Love of the links at The Golf House Club, Elie

The utter joy of playing golf on the links course of Elie & Earlsferry is matched only by the sublime hospitality awaiting visitors inside the Golf House Club. While often and famously described as quirky, the course at Elie is so much more than that narrow moniker. It’s a subtle, rich mosaic of thought-provoking holes laid out across some of the most spectacularly scenic links land in Fife. 

The Golf House at Elie is as fine a clubhouse as I’ve ever entered.

To experience Elie is to play golf simply for the joy of it, through one’s eyes, heart, and imagination, rather through a range finder lens and the tally on a scorecard.  Golf legend and five-time Open Championship winner Peter Thomson remarked of the Elie links, “It’s quirky and it’s the most enjoyable course I know. If I had my way, I’d build Elies all over the world.” The links course, laid out without any par five holes, exudes shaping of equal parts subtlety and daring, woven together with a uniqueness that never leaves one’s imagination.

Set on the high ground above the town of Elie and Earlsferry, extending west to the beaches on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, the views are simply stunning. The picturesque seaside village lining the southern border of the course is worthy of fine postcard photography, while the estates that occupy the west corner adjacent to the sixth and tenth holes boast of extravagance, harboring amazing views of the rocky shore, beaches, and the sea beyond.

There’s such an excitement wondering what awaits over that hill from the opening tee shot.

The course begins and ends just steps from the patio of the Elie Golf House, the elegantly adorned home of both the Golf House Club and the Elie & Earlsferry Ladies Golf Club.  From the high elevation of the second green and third tee, which provide splendid, uninterrupted views of the course, town, and horizon beyond, the course then tumbles west toward the Earlsferry Beach, before returning home in true links fashion.

Rather than a true out-and-back linear routing, the links lay about the magnificently rumpled land as a loose grouping of triangles arranged to create one giant pyramidal course, with the first and second holes set askew of the top of the pyramid for a touch of dramatic flair.

No consecutive holes unfold in the same direction, meaning players must constantly adjust for a different wind condition. It’s a subtle, but brilliant, detail that adds degrees of difficulty to course not blessed with tremendous length or inherent natural challenges. That is, if you can manage not getting distracted by how amazingly beautiful the course is from start to finish.

There’s something remarkable to see in every direction at Elie.

That simple, elegant design quality allows the course to stand time’s challenge. It’s a testament to the genius of Old Tom Morris, who laid much of the course out as it is recognized today in 1895. Several variations of the course occupied Elie’s links land, dating back at least to the 1500’s, prior to Old Tom’s definitive remodel. The original holes appeared to hug to the west side of the modern Ferry Road, occupying the land above and north of Earlsferry’s aptly named Links Road.

From those humble beginnings, the course grew down to the sea and then across the road towards the Golf House Club. Several golf clubs have shared playing privileges over the course since its creation, a tradition that continues today with the Golf House Club, Earlsferry Thistle Golf Club, and the Elie and Earlsferry Ladies Golf Club all calling the course home.

The journey down the first fairway marks the beginning of quite the golf adventure.

The course is also home to perhaps the most unique course accessory in all of golf: the periscope from former HMS Excalibur submarine of the Royal Navy, sits affix atop the Starters’ Office at Elie. Jutting 30 feet into the air, the periscope looks like a remnant of the Signal Corps from the war years, but it provides an important safety function at the course, so there’s a distinct function to such an unusual golf course form.

The tee shot on the first hole is a blind shot directly over a 25-foot tall hill no more than 75 yards directly in front of the tee box. Players waiting to tee off cannot know if the fairway is clear and safe to hit towards without endangering the previous group of golfers. Enter the periscope, which is tall enough to allow the starter to survey the first fairway from the safety of the hut, so he or she can signal to the next group when it is safe to hit their shots.

Getting to the 3rd green is a tough enough task that a par feels like stealing a shot.

It’s a doozy of an opening hole, too. An uphill, blind tee shot with out of bounds running along the entire right side of a long par four, played back downhill the final 175 yards or so. Frankly, in any number of wind conditions, it might effectively be the hardest hole on the course.

That ever-present wind is the primary defense to low scores on the relatively short golf course at Elie, with the links measuring only 6,273 yards at par 70. It achieves that uncommon, by modern standards, par 70 distinction from one of the more unconventional layouts in golf. As odd as the submarine periscope appears to visitors to the Golf House, that the course consists of 16 par four holes, only two par three holes (which are spectacular), and no par five holes is equally unorthodox.

Due, in part, to those same winds, the green speeds are maintained at moderate levels, which undoubtedly keep pace of play sharp and the putting surfaces healthy. The greens are large, offering ample possible pin positions, and they lay perfectly within the natural contours of the rippled, wrinkled links land.

The 5th green typifies how bold and subtle contours mesh at Elie.

The greens appear wholly found and mowed to the desired height, rather than built or created under the hands men or wrath of machinery. Some of the green contouring is gentle and subtle, while other parts curve boldly and wildly from years of accumulated sand and dirt, with both phenomena often occurring within the confines of a single putting green.

The roll of the land at Elie tumbles and sways, romantically rising and falling like waves of the adjacent sea. Points low on the horizon come into view and hide again after several yards of walking, though the mighty, omnipresent cliffs at Kincraig, which loom behind the 13th green, provide a valuable fixed reference for golfers making their first loop. There are no real flat spots, though some of the earthen piles, shaped by that master architect, Mother Nature, are more crooked than others.

The lack of uniformity of the ground extends to the variety of bunkers at Elie. Some feature tall, riveted faces, forcing shots out of sideways. Others lay flatter and wider, allowing a direct line of play to the flag.

The well-worn bunker guarding the sea side of the 16th green.

The links’ close proximity to the sea results in the bunker walls and edges facing constant shearing and reshaping from the windblown sands from the nearby rocks and beaches, resulting in a beautifully roughhewn, natural presentation. It is an aesthetic that fits the countenance of the course perfectly.

Elie possesses such a wealth of memorable features and quirky characteristics that labeling any specific holes as “signature” or “marquee” does a disservice to all of those omitted. Certainly, the beginning stretch of the back nine, four holes pressed against the beach and the rocks holding back the Firth of Forth deserve acclaim as several of the best truly seaside holes in Fife, but they’re hardly the only places worthy of snapping a few photographs for posterity. Indeed, there is at least one curious, beguiling, or extraordinary feature in play or within sight on each hole.

After conquering the hill in front of the first tee and playing down to the first green, the march back up that hill to the second green provides an opportunity for one of the most stunning reveals of scenery anywhere in golf. Reaching the putting surface, one cannot help but be struck by the beauty of the village below and the sea beyond. From this high vantage point, and the nearby third tee box, the golfer must be forgiven for mistaking himself the king of all he surveys, if only for a few fleeting seconds.

Crawling up to the 2nd green, the anticipation builds, and the effort is rewarded handsomely.

The long, downhill par three third hole, with its stunning vista of the course and the sea beyond, proves sneakily difficult. Even a well-struck shot will linger in the air, inviting a gust of wind to bring into play the three bunkers guarding the green, the road behind it, or the wall guarding a row of homes to the far left, just beyond the adjacent 18th teeing ground. The combination of length and exposure makes the third green tough to hit and tougher to hold, but the engaging and fun nonetheless.

The course then wind across the road toward the sea, on the way incorporating into its fairways and greens some of the most remarkably wrinkled land one would find on any golf course. The rolls and hillocks of the fifth fairway climb and fall like a sea growing angry before a storm, adding strategic difficulty thru pitched and cambered lies and incomplete views of the green ahead, the putting surface itself nestled between yet more earthen waves.

The 5th fairway at Elie. Simply stunning golfing ground.

The challenge changes on the sixth hole, a short par four. Headed directly toward the sea, the small fairway and approach to the green are littered with imposingly small, riveted-faced bunkers. The green lies on a shelf situated slightly below the level of the fairway, partially or completely blind, depending upon the angle of approach. It’s a devilishly difficult hole because there are no easy answers to the questions asked, primarily due to the character of the ground contouring. These types of quirky challenges continue until one reaches the back nine, when the routing begins to connect with the sea in fabulous ways.

The tenth hole could be the best short par four in Scotland, laid across one of the most special corners of Earth and sea ever created. A blind tee shot must fly over a small hill composed of scraggly-grassed rock outcroppings, interspersed with fairway turf, which conceals all that lies beyond it.

The view of the adventures awaiting from the 10th tee.

Focusing on the center-of-the-fairway stake takes the mind off of the boundary fence running along the left side of the hole. If the tee shot finds the fairway, it’s likely that the ball will tumble all the way down the hill, running onto the green. However, it’s possible to overcook the shot, sending the ball bounding onto the beach or into the sea behind the green. Walking over the crest of the hill to see if the shot has been executed is one of the most exhilarating moments at Elie.

A few paces away, at the very edge of land falls into the sea lies the eleventh hole, a dazzling short par three whose green appears to fall off into the beach. Standing at the end of the Earth, it’s hard not to be distracted by the beautiful views in all directions from the eleventh hole: waves, beach, rocky outcroppings, the Kincraig cliffs in the distance, and those wonderful green, grey, and beige hues of the golf course.  It’s a magical spot.

The wind and the sea provide the soundtrack for 10th thru 13th holes, here shown behind the 10th green.

As close to consensus “signature” holes as exist at Elie, the twelfth and thirteenth holes follow the curvature of the sandy coast line north to the base of the Kincraig cliffs, with the latter’s green neatly nestled into the side of the tiny mountain.

The twelfth hole, the longest on the course, challenges golfers to corner over the beach in search of the fairway and a shorter approach. It’s a classic strategy, as old as golf, and it has rarely been applied in a prettier spot. The devils of the twelfth hole are the three small, round pot bunkers guarding the green. Two are placed just short of the green to capture bounding approach shots, and the other hugging the right center of the green. The brilliance of a design that is simplicity itself.

Continuing down the coast, the par four thirteenth hole plays to one of the most cunningly juxtaposed greens in golf. Set diagonally and slightly elevated from the fairway at the base of the Kincraig formation, the green blends into the hill like the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan. From the tee or fairway, it appears more elevated and challenging than upon closer inspection, adding a degree of difficulty in the player’s mind.  It’s a sharp use of the natural terrain to create a camouflaged effect; the good Dr. MacKenzie would certainly approve.

The 13th green is hidden in plain site at the base of that hill.

From that further spot from the clubhouse, the routing zigs and zags, meandering back to the where it all began. As is typical of Scottish links of a certain vintage, the 18th hole plays to a green with out of bounds down the entire right side to a green adjacent to the road and parking lot (think North Berwick and the Old Course).

The final fairway is a spectacular sliver of crumpled ribbon laid before a gigantic green, with a pair of small, round bunkers delineating the transition between the two. It’s a fitting place to conclude a match with a birdie putt and hearty handshake before heading inside for lunch and refreshments.

The Golf House Club at Elie maintains a formal, traditional decorum. There are separate dining rooms for members and guests of the club, with more formal attire required for entry to the latter. There’s a wholly separate dining room down the hall for the Ladies’ Club, where no less fun is had than in either of the men’s dining halls.

Heading home, down the 18th fairway.

Booking a tee time at Elie grants players the member’s privileges for the day. In addition to the round of golf, players are entitled one to the either breakfast before the round or lunch after it. Choose the lunch; the sandwiches at the Golf House Club are exquisite. Despite the formal atmosphere, the staff at Elie could not have been more warm and welcoming. We were taken care of as if we were overdue for a highly anticipated return visit.

After lunch, Matt and I headed out to chase as many golf holes as we could against the dying light of the setting sun, while Fred made new lifelong friends with the bar staff.

On our 14-hole second loop, we made our own golf course from Elie’s links. There are significant yardage and angle differences between the three teeing grounds on most holes, allowing us to enjoy a completely different experience in the afternoon. We played a few medal tees, a few forward tees, and on a couple of holes, we simply teed it up where we felt best suited our need to be efficient with our remaining daylight. It gave us an entirely new Elie.

I didn’t want to leave this spot, which was the 11th tee box.

Looking across the expanse of a links course like Elie, imagining golf holes composed of different tees and playing corridors than as a course is laid out is one of a wanderer’s best adventures. In the alternate universe of “holes that aren’t golf holes,” I would put playing from Elie’s eleventh tee to its thirteenth green as one of the best par seven holes in the world. There are dozens of such unrealized holes out there.

The links at Elie is inarguably beautiful, and as quirky of a course as I have ever seen this side of Lynch Country Club. In chatting with us in his shop, the club professional, Gavin Cook, said that North Berwick may have more difficult or more famous holes, but that Elie has better scenery. And he was correct.

Once a place like Elie speaks to me, the romance of such a place never ceases. I knew I’d want to return one day before we’d even finished the short drive home to St. Andrews. When I close my eyes and think back on our Scottish golf adventure, so much of what I see is there, at Elie.

The 17th green lies just beyond Ferry Road, a road that I hope brings me to the Golf House Club again one day.

No longer “undiscovered” among modern golf connoisseurs, the course remains no less a gem. It boasts a fairly prestigious membership roster, but that belies the simple beauty and robust character of one of the best walks in golf.

If you get the opportunity, go play Elie. It’s the kind of place that satisfies the eyes, tickles the mind, and leaves a golfer with a fuller heart. Golf could certainly use more courses just like it.

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