Scottish Links Golf
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St. Andrews area
Crail - Balcomie
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Crail Balcomie Links©"When the wind is blowing hard, keep your putts low to the ground, laddie." That's the tongue-in-cheek advice of Graeme Lennie, the friendly and knowledgeable pro at Crail. And the wind can certainly whip up a dose of trouble over this testing links layout.
Smack-dab at the tip of land where the Firth of Forth meets the North Sea sits one of the best kept secrets in all of golf and one of my, and many golfers', favorite courses--Crail Balcomie Golf Course. In fact, this course immediately becomes a favorite of many who play it for the first time. Never as famous as its nearby cousin, The Old Course St. Andrews, it nevertheless has a loyal and devoted following. And why not? It's a highly unusual golf course, a fine test of golf and is a true test of Scottish links-style golf--with a slight twist.
World's seventh oldest golfing clubThe first by-laws were written by a group of avid golfers sitting in the bar at The Golf Hotel (still in existence)in the little town of Crail and drinking "Mother Duff's Punch"--a mixture of brandy and claret. (It's a wonder the by-laws are legible!) The meeting took place on February 23, 1786. Imagine, just ten years after the Declaration of Independence was signed and the United States was trying to organize a country, these blokes were already organizing a golf club. Since their first meeting over two centuries ago, a complete record of the club's activities have been kept. That's pretty amazing record-keeping, wouldn't you say? And for the first 86 years, the meetings were held in The Golf Hotel. (I'd bet anything that even in those days the bar maids had to listen to complaints about missed putts!)
|The Balcomie Course
The Balcomie course was designed by Old Tom Morris who, along with his son, Young Tom Morris, is an icon in the history of early Scottish golf and therefore in the history of golf in general. Although the first "hole cutter" was used at Royal Mussleburgh, the first recorded use of an iron cup to fill the hole was at Crail. Before that, it seems, holes were just dug into the ground and, by the end of each day, were anything but round. So you have The Crail Golfing Society (or perhaps Mother Duff's Punch) to thank every time a putt of yours makes that lovely "plunk" sound as it drops into the hole.
The Balcomie Course is one of those courses you would want to play even if it were a mediocre course. After all, if you love golf and the history of golf, you have to play a course that was being played when a carpenter was fitting George Washington for his wooden teeth. But the Balcomie is not a mediocre course, it's a wonderful course and truly one of the most fun golf courses in all of Scotland.
A true Scottish links layout, it has the added feature of hills. In fact, the 1st tee is situated next to the clubhouse high above the 1st hole with a view of virtually the entire course you are about to play. If you have even a smidgen of love for the game of golf, the sense of anticipation as you are about to tee off atop this hill is electric. To make matters better, a decent drive will get you far since you are teeing off from high above the green, so even if you dribble it off the tee you will at least roll down the hill. The 2nd through the 6th are bordered by the sea and are magnificent--among the most beautiful in all of golf. Number 2 is a 493 yard par 5 with the ocean out of bounds on your right ready to catch any slice and float your golf ball to Norway. Number 3 is a par 3, 178 yards which will direct any shot that comes in hot and lands long and too far on the right side of the green to the beach. Talk about a sand shot!. Number 4 is a deceptively mild looking 346 yard par 4 and features a severe dogleg right, but with the fairway sloping toward the ocean and a bunker on the left waiting to scoop up anyone hitting away from the ocean who has gotten too careless--two nasty choices.
Crail Balcomie "Hell's Hole"Number 5 is well named--"Hell's Hole." (See the first picture.) It is a par 4 which, in 800 rounds recorded during one period, took an average of 5.98 strokes to go from tee to hole. At 450 yards, it's a devilish dogleg right that bends in about the middle where your tee shot should land. Trouble is, the ocean intrudes into your line of flight so you have to hit over from the tee if you expect to make any kind of score here. But the tee shot needs to be accurate. Too far right and you can't carry and will be on the beach; too far left and you're in a bunker or deep rough. Or how about hitting one down the middle, that usually works. The trouble is, if it rolls too far, it may roll into the rough. (With all this water off of each fairway, Alasdair Busby, former Secretary of Crail Golfing Society, told me, "If you want to do well on these holes, just keep your ball in Scotland.") Your reward for negotiating the "Hell's Hole" is #6, a 197 yard par 3 with lots of rough to keep you honest. Watch the wind on this hole. The green is protected by hills on two sides and so the flag may be still while the wind above (that will affect your ball) may be howling.
The front nine are among the most beautiful anywhere, and I do mean anywhere. All the holes are played right by the sea or within one fairway of the sea. In fact every hole on the entire course has an intimate view of the sea and beach. It's heavenly.
With four par 3s, the back nine are not quite as challenging but that doesn't mean they are push-overs. There are two par 5s in a row followed by two par 3s in a row. Problem is that the first par 3 is 217 yards uphill--really uphill! The green has to be at least 50 feet above the tee. (A short detour -- This hole, the 13th, is the one thought of by many who have read Michael Murphy's Golf In The Kingdom as the hole Murphy is describing when he writes, "I felt the land as we climbed the hill, the sea breeze, the grass beneath my feet." They believe Crail Balcomie course is, in fact, the course played in the book. Graeme Lennie, the pro, told me there is not another hole anything like it in all of Fife. In addition, a while back Clint Eastwood visited the course to look at the hole and the course. Clint Eastwood, by the way, has purchased the movie rights to Golf In The Kingdom.) After negotiating this testing par 3 you are rewarded with a 149 yard downhill par 3. The last four holes are pars 4, 3, 4, 3.
Crail Balcomie is wonderful
You will be hitting over streams, over stone walls, over beaches, up hill, down hill, negotiating fairways where hills run up to the left or right, hitting into the wind, hitting with the wind. All in all, it's an exhilarating golfing experience and quite an examination of your links golfing prowess. But because of the popularity of the higher profile courses in the area, this course is not as well known to the tourists and so doesn't get the play of its more popular cousins. That's good for you, the independent golfer, for a few reasons. First of all, it's not overly expensive. And secondly, it easier to get a good tee time, especially during the week.
Make it a point to play this course if you are in the area. In fact, after St. Andrews Old Course and Kingsbarns I would make it my third play. That's how much I think of it.
Miscellaneous Notes: The view from Crail's clubhouse is dramatic. The food is well priced and well prepared. Sitting in the clubhouse perched high above the confluence of the Firth of Forth and the North Sea and sipping a pint of Guiness is a perfect ending to a great day of golf and an experience you'll never forget. The clubhouse, which has recently undergone a major updating, is available to visitors who wish to change or shower.
Also, in addition to 2-wheel golf pull carts, Craile does have battery-driven 3-wheel golf carts and also buggies for hire. It's one of the few golf courses in the area that rents buggies. After walking up and down the hills, you'll know why.
Graeme Lennie, the Pro, is a valuable source of information about not only his own two courses, but about all of the courses in the area. (In fact, Graeme has played quite a bit of golf on some of the outstanding golf courses in the USA.) If you are going to be around for a while and want to know the "must plays" from someone who has intimate knowledge of all the golf courses in and around Crail and St. Andrews (and, in fact, all of Scotland), talk to Graeme. He'll steer you to the good ones. He'll understand your needs quickly and help you to have a better golfing holiday in Scotland. Graeme is knowledgable, personable, and eager to make your golfing holiday in Fife one you will always remember. He's a good guy and you'll like him a lot. And if your game is not quite what it should be, Graeme is known one of the finest instructors in Scotland.
Special note - Visitors are welcome at Crail. When you call for booking your tee time, speak with Doreen Mayes, Reservation Secretary. Doreen can inform you of all the excellent golf packages available, which are so moderate in price. They offer many combinations of golf and food, so be sure to ask.
And a P.S. here from Mary-Alice -- Once you start on the back nine, you will see the remains of the ancient Balcomie Castle. Just to show you how historical this area is, the castle was visited in 1538 by Marie de Guise, the French mother of Mary Queen of Scots.
Golf Nook Scotland rating -- EAGLE.
*For WHAT TO DO ALL DAY, please see Crail Craighead write-up.