Of all of the courses played on this jaunt through Scotland, Cruden Bay is one that really sticks out as one that hit me right in the feels. It represents so much about both the history of the game, and the current state of the game, and yet it’s still a blast to play. Just a 30 minute drive from the nearby hub of Aberdeen, not only should your visit to this area most definitely include this course, it should be based around it.
Cruden Bay has never been starving for visitors, but the recent development of Trump International Golf Links down the road in Aberdeen has undoubtedly given the area a boom in golf tourism. But on its own, it’s already a world class golf course. The course opened for play in 1899, with the original layout being designed by Old Tom Morris and Archie Simpson. Just 27 years later, the course was redesigned by Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler, yet still long before bulldozers became essential in course shaping. Little has changed in the last 90 years, and it is critical to the visitor experience to know this before visiting.
Blind shots in golf are typically not well received by the weekend hacker. I have to admit, before I really understood the history and the significance behind some blind shots, I could easily be lumped into this category. However, over time, I’ve grown to appreciate certain examples of them. In modern design, they’re considered a great taboo. But in the pre-bulldozer era, they were an inevitability. What makes Cruden Bay so unique is that it’s such a great celebration of the original lay of the land. The holes are built through and around some enormous dunes, and do require some shots right over them.
Those that love this game travel in search of authentic experiences and you’ll definitely get one at Cruden Bay.
(All photos in this post are the product of the very talented Patrick Koenig. I would strongly advise checking out his website for more stunning photos from around the world. Special thanks to Patrick for allowing us to use his photos for this post.)
The clubhouse sits high above the property and provides a stellar panorama of the layout, as well as a view of the dunes and the sea. In typical Scottish style, what it lacks in extravagance, it makes up for in charm.
After descending down a steep path to the first tee, you’re greeted with a rather challenging opening par four. The second hole is short but challenging, with an almost blind uphill approach to a highly elevated putting surface (see overhead shot above, with the first hole in the foreground, and the second in the background). The third is a very short par four that seems a bit forced into the property. Despite it being just about 275 yards, a driver is not recommended due to the fact that there is nearly nowhere to land it, and the green can’t be viewed from the tee. Out of bounds surrounds the left side and wraps around the back, and the tee includes a traffic light system (!) to let you know when it’s safe to hit. It’s very, very rare that we’ll recommend laying up, but we won’t get upset if you do. (Also worth noting, I might just be bitter about this hole due to the fact I went OB both times I played it.)
The 4th is where the fun starts. A great 195 yard one shotter where “short is not an option,” according to our forecaddie. This is the first introduction to the dunescape, and the first time a mid-iron is needed. It’s a great par-3, and it kicks off the most memorable stretch on the course.
The 5th hole is when Cruden Bay stops being nice, and starts being real. Mad real. A demanding par-4 that requires accuracy off the tee. The fairway is wide, but fescue left of the fairway will make a ball disappear immediately (trust me).
The upper left hand portion of the photo below shows the fifth green from the sky. If the back portion of the green looks a bit unusual, it’s for a good reason. Old photos of the original Tom Morris green were discovered, and the fifth green was extended in an effort to reclaim this historic element of the course.
The 6th is where the controversy around Cruden Bay begins. The reachable par-5 is rather generous off the tee, but the debate lies within the second shot. It’s one of the most blind shots you’ll ever hit, and you’ll need a forecaddie you can trust.
I was mentally prepared for this hole based on research I had done prior to the round, but still couldn’t quite get comfortable with the line. For us, the 555 yarder played down breeze. After a solid drive, I hit what I thought was a solid 8-iron on a good line, only to find it in the tall grass left of the hole. It was frustrating, but maybe I pulled it more than I thought I did? The quote I often hear about blind shots is, “it’s only blind the first time you see it,” but this approach is a really tough one to get comfortable over if you’ve never played the hole. Then again, if my ball found the center of the green, I might be saying how simple the blind shot is.
Personal feelings aside, these types of quirks are what makes Cruden Bay unique. How often do you get the chance to get bitten by Old Tom Morris? Embrace it. There aren’t many walks like this one, and if you’re not prepared for these types of rub of the green, it may diminish your experience. And that’s on you, not on the golf course.
This stretch of the course is so great that I don’t know which holes to detail out, and which ones to skip over. The 7th is another solid par-4 back up the hill with an especially fun approach (see the upper portion of the above photo). Some thinking is required off the tee about how close you want to get it to the dogleg, then you’ve gotta hit a solid mid-iron up the hill to the elevated surface. A strong and fair test of a hole.
The 8th is a great example of why par does not matter. At just 250 yards, it plays as either an insanely hard par-3, or too easy of a par-4. It’s a four on the card, and with a helping wind on this day, it only took a 3-iron to get home. But this hole is Cruden Bay in a nutshell. Look at how perfectly the hole sits in the dunes. Sure, in modern days, a bulldozer could have been used to lengthen the hole, or to perch it up on top of those dunes. Here, they embrace the landscape and let the hole speak for itself, without a worry as to what the card says the par is. And make no mistake, this hole is not an easy birdie. The green is severely sloped, and some pins are very inaccessible from the wrong location near the green. It’s a perfect short hole because it while it looks like an auto birdie on the card, there’s much more nuance to it than initially meets the eye.
The walk up to the 9th tee is tough, but worth it. In the above picture, you can see a path elevating from right to left. Now see that dune all the way in the upper left hand corner? That’s where you’re going.
The tee box is new, and unsurprisingly it was voted as the best view in Scotland golf. Here’s Tom Murray teeing from the highest point on the course:
From this perch, take a peek down at the pin positions on 14 and 15, because you won’t see them when you’re playing your approaches (more on this later).
The 10th continues to take you back down to sea level with a dangerous tee shot from an elevated area. The fairway is wide with plenty of bail out space left, but anything right finds the OB.
After a short par-3 back towards the clubhouse, the course continues to extend outward along the coast. Old Tom Morris cared not about making sure the 9th routed back towards the clubhouse, nor about following any traditional “out and back” routings. He cared only about using the best parts of the land for golf holes.
After the par-5 13th (which also has a blind approach), the two holes that follow are the subject of much debate. The 14th (photographed below from the 9th tee box) is a tight par-4 that plays uphill with a nearly totally blind approach.
If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see a white stake about 40 yards short of the green. This is your aiming point for your approach, as the green sits almost comically low beneath the fairway and the 15th tee to its right. For as much as I did not care for the blind shot approach into the 6th, I loved the approach into the 14th even more. It’s much friendlier, and the punchbowl green makes you feel like you can’t miss the green (yet I assure you that you can).
Another view of the signature 14th green:
Now to the 15th.
I would show you a picture from the tee, but it would just be a picture of the side of a dune. The same dune that provides the unreal view from atop the 9th tee also guards your view of the 15th green in totality. A tee in a wooden sign displays the pin position for the day, and the forecaddie earns his modest wage on this shot alone. Without his help, there’s no way you could know where to aim.
Above: The 15th green, with the 16th green in the background.
Cruden Bay is in the mix to host the 2019 Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, but rumor has it that they will not be playing the course as stands today. For as much as visitors criticize blind shots, professionals seem even less equipped to handle them mentally. As such, the story I’ve heard mentioned is that two par 3’s on the back (the 11th and 15th) will be skipped, and two holes from the club’s St. Olaf 9 hole course will be put into play.
Regardless, when you pay your fare and play Cruden Bay yourself, you’ll play this quirky par-3 that’s unlike anything I’ve seen aside from the 5th at Prestwick. It’s fun, embrace it!
Two nice par-4’s bring you back to the clubhouse, and the special day concludes. For myself, a double bogey on the last for a 72 left a very bitter taste in my mouth. I needed another crack at it, and a week later I found myself rerouted up the road from Aberdeen for another shot at her. What I had failed to account for was the fact that I caught it on a relatively calm day the first time around. When the wind came on round 2, it destroyed me. I was coming off 18 holes at Royal Aberdeen that morning, and was on the backend of my 15th round in nine days. I couldn’t even finish the round I was so exhausted. Cruden Bay in the right conditions is an absolute beast, but equally as fun as it is challenging.
Visiting guests to Cruden Bay have the option to play 27 holes during their visit, the club offers the challenging 2,463 yard (par 32) St. Olaf course to all guests, either before they head out as a warm up or after their challenging 18 holes while they wind down.
Of the courses I played in the Aberdeen area, Cruden Bay was no doubt my favorite, and ranks amongst my highest recommendations for your Scotland trip.
If you're looking for a place to stay in the area, look no further than our friend Ru Macdonald's place: https://www.dunescrudenbay.com/