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Cruden Bay

A Hidden Gem on Scotland's North Sea

By: Nick Edmund

Appeared in April 1997 LINKS

Rosemary Pittendrigh, secretary of Cruden Bay Golf Club, answered the telephone. “Hello Rosemary,” the caller said, “it’s Tom Watson. I’m staying nearby and was wondering if it might be possible for myself and two friends to play your golf course tomorrow. Oh, and I hope you don’t mind my calling you Rosemary but I cannot pronounce your surname.” At first, Mrs. Pittendrigh thought it might be a hoax, although the voice sounded quite familiar and the politeness of the approach seemed very genuine. Within 24 hours the five-time British Open champion had not only mastered the pronunciation of the secretary’s name but was striding the links with his companions.

According to Watson, the decision to play the course was made on the spur of the moment. It was the week prior to the 1996 Open at Royal Lytham and he had originally intended to be playing golf in Ireland. When those plans suddenly fell through he headed for the north of Scotland. This is his version of the events, but those who have studied the history of Cruden Bay may conclude it was fate that determined Watson’s visit.

Cruden Bay is situated 23 miles north of Aberdeen on the forgotten, windswept coast of northeast Scotland. And yet, in Brigadoon-like fashion, every 100 years or so, one or more famous figures appear, often unannounced, and the place is never quite the same again. It started 1,000 years ago and it happened 100 years ago.

King Canute was the first noted visitor, although he wasn’t exactly welcome. The 11th century King of the Danes and later King of England, Norway and much of Sweden (or as he modestly styled himself “Lord of the Earth and Seas”) landed in the bay at the head of a large invasion force. Unfortunately for Canute word of his intended conquest had reached King Malcom II of Scotland several days in advance. A bloody battle ensued and Canute was forced to flee. The name Cruden emanates from the Viking “Croju-Dane” or “slaughter of the Danes.”

Towards the end of the last century two very contrasting characters came to Cruden Bay. Since both made several visits and had mutual acquaintances there is every chance they met. Imagine entering, let’s say the Fishermens’ Arms, a well known establishment in the Cruden Bay of the late 1890s. At one end of the lounge bar, a pint of Guinness in one hand and pen in the other, sits Bram Stoker. He is just putting the finishing touches to the first chapter of Dracula. Across the room, sipping from a tumbler of Scotch, is the unmistakable profile of Old Tom Morris. He has a map in front of him and he is considering where to position the sixth green on the new golf links he has been asked to lay out. “Aye,” Old Tom eventually mutters through his legendary beard, “it must go the far side of the wee burn ... ”

The man who invited Old Tom to Cruden Bay was the 19th Earl of Erroll, Chairman of the Great North of Scotland Railway Company. The Earl was clearly another remarkable individual. He had the vision of creating Scotland’s first golf course/hotel resort. His plan was to link Cruden Bay by rail to Aberdeen—Aberdeen already being joined to London—and to build a luxury hotel and golf course in Cruden Bay. He achieved his dream a decade before the Glasgow and South Western Railway Company unveiled their hotel in Turnberry.

The other interesting fact concerning the Earl was his home. He lived in Slains Castle, built in 1597 by his ancestor the 9th Earl of Erroll, and situated just two miles from Cruden Bay. And the link with Bram Stoker? It was Slains Castle which inspired him to write Dracula. Given his extraordinary talents, one cannot help wondering whether the 19th Earl also formed part of the legend.

To be sure, the Earl’s dream came to a sudden and premature end. Within 50 years of the resort’s opening only the golf course remained. The railway line had ceased to operate, the splendid hotel, the “Palace in the Sandhills,” was derelict, and even the formidable 16th century castle was in ruins.

So did Tom Watson play Old Tom’s course? Yes and no. Most latter day references to Cruden Bay seem happy to appoint Tom Simpson as the course architect. Certainly, Simpson substantially revised the links in the 1920s, but as many as 10 of the present green sites may have been “discovered” by Morris—including the sixth which still sits on its natural plateau, “the far side of the wee burn.” Perhaps it was because the eccentric Simpson—he traveled everywhere in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce—let it be known that he regarded Cruden Bay as his masterpiece and that is why the extent of Morris’ input is often overlooked. This isn’t unique to Cruden Bay. Mother Nature aside, Tom Morris was the first architect at both Royal Dornoch and Lahinch, better known for their connections with Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie. When you add these classics to a curriculum vitae that includes Royal County Down and Prestwick, you have to ask whether Old Tom’s contribution to golf course architecture is underestimated. Surely it is not merely co­in­cidental that so many of the great courses of Great Britain and Ireland were initially fashioned by Tom Morris? As for Cruden Bay, the combination of Old Tom’s instinct, Simpson’s undoubled flair and a stunning location have conspired to produce one of golf’s magical experiences.

You do not have to search to discover the appeal of Cruden Bay. Just stand in front of the clubhouse and look—or more likely stare—ahead. It’s a jaw-dropping exercise. You are gazing at what writer Jim Finegan has described as “Golfing country of rare splendour; in truth undeniable majesty.” The view has been compared with the panorama from the hotel at Turnberry, which is appropriate since you are standing on the ground once occupied by Cruden Bay’s “Palace in the Sandhills.” The dunes, however, are far more impressive than those at Turnberry; indeed, they are of epic proportion. And what makes Cruden Bay so exhilarating and fascinating is that for much of the round you are playing right amongst those dunes. To quote Finegan again, “This is heroic ground, and if like Ireland’s nonpareil Ballybunion, it is thrilling to contemplate, it is even more thrilling to play.”

How right he is! Views that surpass Turnberry, sandhills that rival Ballybunion and golf holes that evoke the natural flavor of Dornoch as well as the wild and occasional quirkiness of Lahinch.

The first two holes are pure Dornoch. At both you drive from an elevated tee down to a terraced fairway that slopes from left to right, then play an approach to a plateaued green (supremely so at the second). All along the left side of these holes is a steep bank of dunes; needless to say the fairway bunkers eat into the side of the hill. The third runs in the same direction and is definitely a Lahinch hole. It is a real wriggler, a semi-blind, short par four where the drive must be targeted between a gap in the dunes and, if it is to have any hope of finding the sunken punch-bowl green, must avoid a large mound in the center left of the fairway.

It would be inappropriate to continue drawing comparisons, for the sequence between the fourth and seventh at Cruden Bay is beyond compare. It may comprise the finest run of pure links holes in the world. This is a daring statement, but where is there a better par three than the 4th with its stirring tee shot across a valley to a wonderful stage-like green—water to the left, dunes to the right, a lone pot bunker at the front and natural fall-aways all around? Or a more spectacular drive than the one from the championship tees at the 5th? At the 6th, again from a tee deep in the hills, you must fire your drive along a funnel of dunes, then lay-up—unless you are Superman—short of the marvelously named “Bluidly Burn,” before pitching to Old Tom’s classically defended two-tiered green. And finally the tumbling, doglegging 7th with its green perched high and guarded by sentinel dunes on either side. These are holes that can leave you baffled and breathless.

At the 1st, 2nd and 3rd, Slains Castle provided a striking backdrop. Between the 4th and 7th, when you were not hidden beneath the dunes, there were tantalizing glimpses of the sea. The roar of the surf now grows louder as you leave the seventh green and, at last, you gain an uninterrupted view of the shore—King Canute’s sea. Once again you are momentarily teased, for at the 8th you turn your back to the ocean as you play a very short par four to a green dwarfed by an enormous sandhill. There is only one escape route from this green and it is the architects’ masterstroke: You climb the massive sandhill to reach the 9th tee. Of course, the view from the top of the hill is sensational.

The routing of the course guides you over and behind the sandhill, then, in dramatic style (the tee shot at the 10th) you drop down to play a loop of holes (through the 13th) which occupy an area completely cut off from the rest of the course. Here seems another world—a quieter, calmer land. An ancient burn meanders through the heart of the loop, minding its business as it flows out into the sea. The terrain starts to regain its turbulence as you approach the green at the par-five 13th. Yes, this is a much more typical Cruden Bay greensite—the putting surface angled away from the fairway and partially concealed behind a large dune than runs recklessly across its front.

The next two holes are not so much typical but unique. To play the 14th and 15th holes at Cruden Bay is to confront golf’s equivalent of walking the tightrope. For one thing, both holes are blind—and the 15th is a par three! The thin strip of land they occupy is wedged between the base of a giant sandhill (on top of which runs the 9th) and a range of dunes running adjacent to the shore. It is the original form of target golf. You must find the fairway at the 14th—and it is infested with nasty little pot bunkers—and then, hitting over the top of a ridge, you must somehow land on the pencil-thin green which sits snugly in a sheltered dell. The sea and beach views are severely distracting yet the tee shot at the 15th, skirting the side of the hill, demands utmost concentration (and no little force, for the hole measures well over 200 yards). Quirky, perhaps, but the 14th and 15th are immensely entertaining.

The 16th, a second successive par three, is hardly conventional; you see no more than the top third of the flag as you hit across a wavy sea of dunes to a green that slopes slightly away. You return to the clubhouse by way of a pair of classic two-shotters. And you are back in Dornoch country, with rippling fairways, plateaued greens and golden whins. Two par fours represent a satisfying finish.

On the day Tom Watson played, the skies were blue and there was barely a breath of wind. “You have an absolute jewel, Mrs. Pittendrigh,” said the man from Kansas City with a Brigadoon-like smile. “I’ll be back ... but tell me, what’s it like when the skies are dark and the wind is blowing fiercely?” he asked, as his gaze turned towards Slains Castle. “Absolutely terrifying,” was the response.

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