The Crail Golfing Society is the seventh oldest golf course in the world, and possibly the most terrifying if you’re spraying the ball at all off the tee. I mean that jokingly, as you learn early on in the round to be on the lookout for errant shots, and also that the Scots are serious about their “FORE” calls. While golf is believed to have been played for hundreds of years prior, 1856 saw the first competition played across Crail’s Balcomie Links. Old Tom reworked the existing nine-hole routing in 1895 and added nine additional holes in 1900.
The theme of the course is one of simplicity and true minimalism, both in the aesthetics and the routing. Short grass abounds, bunkers are slung low in the flattish grounds, and greens largely follow the cant of the surrounding slopes. That’s not to say that the course lacks nuance – there are plenty of unexpected flourishes. However, those flourishes are of the natural variety and are present thanks to a combination of Viking fortifications and the unique geology of the area. The course is well-manicured and the greens kept to a slightly slower speed than you’ll find at many other courses in Scotland due to the high winds that often buffet the exposed site. If the perfect match play course exists, this is it.
Crail is the perfect change of pace compliment to a Fife trip featuring the brutes at St Andrews, Kingsbarns and Elie. I look forward to returning to play the Hanse’s Craighead course on the next visit.
THIS COURSE IN ONE WORD: Rustic
HOLE NOTES: #1 Perhaps the best opener of the entire trip, “Boathouse” is a short, downhill par-4 that affords a variety of different options. This is the hole where Soly played it over the boathouse. Seen in the title picture. #2,3,4,5 all head out along the North Sea toward Kingsbarns. They are *not* friendly to the wipey-scrape. “The Briggs” (#3) is a thought-provoking one-shotter that features prominently in the video. The fourth (“Fluke Dub”) and fifth (“Hells Hole”) are both brilliant dogleg-right par fours that require a decision on how much to cut off, and count among the strongest holes on the course. This outward stretch is pictured running along the right coast in the photo below.
#7 “North Carr” is a charming short-ish four that punches above it’s weight (a theme at Crail.) This is the hole that Poosh and I both took less-than-driver only to blow it OB right into the adjacent farm. Once we walked down the hill we realized the hole made us out-smart ourselves and blowing driver past the corner would take us out of beyond the OB risk. The approach is fraught with nuance, as an elevated grass path cuts diagonally short of the green, making the otherwise straightforward shot look harder than it actually is.
#11 “Lang Whang” is interesting both for the name and as it is the first of back-to-back par fives. This one heads back northward after the previous holes (8, 9, 10) all traipsed back south to the clubhouse. The next hole was also interesting. In the shot below Lang Whang is the hole bisecting the middle of the course with the three bunkers in a row down the middle. This photo also gives a sense of the compact nature of the layout.
#13 “Craighead” is the third of six total par threes on the day, all of which are relatively stern. This may be the most challenging of them all – playing over 200 yards even from the forward tees to an uphill green with severe slope in it.
#14 “The Cave” is the signature hole at Crail (or if not, it should be) – a pastoral par three playing down a steep hill to the boathouse abutting the first hole. The well-bunkered green site is punctuated by the bulkheads above the front bunker and a massive ridge separating the back shelf from the lower front tier. A cave sits to the right of the hole along the path to the back paddock, where the final four holes sit.
#15 “Mill Dam” doesn’t look like much from the tee, and it plays to only 264 yards from the tips, however it is an outstanding short four. Accounting for the firm (AF!) conditions, it was too short for my 3-wood but not enough for my hybrid, but you can’t not go for it. The risk lies in the the OB just off the back edge of the green and the fact that the entire surface slopes toward that OB. Genius hole.
#18 “The Quarry” is a challenging par three finisher that plays around 200 yards to a green canting from left to right. In the photo below you’ll see the 13 green and 14 tee below and to the right of the clubhouse. Then 15 through 18 wind back and forth to the left of the clubhouse. As mentioned in the episode, these holes look out toward the lighthouse that sits about eleven miles offshore marking a treacherous rock outcropping.
WEIRD COURSE TRIVIA: From the Crail Golfing Society website:
On July 1st 1789 the Society passed the ‘unanimous resolution that no member, in particular the Secretary, shall absent himself from the bowl on the pretence of tea drinking.’ Apparently the purpose was served, for three years elapsed before an infringement occurred, one member being then fined half a mutchkin of punch ‘for being about drinking tea. Mr L. Was convicted on his own confession.’
WHAT SHOULD I DO BEFORE PLAYING THIS COURSE?: Expect the unexpected – you’ll hit a host of uncomfortable shots and have to chart your own unique way around the course. There are a bunch of humps, bumps, rolls, and bunkers in awkward spots that you won’t see anywhere else. We got our asses kicked. Along with Kilspindie, this course truly gave me an appreciation for shorter courses that pack a punch. The course is 5800 yards from the tips and will punch you in the mouth. Also expect to be received with authentic hospitality during your time on property. While we didn’t have a chance to meet the head pro, our interaction with the assistant pro, David Snodgrass, were exceptional and warm, despite us having played behind a few of the society’s grouchier members. It goes without saying, but the Society’s Secretary, David Roy, is a treasure – two parts historian, one part golf course architect, one part hospitality extraordinaire.
CLUBHOUSE/FOOD: Total charmer – the dining room boasts a resplendent view of the back paddock below and the North Sea beyond. Bountiful history is on display in the form of cups, medals, plaques, etc. We hadn’t planned on staying for lunch, yet in hindsight were glad that we did as it was one of the best meals of the trip.
TEE TIMES: Can be booked well in advance via the website. Balcomie will run you 90GBP during peak season for a morning time.
GREEN FEES: Balcomie will run you 90GBP during peak season and anywhere from 35-75GBP during off/shoulder seasons.
ACCOMMODATIONS: There are accommodations in the eponymous town nearby, however it is a short, straightforward drive over from St Andrews.