Friday, May 1, 2009

Cruden Bay Golf Club

Victorian beachgoers at the Cruden Bay beach

It's not often I go back and re-write a summary of a course I've played. However, in the case of Cruden Bay (ranked #76 in the world), upon reading my previous write-up, I found it woefully inadequate in expressing my adulation for the course. A large part of any first time experience is how it compares to your expectation. Everybody knows Pine Valley is the top course in the world, and that Pebble Beach and Cypress Point will be spectacular; thus, you go to these courses for the first-time with those expectations. What I have found to be the most rewarding aspect of playing the top 100 courses is finding those that are not widely known and that truly surprise: courses like Yeamans Hall, Woodhall Spa, Morfontaine and most certainly Cruden Bay.

When I first played Cruden Bay early in my golf travels I experienced what the French call coup de foundre, which literally translates into a thunderbolt, or more accurately, love at first sight. Without having had broad exposure to the world's great courses, I found it difficult to immediately articulate exactly what it was about Cruden Bay that I liked so much and that made it so unique. Now that I have seen most of the world's great courses I now understand what makes Cruden Bay so great.

At several of the world's best courses, I've been disappointed upon seeing the course for the first time: St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Hoylake fit into this category. This is not to say that they are bad courses: quite the contrary, I like them all very much; but when you first look at them they look flat and dull. Birkdale and Troon look that way because they are, but let me not get side-tracked.

The antithesis of this experience is Cruden Bay. Driving into the car park for the first time is simply stunning. 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. What makes Cruden Bay different from other links courses is that the parking lot and clubhouse are situated up on a hill, giving you an amazing view of the entire golf course and the over-sized dunes. This panoramic view gives a perspective that the other courses don't have. Arriving at almost all other links courses you are at sea level, depriving you of a birds eye perspective. At Turnberry, you certainly have some perspective from near from the hotel, but the geography at Cruden Bay is more dramatic. It's a compact little valley and the drop in terrain from the top of the hill to the sea nearby is more eye-catching.

The magnificent setting of Cruden Bay

Cruden Bay was originally designed by Old Tom Morris in 1899 and then re-designed by Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler in 1926. Cruden Bay is located along the Aberdeen coast of Scotland about two hours 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: "Out sized, non conformist, unpredictable and flamboyant." These same words also describe course re-designer Tom Simpson to a tee, and the combination of Morris' original holes combined with Simpson's flair for the dramatic make this a special place.

The first two holes are par fours that are similar in style and play from elevated tee boxes, down into a valley, to greens set on a plateau. You are playing alongside the town of Cruden Bay with O.B. along the left side.

The first sign that the course is not going to be traditional starts at the third hole. It is a 285 par four with a big chocolate drop mound in the middle of the fairway 80 yards from the green, making it potentially a driveable green; however, the mound is so large that it is a blind shot if you go for it. The green sits down in a hollow with several hills and hammocks around it and in front.

The fourth is a world-class par three that plays along the village of Port Erroll. Driver is often in order on this ~200 yard hole, depending upon the wind.

The par three 4th green

To get from the fourth green to the fifth tee you walk between closed-in large dunes up a hill. The fifth is a 445 yard par four that plays from the top of the dunes down into a dramatic narrow snaking valley below you. Although the course is short, holes like the fifth demand long and accurate shots.

The par five sixth requires three shots, even for long hitters, due to its dog-leg and well-protected green sited within a mound of sand hills. You have to make sure you hit over the devilish Bluidy Burn with its dramatic falloff into the water, reminiscent of the Eli Burn on the seventh hole at North Berwick and the Wee Burn running through the 16th hole at Turnberry. Scotland has the most wicked burns in the world, a geographic feature we really don't have in the U.S. We have streams that don't look and feel like these burns do. The burns remind me of Dick Cheney: small, narrow, tricky and truly hazardous.

The 6th green with 'Bluidy Burn' surrounding

The seventh hole ("Whaupshank") is a par four with an elevated green situated between two dunes. Like all holes at Cruden Bay, it is a whimsical hole that snakes and twists through the dunes with a sharp dog-leg left. There is very little that is conventional on this course.

It is because of holes like the eighth that make Cruden Bay a course that has developed a cult following. It is a 248 yard par four that plays to an elevated green enclosed by dunes. English golf writer Dell Leigh, writing in his 1925 book Golf at its best on the LMS, describes the eighth as sitting "in a valley between stately hills; the hole which produces in the long hitter a frenzy of self-adulation." Leigh was writing about the original Old Tom Morris hole; Simpson had the foresight not to change it so the golfer can experience the same excitement today.

The exhilarating 8th hole looking back from the green, a 258 yard up-hill par four

The world of golf has much sterner tests than Cruden Bay: courses 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 beaten. The course defies being pigeonholed because it doesn't fit neatly into any category. It is a one-of-a-kind golf course. Golf at its simplest is a game. I think we sometimes lose sight of that fact. The point of golf after all is to have fun and enjoy yourself. Cruden Bay would be ranked #1 in the world if having fun was the only criteria utilized. There is something about Cruden Bay that lightens your spirits and brightens your mood. It makes me see golf through the eyes of a five year old: everything is exciting; there is a sense of discovery around every corner; life is good and full of promise; curiosity abounds.

The ninth hole atop a hill

The ninth and tenth holes play on top of the dunes with dramatic views and shots played down a large hill. There are many times when the Cruden Bay landscape almost seems lunar and surreal. The ninth and tenth tee boxes are two of those places. If you look north over the beach and ocean you can see the ruins of Slains Castle, which provided the inspiration to Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula.

Slains Castle as seen from Cruden Bay

The fourteenth and fifteenth holes are two of my two favorites on the course. Like Cruden Bay generally, they are full of quirks, but I found them exhilarating. Fourteen has a blind second shot to a bathtub green. What's a bathtub green you ask? One that quite literally is shaped like a bath tub and is sunken down into the ground. Just like the Punchbowl sixteenth green at National Golf Links of America, when you are on the green the outside world is muted. You are totally detached from civilization.

Why don't you see more bathtub style greens? From a practical standpoint, the green most assuredly doesn't work, since it doesn't get the proper amount of air and light, is difficult to maintain and playing shots into it doesn't always distinguish between shots hit well and shots played poorly. Ok, so it's not practical to have holes like these, but it misses the entire point of Cruden Bay. The R & A isn't going to hold a championship here, and it is not a proving ground for your manhood. It's a fun golf course. Personally, I like an occasional hole that has these unique element of playfulness, which has more similarities to billiards or pinball with shots banked off the sides of hills and hollows and crazy kicks of the golf ball.

Fourteen Green
The 'bathtub' 14th green

Look to the right of the bathtub green in the picture and you can see a tee box. This is the tee box for the 200 yard blind par three fifteenth hole. The huge sand dune you see on the left is your target. When you are done playing the hole you ring a bell to let the group behind you know you're done.

I can hear the skeptics now. Blind shots? Ringing bells? Multiple par fours under 290 yards? A bathtub green? Back-to-back par threes? Only two par fives on the whole course? Par is only 70, 6395 yards from the back. Horrors. I understand those that prefer golf courses in the conventional and traditional sense might not like Cruden Bay. Sounds like trickery you say. Well, many of the world's great courses have characteristics just like the ones I describe above. Cypress Point has back-to-back par threes; coincidentally, they both happen to be on the 15th and 16th holes. Quaker Ridge and Chicago Golf Club only have two par fives. Lahinch has its brilliant blind par three Dell hole. Pine Valley and Royal County Down have several blind shots, and you ring bells at Prestwick and the National Golf Links of America.

So these quirky elements in and of themselves are not unique to Cruden Bay and are clear evidence that having quixotic features on a golf course alone don't make it bad. What makes Cruden Bay unique is that it crams all these features into one course. It doesn't have one or two quirky holes like many of the world's best courses mentioned above. The distinction at Cruden Bay is that virtually every hole is quirky or has some kind of unconventional feature. It is this cumulative effect of the design that makes it such a fanciful place to play golf.

Admittedly, Cruden Bay has a weak finish. Sixteen is a downhill par three with a green that slopes away from you, so you must play it short and run it up. Seventeen and eighteen are decidedly weak holes that play back to the clubhouse and are uninteresting.

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. The first time I saw Cruden Bay was on a golf trip with eight men touring Scotland. This was prior to my now obsessive quest to play the top 100. We were so enamored of 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.

Bernard Darwin wrote of this great course, "I think it is typical of Cruden Bay, which is a place extraordinarily difficult to keep away from for those who have once come under its spell." I'm often asked what I'm going to do when I'm done playing the top 100 golf courses in the world. Well, I'm going to go back to Cruden Bay to play it over and over again!

The Udny Arms Hotel

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. They 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 Hotel located in nearby Newburgh. A family owned B & B, it is cozy and inviting. Being isolated you might assume they would serve basic meat and potatoes fare. In fact, the food there 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. Have the sticky toffee pudding while there and watch one of the three BBC channels provided.

Cruden Bay is also a special remembrance for me because it was the first time I experienced first-hand Sheldon in action. The forthright manner this good looking gentleman asked the Amazon barmaid what time she got off was worth its weight in gold.

Early Lawn Bowling at Cruden Bay

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