I am not the best person to ask how to play No. 5 at Anstruther Golf Club. After thousands of tries, I’ve still not hit the green with my tee shot. On one of my return visits, in July 2022, they had just held the club championship. During the first day of competition, 66 players went round the nine-hole course twice. In their combined 132 attempts on the 245-yard par-3 fifth, these locals—who know the course better than anyone—made a grand total of zero birdies and five pars. One player made a 19 the first time through, then coupled it with a bogey on his second loop to shoot 110. The fifth has been widely called the most difficult par 3 in the U.K. No one has ever disagreed.
But there is so much more to my home course and hometown than our most famous beast. Anstruther—“Enster” to the locals—sits on the North Sea, 9 miles south of St. Andrews. With a population of nearly 4,000, it remains a tight-knit community with multigenerational families still living in the village. Folks there like to say that if your clan hasn’t been living there for at least three generations, then you are an “in-comer.” History, tradition and storytelling still reign supreme. That clichéd American vision of sharing a pint and an evening’s worth of golf and fishing tall tales with a grizzled old Scot can be made reality here on any night in any pub.
I grew up roughly 300 yards from the first tee at Anstruther Golf Club, and I still remember running home after school to grab my sticks on the way down to the course. My grandparents, aunt and uncle lived on the ninth hole. I was a member from the age of 5 until I started working abroad in my 20s. Anstruther sits on latitude similar to Ketchikan, Alaska. Summers were magical: We could golf until 11 p.m., and when we weren’t doing that we were playing soccer, roaming the beach or looking for golf balls in the whins (gorse bushes) to make a few extra pounds. Some days we could get eight to 10 loops—about 90 holes throughout the daylight hours. We never thought of stopping for lunch or dinner; we were fueled by sweeties (candy), chocolate, crisps (chips) and Irn-Bru soda.
No surprise that we had plenty of strong junior golfers from the Kingdom of Fife. I enjoyed organizing our local Ryder Cup matches between the boys from Anstruther and Pittenweem, the neighboring village. We weren’t always victorious, but every one of our annual matches was hard-fought, and they were some of the most fun days of our lives.
While we played more holes than we’ll ever count, my parents were busy managing the acclaimed Craw’s Nest Hotel, started by my grandparents. Located less than a wedge shot from the golf course, with a view of a few fairways from some of its rooms, the Craw’s Nest was (and remains) the spot for passing royalty, golf and otherwise. My mum still loves to regale us with stories from when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stopped at the hotel for lunch during their 1982 trip through Fife. Manchester United legends Alex Ferguson and Bobby Charlton both paid warmly remembered visits. And of course whenever the Dunhill Cup or the Open Championship came to St. Andrews, the Craw’s Nest played host to media, players and coaches. People here still talk about those dinners and late-night drinks; some of my best childhood memories are of rubbing shoulders with Bob and Sam Torrance, David Feherty, Renton Laidlaw, Mark McNulty and Peter Alliss.
As with many country courses in Scotland, ours feels like it’s entirely inside the town of Anstruther. Standing on the ninth tee box, you see ancient homes extending along the west perimeter of the course. Through the green is a splendid view of the town and its snug harbor. It welcomes players of all ages, in any kind of weather, everyone walking.
And they’ve been doing it that way for more than 130 years. The course was founded in 1890, with the original layout of seven holes opening in 1891. Two years later, the course was expanded to nine holes. In 1896, Old Tom Morris advised the club to acquire more land to extend Nos. 1 and 9. Since 1916, the course has undergone very few changes.
It did close from 1940 to 1946, during World War II, when it was trenched and poles were erected to prevent enemy aircraft from landing. The wartime measures were gone when the course reopened, although the fourth hole, called Magazine, takes its name from the small stone buildings next to the green that were used to store ammunition during the conflict.
History and tradition are currency here, and the course retains much of the original character from its founding in 1890. It’s why young players are taught about the old ways from their first steps onto the green.
Nos. 5 through 7 are Anstruther’s version of Amen Corner: three glorious, unique, card-wrecking par 3s in a row. The fifth, dubbed the Rockies, grabs all the headlines. But No. 6 was the scene of my first hole-in-one, using a 5-wood when I was around 10 years old. It is listed at 128 yards long, featuring a tiny, sloping plateau green surrounded by a stadium of rocks and whin bushes. The seventh, which can play anywhere from 170 to 200 yards, moves uphill across an open expanse with a blind green perched at the top.
The full course measures 2,345 yards with a par of 31, which sounds short and easy and is anything but. With its consistently strong winds and five tricky par 3s, your game has to be on point. The course’s beautiful views of nearby Anstruther and Pittenweem harbors, the Isle of May and Bass Rock, as well as across to North Berwick, Muirfield, Gullane and Dunbar golf clubs, make it easy to get distracted.
Some Scots say there are two kingdoms: Heaven and Fife. I just tell the people I give lessons to at my new home club, Sierra Star Golf Course in California, that if they’re going to Scotland, they’ve got to visit Anstruther. And every time I do, it takes me back to those summer days looping my favorite course in the world.
Navigating the Rockies
If you ever find yourself on the fifth tee at Anstruther—and you should—there is no silver bullet, no shortcut to glory. An old member once said that only God could make 3 there, but I believe even that is a fallacy. Players are greeted with an old World War II gun turret, a barely visible green—and a sign commemorating the 2007 article from the U.K.’s Today’s Golfer anointing the hole as the most difficult par 3 in the British Isles. The locals will tell you there are three options to play the hole, which measures 245 yards from the back tee:
• OPTION NO. 1 is to go for broke. Pull driver or 3-wood, aim 20 yards left out into the North Sea toward Pittenweem Harbor and hit a big, high cut back into the green. It’s the only way your ball might be able to hold it. If your ball doesn’t cut, you’re wet and reloading. If you over-cut it, you’re either on the hillside in the whin or back up onto the fourth fairway, which is also option 3, but we’ll get to that.
• OPTION NO. 2 is the safe route, if there is such a thing on this hole. Hit a mid- to long iron down onto the fairway. Anything with too much draw will likely end up in the rocks of the North Sea. Over the years, I have seen shots head straight left onto the rocks, get a few fortuitous bounces and end up back on the fairway. But to bank on that is folly. If you’ve managed to hit the fairway, you’re now faced with a tricky 10- to 60-yard pitch shot over the sidehill mound protecting the front right side of this tiny right-to-left-sloping green. One putt for par and you’re a legend. Two putts and you’re still happy as a clam at high tide.
• OPTION NO. 3 is not my favorite. It is possible to take an iron and go directly back into the fourth fairway. The second shot is breathtaking, but brutal. You’re facing a full view of the North Sea, staring into clouds and water, and the hole is 100 feet below. It’s a blind wedge down to the green sloping away from you to the sea. You basically aim at a cloud, hit it and then run like Sergio in 1999 at Medinah to find out if you’ve avoided a watery grave.