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 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.
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.
Loved both 18's AND the view from the clubhouse here.
Both courses have some great holes wsome with an unusual twist.
I played Craighead for the first time on New Year’s Day - actually putting out on the first as the sun came up over the North Sea. There’s no shortage of great courses in the area but it’s well worth finding time to fit in a round here; Gil Hanse has done a great job creating a fun and challenging course to complement the old Balcomie links.
As others have written, the back nine is definitely the highlight, making full use of the more interesting ground closer to the sea; the short par 4 10th and the longer 14th, running along the cliff edge, stood out for me, but the truth is that there isn’t really a week hole on the course. Even on the front nine, much of which is over the less promising ground, strong bunkering and interesting greens make for a good test.
I finally got round to visiting Crail last month, playing the more exposed Craighead in the morning and the Balcomie in the afternoon. Gil Hanse has created a modern design that beautifully compliments it's historical older sibling next door and although Craighead is considerably longer and tougher, there is more than enough width to the fairways to make it very playable for everyone.
After a gentle par-5 opener, the excellent dogleg 2nd requires some thought and is possibly the best hole on the front 9. Although not particularly long, accuracy from the tee is crucial if the best line of approach is to be found to a raised and heavily defended green.
The not-so short 5th, a par-3 measuring 211 yards from the yellow tees, is a rather bland hole in all honesty and my least favourite on the course but the other par-3's are all stand-out holes. The 7th and 13th are well defended, attractive cliff-top holes and the 17th contains the most wickedly undulating green of them all.
The pace picks up considerably on the back nine, kicking off with a brilliant drive-able downhill par-4, with anything played too far right running the risk of being gobbled up by a large gorse bushes. From here onwards much of the course is bordered or crossed by attractive stone walls which certainly add to the challenge and aesthetic charm. The downhill 12th offers another opportunity to drive the green for the better players and the 14th,16th and 18th are all solid par-4's late in the round.
Both courses deliver an interesting round of golf as well as panoramic coastal views but the quick, undulating greens and excellent bunkering on Craighead makes it the one that I would choose to play. Brian W