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?
If you don’t like playing in the wind then perhaps, Craighead is not the place for you as it blows almost every day on this course and due to the routing of the place it is almost inevitable that none of your golfing nooks and crannies will be left untouched. Also, if you think that you will be classed as a big girl’s blouse for having to hit a wood at a par 3 then stay away, it is almost certain when the wind gets up that may be your only option. But if you like adventure, bumpy greens, walls and damn good scenery, proceed with me to the first tee.
The 1st is a genuine 3-shot par 5, maybe 4-shot if the wind is howling in your face and this sets the standard or the rest of the course. The 2nd is a smashing hole with a sharpish dogleg with bunkers that guard the green like Ninja warriors. All the greens are superb the 6th in particular which I found like putting on a crumpled duvet. If the front 9 is good then the back 9 is superb. It is here that designer Gil Hanse has decided to use walls like Dave Thomas uses bunkers. The 10th has a brilliant bunker complex which has to be dodged if you want to make par. The 11th sees your introduction to Mr Hanse’s walls with this one being just over 200 yards from the tee so it is definitely in play. Try not to be caught behind it as you will have to go back to go forward. The 13th is a delightful par 3 which steeps sharply from right to left and if you come off the slope too sharply you could end up against, that’s right, a wall. Although it looks fairly innocuous, the 17th, to paraphrase the Animals has been the ruin of many a poor golfer and God, I know I’m one. Scores here often wreck your card because if the bunkers don’t get you, the impossible green will. The straightforward 18th takes you home but take time out and allow yourself a wee 360-degree to survey the vista because, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Crail is marvellous, simply wonderful and, if you can afford it and spare the time, 36 holes over the Craighead and Balcomie is an experience you will never forget. But if you have to choose one, come to Crail Craighead thrills are free, fun and sunshine there’s enough for everyone. MPPJ
The greens provide an assorted examination: most are raised, some are at fairway level or in shallow hollows; some are heavily bunkered, others not at all; some are flat(ish), most are artfully crafted and some are cunningly undulating. When I played the greens were medium paced (on flat bits), very true and fun to putt on. One fairly consistent factor is that the greens are relatively narrow. This is particularly the case on the five (arguably six) short par fours. These greens tend to lie at an angle to the fairway making the approach an exacting one; even with a short-iron in hand the player walks a tightrope between birdie glory and bogey ignominy. There are only two consecutive holes that run in the same direction (the 6th and 7th) so the ever-present wind presents an ever-changing challenge.
Yet another design element is the regular, and very effective, use of dog-legs – including the genuine three-shot par five 15th and a number of the fun short par fours. A recurring feature is a beautifully constructed dyke that runs through parts of the course – providing a visually appealing gateway at the 523yrds 6th and an obstacle at the 317yards 11th ( a carry of 201 yards is required here if you want to avoid having a very scuffed ball). Of the many good par fours the 14th (“Lang Man’s Grave”!!) is the stand out, as it loops it’s 414yards around the out-of-bounds that lines the cliff-top. The best hole of all is the 174yard 17th – even from the tee the golfer can see that this extensive, raised green is wildly undulating, there are bunkers front left and right and a hillock of wild grass and flowers provides the backdrop. This is a hole that just begs you to hit your crispest shot of the day and once you have bogeyed it you want to run back to the tee and try again.
I can’t claim to have an HND in golf course design but I do think that the Craighead Links is a very good course with oodles of potential for development. Specifically, additional strategic fairway and greenside bunkering would add to the challenge and visual appeal (which is considerable as it is) and could turn holes like the aforementioned 14th from very good to virtual classics. Nevertheless, Craighead Links still proves that youngsters can, and sometimes do, upstage their very good older siblings. Craighead Links – the Bobby Charlton of Scottish golf courses! Derek, Edinburgh, July 08
I first played the Craighead course in May 2001 when it was only a few years old and thought it was a pretty tough new track on the Fife coastal circuit. My next visit in February 2007 cemented that view but this time, my eyes were more open to what exactly made the standard scratch score two shots more than the par of 72.
Three factors here – stone walls, bunkers and greens – make for a very demanding, but pleasing, round of golf and go a long way to providing a worthwhile alternative to the traditional game played on the adjoining Balcomie.
Danes Dyke is over six foot in height and it runs through the course, cutting directly across some fairways to create a couple of blind shots on the back nine. The sand traps are the best I have come across in many a round and the nests of fairway bunkers discreetly located, in particular, at kinks in the dogleg holes like the 1st and 10th holes, are nothing short of superb.
It just goes to show you do not need high walls of white sand located at pressure points to intimidate the tee shot – other architects could take note!
The greens were a little more undulating than I remembered them but they were in simply stunning condition for the time of year – if you cannot putt on those greens you can putt on nothing.
My favourite holes were “Windmill Corner” (the 2nd hole, played to an upturned saucer of a green), “Kilmonen” (the long par three 7th hole immediately beside the Firth) and “Fife Ness” (the short par four 10th hole, one of the best to be built in Scotland in recent years).
Fairways are not as “linksy” as the purists would like (how can they be on former farmland, elevated above the shoreline?) but apart from that, all other major aspects are as one would expect to find if playing links golf on the Fife coast.
I’m not surprised to hear that the American architect behind the Craighead course, Gil Hanse, is involved in another new project, Castle Stuart, near Nairn. I for one can’t wait to try out this next Scottish creation of his.
Final points; one good, one bad, the bad first. I played on a Sunday morning when the petrol heads were out in force next door at the old air field turned race track – revving engines and screeching brakes were a noisy intrusion. The good point; what a lovely, unpretentious clubhouse where you blend in with the members as you enjoy a bite and a pint, having spent a bargain half price winter green fee on either frost-free course.