On a Golf Trip to Fife, Don’t Miss Crail

They say reflected glory is better than no glory at all. On the other hand, where many stars are clustered, the lesser lights tend to be obscured. In Scotland’s Kingdom of Fife—that little corner of the golf universe in which the oldest (St. Andrews) and the newest (Kingsbarns) shine brightest—the Crail Golfing Society’s Balcomie Links often falls into the latter category.

Which is not all bad, really. Crail doesn’t require nearly the sort of finagling (or financial means) that’s necessary to score a tee time on St. Andrews’ Old Course. And for any pilgrim willing to squeeze it into an itinerary packed with the usual “must-plays,” Balcomie proves itself an utterly delightful surprise.

Anonymous or not, Crail is plenty comfortable in its own skin. Its members have been gathering since 1786, making this the seventh-oldest club in the world. A complete record of their activities has been maintained over that span of 200-plus years—a rarity among golf clubs for its unbrokenness, and a testament to the dedication these Scotsmen feel for their institution.

The record is far more than empty minutiae: An 1874 entry dictates that “iron cases be got for the eight holes on the links to prevent the holes from being destroyed.” That’s the earliest known reference to metal cups in holes—so you have Crail to thank for that satisfying rattle every time a putt drops.

The society’s original eight-hole layout occupied a stretch of land, known as Sauchope, at the northeast end of the town of Crail. Golfers would meet there each month to play arranged matches, then remain for dinner at the Golf Inn, whose landlord was one of 11 founding members. These dinners were merry affairs, with much food and drink consumed. But not at the expense of decorum—if a member showed up without the society’s uniform of scarlet jacket with yellow buttons, it would cost him “a half-mutchkin of punch.”

“The great thing about Crail is the sense of fun and genuine camaraderie among the members,” says Peter Mason, who oversees public relations at St. Andrews but plays his golf at Crail. “It’s such a relaxed and enjoyable place to play, plus there’s the great sense of history that comes from being one of the oldest clubs in the world.”

The Crail record shows golf being played in 1859 on a rudimentary layout at Balcomie, a serpentine stretch of coastline about two miles north of town. Play continued off and on at Sauchope until World War II, but Balcomie became the primary playground in 1895 after Old Tom Morris was invited down from St. Andrews, located nine miles to the north. Old Tom declared Balcomie worthy golfing grounds—in fact, he said, “there is no better in Scotland”—and he laid out a proper nine-hole course that opened on July 9, 1895 and was extended to 18 holes four years later.

In 1998 Crail opened a second 18, the Craighead Links, a 6,700-yard design by tradition-oriented American architect Gil Hanse. It’s a worthy sister course, but Balcomie, whose Old Tom layout remains largely intact after more than a century, is the headliner, thanks to its wealth of charm and beauty, and a difficulty level that belies its back-tee measurement of 5,922 yards and 69 par designation.

“Many first-time players comment on this,” says head pro Graeme Lennie, “and I politely inform them they are about to play the longest golf course under 6,000 yards they’ll ever encounter. After their round, many come back to the shop and tell me how right I was. And no one ever comes back and tells me they haven’t enjoyed playing Balcomie.”

Crail’s scenery and challenge both come courtesy of its location on the very eastern tip of Fife, with seven holes hard by the North Sea and all 18 affected by whipping winds that typically blow in from it. Combine the on-shore sea breeze with a roller-coaster routing that requires a number of demanding uphill jaunts, and Lennie’s warning indeed proves true.

Much of Balcomie’s charm lies in its quirkiness: six par-3s, for example, including two unforgettable one-shotters at Nos. 13 and 14; a 200-yard hike along the beach that leads to an isolated quartet of finishing holes; an abundance of blind shots and odd lies—but all in good fun, a reminder that the game need not be taken too seriously.

Considering Balcomie’s idiosyncrasies, perhaps it’s no surprise the course is said to have inspired the mysterious Links at Burningbush in Michael Murphy’s metaphysical yarn, “Golf in the Kingdom.” Without question, says Lennie, the uphill, 219-yard 13th is the model for Burningbush’s own 13th, “Lucifer’s Rug,” at which the eccentric Shivas Irons makes a late-night hole-in-one with a hand-fashioned wooden shillelagh.

“There’s no other hole like it in Fife,” Lennie says of Balcomie’s 13th. The green is barely visible over the “rug,” a shaggy escarpment that spills 30 feet to a bowl-shaped area in front of the tee. The long-iron or fairway-wood shot is complicated by wind blowing off the sea from the left. “I’ve yet to make par there,” says Mason, “but walking off with a four always brings a sense of relief.”

Next comes the mirror image of No. 13, the 150-yard 14th. It marches back downhill, wind now from the right, with green linksland and blue sea all spread out below. The 14th is adjacent to No. 1, a friendly 328-yard par-4 that plays down the same slope and offers the same sweeping view of golf holes cascading down to, and back up from, the shoreline. “Just a slight glance down that first fairway and out over the other seven holes visible from the pro shop reaffirms the feeling I got when I started here 17 years ago—that this is a very special place,” Lennie says.

The second hole, dubbed “Ower the Knowe” because of its blind layup over a huge mound, leads to a precipice overlooking the beach. From here, the next three holes closely hug the water. The No. 1-handicap, par-4 fifth, ominously labeled “Hell’s Hole,” demands a carry-the-beach tee shot and ends at the furthest point away from the clubhouse.

The course then meanders back until reaching the bottom of the hill at 14. At that point, a U-turn is required to find one’s way over to the 15th. The path you take is nestled between the rocky beach on the left and a towering cliff on which the clubhouse is perched (the dining room overlooks this “backyard” area in which holes 15-18 lie). The closing stretch includes another semi-blind, uphill par-3 (No. 16) and Crail’s own “Road Hole,” the downhill, 463-yard 17th, which is bisected by a paved path through the fairway.

The adventure ends, fittingly, in atypical fashion, with a 203-yard par-3 backstopped by an old stone wall. In his book “Blasted Heaths and Blessed Greens,” writer Jim Finegan captures the feeling a player gets at this point. “Well, the game is over,” Finegan writes, “and full of fun it was from start to finish. What we imbibed out there for three hours was the intoxicating nectar of pure holiday golf, where the sea was always in view, the target was generally within reach and the penalty for failure was rarely stringent.”

Mason concurs: “There is no finer place to play on a sunny summer’s day.” No doubt, many a first-time visitor to Crail would whisper, “Aye.”