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Cruden Bay: Links Golf Between the Dunes

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Cruden Bay Golf Club, located on the rugged northeast coast of Scotland, is a classic links course steeped in captivating history and natural beauty. Set amongst towering sand hills and rugged seaside terrain, it has earned a place in the pantheon of great Scottish links courses since 1899. Over a century later, this dramatic seaside test retains its authentic character, continuing to challenge and delight players with an imaginative routing over a windswept landscape.

Originally designed by Old Tom Morris and enhanced by subsequent architects like Tom Simpson, the Championship Course at Cruden Bay unfurls over 6,600 yards of rumpled fairways and devilish greens, with the North Sea breeze always lying in wait to disrupt even the best-planned shots. Playing through wispy marram grasses and vibrant yellow gorse, Cruden Bay offers a pure expression of links golf, demanding creativity and precision in navigating its natural contours and hazards.

Cruden Bay has always been something of a bucket-list course for me. When I first bought Donald Steel’s book “Classic Links Courses,” it stood out amongst 200+ pages of other classics. The setting for the 4th green, replicated in our featured image, was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I happened on one of the linked videos last night and thought it was time to add Cruden Bay to our “Legendary Links” series.

In this post, we’ll cover the origins of Cruden Bay Golf Club, the critical acclaim that the course has received, and provide a walkthrough of the course, its features, and characteristics. We will close with a look at Cruden Bay Today, Further Reading, and Videos to bring the course to life. As always, the adjacent images are simulated to provide context and set the scene.

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Origins of Cruden Bay

Of historical note, the site that is now Cruden Bay Golf Club was the location for the Battle of Cruden in the 11th century, where Scottish victory ended Danish ambitions to conquer Scotland. The battle is believed to be the origin of the name “Cruden Bay,” derived from the Gaelic “Croch Dain” or “Croju Dane,” meaning “slaughter of Danes.”

The earliest evidence of golf being played at Cruden Bay dates back to 1791, with the discovery of a winner’s medal from a competition played on nearby Ward Hill that year. Additionally, a ballot box inscribed “Cruden Golf Club 1791” provides further proof of organized golf in the area at that time. It is believed golf was played on a course near Slains Castle that looked over the current Cruden Bay links.

In 1894, the Great North of Scotland Railway Company commissioned the current Cruden Bay Links and “Palace in the Sandhills” hotel to promote recreational travel and tourism. Old Tom Morris was brought in to design the initial routing of the golf course with assistance from Archie Simpson. The course was opened in 1899 and extended playing privileges to local residents who formed the Port Erroll Golf Club. This marked the genesis of the golf links seen at Cruden Bay today. After WWII, there were doubts about the club’s future, but it was purchased in 1950, keeping the course intact.

Over the years, the course has been slightly modified while retaining its wild and dramatic seaside character. The current layout, winding through towering dunes and cliff-top grassland, continues to challenge and delight golfers worldwide. Cruden Bay is still considered one of the finest and most authentic tests of Scottish links golf, remaining true to its origins from the late 1800s.

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Critical Acclaim

Cruden Bay is renowned for its dramatic seaside landscape and challenging design. Golf architects, writers, and players widely praise the course as an exceptional golfing experience.

Tom Doak stated, “There is no weakness in the design at Cruden Bay.” He ranked it as one of the top 10 courses in Scotland. Other top architects like Tom Simpson and Martin Hawtree have worked on minor modifications over the years while retaining the course’s original character. Golf writer Lorne Rubenstein described Cruden Bay as “a magical, mystical links” with an “otherworldy quality.” Five-time Open Champion Peter Thomson said Cruden Bay is “my favorite course in the world.” Renowned architect Pete Dye considers Cruden Bay, along with Prestwick, to be his favorite course in Scotland.

The course is consistently ranked in the top 100 globally, including Golf Magazine’s 2021-22 list (88th). Golf Digest placed Cruden Bay 38th among the world’s 100 greatest courses outside the United States in 2022. It’s been the site of several amateur championships. While less renowned than neighbors like Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay delivers an equally impressive test of seaside golf.

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Did You Know?

Cruden Bay, Slains Castle, and the iconic novel “Dracula” share a fascinating historical connection. The Cruden Bay area in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, is home to both the golf links and the ruins of Slains Castle, which overlooks the North Sea from its cliff-top site just east of Cruden Bay. The castle, originally built in the 16th century, was inhabited during the time of Bram Stoker, the author of “Dracula,” and can be seen from the 1st hole, appropriately named “Slains,” as well as the 4th and 5th holes.

Bram Stoker, during his visits to Cruden Bay, found inspiration in the local community and the imposing Slains Castle. Stoker was known to have lectured in the village hall at Cruden Bay and spent time writing the initial chapters of “Dracula” at the nearby Kilmarnock Arms. The castle, with its octagonal room, is believed to have inspired the description of Dracula’s castle in the novel.

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The Course

The Championship Course, which has been open for over 120 years, is a par-70 layout that stretches just over 6,600 yards from the furthest tees. While it may not be long by modern standards, the course demands accuracy and strategic play.

Cruden Bay is characterized by its undulating fairways, blind shots, streams, and gorse, all contributing to its challenge and charm. It features a variety of hole designs that reward imagination and skill over brute force. The course is praised for its natural flow and the character only an old links course can offer. The course’s unique combination of uniqueness, class, and fun make it a bucket-list destination.

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Outward Nine

The 1st hole, a 415-yard par-4, gently eases golfers into their round, with the key being to favor the left half of the fairway to avoid the thick rough and bunker on the right. As players progress, the course begins to reveal its idiosyncrasies, particularly on the 2nd hole, a 331-yard par-4, where an iron shot down the left side sets up a full shot into the green, steering clear of the bunkers on the right.

The 4th hole at Cruden Bay, a standout par-3 measuring 195 yards, provides the first hint of the dunes to come. It is celebrated as one of the best links-style par-3s, with the green set into the dunes against a breathtaking backdrop (see featured image). This hole encapsulates the essence of Cruden Bay, where the natural contours of the land dictate play, and the wind can be a pivotal factor in club selection. The fifth hole presents an elevated tee that reveals a fairway that runs between the dunes. The outward nine continues to weave through the dunescape, with each hole offering a distinct challenge, demanding thoughtful navigation and a deft touch.

As players approach the 9th hole, “Hawklaw,” they are greeted with a 398-yard par-4 that culminates the outward half. This hole is perched at the highest point on the course, providing a panoramic view of Cruden Bay that can distract even the most focused golfer. A well-struck drive is essential to set up an approach to the green, and despite its ranking as the third hardest hole on the course, “Hawklaw” remains an enjoyable challenge for golfers of all levels. The front nine at Cruden Bay is a journey that combines the allure of natural beauty with the intrigue of golfing strategy, leaving players with a profound appreciation for the ancient game.

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Inward Nine

The back nine at Cruden Bay Golf Club is a captivating journey that continues the adventure started on the front nine. The 10th hole, “Scaurs,” is a 339-yard par-4 that offers a wonderful view as the course returns to sea level. This hole looks like a wide-open fairway, but precision is key to setting up a good approach shot.

One of the most notable stretches on the back nine is the 13th to 15th holes. The 13th hole is a lengthy 571-yard par-5 that requires thoughtful play over three shots. This hole begins a stretch that is considered one of the best par-5, par-4, par-3 runs in the world. The 14th hole, a 431-yard par-4 named “Whins,” with the sea to its right, is considered one of the most memorable holes in Scotland, while the long par-3 15th, continues an exceptional stretch of golf, offering a mix of challenge and beauty that is characteristic of Cruden Bay. The “fallaway” green at the 16th is featured in George Waters’ “Sand and Golf.”

The 18th hole, “Hame,” a 416-yard par-4, is a fitting end to the round. With a burn running through the wide fairway and out-of-bounds on the left, it’s a test of the nerve that makes for a fitting conclusion to a round at Cruden Bay, which may be the most natural-looking course some will ever play. The inward nine at Cruden Bay is a memorable journey through the dunes, offering a mix of challenge and charm characteristic of traditional Scottish links golf.

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Cruden Bay Today

Cruden Bay Golf Club remains a testament to traditional Scottish links golf, offering a pure and timeless experience. The course is celebrated for its classic design, preserved and subtly improved over the years. Golfers worldwide come to Cruden Bay to experience its unique blend of history, natural beauty, and challenge. The club prides itself on maintaining the heritage and playing conditions that have made it an internationally famous golfing destination.

The club hosts various open golf events, inviting amateur golfers to compete on its storied links. These events are a highlight in the club’s calendar, showcasing the course’s challenging layout and firm, fast fairways and greens characteristic of traditional links golf.

Beyond the competitive scene, Cruden Bay offers a welcoming atmosphere for visitors looking to immerse themselves in the history and spirit of the game. The club’s management and staff are dedicated to providing a memorable experience, whether it’s through a casual round of golf, a guided tour of the course’s features, or a friendly chat in the clubhouse. The club’s commitment to preserving the essence of links golf, coupled with its stunning coastal setting, ensures that Cruden Bay Golf Club remains a cherished destination for golfers now and into the future.

Visit Cruden Bay online at https://crudenbaygolfclub.co.uk/

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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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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

Cruden Bay Golf Club
Cruden Bay
Cookie Jar Golf – Cruden Bay
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