The 20th anniversary closing no one saw coming for Kingsbarns Golf Links

2020 was planned to be a year of celebration for Kingsbarns Golf Links in Scotland. For 20 years, the seaside course has provided a wonderful complement to the Old Course at St. Andrews that is located just seven miles away.

Instead, just about the time in March that the course opens for its season, the COVID-19 lockdown took effect and left every golf course in Scotland shuttered. Some re-opened for local play in late May, but Kingsbarns have yet to open for the season and is still on hold as of the June 25th update on its website.

The reason is simple as owner Art Dunkley of Pleasanton explained—its business is built around being the second round for touring golfers in St. Andrews to play the Old Course and visit the home of golf. That model has worked very well for 19 years as the course thrived and golfers loved playing there. Designer Kyle Phillips took full advantage of the seaside terrain and vistas to create a course that regularly is listed among the top 100 courses you can play internationally.

The tour groups have cancelled or postponed trips since the lockdown and the mandatory 14-day quarantine took effect in March. The quarantine, obviously, is as long or longer than the typical golf adventure to Scotland. Add in a quarantine that would be required on your return home and it’s pointless to make the trip.

Kingsbarns No 12

The quarantines are the reason that many European-based pros who compete on both the PGA Tour and the European Tour have opted to stay in Europe until the tour re-opens next month with six tournaments in the United Kingdom, all within driving distance.

Art wrote me in an email, “It is entirely possible we won’t open at all this season unless visiting golfers begin returning or if the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship tournament goes ahead as scheduled in late September (at Kingsbarns, Carnoustie and The Old Course).”

Dunkley said the maintenance team has focused on the greens, tees and fairways and recently has started to do some work on the rough, a two-stage process to reduce both the lushness of the growth and the height. He wrote they can open with three weeks of lead time.

” Kingsbarns golf course continues to be a popular destination for local dog walkers so our skeleton maintenance crew knows most of the local walkers and their dogs by name, “he wrote.

Like other tourism-oriented businesses, Kingsbarns requires other sectors to be operating effectively for it to attract avid golfers.

“Each industry and specific company has its own set of issues so I suppose Kingsbarns is no different.  In some ways though our issues are a bit of a perfect storm since we depend on lots of other business sectors to be functioning properly such as international air travel and local hotels and B&Bs,” he wrote in an email.

“Our dependence on overseas customers means the lack of international travel alone essentially limits our ability to re-open for the foreseeable future.  A strange but not unique problem in the current crisis.  So far even the Dunhill Links Championship has not committed to proceed in late September.  If it does, we’ll open for sure,” he concluded.

The United Kingdom is reimbursing employers for 80% of the idled labor costs if employers kept paying their staff. Kingsbarns furloughed most of its full-time staff so they are staying at home. Kingsbarns picked up the additional 20% (many companies cut salaries by that amount, Art wrote) so no staff members took pay cuts.

Kingsbarns No. 15

Obviously, their caddies had no work and, as independent contractors, were eligible for government support at 80% of their past earnings.

“In addition, for small, medium and larger companies the government has worked through the banks by guaranteeing 80% of support loans and reimbursement for the bank charges and interest for the first year.  Business operators who survive will come out of this crisis with substantially reduced cash reserves and larger bank loans,” Art predicted. That may well be the case in many countries.

Kingsbarns’ new neighbor, the Dumbarnie Golf Links, opened a few miles away and also features plenty of Firth of Forth views. Designed by Clive Clark, it’s being marketed as the third “must play” course in St. Andrews after the Old Course and Kingsbarns. It opened in late May after restrictions were lifted.

Play also resumed on the Old Course and the other St. Andrews Trust courses initially for locals only although some restrictions have been lessened.

The luxury Fairmont Resort is closed, but play is allowed on its two courses under the stringent rules set up by the government.

Scotland is re-opening in phases. The government’s plan is for hotels and resorts to open for guests on July 15. That’s also when barber shops and hair salons are scheduled to open.

By Tim Hunt