St Andrews Bay Resort is a bit of a mystery. It comprises a luxury hotel and two excellent golf courses, costing more than £50 million, in the best golf setting of all, and yet has attracted neither the kudos nor publicity it deserves. But if you think about it, if this resort had opened up anywhere else in the UK it would have attracted rave reviews and golfers would be beating a path to its door. And I'm not trying to suggest that the place isn't a success, but success is relative and I just wonder why we don't hear and talk about it more often.
Perhaps it's the word 'resort', with its American connotations of top-quality service, ubiquitous golf buggies and 'Hi, have a nice day' insincerity. Perhaps St Andrews specifically and Scotland or the UK generally have an inherent love of golf in its wild natural state, and a suspicion of five star luxury - maybe there's a Calvinistic streak in us all that believes our pleasures should be hard won, and that to enjoy or pamper ourselves too much is simply not the done thing. And let's be honest, there's a slightly masochistic streak in all golfers - we have come to learn that pain and suffering are much more an integral part of the game than unalloyed joy.
The other issue, perhaps, is competition. Any new development in St Andrews will always be compared against the best the game has to offer and there aren't too many that can bear such comparisons - as the Links Trust itself will surely find out soon enough when it opens its seventh course on land adjoining St Andrews Bay. So let's spend a moment in considering St Andrews Bay to look purely at the golf.
There are two courses, both named after their architects. The Torrance (pictured over), designed by Sam - his first major commission as a course architect - cannot be quite described as a links because it is not on true linksland, sitting as it does on a hill above the town. In fact the layout is a joint effort between Sam and Gene Sarazen. Nevertheless, as soon as you tee off, and especially over the final 12 holes, you would be hard put to realise that you were not playing a course adjoining the sea that had been there for at least a century. It offers a challenging but not awesome test, with many good and a few excellent holes - most notably the par four 17th. It's the perfect penultimate hole, one that puckers your rear end before you reach it, with out-of-bounds all down the right side before a tricky uphill approach to a well-guarded green.
The Devlin (11th, pictured above), designed by Australian architect Bruce, has a few more memorable holes and some stunning scenery, making the absolute most of its location. It is also a bit of a sly devil, allowing you to ease yourself into your round and play a few comparatively innocuous holes before then deciding to test your mettle, and shot-making. From the seventh onwards you are constantly posed a risk/reward question on the tee and like many other excellent courses - Augusta National springs immediately to mind - you can take a comparatively safe option for possibly a par but no worse than bogey, or chance your arm and ability in search of birdie. My only reservation about the layout is that it is clearly designed with buggies in mind and, while they are not compulsory, if you don't take one you face a lot of walking between green and tee.
The oldest, and to my mind one of the most valid, judgements about the quality of any course is the question: 'If you could only play once course for the rest of your life, would you be happy if it was this one?' In the case of both the Torrance and Devlin, I could honestly answer: 'I would be delighted.'
The same can presumably be said of Iain McInally, who has just started as the new director of golf at St Andrews Bay. 'I haven't yet had much chance to play the courses but hand on heart, I can't say which I prefer,' he says. 'If you want a walking course; to just sling a bag over your shoulder and set off, the Torrance is perfect. But to then sit down in a buggy and play a 7,000-yard course like the Devlin, with some of the best views you can imagine, and some truly great holes, is a different kind of pleasure.'
And the ubiquitous buggies?
'To be able to ride is an expectation that many golfers now have so we're glad to offer the service,' he says. 'The integrity of golf is tremendously important and although we're comparatively new, we're nevertheless steeped in the traditions and history of the game. But we also have to look commercially and meet, improve or change service expectations. We also have to be mindful of the needs and wants of our clients, some of whom may have a disability.'
Iain has an impressive CV that involves working at some of the most prestigious golf developments in the world, and it is clear that meeting and, if possible surpassing, client expectations is how he measures himself. From the PGA training course where he won the trainee of the year award he went to The Wisley as head assistant. He has subsequently been director of golf at Royal Westmoreland in Barbados, and most recently at Hanbury Manor in Hertfordshire.
He agrees that one of the reasons why his new employer has not achieved the profile it could have done was simply bad luck. 'I agree that St Andrews Bay suffered a little in terms of timing,' he says. 'We missed the last Open Championship in the town, and then there was foot-and-mouth and of course 9/11, which all had an impact, so this year's Open is going to be important for us to show the world that we have a fantastic offering. It's not a re-launch but does give us a new opportunity to demonstrate what we can offer.'
And in addition to the golf, that offering, in the shape of the hotel, is considerable. It has 209 rooms, all of which have satellite TV, DVD player, CD player with movies and music on demand, PC based office products via the television, dual phone lines, high speed internet connection, separate bathtub and shower, bathrobes and all the other accoutrements that people associate with luxury service. There is, naturally, a spa but the hotel also has its own cinema and, most strikingly of all, a massive central atrium that is quite stunning. If your taste runs to quiet, informal, homely and intimate, then it's probably not your style but as luxury destinations go, it's difficult to beat.
Quality costs but not perhaps as much as you might expect. At the moment green fees on both courses are £45, and they rise to a maximum £95 in high season, which starts on June 1. In addition, Iain McInally is keen to encourage local golfers from Fife and surrounding areas to play more frequently, and will be announcing special inducements, such as twilight green fees, to entice them to see what the place is about. Hotel rates are notoriously difficult to specify because there are so many variations but the quoted rate for two people in a deluxe twin room at the moment is around £270. However, there are a number of discount and short-break packages available.
St Andrews Bay's biggest plus, its location at the home of golf, can also be a two-edged sword, as Iain McInally appreciates. 'The Old Course is the prime attraction,' he says, 'but we all have a good product and can all do well as a result.' He's talking about all six Links Trust courses, The Duke's, the Old Course Hotel and Kingsbarns. Interestingly, while accepting that all of these facilities are effectively competing against each other, he also thinks it is important that they work together, as each has a slightly different offering that will cater to different needs.
'We all want people to experience what St Andrews the town has to offer,' he says. 'And when you examine it closely, there's a tremendous amount of variety and quality. We are a part of that, and proud to be, and simply want people to look at us as an important part of an incredibly attractive whole.'
If you haven't tried St Andrews Bay yet you should. You don't have to stay in the hotel to play the courses and they, almost certainly, will whet your appetite for a return visit.
|| 6 - MARCH 2005