A Day at Cruden Bay Golf Club
Much has changed since my first trip to Cruden Bay Golf Club in August of 1994. The course was then largely unknown to visiting American golfers, who ventured north of St. Andrews mainly to visit Royal Dornoch. There was a sense of adventure and discovery in finding what was then one of the world’s greatest hidden gems. The welcome extended to visitors in the utilitarian white clubhouse was warm and sincere. The course was wild, fun and an altogether unique layout. I am happy to report that those things have not changed in the intervening 25 years.
Change, when it does come, does not proceed with haste in an ancient country like Scotland. The drive up from St. Andrews was not an easy one in 1994. However, it is now made with relative ease, given the completion of the A90 bypass of Aberdeen. This new stretch of motorway has cut at least 30 minutes off the total drive time. Not that I recommend bypassing the famed granite city of Aberdeen, but time is often precious on Scottish golf trips. While you may feel a slight pang of regret as you head north on the A90 at Stonehaven, knowing you are only 2 minutes from that wonderful and wild golf course, difficult choices must be made. I urge you not to bypass a day at Cruden Bay when planning your dream golf trip.
The visual revelation of the linksland of Cruden Bay can be overwhelming for the first time visitor. Walking from the car park around the beautiful modern clubhouse (another change since 1994) you are confronted by a panorama of dunes and linksland unmatched in the world of golf. There are even the towering ruins of Slains Castle in the distance, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as if additional enhancement of this glorious tableau was necessary. It is one of the most stunning reveals of a golf course in existence.
It is possible that golf was played on these grounds as early as 1791. The genesis of the current links dates to 1894 when the Great North of Scotland Railway Company commissioned the course and hotel to promote railway tourism. Old Tom Morris himself provided the initial routing. Cruden Bay Golf Club was founded in 1900. The current course layout dates to 1926 and is work of English architect Tom Simpson.
We arrived on a beautiful sunny morning on May 10. There was already enough wind present to make the course play as intended. Entering the clubhouse, I was greeted warmly by Head Professional Neil Murray. Mr. Murray has one of the best golf shops in all of Scotland and I was quick to make a generous donation to the local economy. He welcomed me warmly and asked if I had played the course before. I explained that I had indeed played it many times, but it had been almost 20 years since my last visit. “Well, you will find it much the same as you remember, except for the 9th and 10th. We built a new 9th hole a few years ago and relocated the tee on the 10th,” said the friendly pro with characteristic Scottish understatement. I was soon to find out the stunning effect this change had made to the physical and emotional experience of playing Cruden Bay. We continued our conversation about the course, as I purchased several items from the well-stocked shop. I mentioned in passing that it was my son Jake’s first trip to Cruden Bay and it happened to be on his birthday. That off-hand comment led to one of the highlights of our entire trip.
The original clubhouse by the 1st tee now serves as the Starter’s hut, who was waiting for us by the tee. He asked if it would be ok for another American called Chris to join us, since it was his first visit. I was happy to be a tour guide for Chris and found that I immediately remembered the correct lines, in spite of the almost 20 year gap in my experience. On almost every hole, there is an appropriate line that is most likely not apparent from the tee. One of the most joyous aspects of links golf is the strategy of where to land the ball on the ground. This is especially true of the tee shots at Cruden Bay.
It’s difficult to think of a course more fun to play than this one. The opening tee shot should favor the left side and must avoid a bunker, but in general does not cause excessive anxiety. The approach to the 2nd, to a dramatically raised plateau green, is one of the best on the course. At the 3rd, one of the great short par fours in the world, you start to enter the wild heart of the links. At 268 yards, the blind tee shot must land between dunes on both sides, which will funnel the ball down to the perfectly sited green. A well struck shot may result in an eagle try, but an overly aggressive one brings double bogey or worse into play. This is a perfect golf hole.
It would be natural to expect a let down after the joys of the 3rd, but it is not to be. Quite simply, the 4th hole at Cruden Bay is one of the great par 3’s in the world of golf. The tee is set behind the 3rd green, with the fishing village of Port Erroll and the river (called the Water of Cruden) to the left. At 196 yards, it plays uphill over a valley between the dunes and the river. The green sits perfectly among the dunes, begging to be hit. Standing quietly on the 4th green at Cruden Bay, with the sound of the wind blowing through the grass covered dunes, it is impossible not to feel that Scotland is the true home of golf.
Beginning with the tee shot at the 5th, you enter into the most mighty towering dunes in the game of golf. The next 4 holes are routed masterfully through these sandhills. It does not matter if Old Tom or English Tom gets the majority of the credit, the holes are all memorable and great. The burn fronting the green on the par 5 6th is the wee burn of your Scottish golf dreams. Called Bluidy Burn, a bad lay up or short approach is likely to find it. The 250 yard 8th is another drivable par 4, and is the physical and spiritual heart of the great links. Tom Simpson called the 8th “an outstanding jewel of a hole, mischievous, subtle and provocative, the element of luck with the tee shot being very high.” It would be hard to argue with his assessment, even so many decades later. The 8th green does indeed sit like a jewel at the base of the towering gorse covered hills. Par in Scotland is in many ways irrelevant, but I love the fact that the 8th remains a par 4 and the club has never changed anything about the hole. In a lifetime of playing this game, it remains my favorite golf hole.
The view from the 8th green across the 15th and 16th, to the beach and ocean beyond, is stunning. As you make the steep ascent to the new 9th tee, it becomes apparent that the prior view was only a prelude of the vista to come. The climb to the 9th tee at Cruden Bay is one of the most arduous I’ve ever encountered. However, the ultimate reward more than compensates for our momentary struggles. A few years ago, in a brilliant move, the 9th hole was shifted around 100 yards to the east, along the very edge of the highest point on the grounds. As a result, a formerly average par four was transformed into one of the great par fours in golf. It could be argued that along with the 17th green at the Old Course, the 8th green at Machrihanish and the 11th tee at Dunaverty, the 9th tee at Cruden Bay is one the spiritual centers of the golf world. You can’t help but take it all in for several minutes. Perhaps to catch your breath, but more likely in stunned silence.
When the new 9th hole was created, the 10th tee was moved about 50 yards to the west. As an added benefit, it has made the 10th a better hole. Driving from the heights of the new 10th tee to the valley floor below is a great thrill. It is a wonderful and testing par 4, in what is likely to be a strong crosswind. The 11th is a nice par 3 and almost a certain bogey if the green is not reached off the tee. The 12th is a fine hole, but thought by many to be the weak link in a stretch of otherwise incomparable golf holes. As we putted out on 12, I noticed what appeared to be another green in the distance, set against the impossibly blue ocean. This hidden green was an addition since my prior visits and I made a mental note to try to find out more about it.
The 13th runs along the ocean and is a truly great par 5. The tee shot must avoid the winding burn and high grass along the beach. The 2nd shot should be played to the left side of the fairway to open up the approach into the massive green, which lies at the base of the dune mountain from which we have just recently descended. The 14th is another singular hole in my golfing experience. The tee shot is played blind, from an elevated tee hard by the beach, to a fairway that appears non-existent. The aforementioned gorse covered dune is there to destroy any tee shot which has, as my great Prestwick caddie Chris McBride once said, “Left-wing tendencies.” If the relative safety of the fairway is achieved, one of the great blind approach shots of the world awaits. The almost rectangular, oblong shaped green is located over a dune down in a sunken pit, at least 15 feet below surrounding grade. I don’t know of any other green site like this anywhere. If you don’t have a smile on your face after playing this hole, then you probably shouldn’t be playing golf at Cruden Bay.
I have always viewed the 15th and 16th as 2 sides of the same coin. Back to back par 3’s, they continue the glorious madness that Old Tom and Tom Simpson have so thoroughly maintained for 14 holes. The 195 yard 15th is played over the end corner of the ever-present mountainous dune, blind and doglegged, to a green which we can only hope to imagine the location of. I have hit everything from a full driver to a 9 iron on this hole. It is madness and sheer fun. The 16th finally breaks us free of the great dune’s clutches and is somewhat more conventional. It is played from an elevated tee to a beautiful green site set amongst the dunes. I once made a 13 on this hole in a 40 mph crosswind, en-route to a score of 106, with tee shot after tee shot flying wildly towards the beach. The very next morning I had a tap-in birdie 2, on the way to a handy 75. That is links golf in a nutshell.
The 17th and 18th are good par four holes, though not as good as their predecessors, and serve admirably to take us out of the mighty duneland back to the welcoming confines of the clubhouse. The tee shot on the 17th must avoid an unusual grass covered mound in the middle of the fairway, thought to be the burial ground of Scots and Danes killed in the battle of 1012. The tee shot on the 18th should favor the left for the best angle into the green, but out of bounds lurks along that entire side. We shook the hand of our new friend Chris and invited him to join us for lunch in the clubhouse bar.
With our full Scottish breakfast a distant memory, we climbed the stairs to the 2nd floor glass walled dining area to be greeted by this:
Not enough can be said about the hospitality shown to us by the staff at Cruden Bay. It is something we will never forget. We had a wonderful and delicious lunch, complete with the requisite pint of Tennents. As we were finishing up our meal, the strains of the Happy Birthday song started to play over the sound system. Somehow the bar staff had also managed to insert Jake’s name into the song, as the dining room manager came out to our table with a shortbread and strawberry cake complete with a birthday candle.
Les Durno, the great General Manager, came out along with the cake and introduced himself. A friendly man who obviously loves Cruden Bay, we immediately struck up a conversation about the history of the course, the old railway hotel, and the brilliant changes to the 9th and 10th. I mentioned that I thought the new 9th hole had put Cruden Bay at an even higher level in the golf world. “Aye, it has indeed. I remember walking out into the gorse with the architect on his first visit. You could see what a great hole it would be before we even started work. It’s been a brilliant change to the course.” Curious about the hidden green I had seen behind the 12th, I asked Les about it. A smile lit up his face, “Ah, yes. That’s the alternate 12th hole. We play it in the winter. There are some that would love to make it a permanent hole, with some possible reworking of the 11th and 12th. You should play it when you go back out this afternoon. The wee tee is up in the dunes to the right.” I can report that I played the alternate 12th hole in the afternoon and it is tremendous.
Les and I continued our splendid conversation for several minutes, with the old clubhouse and railway hotel as a major topic. He then took me to meet the wonderful long time booking secretary Elaine Stephens, who I remembered talking to on the phone all those years ago in 1994. We spoke briefly about the old days of fax machines and actual written letters for booking golf reservations. As I was leaving to join Jake for another 18 on his now memorable birthday, Elaine said, “I am so pleased you made it back to Cruden Bay.” Aye, I am too. Fàilte dhachaigh.