Fifth in a series
The original layout, hard by the North Sea, was designed by a farmer in 1859 and was only eight holes before Morris later reworked it and added 10 more holes. When it was opened in 1895, he said, “there is not a better course in Scotland.”
A bold statement from a guy who refined the Old Course at St. Andrews and designed Muirfield and Preswick, among others. The Balcomie layout also was just a thrifty 5,922 yards. Yet despite all the technological advances, it stands proud against the test of time, even 117 years later. The decades have not made Morris’ vision irrelevant.
“We have a lot of visitors who look at the scorecard and see 6,000-yards long, especially overseas visitors commenting on the length,” said Graeme Lennie, Crail’s PGA professional for the past 25 years. “I tell them not to worry, ‘it’s the longest course under 6,000 yards that you’ll ever play.’ And they’ll come back afterward and tell me that’s the case.”
The course is about a 20-minute ride due south of St. Andrews along the coast. In fact, it’s at the easterly-most tip of the Kingdom of Fife, inserting itself prominently into the North Sea. The first five holes are along the coast, which can be harsh at times with strong winds and rain. No doubt Old Tom figured that no matter how the golfer and his equipment improve, those elements always will be the great neutralizer here.
The Crail Golfing Society, which oversees the courses – including the relatively new (1998) adjacent 6,728-yard Craighead course – is the seventh oldest golf club in the world. The club has records to prove it, as the first meeting was held on Feb. 23, 1786 at the Golf Inn, which is still operating in downtown Crail. The Inn was built in 1721.
The six older golf clubs in the world are: The Royal Burgess Golfing Society of Edinburgh (1735), The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (1744), The Royal and Ancient Golf Club (1754), The Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society (1764), The Royal Musselburgh Golf Club (1774) and The Royal Aberdeen Golf Club (1780).
This is a course very much loved and connected to this area. Locals take pride in its ihistory and its contributions to the game.
Balcomie was said to be the first course to use iron cases as hole liners in 1847. It also was the inspiration for the best-selling 1971 Michael Murphy book (and subsequent movie), Golf in the Kingdom, a mythical search for the soul of the game. It certainly had that kind of other worldly mystique as we played in a thick fog throughout our round.
As you work your way around the course you might think that the word Crail is an old Scottish term for ‘fore.’ Because Old Tom had fewer than 100 acres to work with, greens and tees are exceedingly close and fairways cross and mix together. Look carefully to make sure the pin you’re shooting at is the correct one. At times, you need to delay teeing off to allow other groups to clear nearby greens or fairways.
But you’ll find this is a patient, understanding golfing community. Everyone makes allowances for the occasional errant shot.
Lennie suggested that my son Bobby and I play from the farthest back white tees because the views and angles are so much better. Highly recommended. Some white tee positions, such as the one on the second hole, are literally just above the rocky shore. It affords an enhanced view of the hole.
The design, like much many courses at the time, has plenty of built-in blind shots off the tee. It’s hard to know what’s just beyond the ridge, how deep the green is and where the bunkers might be. But that’s also part of the fun of playing this most pleasant layout.
The most memorable hole is No. 5, Hell’s Hole, a 447-yard, par-4 that is crescent-shaped left-to-right around the edge of the North Sea. You can bite off as much as you feel comfortable off that right dogleg. I chose to hit it straight, allowing a steep slope about 190 yards out to take it down to the bottom of the fairway. Bobby put his drive through the fairway and onto the fringe of the sixth green. He parred and I missed a five-footer for bogey.
The par 4, 366-yard seventh hole is quirky. You hit a blind tee shot over a ridge and can catch a slope to take it toward the hole but it won’t quite get there. Your second hole has to clear an elevated – about two-feet-high – road that runs alongside the green.
It really gets fun from the 13th through the 18th. The 13th is a par-3, 214 yard hole that is all uphill and difficult to carry all the way. Generally, there’s a crosswind here and a swale and a couple bunkers protecting the tiny putting surface. Use more than enough club.
That is followed by a most dramatic 14th, another par-3, 147 yards, from an elevated tee about 90 feet above the hole. It’s on a bluff overlooking the sea, with the wind, fog and fury raging around you.
You then follow a narrow path between the bluff and the crashing waves to the backside of the course and the final four holes. Along the path there’s a cave that is of historical significance. Supposedly, King Constantine I died in that cave in 877. Apparently, it had nothing to do with his golf game. After a battle at Fife Ness, Constantine was beheaded there. We played through.
The 15th is a drivable 262-yard, par-4 that once again is blind off the tee. If you can get enough on your drive, you can use a slope to trickle down to the green. Wish we knew that before we hit.
Then you’ll have an all-uphill par-3 of 162 yards to deal with. When the wind blows, you’ll need to over-club.
On the day we played it was quite foggy but with little wind. It was one of those days you could score as we both shot in the low 80s. Yet we still needed plenty of fairly accurate shots to do it.
There are 1,800 members of the Crail Golfing Society, many from the U.S. and continental Europe. The course welcomes between 10,000 to 12,000 visitors a year, including PGA professionals. Jim Furyk and his caddy Fluff Cowan like playing here whenever the Open is at St. Andrews.
When you pay your reasonable greens fees, you’ll also get a code number that gets you into the clubhouse. You should go there, if only for the local crab, freshly caught just off shore below. You can also take in the spectacular views and absorb what Old Tom Morris did to this piece of land more than 100 years ago.
PART SIX: CARNOUSTIE – In Van de Velde’s missteps