CONSIDERING ITS PROXIMITY to the old grey town of St. Andrews it is remarkable that many more golfing pilgrims do not take time to play Balcomie Links at Crail. Set a mere 12 miles south on the most easternmost tip of the Kingdom of Fife this Tom Morris-designed stunner of a links presents a stern test despite its modest length of 5,922 that sadly excludes it from major competitions.
Since 1786, bar a couple of interruptions for World Wars, golf has been played on the narrow stretch on land on the North Sea shore and, although the Balcomie Links did not come into being until 1895, The Crail Golfing Society is the seventh oldest club in world golf.
What makes Crail such a challenge is the winds that blow hard from the Firth of Forth. When Royal Ashdown Forest senior assistant professional, Sam Cowley, played Balcomie in early April he nailed a drive followed by what he describes as a ‘Career four iron’ before reaching for his wedge on the 315 yard par four fourth that runs alongside the sea shore. Three holes later he drove the green with a five iron on a 273 yard par four.The wind plays such a big factor at Crail that greens are deliberately kept at a speed of between seven and nine on the Stimpmeter as any faster and they would be unplayable.
The opening and closing holes that hug the coast are by far the most dramatic although there are a number of extremely quirky par threes with greens placed at the tops of giant mounds that must, at one time, have been sand dunes. There are four par threes in the last six holes, creating a slightly unbalanced feel, but none of them are straightforward.
The 13th is 214 yards and runs steeply uphill back to the clubhouse and the course yardage book recommends that you take one more club than you think, which comes of little comfort to those standing on the tee with a driver in their hand!
Given a par of 69, or 67 off the yellow men’s tees, nature’s defences means that few ever bring Balcomie to its knees and it remains every bit as much of a test as the climb is up the hill from the 18th green to the clubhouse spike bar.
There is history aplenty at these most determinedly old fashioned links, not least that it was at Crail that the first ever use of an iron cup to fill the hole that previously had simply been dug into the ground and, by the end of the week, were anything but round. The haunted Balcomie Castle also stands nearby although is now a working farm.
Sometime in the 16th century, a general occupied the castle and employed a boy who loved music and would wander the castle playing a penny whistle. One winter morning, as his master slept off the effects of too much merrymaking the boy played his whistle outside the general’s bed chamber. Awoken from a deep sleep he seized the child and locked him in the keep before going back to bed. When he awoke again, he had completely forgotten the incident.
After an absence of seven days, the master returned to the castle to hear of the mysterious disappearance of the musical boy. His memory came back to him and he rushed to the keep only to find a cold corpse. For centuries afterwards there have been reports of unearthly whistling within the castle walls, lights burning blue and chairs moving of their own accord.
There is so much to enjoy at Crail, not least the second 18-hole course of Craighead, that at least a day should be set aside to enjoy this historic old club and its surroundings to its fullest.