This is a 9-Hole Parkland course within the Hill of Tarvit country estate near Cupar in Fife just off the road to St Andrews. In 1904 Frederick Sharp and his family came over the River Tay from Dundee to live closer to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews (10 miles away from Kingarrock). They built and maintained their own course in front of their mansion house, which proved to be popular with local amateur and professional golfers of their day, all of which would have used wooded-shafted clubs. The tragic death in 1937 of one of the Sharp family and the start of the Second World War resulted in the course being ploughed up and used for farming, but in 2002 the Anderson family decided to re-instate the old family course. It was formally re-opened in 2008 as a course where only clubs made with wooden shafts (mainly hickory) are allowed, using balls, tees and rules that reflect how golf in Scotland was played in the early 20th century. The golf course at Hill of Tarvit is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and visiting golfers can play it using original hickory clubs, an old canvas/leather golf bag and reproduction balls and tees that represent what players in the early 20th century would have used.
Visitors to Kingarrock can also follow the old golf rules, including stymies, which were eliminated from the Rules of Golf in 1952. For those who don't know what a stymie was, in match play if an opponent's ball was on the green in the way of your ball and more than 6 inches away from your ball, it was left where it lay. You could either slice or draw your putt around that ball or chip it over. If your ball struck the opponent's ball, your opponent could choose to play their ball from its new position or its previous position. If your ball had knocked your opponent's ball into the hole, your opponent was considered to have holed out. The Kingarrock scorecard is 6 inches long to ease usage of this rule.
I'd never played with hickory clubs before my game with my friend Douglas over the Leith Links course on 6 July 2013, courtesy of the Leith Rules Golf Society, so were both delighted to be invited to join the Society's golf outing to Kingarrock on 13 July 2013. All golfers visiting Kingarrock are treated to traditional pre-golf hospitality and an informal and entertaining talk about the history of the course, the Sharp family and hickory-style golf in general and receive some tips about how to use hickory clubs. There's also normally an hour's gap between tee times to allow visitors to take that step back in time before actually playing (which also ensures there's no rush on the course itself). I'm no expert, but the key points are apparently to slow your swing speed down and use more hands and wrists in shot-making. Douglas and I each had a
Spoon, Driving Iron, Mid-Mashie, Mashie Niblick and a Putter and the great pleasure of playing with Richard and Chester, 2 stalwarts of the Leith Rules Golf Society, who put us at our ease and offered us lots of helpful advice (it was a very friendly competition!) and fascinating information on the development of early clubs and the rules themselves. This is me with Chester (seated) and Richard striking a suitably relaxed pose by the bell behind the 3rd green.
The Kingarrock Course also reflects how golf was played all those years ago. Nowadays we're all used to playing courses where fertilisers, weedkillers and the like and a wide range of machinery are used to produce manicured playing surfaces. No chemicals are used at Kingarrock, meaning that wild flowers, butterflies, bees and other insects can proliferate and machinery used by the greenkeeper is kept to the basic minimum. OK, the greens may not look as manicured as some golfers may be used to, but for us, the odd unpredictable bounce on bone hard and fast surfaces just added to the interest of playing with such antique equipment.
Kingarrock is short, at only 2022 Yards, but with hickory clubs and old balls, it plays far longer than you'd expect. We all chose to use 1898 balls rather than the 1924 balls. To explain, Mr Coburn Haskell patented the rubber wound ball in 1898 that would replace the "gutty" ball then in use. The 1898 ball travels 25% less distance than a modern ball when used with a hickory club. Ball technology made a further quantum step forward in 1924 and the 1924 ball travels 15% less than the modern ball when hit with a hickory club. Indeed, the par of the Kingarrock Course is 37 for the 1898 ball and 33 when using the 1924 ball.
The 1st hole is a slightly uphill 289 Yard Par 5. Swing slow and use your hands and wrists and your opening Spoon might get 150 yards. My Driving Iron and Mashie Niblick got me almost onto the green, but I wasn't sure how hard to hit my off-green putt and an opening 7 was not quite what I'd hoped for. The 2nd is a 166 Yard Par 3, but even my well struck Spoon (3 Wood) was still short, so a 4 was the best I could manage. This is Douglas, manfully tackling his second shot from rough on the uphill and blind 3rd Hole, a short 201 Yard Par 4. I managed an unlikely par after a good single putt. Next is the shortest hole on the course, a 97 Yard Par 3, as shown below, with the mansion house in the background. This hole looks easy enough, but bear in mind that you're playing a really soft ball that if dropped from shoulder height bounces around 6 inches and there are no spin-creating grooves on your Mashie Niblick (a 7 iron), only some shallow perforations. I swung easy, mindful of Bobby Jones' maxim "Wait for it" which features as playing advice on the scorecard and was green-high but right. No 60 degree lob wedge available, so you need to improvise and think carefully how best to manufacture a score. I played a decent enough pitch and run, but the green was bone hard and fast, so a 4 was pretty good in the circumstances.
A 368 Yard Par 5 5th Hole is next and is the longest hole at Kingarrock, as well as the Stroke Index 1. It's easy to play the game without knowing much about where it began, how the rules emerged and how course and equipment design have developed into pseudo-science but did you know that the birth of the Stroke Index can be traced to a meeting (called at the instigation of the Scottish Golf Union) of the Council of National Unions at York on 14 February 1924? Neither did I! You also don't need to know that William Lowell, a New Jersey dentist, patented the wooden golf tee in 1924 (I wonder how much that has made his descendants over the years). This is the kind of obscure golfing fact that emerges from a round at Kingarrock! I managed my second par of the round on the 5th, despite landing in a bunker (a genuine hazard). The 6th is a slightly downhill 313 Yard Par 5. A watery ditch "the cundy" needs to be avoided here and this hazard also features prominently on the 7th, a 101 Yard Par 3.
The 8th is an awkward left dog leg with a semi-blind uphill second shot. Don't even think about cutting the corner of the dog leg unless you are supremely confident in your ability to avoid high rough and/or trees. The green also has a wicked slope from back to front so try to leave your approach below the hole. This is the last hole, a 208 Yard Par 4 played from an elevated tee towards the small building to the right of this photo (which acts as the clubhouse). I'd hit a good Spoon and Mid-Mashie to 20 feet and no-one was more surprised than me to see my single putt find the bottom of the cup for a closing birdie. I'd gone round in 43, net 37.5 with 15 putts and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Douglas also had a great time without troubling the leaderboard, so we're both very grateful to the Leith Rules Golf Society and to David Anderson and all others at Kingarrock for such a memorable day's golfing. Thanks too to Chester and Richard for their encouragement and friendly support during our round - these guys really knew how to get the best out of the antique equipment we all played with.
I'd strongly recommend you give hickory golf Kingarrock a try. It really is great fun and offers a unique insight into how golf was played all those years ago. For more information, follow this link to www.kingarrock.com.