At the end of the 19th century the great railway expansion took place in Scotland which provided a mode of transport to a string of new links courses established in that era. Cruden Bay, just north of Aberdeen, came on line in 1899 and one more magnificent links venue was within reach. Nestled amongst some of the tallest dunes on the east coast of Scotland Old Tom Morris staked the original Cruden Bay course in Aberdeenshire and it fast became a favorite destination for holiday travelers. It was updated and expanded by Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler in 1926 to take on the unique character that we enjoy today.
The clubhouse sits on a hill overlooking the sprawling links below. As you step out of the golf shop the panoramic view is a strong hint at the special day of links golf that lies ahead. James Finegan describes this view, “Below, in all its turbulent splendor, lies one of the most awe-inspiring stretches of linksland ever dedicated to the game….sand hills rise as high as sixty feet, their shaggy slopes covered with long and throttling golden grasses. For sheer majesty of setting, no Scottish course surpasses Cruden Bay”.
(Click on any picture to get an enhanced view of the image)
The tallest dunes dominate the north end of the course early in the round creating a mixture of elevation changes and alcove holes between the dunes to challenge your judgment and your will. Coming off the valley floor the first four holes present a unique array of technical links shots that are a splash of cold water on the face. Negotiating a successful approach shot to the table top green at number two demands creativity and dexterity. The carry shot on the signature par three fourth is a blend of terror and thrill if it lands and stays on a putting surface suspended off a towering dune.
If you survived the opening volley the rest of the front side you wend amongst the low gorse and grassed covered dunes that define playing lines for each hole. The view off the tee box of the sweeping par four fifth is mesmerizing as the hole turns left into a small subdivision of sand dunes. Two full metal blows are required to reach the putting surface. A Captain Hook dogear left three-shot par five follows-with the first incursion of a Scottish burn defining your lay up position and putting the vise grip on your approach shot into a treacherous green setting.
As you start a slow climb up to the high ground the next two are quintessential links par fours. The seventh would feel at home at Ballyliffen Glashedy or Enniscronne in the northern reaches of Ireland. Your tee ball requires restraint as you play into a narrowing landing area leaving a steep uphill pitch to a long putting surface that seems to shed approach shots without very distinct intention. The driveable eighth will leave many a long hitter with tufts of hair between their fingers if they fail to make birdie on what seems to be a most gettable hole. The steep march that follows to the ninth tee has you gasping for air as you look out over a hole draped across the ridge of one of the tallest dunes on the course.
From the precipice tee on ninth tee take in the grandeur of the remaining holes stretching out below your feet in both directions-a gorse covered dune wall cordons one side and the low cliffs overlooking the sea the other. If you look behind you, on the bluffs in the distance you see the eerie remains of Slain’s Castle peering out over the North Sea.
Exposure to the sea breeze creates a remarkable run of holes from the 9th to 16th . The short par three 11th reminds me of the three pars on the inward half at Royal Dornoch-there is only one line to play and it has to be with proper resolve to mitigate the wind’s effect and offer a chance to make par.
Turning back to the North you are playing to the farthest reach of the links. The sound of the sea crashing on the rocks just over your shoulder adds to the sense of remoteness of this part of the course. Against all macho temptations to be heroic, controlling your line and the subsequent roll outs on both the short par four 12th and the serpentine par five that follows is essential. The green complex on the 13th is as Old Tom found it, a small blind shelf wedged between a low dune and the tall dune wall behind just begging for a putting surface.
Blind is an important operational term since it is the major factor on the next three holes. There is so much existential fate woven into them Søren Kierkegaard would feel right at home here. After a controlled draw up the ramp shoulder of the tall dune on the 14th your second shot is a full faith play over the directional pole where your target is a large Turkish bath of a green sunken into a hollow on the back side of a low dune. The punch bowl effect is helpful but the green is so long that gauging distance to the pin is crucial-an important hint is provided in “the box” next to the tee.
A dogleg left par three follows-yes I said dogleg. Totally blinded by the right scapula of the big dune you have to visualize a draw shape and trust that there is an ample receiving area round the bend. Don’t fail to notice the engineering marvel of the bell and rope warning system provided to let the group behind you know when it is safe to hit.
One more blind man’s bluff in a middle sized par three on the 16th where the teenie green is hidden over top edge of a low dune surrounded by the coffins that give the hole it’s name. Aim at the refuge house on the hill and be prepared for a birdie putt.
One last links diddie awaits you on the 17th tee as you start your descent to the valley floor from where you began. The driving area is dominated by a huge fallen soufflé of a mound in the center of the fairway. Trusting that you can slip it by one side to get a look at the raised plateau green is another act of faith. The final hole is a bit mundane compared to the rest but it still has plenty of challenge if you need a par to win the third leg of the Nassau bet.
Sipping a cold one in the clubhouse bar overlooking the splendor that James Finegan described you will have a remorseful sense of a links adventure experienced that ended too soon. A second exploratory trip around might just be in order.
Architect: Old Tom Morris (1899)
Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler (1926)
Tees Par Yardage Rating
White 70 6263 71
Gold 70 5862 69
For more pictures click to review Northern Scotland-Day 6a: Cruden Bay Golf Club
For even more photos click our 2016 posting Cruden Bay Golf Club-Revisited