Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cruden Bay Golf Club

At several of the top 100 courses I have played, I've been disappointed upon seeing the course for the first time. St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Hoylake fit into this category. Not to say they are bad courses, quite the contrary, but when you first look at them they look flat and dull.

The anthesis of this is Cruden Bay (ranked # 76 in the world). When you drive into the parking lot for the first time you are simply stunned. Below you in a valley is set a collection of massive sand dunes. Among the dunes weaves a golf course bordering on the North Sea. Not any golf course, but a golf course that you will probably have more fun on than any other course you've ever played. Cruden Bay is located along the Aberdeen coast of Scotland about two hours drive north of Carnoustie. If there was ever an apt description of the term hidden gem, then Cruden Bay is it. The golf writer James Finegan says of Cruden Bay: "Outsized, non conformist, unpredictable and flamboyant".

In the world of golf there are much stearner tests such as Carnoustie, Oakmont and Olympic. Muirfield, Merion and Shinnecock are more historic. Turnberry, Pebble Beach and Kingsbarns are more scenic. But for pure fun, Cruden Bay cannot be beat. The course defies being pigeonholed. So far I have developed some broad classifications that courses have fit into as I'm playing the top 100:

1. International/National membership courses - Pine Valley, Loch Lomond, Cypress Point and the ultimate: Augusta. These clubs transcend their geography.

2. Historic courses - Merion, Chicago, The National, Lahinch

3. Championship courses - Generally all the courses on the British and U.S. Open rotations

4. The ultra-wealthy and low-key clubs - Maidstone and Fishers Island

5. The heathland courses - Ganton, Sunningdale, Wentworth, Woodhall, Walton Heath

6. The new school - Kingsbarns, Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes

7. Those that honor greats in the game - Muirfield Village (Nicklaus), Colonial (Hogan), Pinehurst (Ross), East Lake and Peachtree (Bobby Jones)

8. Pete Dye Courses

9. Courses designed by legendary designers - Quaker Ridge, Prarie Dunes, Camargo, Southern Hills

10. Courses designed by Alister Mackenzie

Cruden Bay doesn't fit neatly into any category. It is a truly unique location and a one of a kind golf course. Golf at its simplest is a game. Over time, you can lose sight of that as you get more competitive in matches; try to beat your personal best; try to tinker with your game or perfect your swing.

I found Cruden Bay to be a refreshing and enlightening experience. The point of golf after all is to have fun and enjoy yourself. Cruden Bay would be ranked #1 in the world if you used this as your only measurement criteria. It makes you see golf like through the eyes of a five year old. If you haven't been around a five year old lately I'll remind you: everything is exciting; there is a sense of discovery around every corner; life is good and full of promise.

I've spoken to a lot of well traveled golfers and it's no surprise to me that almost all of them rank Cruden Bay among their personal favorite courses. To be sure, Cruden Bay is quirky. There are a lot of blind shots; there are back to back par threes; some really short par 4's including one that is 258 (the 8th hole plays uphill); the course is only 6,300 yards long. You hit out of valleys up onto the tops of hills and then down into them. There are times when the Cruden Bay landscape almost seems lunar and surreal. On the 10th tee box if you look north over the beach and ocean you can see the ruins of a castle. Slains Castle provided the inspiration to Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula. It is all truly unique and brilliant fun!

The course is located in a rather isolated location away from any real population center and as a result the members serve as caddies for visitors. The are a very welcoming and friendly group who are happy to share their wonder of the golfing world with visitors. As an added bonus I recommend staying at the Udny Arms located in nearby Newburgh. A family owned B and B, it is cozy and inviting. Being isolated you might assume they would serve basic meat and potatoes fare. In fact, the food is world class. The bar areas are cigar friendly and the wait staff makes you feel at home. Don't expect American size rooms or 200 channels of cable television. As is typical in Britain the amenities are basic, the showers are tiny but there is a facility to make a cup of tea in each room. It is one of my favorite places to stay in the world.

The first time I saw Cruden Bay was on a golf trip with eight of us touring Scotland. This was prior to my now obsessive quest to play the top 100. We were so enamored with the place that on the spot we changed our plans to stay an extra day so we could play the course over and over again. On every trip to Scotland I try to play Cruden Bay.

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