Crail Golf Club (Balcomie)
The view of the rocky coastline from the elevated, modern clubhouse is panoramically majestic and the scenery to feast on as you golf over the links is just about unrivalled in this part of the world.
Formed in 1786, the Crail Golf Society is the 7th oldest golf club in the world and now boasts two fine courses; the established “Balcomie” – predominantly an Old Tom Morris layout from 1895 – and the much newer “Craighead” which opened for play in 1998. Golf was originally played much closer to the quaint fishing village of Crail before new land was acquired prior to the turn of the 20th Century.
I have played the Balcomie a couple of times, the most recent in August 2019 when three generations tackled the 5,861 yard, par 69 layout. Undoubtedly one of the best courses under 6,000 yards.
It proved to be the perfect track for a 79, 40 and 10 year old with handicaps ranging from 3 to 36. It was more than testing enough for myself, an easy enough walk for my dad and a brilliant introduction to links golf for my son who was able to reach many of the short par-fours in regulation, which pleased him greatly.
Indeed half a dozen of the two-shotters play to a yardage of around 350-yards or less from the back-tees with four of them under 300-yards from the yellow blocks. I think sporty is the term often used.
There are also six par-threes and whilst there are some longer holes, where you can open your shoulders, Crail isn’t the sort of place to beat you up. You won’t spend much time looking for golf balls as there is little rough on the compact site and bar a few holes where gorse features it’s a case of hit it, find it, then hit it again although sadly this can no longer be done from the beach as it is marked out-of-bounds.
Emphasis is very much on the fun factor at Crail. However, be warned that the course is no pushover and the SSS of 70 will give you an indication of this. And with the wind a constant and ever-changing feature, the challenge is enhanced at many of the holes.
The Club perhaps sum it up it best on their website when they say, “Created in the days when course design was governed by the natural lie of the land and not the mechanical earth mover. Extraordinary holes abound, along with those which seriously challenge and those which are more comfortable. The sum total is a layout which both enchants and delights, but which also demands and punishes, testing all the skills in a golfer's armoury – as well as his nerve. Those length seekers who believe Balcomie will be a soft touch, do so at their peril.”
The opening holes track the shoreline right out to the farthest point of the links, the fifth green, before we turn back on ourselves and eventually find ourselves returning to the proshop, car park and clubhouse after 13 holes.
The final five holes see an exhilarating drop-shot par-three back down to the coast before we join the beautiful Fife Coastal Path for a few hundred yards as we trace the waters-edge, passed some caves, around to the 15th tee on the other side of clubhouse and where we play the final four holes on a separate piece of land but still close to the sea.
The start of the round is truly delightful; deep pot bunkers, interesting greens and the sea never more than a few paces away enhance this opening gambit with the links. An old boathouse may come into play at the first, where you tee-off from the cliff top, and the thrilling heroic drive over water at the daring and curving fifth, named “Hell's Hole” is an early highlight too.
The short sixth offers little except for the challenge of hitting into the opposite wind direction we have faced thus far but the next three are highly strategic holes albeit played on less linksy ground, as many of the holes away from the sea are. The 7th and the wonderful 9th may both be driven but an angled ridge at the former and spot-on bunkering, coupled with an old stone wall, at the next generate much interest as they use the slope of the land particularly well. The 9th is one of the best examples of short hole I know.
Holes 11 and 12, both par-fives, chew up some of the less interesting, flatter land before the charming finish which contains four par-threes in the final six holes, although two of them require long carries over gorse to greens perched on top of near-vertical cliffs and the stellar final hole, like the 13th, tops the 200-yard mark.
The set of greens at Crail is particularly impressive and they are a pleasure to putt on. The condition, speed and trueness was excellent on my visit but there are plenty of undulations, slopes and borrows to provide interest too. The double green at 8 and 11 is fascinating with a gentle furrow running through it. The 3rd green also caught my eye with its contouring which allows you to feed the ball in from the safer left-hand-side.
Not having a blast at Crail, with its exhilarating seaside location, is an impossibility. The nature of the land, the fantastic mix of holes and the setting all add up to a wonderful golf experience. Just a short drive from St. Andrews it would make a perfect addition to any of the courses there and comes recommended.
Put simply; a wonderful golfing experience which shouldn’t be taken two seriously, a chance to let your hair down and enjoy the simplicities of golf.
Meanwhile, the Craighead course at Crail is a very different challenge to the links of Balcomie, but no less memorable.
Gil Hanse, the acclaimed American architect designed this clifftop course which is draped gracefully over the landscape and even utilises some ancient medieval walls which we must hurdle at the 11th and 15th!
At 6,651 yards (par 72) from the tips the Craighead layout has hosted national and international championships and has a routing that continually twists and turns.
There are wonderful coastal views and some fine holes on this exposed course which plays on much higher ground to the Balcomie. As you might expect from this elevated layout the fairways are relatively generous from the tee although gorse does feature on a number of holes.
There is a very consistent feel to the course but there are a couple of standout holes. The par-three 7th is a superb one-shotter with a glorious backdrop whilst the descending short par-four 10th is another jaw-dropping hole and one where you will want to pull your camera out.
I can imagine the second hole “Windmill Corner” is a bit of a Marmite hole with a near 90-degree dog-leg fairway played to a green that falls significantly away from the player.
Due to the flatter nature of the fairways the green complexes need to be good in order to bring the course to life and for the most part they do this well. There is a lot of movement on the putting surfaces generating lots of interest. The bunkering is also done well and in-keeping with the course.
Comparing the two I think I prefer the charm and more authentic links characteristic of the Balcomie but a round on the Craighead is more than a nice alternative for those already familiar with the older sibling.