The Crail Golfing Society may be over 200 years old but they do know how to move with the times. Due to the pressure of an increasing number of visiting golfers, a decision was made in the mid 1990s to acquire a relatively modest 114 acres of land next to their Balcomie course and transform the cliff top setting into a modern, seaside golf course.
Many eyebrows were raised when American Gil Hanse, an unknown architect in the British Isles, was appointed to design the new 18-hole layout. His small firm was established in 1993 following his departure from Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design team and he set out to design courses that were “simple and elegant in appearance yet sophisticated in strategy and interest.”
Hanse may have been a surprise overseas selection as architect but he was no stranger to UK shores as he had spent a year during his Cornell studies with the famous English golf course design firm of Hawtree so he was well aware of what would be expected of his inaugural design in Britain.
His interpretation of a Scottish links is very good, despite the fact that the terrain is more pasture and headland than true sandy soiled links land. An interesting challenge for Hanse was to incorporate several stonewalls – and one of particular archaeological importance, “Danes Dyke” – into the design. This elevated track cuts across five holes, presenting a formidable barrier from the tee on the uphill 11th hole and creating a blind approach to the green at the 15th hole.
It’s obvious that some earth moving was carried out on the property – particularly, for example, at the 2nd where an almost island green has been created at a 45-degree angle to the fairway – but the finished holes never appear out of sync with their surroundings.
The most striking design elements at the Craighead are the bunkering and green complexes. The bunkers were created under the watchful eye of Walter Woods, a former green keeper on the Old Course at nearby St Andrews. So it should come as no surprise that some have likened them in quality to those at Muirfield. Putting surfaces were constructed to USGA standard, running very true and fast, with many contoured greens providing a real test for putting skills.
It’s a mystery as to why the Craighead did not feature in any golf course ranking tables since it came into play in 1999 until we first ranked it in 2008 – are golfers so enthralled with playing at the traditional links along the Fife coast that they are overlooking a genuine, modern day golfing gem that is staring them in the face?
The common refrain heard about Craighead Links is that it has an excellent back nine. The distinction between the course’s two nines is a marked contrast. After the dreariness of the front nine the back nine’s attractiveness and complete change of character comes as a pleasant surprise.
No question that the front nine is challenging – it should be at 3 500 yards off the tips – yet you would have wished for more interesting holes from a designer of the stature of Gil Hanse. It does traverse some dull inland terrain, and there’s a shortage of creativity in the holes. Hanse had lots of land to work with, and that’s apparent in there being three par 5s with acres of space into which to hit tee shots. And a par 3 of 229 yards.
The greens are the biggest challenge, with some interesting slopes. The par-3 seventh is the best hole on the nine, with a raised green that you dare not miss on the left side. I was bemused by a bunker complex short left on the 455-yard fourth, close to gorse bushes further left. Avoiding all this trouble means aiming right towards golfers standing on the fifth tee. There was nothing to stop shots running towards the tee.
The back nine brings into play the best features of Crail’s wonderfully dramatic position on the rocky shoreline of the North Sea. The heaving sea on a rough day is a wonder to behold. The holes are tighter off the tee and more clearly defined. And ancient walls have been used brilliantly to add to the challenge, notably at the uphill par-4 11th, where it takes a bold drive to clear the wall and gain a glimpse of the green. The first three holes on the back nine all excite the senses, requiring tee shots that are the opposite of the mundanity of those on the front nine. The finish is strong, starting at the splendid par-4 14th along the edge of the shore. Plenty of room off the tee, but the tiger line down the left side is fraught with danger. That’s followed by a strong par 5, with the second shot to be played over another wall. Into the prevailing wind the uphill par-3 17th with its raised green fronted by deep bunkers is a daunting target and perhaps too long at 195 yards. Yet this and the 457-yard 18th will certainly reward only the best of golf shots in a close match.
Is this a true links? It does have a fair bit of run, yet the loamy soil structure means the layout only bears a passing resemblance to the town links of nearby St Andrews.
The members of Crail have one of the most charming clubs in Scotland. This includes a near perfect setting for the clubhouse where the views rival those at Cruden Bay. Inside one will find a number of photos, trophies and plaques providing a treasure of memorabilia of golf history of the club.
I played the Balcomie course several years ago and found it to be a pleasant links course with a front nine I liked more than the back. I have not returned only because I have wanted to play other courses in different parts of Scotland. But I recommend Balcolmie for the fun as well as the views of the sea on nearly every hole. The Craighead course, designed by Gil Hanse, is a very nice compliment to the Balcomie links at Crail. Craighead is the opposite where I preferred the back nine to the front. Take your pick as to which one you prefer as they are both very enjoyable. Both have memorable holes scattered throughout their eighteen. Both have good bunkering although Craighead feels a little sparser overall. I think Craighead has better greenside bunkering. Both are kept in excellent condition with smooth running greens.
Craighead suffers a bit from inconsistency where some holes are good due to the contours on the greens as well as the bunkering. Other holes feel a little too wide open with non-strategic bunkering and flat greens. It would not take much to make Craighead a more interesting course such as adding more contours to the fairways as they are mostly flat. The greens surrounds are also relatively uninteresting with few humps and depressions. Adding these features does not mean it would necessarily be more difficult, but it would increase the visual appeal and requirement for thought. The course will likely never play firm and fast due to the underlying soil but it certainly could be made more interesting and would likely propel it up the rankings as it would be more fun. We found that more of the difficulty is not on the greens, bunkering, or the gorse but due to the thick grass. We almost always spent time more time than we expected looking for balls that nestle down with the grass seemingly closing over it like a Venus fly trap.
The routing takes very good advantage of the available land with holes moving in multiple directions. Only holes 6-7, 13-14, and 17-18 consecutively move in the same direction.
The stone walls add a nice visual to the course. Danes Dyke, an elevated track is included in the routing on five holes, but only a factor on eleven and fifteen.
The course measures 6651 yards from the back tees, par 72 rated 73.7/139. We played the yellow tees at 6185 yards rated 71.6/135. We had a wind that was normal for the area. When you wind was at your back, it did not seem to help. When it was coming from the side it was enough to move the ball in the air so you had to account for it. When it was in your face it was a two club wind or you tried to stay below it. The wind blew harder as the round progressed.
1. Par 5 - 469/463. This hole seemingly offers a wide fairway but there is a collection of bunkers on the inner corner we did not notice until after we went down the fairway. Gorse is present on both sides but the right side is more of an issue as it feels closer. About 75 yards from the green on the right are two more bunkers with the first one hiding the second. At the green is a single pot bunker front middle placed inside the green line to shrink the left half size of the green in half. While this should be an easy starting hole, one could find trouble if the tee shot is slightly wayward.
2. Par 4 - 385/361. This was my favorite hole on the front. It is a ninety degree dogleg left with thick gorse on the right side. Three bunkers are on the inner corner. The green complex includes a large bunker right about fifteen yards from the hole. The beauty of the hole is the raised green with steep fall-offs on all sides including into the two bunkers on the right, which can become the front if one is coming in from the right. A small bunker is nearly hidden on the front left. The green is shallow and thin no matter which way you come into it. The green also has various slopes in it moving the ball in different directions. This hole plays the opposite of the first.
3. Par 4 - 323/292. You play in a new direction paralleling the road to the right so the fence line is out of bounds. Providing one hits a decent drive, this is an easier hole despite the four bunkers surrounding the green including a front bunker. Due to the trees behind the green this is a nice visual.
4. Par 4 - 455/427. This hole played the hardest as wind was blowing hard to the left. The hole slightly goes right with two large bunkers on the inner corner. The left side is gorse and the right side is thick grass. About 35 yards from the green are two bunkers left as the architect wants one to hit two straight shots. The green is relatively long with two bunkers on the left. Thankfully the green is the easiest part of the hole.
5. Par 3 - 231/211. Reversing directions, this hole had the wind blowing right. Gorse is in play set far off to the right but it should take a truly horrible shot to find it (I did). There is a central bunker 20 yards short of the green. The green is relatively flat.
6. Par 5 - 552/518. You have reversed directions again, with this hole being the closest to the race track and airline strip off the right. Two bunkers are on the right side and very much in play off the tee. On the left of the green are three bunkers. This green has a bit more undulations to it. Both of us liked the hole even if it had no visual appeal as the fairway is flat.
7. Par 3 - 197/165. This hole is backdropped by the sea. Three bunkers are on the right side of this green angled to the right and featuring a higher back half and good slope throughout. You do have a very good chance of recovery if you miss short or left providing the pin is not on the left. I would have liked to have seen a bunker on the back left of the green.
8. Par 5 - 513/487. The third par 5 reverses direction and plays to a wide fairway. One scarcely notices the single fairway bunker well up on the right in play only for shorter hitters. The green has two bunkers short of the front left and is angled left. The hole requires more defense. We did not think highly of this hole either visually or strategically.
9. Par 4 - 376/347. Much like the second, this hole is a dogleg right with a large left side fairway bunker and a small hidden one following it. The green is angled to the right. From my angle down the right I only noticed the front right green side bunker but found to my surprise that there are three bunkers left of the green that are hidden. The green again is not very wide with decent interior movement. I hit one club too many and paid the price of finding one of the bunkers. I liked the hole but it probably needs another fairway bunker given its length.
10. Par 4 - 299/280. The second most visually attractive hole on the course has the green close to the Blacolmie course across the stone wall. From higher ground the hole drops and one needs to avoid the collection of three bunkers right and two left. They are spaced apart so one has to thread the needle. There is interesting land movement on the left side of the fairway. Longer hitters will easily fly the bunkers but risk running into a center-line bunker short of the green or could possibly kick into one of three bunkers left of the green. The green is tiered and undulating. The green is backdropped by trees with a view of the water off to the left. It truly is lovely from the tee to the green.
11. Par 4 - 357/313. This hole was very difficult as the tee shot was uphill playing straight into the wind which had gotten stronger. Neither of us could clear Danes Dyke which was only 215 yards from the tee. You need to clear the eight feet high wall or you will have a blind shot. Tall grass goes down the right side after clearing the wall. The green is set off to the left with two bunkers placed tightly on the right between the green and the gorse. Although short, with the wind in our faces, it felt like a 480 yard par 4. We liked the hole,
12. Par 4 - 344/316. The hole curves right from the slightly elevated tee as the hole falls away. Trees line the right side so the tee shot is forced right on this dogleg right. The green has a sharp fall off behind it with a large bunker with an internal island in the right and two smaller bunkers on the right. The green will not hold shots when the wind is behind you. It is a fun hole but likely 50 yards too short.
13. Par 3 - 157/141. The hole is backdropped by the sea and stone walls. It is visually delightful. A small piece of the left side of the green feels hidden from the tee. There is one small center bunker about ten yards before the green. The green slopes to the left with good contouring.
14. Par 4 - 411/402. Playing back into the wind this hole has its tee shot going early over Danes Dyke but the real danger is the thick grass on both sides of the fairway and the cliff down the left side. There are three well spaced bunkers down the left of the fairway to try to save a ball from being lost. If chipping from the left one needs to carry the cliff that cuts in front of the green. The green is tilted to the front with no bunkers. It is a strong hole into the wind.
15. Par 5 - 552/511. You reverse direction and need to avoid the collection of three bunkers on the inner turn of this dogleg right. A center-line bunker is also in reach off the tee. Your second need to clear Danes Dyke or you will have a blind shot to the green. The green is small for the length of the hole and with the wind behind you, the green is not likely to hold any shot landing on the green from more than 60 yards. At the green are two bunkers off the front right. The grass is thick behind the green.
16. Par 4 - 376/358. You reverse direction going back early again over Danes Dyke. Thick gorse is down the right side but there is a lengthy separation for the tee shot sent right. There is a somewhat strange collection of six bunkers on the inner corner of this sharp dogleg left including a large “y” shaped bunker. A bunker is placed to the right 20 yards short of the green. Both of us liked the hole.
17. Par 3 - 197/173. The final reverse in direction has one playing to a longer par 3 with a small bunker on the front right and a large “L” shaped bunker on the left. The green has decent movement to it.
18. Par 4 - 457/421. The finishing hole is a strong one. The hole cants to the right. There is a sizable collection of six bunkers on the right side. Three large bunkers are placed on the left side about 75 yards from the green. The large green is raised with small mounding before it. There is a lot of subtle movement on the green. As we had time, I hit fifteen putts of about seven feet from all sides around the pin all of which broke more than I expected. I then putted to other parts of the green and again was surprised at the movement. While it was not our favorite hole on the course, it is probably the best hole on the course.
With a few changes, the Craighead course could easily exceed the Balcome course. Yet I suspect the members do not really want that to happen. Even with the changes, the course to play is the Balcomie for its history and purity of links golf along the water. If I were a member, I would probably play them equally but if the improvements were made it would go 6-4 in favor of Craighead.
Played on the 27th December conditions could not have been any better, strangely no breeze made for a great round.
The condition of the course was fabulous for the time of year and I would thoroughly recommend.
The layout is good, reminds me of many good courses, strong hole after hole, with breathtaking views, and a welcome in the club that was great.
Definitely look up this place if playing in the St. Andrews area .
The first time I played the Old of St Andrews my caddie was a member at Crail. He spoke of the 2nd course they were building there and that Gil Hanse was designing it. I made my first venture to Craighead the first year it opened. I have only been back once since then. My guess is that I hit across more stone walls at Craighead then I have on all other courses I have played, in my life. It got to the point of staging a bet for the over/under as to how many more are present. The conditions are very nice but not linksy. The green complexes are very good. It's a nice day out and should be combined with it's older sister.
There are wonderful coastal views and some fine holes on this exposed course which plays on much higher ground to the Balcomie. As you might expect from this elevated layout the fairways are relatively generous from the tee although gorse does feature on a number of holes.
There is a very consistent feel to the course but there are a couple of standout holes. The par-three 7th is a superb one-shotter with a glorious backdrop whilst the descending short par-four 10th is another jaw-dropping hole and one where you will want to pull your camera out.
I can imagine the second hole “Windmill Corner” is a bit of a Marmite hole with a near 90-degree dog-leg fairway played to a green that falls significantly away from the player.
Due to the flatter nature of the fairways the green complexes need to be good in order to bring the course to life and for the most part they do this well. There is a lot of movement on the putting surfaces generating lots of interest. The bunkering is also done well and in-keeping with the course.
Comparing the two I think I prefer the charm and more authentic links characteristic of the Balcomie but a round on the Craighead is more than a nice alternative for those already familiar with the older sibling.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
This is a good looking course, it doesn't quite play as good as it looks though, you want it play it like a links but the turf is not links turf without the roll. The USGA greens rolled well, but again weren't really what I was expecting given the seaside setting next to the Balcomie.
It seems impossible to review Craighead without comparing it to Balcomie. I am clearly not alone in preferring Craighead. I really like the varied challenge of the holes, especially those along the clifftop. Balcomie is one of Scotland's more over-rated tracks in my opinion. Golf World's most recent ranking places it at #52 in Scotland with Craighead not featuring in their top 100! I believe both these placings to be wide of the mark. Were I to make the journey to Crail I would certainly prefer to play Craighead. While it is undoubtedly more demanding it is also more interesting.
If you only have time for 18, I'd play the Balcomie instead of the Craighead. However, this course is still very nice and enjoyable. It won't beat you up, and it's a nice easy walk with great views of the sea.
Respond to above review
Was this review helpful?
0 people found this review helpful
Gil Hanse has done a very good job with the land that he was given, and while it's impossible not to be aware of the flat location Craighead is a very good golf course. Personally though, I'm not a huge fan of "strategic" seaside courses where the shots you have to play are felt to be more important than the environment and golfing experience. The cliffside holes are beautiful, the old walls are interesting, and the overall quality is excellent at a great club. If it were anywhere else I would probably rate Craighead more highly than I do. It's definitely worth making an effort to play but one can't escape the feeling that there are more fun courses to play within a very short drive (or even a walk over the entrance road.)
Anyone travelling to Crail for the first time will be aiming to play a round on the balcomie course, the oldest of the 2 courses you can find at the golfing society.
However it is fair to say that Craighead is a much more interesting course than the balcomie and offers very challenging & scenic holes. Desinged by Gil Hanse, it is his first course out of the USA. The results is a splendid links that any golfer will enjoy.