Friday, May 01, 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.

Cruden Bay from Carpark (2)

The magnificent setting of Cruden Bay as seen from the carpark

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.

Cruden Bay - 2nd Tabletop green
The table top green on the second hole, looking back toward the fairway

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 narrow approach to the 7th green

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.

8 from ninth tee

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

Cruden Bay - view from 9th tee (2)
View from the 9th tee with a perfect crescent shaped below below

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

Cruden Bay - 14th green from 9th tee
The 14th green as seen from above from the high tee on the 9th hole

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. When we visited we stayed at the Udny Arms located in nearby Newburgh, which is sadly now out of busines. A family owned B & B, it was 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


Anonymous said...

Please also visit The Royal aberdeen! Cruden bay is big fun but Royal aberdeen is links golf in its most pure for. RA. is absolutely superior. I don't know why i can't find it in the top 100....

Anonymous said...

The most fun I ever had on a golf course even I played in a 20-30mph wind with driver needed at the 4th.
Great golf couse and I can't wait to play it again.

Anonymous said...

If you are playing the course at Cruden Bay, you should stay at The Kilmarnock Arms Hotel, just 5 mins from the course. Great service, food and very friendly locals who use the 'Killie Bar' as their local drinking hole. Great atmosphere! The Udny Arms is a good 20 mins away.

Anonymous said...

Sad you can't even go to a simple golf blog without running into venomous anti-Cheney rhetoric....

David IN Golf said...

I couldn't agree with you more on you summary of Cruden Bay. I have played a lot of great golf courses and have been to Scotland twice. When we went back the second time there was only two stipulations I told the planner, we want to play Dornoch and Cruden Bay again. I could play that course every time. I have played it in great weather and in bad weather and it is still a fun course. The view from the 9th tee is as beautiful as you will find on a golf course. When I go back to Scotland in a year or so, I will go back to Cruden Bay and play again.

Captainron said...

I agree, one of the best golf courses ever designed. The measure off the brilliance of Cruden Bay lies in the comments made by modern course designers like Tom Doak and David McLay Kidd who recognise this to be an iconic layout. Herb Kohler (owner of Whistling Straights) wants to be buried in a bunker at Cruden Bay. When someone who has played some of the most exclusive and well known courses, singles one out for his final resting place then you know it's special. I just don't get folks who criticise this course for its quirkiness when this is thee very reason this course is in the top 100. I am lucky to have my in-laws living 10 miles away and I play this coursse each and every time I visit the North East of Scotland. I just can't get enough of it. The hospitality of the staff is brilliant and there are always members around who will let you join them for a round. What a fabulous place. I believe this course is better than its current ranking suggests

Anonymous said...

I was reading a book on golf in Scotland by a tour operator; he said he gives a questionaire to the groups after their trip asking their favorite courses and Cruden Bay is usually number 1 and never less than number 2.

Dwight said...

I played this gem 4 years ago - it is somewhat difficult to play a decent round when, on each tee, a wee grin forms on your face while looking at the fun unfolding before you. Next to Machrahanish, my favorite course in Scotland.

Anonymous said...

I have mostly enjoyed reading your site. Unfortunately, I have played only a handful of the courses you review, but love reading about great golf courses. What is about so-called liberals that they apparently feel compelled to pepper their commentary about any subject with derogatory political references about Republicans and conservatives. I have been reading your site for about 15 minutes, and already I've seen negative comments about Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Rush Limbaugh. It borders on the deranged. How would you feel if you started to read an interesting golf site, and came on comments such as, "This course was like Jimmy Carter, promising much, but delivering little," or, "I was hugely disappointed in this Club, being much like Barack Obama--its reputation far exceeded its true substance, which proved lacking indeed," or, "This course was as deceptive as John Kerry, and you would need to be married to Teresa Heinz to afford it, if you still cared after finding they were members." Can you not see how asinine and even offensive such comments would be? Why ruin your site with such sophomoric and unnecessary distractions?

Top 100 Golfer said...

Mr. Vice President - Thank you for the comment, it is a privilege to have someone with your stature as a reader. I'm actually a moderate and not a liberal, which is precisely why the Republican Party has been hijacked by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, it is not longer rationale, it is far to dogmatic. We need more moderate republicans like Bush the Elder and Reagan. To point out the obvious -- my comments are jokes, and like Archie Bunker, I pick on everyone, although Democrats seem to get that they are jokes and aren't as uptight when I make fun of them!

Anonymous said...

Not sure I understand what you mean by "I'm actually a moderate and not a liberal, which is precisely why the Republican Party has been hijacked by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News..." Again, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and this IS your site, so you can post anything you wish. However, I saw NO examples of the kinds of comments I mentioned that referenced any Democrats. Perhaps I missed them. This is a phenomenon that I have noticed creeping into movie reviews, food and wine magazines, sports stories, and so on. I really can't comprehend the need to insult people of different political views when you are discussing non-political issues. It's obvious you love golf, and I'm confident you know it has a long history of grace, courtesy, and discretion. I don't think some of your comments exhibit any of those attributes. With that said, I will retreat--it hasn't been especially polite of me, either, to barge into your domain, and complain.

Anonymous said...

Your summary of Cruden Bay exactly catches my feelings about it: it's the most fun I've ever had on a golf course! One of the best shots in my life was hitting driver into a howling wind on #4 and actually getting the ball to stick on the green. Can't wait to go back.

Paul in Montebello said...

Thanks for the photo of the "bathtub green". I loved it. I have never heard of a bathtub green, much less seen one. I came to the Cruden Bay part of your blog after reading your Augusta entry (the completion of your hundred quest). The Question was, should you give up the game?
But, that question is exactly why you should not give up the "game". Golf is more than a game. Golf is a physical exercise. Golf is a mental challenge. Golf is a meditation. Golf is a craft. Most of all, like Cruden Bay, golf is a tradition handed down from shepherders and fisherman, to Scottish carpenters and bowmakers, to caddies, clubmakers, and early course designers, to amateurs and privileged mens clubs, to working class heroes and professional golfers and, finally, to all of the world. When you are a golfer, you are part of something uniquely great in this world. One hundred courses cannot possibly be enough. On the contrary, perhaps the Low 100 would have its charms. I present to you Compton Municipal Golf Course, South of Los Angeles. It is a 9 hole course that appears to be very, very unkempt. But, for only 5 dollars and virtually no one on the course, you can enjoy the shaggy municipal course grass to chip from; tee shots ranging from 110 yards to 185 yards; and, a cool Southern California breeze that drifts across the course, cooling you. Plus, you can play the 9 holes without a reservation, completing your round in about an hour. OR, you can remain a connoisseur only and miss out on the charms that muni golf has to offer. Or, to put it another way. Golf clubs are tools, use them.

Unknown said...

I stumbled across Cruden Bay this year. It is a very special place indeed. Your review is tremendous by the way. If there is heaven, the path that leads you to it undoubtedly goes through Cruden Bay.