Balcomie Links: A fine diversion for the gentlemen in and about the town of Crail - and the rest of us too
CRAIL, Scotland -- The journey from Edinburgh to the East Neuk of Fife where the small town of Crail lies is a scenic trip, particularly if one takes the coastal route.
The road winds its way through golfing territory that is home to courses the calibre of Elie, Leven Links and Lundin Links. Making this trip one sunny Wednesday morning, the beauty and golfing pedigree of the surrounding countryside was unfortunately rather to the back of my mind. The reason for this was my lack of recent practice (two driving-range sessions in the past six months) coupled with the blustering wind that was rocking the car every so often.
On arrival at the home of the Crail Golfing Society, the wind had not abated and looking down from the elevated first tee, it became apparent that today would be a long day on the course. I just hoped it wouldn't be too painful.
On Feb. 23, 1786, 11 men met together with the result that the following rather charming words were at some stage recorded: "...Several gentlemen in and about the Town of Crail who were fond of the diversion of golf agreed to form themselves into a Society which should be known by the name of the Crail Golfing Society..."
The date upon which these words were uttered leads to the Crail Golfing Society being acknowledged as the seventh oldest golf club in Scotland.
The Society originally played their golf at Sauchope on the north- eastern edge of the town. Following one of these matches, they would partake of dinner in the Golf Inn, the landlord of which was one of those original "gentlemen in and about the town of Crail." Well into the 19th century the members continued this tradition of post-match dining. By the late 19th century, play over at the Balcomie Links had begun. At some stage, Old Tom Morris of St Andrews influenced the layout of a nine-hole course at Balcomie which were later extended to the eighteen holes we see today.
Standing on the first tee affords you the first of many stunning views that you will experience as you make your way about the Balcomie course. The magnificent golfing terrain spreads out all around with the ever-present North Sea lapping at its perimeter. On the right day, it is possible to see over a hundred miles of the East Scotland coastline -- from beyond Montrose to the north right down to St Abbs Head near Berwick Upon Tweed on the English border.
However, as I stood on the first tee, the precise mileage of visible coastline was not my primary concern. The wind was blowing hard out to sea, I was about to tee off, and I had little idea of where exactly the first green lay. Being a tentative sort, I took an iron from my bag, took aim well inland of where I believed I was meant to be heading, and struck hard. The result was not beautiful, but it was straight enough, and thus I began this golfing adventure.
The first hole saw my first, and thankfully only, encounter with the bunkers of Balcomie Links. My sandpit of choice was a deep, steep-faced horrible beast. I suspect I would still be in it today if I hadn't swallowed my pride and played out backwards following several failed conventional escape attempts.
On the second hole I had the good fortune to meet up with Kenny, an American gentleman who had first played Crail more than 15 years ago, and now visits annually in order to reacquaint himself with the charms of the place.
As we tackled the following holes, Kenny assured me that on a less windswept day, the Balcomie course provided a very accessible and fair golfing challenge. However, on the day in question, I could have added twenty to my handicap and still failed to record a net score of less than the par of 69.
On any normal day, I imagine the fifth, aptly named "Hell's Hole," provides as tough a challenge as I have ever faced on a golf course. The day I was at Crail, you could only laugh at what it asked of you. It is a 450-yard par 4; the tee shot demands a drive out over the sea to a fairway that then runs parallel to the coast. It is a beautiful and hugely challenging hole.
The condition of the Balcomie course was excellent. In the days before irrigation systems, it is said that in the summer, the greens took on a shine that you could see your face in. Whilst not quite as scarily slick as that sounds, the greens I played on ran as true as they did fast, blame for missed putts lay firmly at the door of those who struck them.
The 14th is probably the pick of the six short holes at Balcomie. It is not the most challenging of them (that title probably belongs to the uphill 219-yard 13th), but it certainly is a sight to behold. From an elevated tee, you are asked to play down to a green 149 yards away and surrounded by five bunkers. Beyond the bunkers to the right, the ground slopes away to the sea. It is probably the most photographed of the holes at Crail, and understandably so.
The final four holes of the course are relatively straightforward. What makes them special is the fact that they are all visible in their entirety from the clubhouse perched on a hill above them. I don't know how they decide tied matches at Crail, but a four-hole playoff over these holes could certainly capture the attention of those nursing a drink at the bar high above. Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to sample it for myself, but reputedly the food available in the clubhouse is the equal of the view from it.
There is a second course at Crail, the Craighead Links, which was opened in October 1997. It was designed by an American, Gil Hanse, and provides a modern interpretation of the traditional concept of a links course. On the day I was at Crail, it looked a formidable and spectacular golfing challenge.
The welcome I received at Crail did much to revive me following my struggles on the course. The members still seem to be continuing the legacy of the original members who dined together "for very happy evenings with accustomed hilarity and good-fellowship."
I had a wonderful day of links golf at Crail despite the attempts of the wind to spoil it. I would encourage you to go and seek a similar experience in this charming corner of Fife.
April 2, 2002