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11 miles SE of St Andrews
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Twelve miles from St Andrews, on the easternmost tip of the Kingdom of Fife, lies the Balcomie Links. It's laid out on a narrow promontory, often blasted by North Sea gales. There are magnificent views across the beach to the Firth of Forth. Nearby stands Balcomie Castle, which is said to be haunted by the ghost of a boy who was starved to death inside the castle walls nearly 400 years ago. In 1538, Mary of Guise stayed at the castle on her way to marry King James V at St Andrews.
Balcomie is the relatively modern home of the Crail Golfing Society, the ninth oldest golf club in the world, which was formed in 1786 at a meeting in the Golf Inn at Crail. In the early days, the Crail Golfing Society played their golf on an 8-hole course at Sauchope, located closer to the pretty fishing village of Crail. According to early club records, failure to show up for a match resulted in a fine of "a half mutchkin of punch". In the mid-19th century, a local farmer laid out a nine-hole course at Balcomie and in 1894, Old Tom Morris redesigned it. He returned four years later to extend it to 18 holes.
Measuring a mere 5,922 yards from the men's medal tees, Balcomie is by no means a championship course, but with a lowly par of 69 and the ever-present wind, the yardages are often meaningless. The opening hole falls away from the clubhouse towards the sea and the next four holes hug the shoreline – it's a thrilling start. The next nine holes are a little less dramatic – inland in character, but nevertheless enjoyable. A return to the shoreline concludes the round.
You'll want to play Balcomie more than once because there's a great deal of variety, not least in the balance of the two nines - six par fours on the front and only three on the back. We suggest you buy a day ticket and play Balcomie twice. Or, if you are feeling up to it, perhaps you'd like to emulate those who play in Crail's annual tournament, the Ranken Todd Bowl. It's contested over 54-holes on a single September day.
Crail is a special place to play golf and a prime example of how a short course can be confused with an easy course, especially if the wind is up. The views are breathtaking and the par is 69. The 447-yard fifth hole is a killer into the wind with its forced carry over the sea, and a visual stunner. Reminiscent of Prestwick and North Berwick, the 9th hole at Crail features a stone wall against the green. The members serve as caddies at Crail and are a delight. I suppose perfectionists could nit-pick that there are too many blind shots and four par 3s on the back nine, but come on, who are we to criticize Old Tom Morris? The course is a throw-back and a delightful place to play without pretense and reasonable greens fees.
This is the first visit to Scotland links this July. It was very fine when we played Balcomie and we had a wonderful time there. The ground is more firm than in Japan and the ball runs far. I will never forget this first experience on Links golf.
Of all the links golf courses around the Fife Coast the Balcomie Links at Crail must be the most picturesque of them all.
The view of the rocky coastline from the elevated, modern clubhouse is panoramically majestic and the scenery to feast on as you golf over the links is just about unrivalled in this part of the world.
I’m yet to see the Craighead course but have played the Balcomie a couple of times, the most recent in August 2019 when three generations tackled the 5,861 yard, par 69 layout. Undoubtedly one of the best courses under 6,000 yards.
It proved to be the perfect track for a 79, 40 and 10 year old with handicaps ranging from 3 to 36. It was more than testing enough for myself, an easy enough walk for my dad and a brilliant introduction to links golf for my son who was able to reach many of the short par-fours in regulation, which pleased him greatly.
Indeed half a dozen of the two-shotters play to a yardage of around 350-yards or less from the back-tees with four of them under 300-yards from the yellow blocks. I think sporty is the term often used.
There are also six par-threes and whilst there are some longer holes, where you can open your shoulders, Crail isn’t the sort of place to beat you up. You won’t spend much time looking for golf balls as there is little rough on the compact site and bar a few holes where gorse features it’s a case of hit it, find it, then hit it again although sadly this can no longer be done from the beach as it is marked out-of-bounds.
Emphasis is very much on the fun factor at Crail. However, be warned that the course is no pushover and the SSS of 70 will give you an indication of this. And with the wind a constant and ever-changing feature, the challenge is enhanced at many of the holes.
The Club perhaps sum it up it best on their website when they say, “Created in the days when course design was governed by the natural lie of the land and not the mechanical earth mover. Extraordinary holes abound, along with those which seriously challenge and those which are more comfortable. The sum total is a layout which both enchants and delights, but which also demands and punishes, testing all the skills in a golfer's armoury – as well as his nerve. Those length seekers who believe Balcomie will be a soft touch, do so at their peril.”
The set of greens at Crail is particularly impressive and they are a pleasure to putt on. The condition, speed and trueness was excellent on my visit but there are plenty of undulations, slopes and borrows to provide interest too. The double green at 8 and 11 is fascinating with a gentle furrow running through it. The 3rd green also caught my eye with its contouring which allows you to feed the ball in from the safer left-hand-side.
Not having a blast at Crail, with its exhilarating seaside location, is an impossibility. The nature of the land, the fantastic mix of holes and the setting all add up to a wonderful golf experience. Just a short drive from St. Andrews it would make a perfect addition to any of the courses there and comes recommended.
Put simply; a wonderful golfing experience which shouldn’t be taken too seriously, a chance to let your hair down and enjoy the simplicities of golf.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
The other half of a truly great 36 hole links venue.
A REAL MUST VISIT.
I doubt that my opinion of the Balcomie course at Crail is going to be met with universal popularity, but despite its scenic setting, I just didn’t warm to the place. My visit came towards the end of a week-long golf tour to the Fife region where from the outset, everything appeared promising. The course is set serenely against the coast just a short hop away from Kingsbarns where there are beautiful views of the sea from the car park and across most of the golf holes. A fairly modern well-appointed clubhouse, pro shop/starter’s hut as well as caddies available on request also go to demonstrate that Crail isn’t short on attention from visitors to the region. Despite all of this early promise though, Balcomie didn’t deliver for me.
The course does indeed start well, holes two through five in particular being lovely holes that hug the shoreline featuring a couple of heroic carries from the tee and include typical bumpy links fairways, but after this, I just felt a bit flat with what was delivered. Undoubtedly, the course is pretty, but it lacks complexity. Sure, there are some nice touches along the way such as the boathouse next to the second tee, a double green mid-round as well as two enjoyable raised green par threes, but nothing to really stir those links-juices. Too many of the holes feature large expanses of ground to aim at with your driver, and whilst I’m far from opposed to width on a golf course, this needs to be supplemented by better strategic bunkering or gorse to frame the holes, something to keep you honest and to make you more considerate of your line of attack from the tee.
The round also ends on a slightly flat note where, despite once again being located close to the shoreline and under the gaze of the members watching on from the clubhouse, the journey from tee to green seemed to involve little in the way of truly thoughtful design. Ultimately, I was left wanting more substance than the holiday golf I was presented with. Crail’s Balcomie course makes a pleasant introductory round to someone visiting these shores, but if your trip is short and you’re looking for a purer links experience and some diversity if travelling outside of St Andrews, there are better options elsewhere.
This is a must play for anyone in Fife. A classic "old school" links course with some of the best scenery in the world. There are several short holes and some are in close proximity to each other, so be it, they are beautiful and fun.
The history is wonderful as well. On a calm day you can score here, however when the wind is up (and it normally is) the course is all the challenge you will want. Holes two through seven are a great variety, beautiful and great fun. 14 to 18 are also a joy.
Do not play here without taking time for a bite to eat and a pint. The view from the bar / restaurant is one of the best in the world, particularly when the gorse is in bloom.
I have many great memories from Crail Balcomies, I am looking forward to making some more next year.
During our second golf trip to Scotland, we visited Fife. After we met the ultra nice head pro Graeme Lennie and his assistant David, we decided to play both Crail courses that day: Crailhead in the morning and Balcomie in the afternoon.
It was a bit of a grey and busy day at Crail, and the pace at the Balcomie was pretty slow, which did not add to the enjoyment.
After a nice down-hill opener, the second hole is almost surreal: when playing my second shot I had no clue where to aim for (yes, I was still on the fairway.....). I will remember that shot for a long time!
The remaining holes at that side of the clubhouse offer a wide variety of links holes: both short & long, uphill & downhill and two holes testing your knowledge of your driver carry distance, since you can/must cut the corner over the beach. After playing the funky uphill/ downhill combo of par3's in front of the clubhouse there is a little loop of holes waiting for you near the coastline behind the clubhouse, offering some very links type closing holes.
Despite the course being relatively short, I still enjoyed the course since it offers you the typical quirkiness that links golf is all about.
Excellent condition, excellent greens. When checking the scores after the round, I found out that - despite the lack of length - Balcomie can still put a decent dent in your golf pride if your short game is not firing on all cylinders.....
During our day at Crail, we felt welcomed by all staff, both in the clubhouse as out on the course.
If you decide to travel up to Crail to shoot some golf, I can recommend to play the Crail combo in this order: it will give you a decent golf test in the morning and a links adventure in the afternoon. You will not be disappointed.
I hope Mr. Lennie is not offended to much by my reviews of 'his' courses at Crail....
Four and five both necessitate driving over the edge of the North Sea, but the 5th is by far the harder and is aptly named ‘Hell’s Hole’. It is very difficult to know how much of the corner to take on with your tee shot. The long second shot is made more difficult by the requirement of great accuracy into a green that slopes from left to right and from front to back.
The 13th is a par three where you may well need driver into the wind. Thirteen is uphill heading back to the clubhouse. It is unusual to have par threes back to back but the two holes are very different. The 14th, ‘Cave’, frequently features in photographs. The tee is high on a hill just below the 1st tee. Distance is hard to judge but you must carry a large sleeper-faced greenside bunker at the front.
Fifteen is a short par four with few problems unless you hook badly to the sea cliff on the left. The 16th, ‘Spion Kop’, is a par three of 162 yards up a steep hill. The 17th is the longest par four at 462 yards and is rated index number 2. Eighteen is a long par three that may need driver some days. The tee shot looks more difficult than it really is due to the large bank of gorse that you must carry.
This review is an edited extract from Another Journey through the Links, which has been reproduced with David Worley’s kind permission. The author has exclusively rated for us every Scottish course featured in his book. Another Journey through the Links is available for Australian buyers via www.golfbooks.com.au and through Amazon for buyers from other countries.