We wrapped our morning at Cruden Bay with lunch in their clubhouse. On the menu was Cullen skink, a thick, hearty chowder made from smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. We each ordered a bowl (I loved it!) and quite literally got our first taste of Cullen. Puns aside, none of us had any real expectations for the course. It made its way onto our itinerary for a couple reasons: both Tom Doak and Tom Coyne had written highly of it; and it sounded like a fun departure from the big, brawny, renowned courses we were in the midst of. We would have no idea how true that second bit would be…
Cullen is located in Moray, on the Moray Firth, an old fishing village that is as quaint and picturesque as an old Scottish fishing village connotes. It’s an area of Scotland that is a bit more remote due to the routing of Scotland’s highway system, with the end result being many golf tours sail past Cullen (and a host of other delightfully interesting tracks in the area) as they make their way from Aberdeen to the Nairn/Inverness area. I don’t want to tell you how to plan your Scottish golf trip, but I will say that the experience at Cullen was comfortably one of my favorites of our entire Scotland trip. Cullen is the type of course where nearly six months later I can remember damn near every hole and every shot I hit that day. It’s a course I think about often, replaying again and again in mind. It captured our group’s imagination, and as such, I couldn’t recommend any more highly making the hour and twenty minute drive from Cruden Bay up to Cullen for a spin (or two) around the links.
Before getting to the hole notes, I want to call special attention to our host on this day, George Clark. We could not have asked for a better sheppard around the links. Not only is George a tremendous player (two-time club champion in a very Crenshaw-esque manner twenty-five years apart), but his love and passion of Cullen augmented our day tremendously. George is the General Manager at Cullen, but even that job title doesn’t seem to do his work justice. He is involved, out of necessity, in just about every facet of the Club, and has been for many decades. And he does it all while living ninety minutes away in Aberdeen! Cullen is a labor of love for George, and we were privileged to bear witness on this day.
#1: like a lot of opening holes in Scotland, this benign par 4 more or less serves as a comfy warm up.
#2: you know the maxim, ‘the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line’? That’s what I think about when I think about this hole. The routing needs to get golfers up on top of the ridge and the shortest distance is a straight path directly up the ridge wall. It’s a bananas, blind, uphill par 3. I can’t think of another hole I’ve played anywhere that’s similar to this one (a thought that comes to mind with a lot of these holes).
#3: the drive at three is one of the more uncomfortable shots on the entire course. It’s really a par 3.5 with the fairway bottlenecking into a green that is protected by O.B. left, a sheer drop off a ridge right, and junk long. Here’s the hole flyover off the Cullen website (their website is fantastic, by the way):
#4: another fun par 3 played across a crevice in the ridge. The green is mostly blind, so again, it’s a bit of hit and hope!
#5: is a bit similar to #3 but with more length and more forgiveness. There’s O.B. left but it’s not quite as snug. There’s room to the right especially if you lay back off the tee. Like #3, it gets a bit tighter towards the green complex with a bunch of gnarly trouble left, long and right.
#6: the last hole up on top of the ridge plays back towards town, which is a wonderful backdrop. Again, the danger forces your miss on this hole. Short and left is dropping off the ridge, long is dead, but there’s plenty of room to bail out.
#7: George’s favorite spot on the course, and with good reason. It offers the best views of Cullen, the course, and the ocean. It’s a big, downhill par 3 played from on top of the ridge to the flat land below. A crazy fun tee shot were your ball is in the air forever.
#8: this short par 4 is a good birdie opportunity and also is a bit of a respite from the sensory overload from the past few holes. The flyover is below:
#9: a damn fun shot on this long par 3. It plays downhill towards the ocean with some whiffs of a reverse-redan green complex that funnels balls from short and left onto the green. DJ’s tee shot here during our round was a thing of beauty, one of his best shots on the whole trip, and his giggly reaction to the contact and watching his ball run is an indelible memory for me.
#10: a short par 4 with a burn protecting the green which forces strategy from the tee box. Soly had the length to carry the burn (even though he played to the wrong flag lol), while Tron two-hopped his drive in, and DJ and I came up just short. The beach and ocean hug the whole left side.
#11: this is the first of four straight par 3s, a stretch known locally as “Roon the Rocks.” It’s a long hole, 245 yards, with the defining feature being the large rock structure situated just behind the green. There’s a little cave in the rock that I had to explore. From the empty beer bottles in there, I’m guessing some local youths like to do nefarious things in there. It could also possibly be where the Bogey Man lives.
#12: this hole features prominently in our video. We were standing on the tee and I legitimately had no idea where the green was. Finally George had to point to it. You can’t really see any of the green complex, only a small aiming stick for general guidance. All this amongst the big, red rocks. Completely insane.
#13: a mid iron shot, 152 yards, but again with no visual on the green and having to thread large rocks and crevices. I think my favorite aspect of the tee shot is the proximity of twelve green.
#14: the last of the four par 3s is another long iron at 206 yards. The right part of the green is visible, and the flag as well–at least the day we played it. There’s a large rock with encourages a right-to-left shape off the tee.
#15: the lone par 5 at Cullen! The tee shot plays immediately across the 14th green, which again, is visually pretty interesting. The routing of the hole is fairly mundane, though the ocean and water offer hazard to the left, and there are some traditional links humps and bumps in the fairway that give a lot of character to the hole.
#16: this is a 350 yard par 4, and if I’m being honest, is the one hole at Cullen that doesn’t stick out in my mind too much. For that reason, here’s the flyover so you can see it for yourself:
#17: probably wouldn’t be in anyone’s top 3 holes at Cullen, but upon reflection it’s damn close. It’s a reachable par 4 (270 yards) with a lot of tall grass and trouble right, and the world to your left. The green hugs the tall grass right, and more than that, there’s an unpaved road which cuts right in front of the green along with a small ridge. It makes the green blind and introduces some fun dynamics for the second shot, assuming you haven’t reached the green with your drive.
#18: the home hole at Cullen really serves to bring you back to the clubhouse. In this way it’s a bit of an ‘easy’ finisher in the manner of a St. Andrews or North Berwick. It’s a 330 yard par 4 with generous landing areas and a fairly benign green complex. If you need a birdie it provides a good opportunity, as Soly was able to do in our six-club challenge match.
THIS COURSE IN ONE WORD
George said “quirky,” so who am I to say otherwise?
WEIRD COURSE TRIVIA
According to George, Cullen is not only one of 84 “true” links courses in the world, and also the shortest.
WHAT SHOULD I DO BEFORE PLAYING THIS COURSE?
Cull your bag (really, you don’t need 14 clubs), clear your mind, and maybe enjoy a bowl of Cullen skink.
A fun place to sit and have a couple beers after playing. They have a nice little bar with a very friendly, inviting staff. Although we did not, you can eat there. Also, there’s a billiards table in the clubhouse in case you need any more competition.
Tee times: Cullen is open to the public and reservations can be made through the club’s WEBSITE.
Greens fees: a single round runs at 25 pounds, with deals and discounts available.
Accommodations: We did not stay in Cullen, instead drove about 30 minutes down the road to Elgin where we stayed at the St. Michael’s Guest House. Because of our late arrival and very early departure the next morning we didn’t get the full experience but the rooms were great and the beds comfortable. For those wishing to stay in Cullen, the Cullen Bay Hotel looked very nice. It sits up above the links with wonderful views of the course, town and water.
Finally, I want to give a quick shoutout to the Spice Tandoori restaurant in Elgin. Not only were they open late when we needed it, but the food was delicious, the beer cold, and the setting unforgettable–the restaurant is inside an old church! A legit, big old church. It was extraordinary.