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|Balcomie Links is not only a heart-thumping beauty; it is also a stern test, especially if the legendary Scottish weather kicks up. (Courtesy of Crail Golfing Society)|
CRAIL, Scotland -- Anyone familiar with the legend of King Arthur, Christian history, or even "Monty Python" films has heard of the search for The Holy Grail. For golfers who want to experience the best of both traditional and modern links layouts, the quest is fortunately far less arduous, ending gloriously only minutes from St. Andrews in the idyllic village of Crail, Fife.
The Scots associate golf with Crail almost as closely as they do St. Andrews. Foreign visitors, however, might not discover Crail on their own. When locals heard that I would be playing at Crail, they invariably asked, "How did you hear about Crail?" Just as invariably, they assured me that I would love it. And they were correct.
Founded in 1786, The Crail Golfing Society is the seventh oldest in the world. Jim Horsfield, managing secretary of Crail Golfing Society for over seven years (and club member since 1965), enjoys sharing the rich history of the Society with visitors.
"We have approximately 1,850 members, including some 80 who are from overseas," he said.
Horsfield was happy to share an old story from centuries past:
"We are very fortunate to have one of the most complete sets of records of any golfing society in Scotland. One of the rules early on was that members were required to wear the Society's official uniform of a scarlet jacket with gold buttons. Once, a member who had returned from fighting [the Americans] in the Revolutionary War was fined for not wearing his jacket. He was a decorated war hero, but that didn't matter - he was still fined a half mutchkin of punch."
Today, the Society oversees operation of two amazing links layouts. The older of the two, Balcomie Links first appears in the historical records in 1859. The original eight holes, which were first built by the farmer who owned the dune-cluttered seaside property, were eventually redesigned by Old Tom Morris, who also added 10 more holes and stated afterwards that "there is not a better course in Scotland."
While the 5,922-yard, par-69 Balcomie Links is the epitome of seaside links, with it's shorter yardages and quaint eccentricities, the new 6,728-yard, par-71 Craighead Links is a completely modern design with all the features of classical links courses. Golfers visiting Scotland simply cannot play two more picturesque seaside links courses on the same property.
Americans, who generally maintain that bigger is better, might not choose Balcomie Links as one of their "must play" courses simply based on its rather diminutive 5,922-yard length. Skipping Balcomie Links, however, would be a grave mistake for true golf enthusiasts, because the course is not only a heart-thumping beauty; it is also a stern test, especially if the legendary Scottish weather kicks up.
"Our club championship was yesterday," reported Mr. Horsfield, "and the wind was fierce at times. The low medallist came in with a 71. That's two strokes over par."
In fact, most visitors to Balcomie Links will actually play from the yellow tees, which measure just 5,453 yards (par 67). But they will find all the challenge they want, no matter how the wind blows. The 328-yard first hole is inviting, with a dramatic downhill tee shot past the old local lifeboat house. After you card a par or birdie here, the course might just grab you by the scruff of the neck and give a good shake.
No. 5 is called "Hell's Hole," and if you try to be a hero, might prove even worse than it sounds. This 459-yard par 4 is a devilishly deceiving cape hole bending left to right along the shoreline. From the tee (especially from the middle yellow tee), it looks like a solid drive will have no trouble carrying over the beach and onto the fairway no farther than 200 yards from the green. However, even a slight fade into the prevailing wind turns out to be deadly. No wonder we later witnessed one after another local player take a safe iron to the left off the tee and play the hole like a par 5.
The collection of par 3s at Balcomie Links is truly remarkable. And Nos. 13 (219 yards) and 14 (150 yards) are perhaps the two best back-to-back par 3s in the world. No. 13 plays uphill over a huge swale to a blind green. There is zero room for error behind the green, and knee-high fescue to the right. On the day I visited, this hole played into the teeth of the wind, driver was the club of choice for three of my foursome, and no one reached the green.
No. 14 plays back down the hill, with a 90-foot elevation change from tee to green. The putting surface is perched on the skirt of the seastrand, and wind from any direction makes club selection more of an art than a science. This day, with the wind at our backs, we were hitting wedges.
To get to the closing four holes, golfers walk along a strikingly beautiful path lined with rocks jutting up out of the dunes. As the locals might say, the scenery really is "the cat's hee-haws," and the home stretch alone is worth the price of admission.
From the late 1980s to early 1990s, American golf course architect Gil Hanse worked at the St. Andrews Links Trust. Like many other St. Andrews residents, Hanse played his golf at Crail, though, where the quality of play is just as high but the crowds and green fees are low. When the Crail Golfing Society considered acquiring the neighboring Craighead Farm, Hanse was asked to evaluate the property to determine if it was suitable for a golf course.
According to Jim Horsfield, "After we decided to go ahead with the new course in 1995, we tendered six competitive designs, some of which were by very famous course designers. Hanse won because he knew the land so well, and because he was completely committed to the project personally. He lived in town with his family for six months during construction, driving bulldozers himself to move the land where he wanted it."
The result, Craighead Links (6,728 yards, par 71), opened in 1998. Despite a comparatively low-key entry onto the St. Andrews area golf scene, the course has garnered very favorable reviews. According to the Society's resident professional, Graeme Lennie, "Craighead plays as tough, if not tougher, than a 7,000-yard course." The single most penal feature is the knee- to waist-high fescue that lines nearly every fairway. Trying to locate your ball in this hay is not all that much harder than trying to track down the fabled Holy Grail itself.
When asked what advice he had for first-timers here, aside from staying in the short grass, Mr. Lennie displayed some characteristic laconic Scottish wit: "Keep your putts low to the ground when the wind is blowing."
The advice, as it turned out, was not as "smart-arsed" as it at first sounded: Craighead Links towers above the Firth of Forth, offering a panoramic vista of some 300 miles of coastline from the 9th and 18th tees. And just about every inch of the course is exposed to the wind. The greens are sodded with creeping bent grass (rare for Scotland, where most greens are of fine fescue), and putt very true even in winter. But they are also faster than Balcomie's, and the wind alone can cause straight putts to break six or more inches. To make putting even more challenging, several of the greens appear to have portions of ancient Celtic villages buried close beneath their surfaces, the undulations are so pronounced.
Of course, all of this discussion of putting assumes that you've actually been able to get on the greens without losing your balls, clubs, and fragile self-esteem in the fescue and/or gorse. Certain greens - most notably Nos. 1, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 16 - have little to no room for error behind the greens or to one side or the other.
The 557-yard sixth sports a wide fairway that you absolutely must be in, since OB runs from tee to green on the right. If the wind is against you on this fabulous par 5, "reachable" means in four shots, rather than in two. The one weakness of the layout is evidenced here: OB is in play on a majority of holes, placing a steep penalty on wayward shots. Turning some of these areas into lateral hazards would be a bit fairer.
Even if you stay in the fairway, the unfortunate (or cursed, as the case may be) can still encounter tribulation on a few holes. Nos. 6, 11 (362 yards), and 15 (554 yards) all feature rock walls left over from the original farm. Few frustrations in golf can compare to a decent shot that ends up lodged against a wall, leaving the only play backwards down the fairway.
Either Balcomie or Craighead is well worth the money. The shrewd Yank or thrifty Scot, however, will pay and play 36 holes at Crail. This is without doubt one of the best deals in Scotland.
When paying green fees at the well stocked pro shop, visitors also receive a pin number to access the clubhouse and grill room. Do not let the access code or the sign forbidding all head gear inside the clubhouse deter you from entering. The view from the grill room overlooking the final holes of Balcomie and the rugged shoreline cannot be beaten. And if the world-class golf isn't enough to bring you back, the inexpensive pints and delicious crab salad will. (The crab, by the way, is caught daily right off the beach along the closing holes.)
And as you linger, sipping a beer and drinking in a sunset over the Firth of Forth, you'll feel truly grateful that the "Holy Crail" of golf isn't as difficult to find as the Holy Grail of legend.
August 2, 2002
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.
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