The thing I love about Scotland is that there are links courses with little reputation that are must plays for the true golf addicts. The Balcomie Links at Crail sit about a half hour south of famed town of St. Andrews and does not carry any of the reputation of the courses in that immediate area. But in some ways Crail, perched high on the rocks above the North Sea, with a unique combination of three par fives, six par threes, and nine par fours measuring a mere 5900 yards is one of the most fun filled afternoons of links golf you can play. The vistas this course presents all through the round will have you repeatedly grabbing for your camera to capture another digital moment.
The Crail Golfing Society was instituted in 1786 and is the seventh oldest golf club in the world. Old Tom Morris laid out the holes of the Crail Balcomie Links in 1895 exposed across rugged and hilly terrain where the wind will batter your ball without compassion requiring you to play an unusual diversity of approach shots where the ground is your friend. Tidbit, I have read that this first known course on record to use iron cases as hole liners.
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The golf shop is a small, quaint affair perched high atop the Craighead ridge overlooking the course below. The separate clubhouse replete with all sorts of memorabilia has an equally stunning view of the North Sea and the last four holes. No practice facility I could find so it will be a couple of putts and then unleash it off the flight deck of the first tee.
What really makes the Balcomie Links unusual is the sequencing of holes which was clearly determined by the ground that nature presented to Old Tom. It begins with a relatively easy downhill par four followed by a routine par 5 that climbs back up to a ledge overlooking the North Sea. The golf challenge picks up quickly as the next three holes are played on the most exposed land on the links. This is no time for heroics take the prudent land line on all shots.
From six on you are working back in the direction from whence you came. The eighth, one of the longest par fours of the day, wanders back up the steep hill into the prevailing wind to a double green it shares with the eleventh. From this green you can probably make out the Netherlands.
Three billy goat down, up, and down holes follow setting you up for a most interesting finish. This part of the course the holes are so tightly configured that you will swear there are groups of eightsomes in front of you but it is likely just a second group playing up the adjacent hole. Better check your Titleist carefully on every shot or you might find it has changed unexpectedly to a Srixon.
Now it gets really funky as you will play four par threes in the last six holes. It seems Old Tom struggled to fit in the full 18, but do not be fooled by that because this is one of the hardest scoring stretches of the day.
Mystical interlude: Michael Murphy found enough intrigue in this place that he chose it as Burningbush, the fictional playground of Shivas Irons, in his famous book “Golf in the Kingdom”. He used the Craighead hole (#13) and the quarry and caves beside it for the memorable scenes where Shivas Irons introduces the young traveler to the mystic truths of True Gravity and the perfect golf swing. You too can pay homage with a visit to the caves as you make your way around the quarry path between the 14th green and the 15th tee. If you listen closely you may just make out the shuffling steps of Seamus MacDuff in the crevices behind you.
The final four holes are an eclectic finish to this unconventional track as they wind up and down the hills on a sliver of beachfront below the massive quarry wall facing the North Sea. Once again the exposure to the wind makes the distance of the holes irrelevant to determining the difficulty of getting to the bar with a scorecard in tact. It is a real thrill ride right to the end.
Once you have had a chance to reflect on it, the Balcomie Links will remind you of the favorite rumpled sweatshirt you love to throw on for the yard work on Sunday mornings. It is without pretense, comfortable, and has witnessed many of your most unheralded accomplishments without feeling a need to pass judgment. Balcomie Linkes presents an opportunity you don’t want to miss, a memorable windy walk along the coast of Scotland with a baffin’ spoon in your hand.
Architect: Old Tom Morris (1895)
Tees Par Yardage Rating Slope
White 69 5861 69.7 122
For more pictures click to review Northern Scotland-Day 8: Crail Balcomie Links