It’s gripping, riveting, absorbing and most importantly its individuality shines through. Cruden Bay is one of very few courses that has a real personality.
It’s laid out over a unique, special and infinitely fascinating piece of land that boasts an embarrassment of riches for those who love the true form of the game; links golf.
The 27 holes cover terrain that rocks and rolls its way along a thin strip of perfect golfing land as it traces the stunning shoreline. I say 27 holes because the St. Olaf, a par-32 nine-hole relief course, is well worthy of mention when discussing this intoxicating club.
I’d like to think that we did everything in the right order when we visited Cruden Bay in May 2015 and would recommend any first-time visitor to follow the same path we trod.
Arriving at The Club on the evening before the day we were scheduled to play we enjoyed a moment in what can only be described as a clubhouse with a view. The 180-plus degree panorama from this high vantage point is mesmerising; rollicking dunes, gorse-lined fairways, humpy-bumpy linksland, the tops of flags and the glistening North Sea can all be seen below you.
We then enjoyed a quick loop of the excellent nine-hole St. Olaf; 2,463 yards of pure delight. This is a smaller scale course that boasts a set of par threes, four of them all told, that most courses would be envious of. The seventh and ninth are simply outstanding, as is the par-four sixth which plays over a saddle in a dune before it turns sharply left to a green situated on a long shelf atop a large sandhill. From the St. Olaf you also glean glimpses of the championship course; drop-offs here, rumbling fairways there and green locations that are simply to die for.
Both of these decisions whetted our appetite for tackling the main course the following day. The anticipation was incredible.
It seemed like an eternity but the following morning eventually arrived and we soon discovered that the quietly impressive getaway hole on the main course, visible from the clubhouse, merely serves to clear your palette for a stretch of six holes that are truly remarkable and extraordinary. Individually brilliant, collectively unsurpassable.
Originally routed by Old Tom Morris and Archie Simpson, then later redeveloped by Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler in 1926, the course benefits from the lack of major earth moving machinery available at the time; the poetic justice of cause and effect where the architects simply followed the land and located natural green sites on their way to creating a masterpiece.
The beauty of these half-a-dozen holes, where the course is at its turbulent best, is the amazing amount of variety, not only in the type of shots required but their length and par. You never hit the same shot twice. It's quirky for sure but there is so much quality too.
You play to a table-top green at the hugely underrated 348-yard second, a hole that will strike fear into anyone with an aversion to playing a lob wedge from a tight lie to an elevated green, but one that also requires sound thinking from the tee as to which angle and perhaps more significantly what distance you would like to approach it from. Three bunkers down the right-hand-side add to this dilemma and I can image more than a fair share of golfers get too close to this green with their drive.
Meanwhile, the green at the third, a potentially driveable hole from the normal tees, is partially hidden in a dell and the approach has several contours that can be used wisely to feed your ball onto the putting surface. The championship tee adds an extra 100 yards to this hole and gives it an added dimension.
The exquisite one-shot fourth requires a well-executed long shot over a grassy valley, played alongside the village of Port Erroll, to a plateau green seemingly wider than it is deep. There’s simply no hiding place on this hole, you’ve just got to stand up and hit the perfect shot or face the devastating consequences.
You then tackle a strong par four that just gets better and better as you walk its yardage. This time from a stunning elevated tee you play to a flat fairway set between dunes before firing to another sheltered putting surface. Thanks to having a slow fourball behind us we spent several minutes chipping and putting around this remarkable green complex that has a large depression towards the rear.
Then two more audacious greens, both raised; one exposed at the marvellous par five sixth, the other framed between two large dunes at the visually striking next. Both feature the tightest turf on the surrounds which is a feature throughout at Cruden Bay.
On this half a dozen holes there’s a burn to negotiate, bunkers to bypass, dunes to avoid and green complexes that are endlessly diverse. Nothing repeats itself except the quality and after holing out on the seventh you are left wondering if this is as good as golf can be. I’m fairly certain it is.
The course takes a turn not only in direction but also in character at the eighth. For the first time in the round you play away from the coastline and move inland. The challenge doesn’t change though and this is thanks to the intricate green complex. Pushed up it creates little run-offs at three sides and, at only a touch over 250-yards, on paper this par-four should yield plenty of birdies yet it’s one of those holes that will get inside a golfers head and I suspect there will be many players walking off this green not quite knowing how they racked up a five or worse.
The new ninth tee is one of golf’s greatest views; a spectacular panorama displaying the Bay of Cruden, the crescent-shaped sandy beach and deep-blue sea in the near distance, Slains Castle sitting on the cliffs further away and the majority of the golf course directly down below. Standing here feels like being on top of the world, in more ways than one.
The ninth hole is regarded by The Club as its weakest link, “the necessary evil of getting from the eighth green to the tenth tee” as it was tactfully described on a poster in the clubhouse highlighting some recent changes to the hole. This long par-four, sitting high above the rest, doesn’t serve up the thrills and spills that the rest of the front nine does, however, it’s a fine two-shotter and one many top links courses would happily exchange for a weaker hole on their own course in a heartbeat.
Holes 10 to 13 each offer something special and keep the Cruden Bay pot simmering. A thrilling drive at 10 and a sublime green complex at 11 are the highlights of the first two. Meanwhile, the 12th is the perfect example of a 310-yard hole; just too long for all but the longest of drivers to reach in one mighty blow yet tempting enough for most to take on regardless. Its fairway, flanked by gorse on both sides, is narrower than the rest and has well positioned fairway bunkers. I can imagine this hole goes under the radar at Cruden Bay but it is one I have a lot of time for.
The snaking par-five 13th continues to increase the tempo and the 14th dramatically returns us to the real essence of Cruden Bay, a rare type of hole if ever there was one. A semi-blind drive has more room to the right than you think before a totally blind approach must be made to a sunken “bathtub” green. This unusual but superb hole is followed by more eccentricity with back-to-back par threes at 15 and 16.
Although 17 and 18 are more conformist in their design you have one more moment of delight where you must decide which side of a 20-foot high Danish burial mound you must drive to at the penultimate hole. In all likelihood it will be the direction of the wind that dictates the preferred route.
All 18 holes call for all kinds of imagination and creativity; judgement of not just distance but ball flight is essential too. The amount of options the course gives you when playing each and every shot is breathtaking, the basis of strategic golf design. Numbers don’t serve much purpose at Cruden Bay but for the record par is 70 and from the blue championship tees the course plays to 6,645 yards, however, you will likely play it at 6,261 from the white markers.
Cruden Bay is not without flaws; a problematic gather-point short of the fourth and slightly bumpier putting surfaces at the eighth and 14th (due to their locations) are just a couple of very minor points we noticed on our visit. But these are easily forgiven because the moments of brilliance are not just so high but so numerous too. I can’t easily think of another course which has so many uniquely sublime holes.
Clearly it’s impossible to truly get under the skin of a great golf course like this on one visit alone and therein lies one of the reasons why Cruden Bay is so highly regarded. It keeps you coming back for more. This is a venue that attracts golfers from all over the world. A map in the reception hall, where The Club encourage visitors to mark their location, displays a truly global following.
The course has a mind of its own and is the purest form of golf exemplified. Those going in search for the soul of the game would be well advised to visit Cruden Bay, because I think you might just find it here.
Following a 4:00am alarm call we’d already driven for more than six hours and covered over 350 road miles before boarding a ferry at Oban sailing to Lochboisdale.
The Halifax Golf Club, often better known as Ogden, is a course that divides opinion.