Cruden Bay golf club's scenery, flash overcome its few flaws

By Gary Daughters, Contributor

CRUDEN BAY, Scotland - It's funny how courses split golfers into camps.

Take Cruden Bay Golf Club. Those who like it like it a lot. They can sound like teens in search of the right superlative.

"Awesome," says the American coming off the course.

"Incredible," says his partner.

"Surreal," murmurs a doctor over dinner.

The estimable Pete Dye counts himself among the faithful. Years after Dye first played Cruden Bay and returned home singing its praises, he still holds the course in high regard.

"It's overwhelming," Dye said. "You haven't really lived until you've played it."

High praise, indeed.

But then there's a faction that speaks with reserve, often on the pages of golf message boards. These, you understand, are critics at heart. And yet the carping is surprisingly persistent. Where supporters see a course that's relentlessly bold, those less enamored tend to find Cruden Bay "quirky." The nines are out of balance. The course peaks too soon. One stretch of holes is plain weird.

Both sides have their points.

Yet everyone, it seems, agrees on this: Cruden Bay is a breathtaking place to play golf, a visual wonder. The initial view from the clubhouse is, well, startling. Is there a golf course out there somewhere? Among those dunes, those commanding, grassy behemoths? You know right away you are in for something different.

And now you fix your gaze to the right, to that preposterous mountain over there. It's in play; the inward nine commences from a shelf below its peak. There is a big surprise waiting when you get there, one of golf's great moments for sure.

Off to the north, meanwhile, and mundane by comparison, is the imposing ruin of a castle whose former owner had the roof removed to avoid paying taxes on it. It's a little spooky to begin with, and then you start hearing those Dracula stories. The thing always seems to be there, lurking.

So welcome to Cruden Bay. It was here on this dramatic shore of the chilly North Sea that in 1926 Tom Simpson arrived. One of the first of golf architecture's first true artistes, Simpson, it would seem, was a perfect match for this audacious landscape. Flamboyant to a fault, Simpson climbed out of his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, and together with his partner Herbert Fowler proceeded to finish the work of Old Tom Morris, whose talents Simpson considered pedestrian. While several of Morris's holes were preserved in some form, the course is Tom Simpson's.

It begins rather modestly. Cruden Bay's first three holes, all par 4s, usually are viewed as warm-ups, though each contains hints of Cruden Bay's allure, especially the second with its green set askew on a hilltop. The course breaks out at the par-3 fourth which skirts the Water of Cruden, a tidal inlet flanked by a tiny little village. The hole can play as long as 200 yards, often upwind, and the elevated green deems many a long-iron unworthy. This is a great one.

Now things take off with three straight holes that will test your every shot, tax your imagination and play themselves back in your visions. Holes number five (par 4), six (par 5) and seven (par 4) are classic links golf, and true to Tom Simpson they come with lots of juice. The stretch begins dramatically, high atop a ridge, then hurtles down into a valley, bumps through the dunes and across a narrow burn. It is astutely challenging, disorienting even; the sixth green is a tease, the drive on seven is a riddle. It's a stretch that can leave you off kilter, as if trying to find your glasses in the dark. On ice skates. It's exhilarating, truly Cruden Bay.

If the outward nine, with those otherworldly dunes, has a lavish feel to it, the first few holes of the inward nine are surprisingly spartan. On the other side of that mountain the course flattens out and finally meets the sea. The landscape is less dramatic, but the golf is remarkable still. The par-4 12th is a gentle little wonder, not to be confused with an automatic par. The 13th hole is an exacting par 5 with a high-up green cocked at a curious angle. All very solid, all fabulous fun.

Now Cruden Bay changes wardrobes again, and the ensuing three holes, two of which are squeezed where probably one should be, all feel a bit contrived. Even with No. 14's "bathtub" green, clever as it is, these are the weakest links in the chain. Especially the two par 3s, one after the other, both blind. But the course rallies again with a two-hole finish of fairly straight-ahead golf, never mind the burial mound that occupies the 17th fairway. This is, after all, Cruden Bay.

The verdict

So how does this course measure up?

First, give proper due to the picky dissenters. Cruden Bay peaks too early (but boy, does it peak!). The greens? They're fine, truly fine, but not great. And that three-hole stretch that's just before the finish, though not without character, really isn't worthy of the rest of the course. As it is, the club is considering a major change there.

So much for that. Cruden Bay is a course of such raging grandeur it reduces most criticism to quibbling. Every hole here is memorable, and some are unforgettable. With only one or two exceptions, they're all "signature" holes on the courses back home. It's just that here at Cruden Bay there's a lot to live up to.

One of those rigorous skeptics, a member at Royal Dornoch, had me going one day. As he ticked off the litany of Cruden Bay's flaws, I wondered out loud whether the trip there was worth the effort.

"Oh, go," he insisted. Cruden Bay, he said, "was the funnest round of golf I ever played."

I guess that's the point.

Stay and play

The Red House Hotel is located across the street from the golf club (Aulton Road, tel. 01779 812215). Cozy and affordable, the staff at the Red House go out of their way to accomodate golfers. The pub serves outstanding meals and, naturally, an assortment of fine ales and whiskies. From your breakfast table, you're able to see the course and Cruden Bay beyond.

Gary Daughters, Contributor

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment