R&A member to local artisan is so small in golfing terms as to be almost insignificant. I’ve even played with several of the latter I thought to be the former, and vice versa. And if as a tourist you show any respect whatsoever for their golfing heritage, the Scots will do their best to make you feel like one of them. (The phrase ‘We’re not worthy!’ comes to mind ¦.)

Least: This may sound heretical, but sometimes I get the sense that the Scots play the game too quickly. I can comfortably play 18 holes by myself in two-and-a-half hours, or in a fourball of relatively fast players like me in 3:15. But I find it hard to keep up with playing partners who walk up to their ball and hit it in virtually one motion. I want to savor my golf more than that; playing in a group which progresses at a two-hour pace, or playing immediately ahead of one and be hounded thusly, harries me to the point of distraction and irritation. Some people talk about pace of play as though faster is always better, but there is a point of diminishing returns, and I’ve seen any number of Scotsmen and women go zooming past it.

13. You were a competitive player in college. Did your year in St. Andrews hurt or help your game?

Objectively, my college scores did seem to improve in my first semester back in the States relative to what they were in my first several years. Subjectively, I don’t think the quality of my golf changed all that much. In fact, I remember making a swing modification not too long after I came back from Scotland for good; for a time I hit ball the 20 yards further than I did on average in Scotland, and I can vividly recall thinking, ‘I wish I could have played the Old Course just once with this swing!’ The apparent improvement is therefore mostly a matter of chance, I’d have thought, although I almost certainly became a better and more imaginative chipper and pitcher around the green complexes of Scotland.

If I was the sort of person who regularly hits balls on a practice range, my answer to this question might be different, for practice ranges as such are few and far between in Scotland. (The one in St. Andrews involved hitting off astroturf mats and was fairly expensive.) But I never have “ I hate practicing, preferring instead to work out any kinks in my swing during the course of 18 holes. Range rats may find that this aspect of Scottish golfing culture significantly changes the way they play the game “ for better or worse!

14. Do you think there are still any ‘hidden gems’ (of the quality of at least, say, Brora) in Scotland remaining to be discovered?

As far as existing courses go, probably not. The world is getting smaller and smaller, and I’d have to believe that anything truly of note would have been discovered and written up by now in one forum or another. That said, the area to the north of Cruden Bay still seems to be relatively unexplored; too, I’ve heard of interesting holes, at least, in places as remote as the Orkneys and the Hebrides. (For example, Stornoway Golf Club, on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, has a 551-yard par 5 called ‘Dardanelles’ which is supposed to be one of the more difficult three-shotters in Britain.)

On a more interesting “ if entirely speculative “ note, I reckon there must be some marvelous untouched linksland along the north-northwest coast of Scotland. There isn’t the population to support any sort of development in the classic, low-key Scottish sense, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear in 10 or 20 years’ time of some billionaire hiring a ‘name’ architect to fashion a golfing retreat for the rich and famous (or something like that) out of some of this virgin territory. If world-class golf courses are being built in the middle of Nebraska, western Scotland is hardly that big of a reach!

15. In the book you raise the point about the 16th green at North Berwick possibly being the inspiration for the 9th green at Yale. Please elaborate.

I played North Berwick only two days after arriving in Scotland, after a summer of golf mostly spent on the course at Yale (thanks to Golf Digest’s corporate membership there), and I was immediately struck by their similarity of appearance. I already knew from Charles Blair Macdonald’s love affair with Redan holes that he must have seen North Berwick, and the inference was clear to me that Macdonald liked more about it than just the one hole: the quirkiness of North Berwick’s terrain seems to have been the single biggest influence on Macdonald’s design style. So when I arrived at the 16th and discovered a long, thin green with two tiers divided by what could only be called a trench in the middle, I could only assume that the Macdonald had found the inspiration for yet another feature of his design at Yale.

At the time I’d never heard the term ‘Biarritz’ green, nor was I aware that Seth Raynor actually did most of the actual work at Yale, nor did I know anything about the recent work (as pointed out in a recent thread on this site by George Bahto) which seems to suggest that the current 16th green at North Berwick may be the product of a redesign at some point in the early 20th Century. I’m not usually one to look terribly closely at a golf course’s architectural pedigree “ I’m much less concerned with a hole’s creator than with the creation itself “ but it’s therefore entirely possible that my speculation is incorrect, and that Macdonald/Raynor’s true inspiration in this case was Dunn’s original Biarritz hole in France. Still, if the basic elements of the 16th green at North Berwick were proven to have existed in the 19th Century, I can easily imagine that Macdonald would have used its existence to validate or justify his copying of the Biarritz concept: a sort of indirect inspiration, Dunn’s hole being the direct inspiration.

A side view of the amazing 16th green at North Berwick.  The red flag is just visible to the right (on the front part of the green).

A side view of the amazing 16th green at North Berwick. The red flag is just visible to the right (on the front part of the green).

16. What is the perception in Scotland of American golf?

My sense (granted, it’s only a sense) is that while the Scots rather believe that the ground-and-wind game of the links is the way golf was meant to be played, American golf has a novelty value which makes it just as appealing to them as that which they’re used to. I heard the concept of ‘target golf’ gently bashed in the abstract by one or two fellow students and local St. Andreans, but I don’t think too many Scots are as proprietary about the game as some Americans are. I think many Americans fall into one of two camps: the larger group which doesn’t know St. Andrews from Adam and thinks that Augusta National is the pinnacle of architecture to which all courses should aspire, and the vociferous minority which thinks American golf has become more and more of a perversion of the true Scottish ideal. Both camps find fault with the ‘errors’ of the other “ but the Scots can enjoy the contrasting styles more equally, and more fully, even if they sometimes view the PGA Tour with a curiosity usually reserved for Martian landscapes.

17. What is your favorite hole in Scotland?

What an impossibly difficult question! Having avoided the cliché of calling the Road Hole my favorite 17th hole earlier, I’ll now succumb to the temptation and pick it here. I don’t like the commercialization of the surrounds to its right, but you can’t really hold that against the hole itself, and that aside, it has absolutely everything. Its history is virtually unmatched. It rewards shot shaping and proper use of the ground game. Its green complex is as wonderful as it is unique. It is the premier match play hole in the world. It is as immune to advances in technology as golf holes come. And it teaches even the filthiest of the unwashed masses something about strategic golf course architecture every time it appears on television. There’s no single hole I’d more love to birdie once before I die; of course, if I were forced to play the hole over and over again until I birdied it, you could just go right ahead and call me Sisyphus.

18. Is there another book in the works?

Almost certainly. The details are still very much up in the air, and of course much will depend upon how well A Golfer’s Education does, but let’s just say that a move back to Scotland in the near future is a definite possibility!

The End