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Crail Golfing Society: Timeless Links and Contemporary Challenges

crail golfing society featured

The Crail Golfing Society, located in the picturesque coastal town on the east coast of Crail, Fife, Scotland, was established in 1786, making it the 7th oldest golf club in the world. Crail is known as the “East Neuk of Fife,” its courses hug the rocky coastline, providing stunning views of the North Sea and the Isle of May nature reserve.

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Crail itself is a former royal burgh steeped in history and charm. The town’s ancient streets are lined with houses dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the most iconic landmarks is the Crail Mercat Cross, a stone monument erected in the 16th century that served as a meeting place for traders and a venue for proclamations.

The Crail Golfing Society’s two courses, the Old Tom Morris-designed Balcomie and the newer Gil Hanse creation, Craighead Links, are the true draw for golfers. Both offer a stern test amidst the coastal breezes, undulating fairways, and deep bunkers. Wind is a prominent factor at Crail, situated at one of eastern Scotland’s most exposed coastal locations. 

As noted in our recent post on packing for a Scottish golf trip, the Crail Golfing Society warns visitors, “There is no such thing as bad weather in Scotland – just the wrong clothing,” and “The golden rule in this part of the world is always come prepared!”

In this post, we’ll visit Fife to discover the Crail Golfing Society, its origins and rich history, and connections to Balcomie Castle. We’ll learn the story of the new Craighead Links and explore the classic Balcomie course. Finally, further reading suggestions and videos will help bring the courses to life.

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Origins and History

The Crail Golfing Society was formed in 1786 with an inaugural meeting of eleven Crail residents who were fond of golf and agreed to form the Society. Early membership included land owners, tenant farmers, naval officers, writers, lawyers, and ship masters. Crail is one of only three golf clubs from the 18th century with a complete series of minute books dating back to its formation.

crail golfing society origin

Golf was probably played before the club was formed, and the Gazetteer of Scotland of 1832 reports there was a club in Crail in 1760, though no records exist. The original links were at Sauchope on the coast just north of Crail. The layout of the nine-hole course, which developed there, was five holes out on the landward side and four back along the coast. After matches, members would dine at an inn, now called the Golf Hotel, whose landlord was a founding member, Mr Daniel Conolly.

In the early 19th Century, Crail went into decline, with only eight members remaining in 1813. A decision was made to dissolve the club, though it continued on for a few years. Things picked up in the 1820s, but the local tenant farmer protested the use of the land for golf and physically harassed the golfers in 1837, going as far as plowing up part of the course.

Only at the end of the century did the club flourish again during the great golfing boom, which brought new prosperity and railways to many parts of Scotland. In 1895, the Club officially left Sauchope to play over the Balcomie Links. Old Tom Morris, based at St Andrews, ten miles away, laid out the original nine holes at Balcomie in 1894, stating that the links were “very suitable for a nine-hole course and there is not a better in Scotland.” He returned in 1900 to expand the course, adding the second nine.

The Balcomie Links course makes the most of the shoreline, with natural hollows, stone walls, shared greens, and bunker faces clad in old railway sleepers, similar to those omnipresent at Royal North Norfolk. Donald Steel wrote that not even North Berwick brings the beach into play more than Balcomie Links. The course measures under 6000 yards and has the unusual combination of three par-5s, six par-3s, and nine par-4s, producing a tough par of 69.

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Crail has always had strong ties to the sea, and its harbor has been an important fishing port for centuries. The opening hole, “Boathouse,” is particularly memorable, playing from atop a cliff down to a blind green guarded by bunkers. A historic old boathouse sits beside the green, providing a scenic backdrop and landmark visible from several holes along the coastline.

The second through fifth play along the seaside, while holes six through 13 use the inland property. The final stretch from 14 through 18 finishes near the seaside.

Balcomie’s unique routing is somewhat imbalanced. The outward nine contains a single one-shot hole, while the inward half contains a staggering five. Despite this, the first nine only play 400 yards longer. The drivable 15th, “Mill Dam,” and 17th, “Road Hole,” which has nothing in common with its infamous namesake, serve as the only two-shot holes on the inward half.

All six of Balcomie Links’ one-shot holes have something special about them, but the 14th, “The Cave,” and the home hole, “The Quarry,” are standouts. The 14th, playing downhill, adjacent to the first and the clubhouse, with the sea to the right, is one of the most picturesque in the area. The 205-yard closing hole offers a challenging finish with an amazing view.

In the late 1990s, Craighead Farmland, adjacent to the Balcomie Links course, was put up for sale. Crail Golfing Society decided to purchase the land, expand, and build a new golf course. American Gil Hanse was hired to design the new course, known as Craighead Links, Hanse’s first 18-hole course design outside of the United States.

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Craighead Links opened for play in 1998 as the second 18-hole course at the historic Crail Golfing Society. The clifftop layout provides breathtaking views of the North Sea, Firth of Forth, and Isle of May. Hanse carefully integrated the existing medieval Danes Dyke dry stone wall, believed to be built by Viking invaders over 1200 years ago, into the strategic design of at least four holes, including the short drivable par-4 10th. This unique hazard blends seamlessly with the natural terrain and coastal setting.

While less famous than the club’s classic Balcomie Links, Craighead has earned a reputation as one of Scotland’s finest modern championship courses. The layout features several “infinity” green complexes with dramatic cliffside backdrops and Hanse’s trademark strategic bunkering and tiers around the putting surfaces. It has significant contouring and extensive bunkering across its 6,500-yard layout.

Craighead quickly established itself as a course of championship pedigree and gained recognition, hosting events like the 2000 World Junior Open and 2006 Scotland vs. Spain International just a few years after its inception.

Visit Crail Golfing Society online at https://crailgolfingsociety.co.uk/

Did You Know?

balcomie castle - crail golfing society

Balcomie Castle is a medieval tower house located near Crail. It is part of a larger complex that includes a 19th-century mansion and farmstead buildings. The earliest records of the castle date back to 1278, when it belonged to the Hays family. In 1526, the Learmonth family acquired the estate and likely built the existing tower portion.

The Learmonths retained ownership of Balcomie Castle for over 300 years. One of its most famous residents was James Learmonth (1600-1657), who served as Lord Balcomie and a Senator of the College of Justice in the 17th century. His distinctive funerary monument can be seen in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

In 1863, a wealthy merchant, Sir James Matheson, purchased the Balcomie estate and constructed the current mansion house in the Scottish Baronial style. A few decades later, in 1895, Old Tom Morris laid out the famous Balcomie Links golf course on the estate grounds for the Crail Golfing Society. The course takes its name from the historic Balcomie Castle located on the same estate lands.

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PuttView Books are detailed yardage and green maps designed to help golfers save strokes, especially under tournament conditions. They offer precise visual representations of courses, including topographic slope percentages, fairway arrows for slopes over 4%, and a dual view of greens accurate to the millimeter. The books are printed on high-quality waterproof paper, sized to fit traditional yardage book covers, and are USGA legal. 

Customers praise PuttView Books for their stunning detail, stylish presentation, and confidence in decision-making on the course. With 30,000 courses represented, your home course is bound to be available, as are both courses at Crail Golfing Society.

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Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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A Course Called Scotland
by Tom Coyne

Summary: For much of his adult life, best-selling author Tom Coyne has been chasing a golf ball around the globe. When he was in college, studying abroad in London, he entered the lottery for a prized tee time in Scotland, grabbing his clubs and jumping the train to St. Andrews as his friends partied in Amsterdam; later, he golfed the entirety of Ireland’s coastline, chased pros through the mini-tours, and attended grueling Qualifying Schools in Australia, Canada, and Latin America. Yet, as he watched the greats compete, he felt something was missing. Then one day a friend suggested he attempt to play every links course in Scotland, and qualify for the greatest championship in golf. 

The result is A Course Called Scotland, a hilarious golf and travel adventure throughout the birthplace of the sport and home to some of the oldest and most beloved courses in the world, including St. Andrews, Turnberry, Dornoch, Prestwick, Troon, and Carnoustie.

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Golf Courses of the British Isles
by Bernard Darwin

Summary: “Golf Courses of the British Isles” by Bernard Darwin is a classic text that explores and celebrates the unique beauty and challenges of golf courses throughout the British Isles. Darwin, a revered golf writer and grandson of Charles Darwin, provides insightful commentary on the architecture, history, and character of iconic courses, blending personal anecdotes with expert analysis. His vivid descriptions transport readers to the very greens and fairways of famous venues, highlighting their natural beauty and the intricacies of their design. The book, illustrated with evocative drawings by Harry Rountree, remains a timeless tribute to the game of golf and is considered a must-read for enthusiasts of the sport and its storied landscapes.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Golf Mates – Balcomie Links
Crail – No Laying Up
Cookie Jar Golf – Crail

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