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The Crail Golfing Society offers two glorious but contrasting golf courses in Scotland

Clive AgranBy Clive Agran,
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Crail Golfing Society - Balcomie Links
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Crail's Balcomie Links dates back to the 19th century. (Brandon Tucker/TravelGolf)

FIFE, Scotland -- The Crail Golfing Society was formed in 1786 and is the seventh-oldest golf club in the world. Slightly bewildering is the fact that neither of the two wonderful courses upon which the members of Crail Golfing Society play are nearly as old -- one, indeed, is rather recent. That can happen in Scotland because club and course are not always one and the same. The latter can shift to a more suitable location and give birth to others, as has happened here, whilst the former provides continuity history.

Given its proud and venerable past, you could almost forgive Crail if it was a touch snooty, but it isn't at all. It's wonderfully warm and welcoming. The principal problem confronting the visitor is which of the two courses to play first.

Crail's Balcomie Links

Out of respect for its greater age, we should examine the credentials of the Balcomie Links first. Laid out in 1895 by none other than Old Tom Morris, who lived just a few miles along the coast at St. Andrews, it tightly hugs the rocky coastline as if to stop the incessant wind from blowing it into the North Sea. Occupying the most easterly point in the Kingdom of Fife and stuck out on the tip of a promontory, the sea is all around and there are simply stunning views north to St. Andrews and Carnoustie and south across the Firth of Forth to Muirfield.

Graeme Lennie, the professional at Crail, describes Balcomie as "the longest short course you'll ever play." It has six par 3s and measures a rather modest 5,861 yards off the back tees.

Underestimate it at your peril, however, as very few manage to play to their handicap. And it's not just the wind that will quite likely blow your round off course as there are other dangers lurking by the water's edge.

The tee shots at both the fourth and fifth oblige you to hit across the beautiful beach in a classic risk/reward shot. Bite off too much and your ball will finish among the pebbles, on the sand or in the sea. It matters not which as all are out of bounds. The murmuring surf might help calm your nerves as you address your provisional.

The 62 bunkers add to the excitement and the smallish greens are very well protected. And, of course, there's gorse to avoid.

It's easy to walk and the only serious climb comes right at the end when you make your way back up to the top of the cliff upon which the splendid clubhouse is perched. The huge picture windows afford fabulous views out to sea and across to the Isle of May, and you should look out for shags, cormorants, gannets, geese, bottlenosed dolphins and minke whales. And you might even be lucky enough to spot a famous golfer as Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Steve Fleisch, Jim Furyk, Davis Love III and Matt Kuchar have all played here. Clint Eastwood, Neil Armstrong and Larry David have also teed it up at Crail.

Crail's Craighead Links

Because 18 holes for a fourball around Balcomie should certainly take no more than three-and-a-half hours, there ought to be plenty of time to tackle Craighead Links after lunch.

Initial impressions can be deceptive and many make the mistake of thinking that this comparatively new course looks quite open. Although the fairways appear generous, there are all sorts of problems, not least of which are the numerous impenetrable bushes that seem to suck your ball in.

You'll also encounter a rather novel obstacle several times during your round in the shape of an impressive stone wall. Especially on the 11th but also on the 14th, 15th and 16th, Danes Dike will show its face and cause you to think. It's a protected ancient monument that was erected by the Danes before Christ was born.

A cliff-top course created by Gil Hanse, the man who together with Amy Alcott somewhat unexpectedly won the honor of designing the course for the Olympics in Brazil in 2016, Craighead Links offers views of the sea from every hole as an extremely stiff examination. With no two holes aligned the same way, at least the ever-present wind helps as much as it hinders.

The bunkering is more than usually interesting with riveting and a wide variety of shapes. Unlike a lot of older courses that have effectively been overtaken by technology, these bunkers are located in precisely the right spots to make even the longer hitters think hard before letting rip.

Having hosted the World Junior Open in 1999 and a big seniors' international among England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, Craighead Links has proved very popular with the pros. What about the members?

"The more serious and better players tend to favor Craighead, while Balcomie is preferred for a friendly or social round," said David Roy, the general manager.

Crail Golfing Society: The verdict

Crail is blessed with two glorious but contrasting courses. Undoubtedly, Balcomie exudes the greater charm while Craighead poses more problems. Each provides a thrilling round of golf and together they make a formidable pair that offers 36 spectacular holes all of which overlook the sea.

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Although in his 60s, with a handicap of 15 and lifetime earnings comfortably below $100, Clive Agran nevertheless still believes he can win a major. Arguably England's most gifted golf writer, when not dreaming of glory he's scouring the globe simultaneously searching for lost balls and great golf courses. Follow Clive on Twitter at @cliveagran.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

 
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