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.

Cruden Bay's home page:


David Sucher said...

"...the members serve as caddies for visitors."

Wow. That's a fascinating twist. How terrifically hospitable. I would love to hear more about how that works out. It's rather 'zen' if you know what I mean.

(Btw, I didn't mean to suggest in my comment on Medinah (?) that these "Top 100s" are not fine sport; I look forward to the day when I have enough skill to play some of them without feeling out-of-place. I don't know if I should or not but from my own experience in skiing, where I do have some skill, there is something slightly pathetic -- as well as dangerous -- about a novice on a real double black. And I think it's similar in golf. Yes, I have been told many times that it's ok to play anywhere so long as one knows when to pick up and to avoid others' line on the green etc etc. But it sure feels weird to be at a top-notch course and shank a shot on the first tee...somehow 'rude' to the course, though maybe that's just the self-consciousness of a 30+ handicap.)

Tom G said...

Great comments on a great and fun course.

I had the pleasure this last summer to play Cruden Bay. I was in Aberdeen on business and had a few days to play some golf. I had asked local friends for recommendations and Cruden Bay kept coming up. When a meeting was over early, I just loaded my clubs into the car and made the short drive up to Cruden Bay. I walked into the clubhouse and asked if it would be possible to play. No problem, I was told, there was an opening in 20 minutes - enough time to hit some balls on the range.

As there were very few players on the course that day (just as many locals walking dogs as players), I played alone. What an experience!

During the next couple of days, I went thru the round in my mind. I knew I had some free time and started to consider what other courses in the area to try and play. But I couldn't get Cruden Bay out my mind. I had played Carnoustie on an earlier trip, but it was Cruden Bay that I really wanted to play again.

So, back up the coast. Same scenario - show up and ask if there was an opening. Same answer - sure, just a short wait.

This time I was paired with a fellow Yank that was playing as many of the great Scottish courses as he could. I saw him hit the first drive and knew he was a player. We talked as we played and I found out that he had played Carnoustie the day before and shot 73. Again, it was a great day on the links. As a 'veteran' on Cruden Bay, I attempted to help my partner along, trying to describe how the holes played (expecially 14!!). When we finished, he told me that he shot 78 and had more fun than shooting 73 at Carnoustie.

This is a special course!!

Dan Turbow said...

On the caddy thing, it might sound like fun to have a member act as a caddy, and it probably is most of the time, but beware. I played with a friend who hired a caddy. She was a very nice older woman and quite chatty, which was fine. However, we didn't learn until the back nine that she was a 27 handicapper, which by then didn't surprise us. Every hole except for the par 3s she told us to hit driver, regardless of what consequences that could lead to or whether there was any advantage at all in hitting a driver, let alone a wood of any kind. After hitting driver on 2 which was playing downwind and hitting it so close to the green that I had no chance to spin a shot and stop my second on the green, I stopped listening to her at all. She also had a poor concept of distance, so for her to hit her driver on a particular line would be fine but for us it was death on at least one hole that I remember. It took my friend and I about 6-7 holes to figure that out and eventually just stopped asking her questions about the golf course and just had a nice chat with her around and she showed us where the next hole was, etc. A serious golfer would have been very frustrated with this experience especially since you're basically dropping $100.

I think the golf course is fun -- but it would not be in my top 100. I guess I'm in the minority here, but I had far more fun playing Dornoch in a 30 mph wind and showers than I did playing Cruden Bay in beautiful sunny weather. Cruden Bay does have nice views, has one or two great holes, a few very interesting holes and about a dozen blind shots. But both my friend and I walked off the course wondering what all the fuss was about (and I shot 80 which is about a normal round for me). And the 17th and 18th holes are very, very weak. Other than the 18th at Cypress (which still is a great match play hole no matter how much the hole is maligned), it's hard to think of a weaker finishing hole on any reknowned course relative to the rest of the holes on the course. The 18th here plays next to a driving range the entire length of the hole. It's a drag for a finish.

I will give it that it is a must play if you're near Aberdeen. But it doesn't hold a candle to Royal Dornoch, either in terms of charm or strength of its golf holes.

Matt said...

Played Cruden Bay on Aug 28 as part of a 4-day trip away from where I live in Edinburgh. Have to say the course just beat me up. I've played a lot of links golf, but this is something different. 1 under through 5, only to take a 10 on 6 and then have the rage set in. I'd love another chance at it. It's a good place- not stuffy. Not overly expensive. Slain's Castle in the background is a good look. Just wish I could've played better there. As it was, it wasn't nearly as fun as it could've been.

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