The Crail Golfing Society may be over 200 years old but they do know how to move with the times. Due to the pressure of an increasing number of visiting golfers, a decision was made in the mid 1990s to acquire a relatively modest 114 acres of land next to their Balcomie course and transform the cliff top setting into a modern, seaside golf course.
Many eyebrows were raised when American Gil Hanse, an unknown architect in the British Isles, was appointed to design the new 18-hole layout. His small firm was established in 1993 following his departure from Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design team and he set out to design courses that were “simple and elegant in appearance yet sophisticated in strategy and interest.”
Hanse may have been a surprise overseas selection as architect but he was no stranger to UK shores as he had spent a year during his Cornell studies with the famous English golf course design firm of Hawtree so he was well aware of what would be expected of his inaugural design in Britain.
His interpretation of a Scottish links is very good, despite the fact that the terrain is more pasture and headland than true sandy soiled links land. An interesting challenge for Hanse was to incorporate several stonewalls – and one of particular archaeological importance, “Danes Dyke” – into the design. This elevated track cuts across five holes, presenting a formidable barrier from the tee on the uphill 11th hole and creating a blind approach to the green at the 15th hole.
It’s obvious that some earth moving was carried out on the property – particularly, for example, at the 2nd where an almost island green has been created at a 45-degree angle to the fairway – but the finished holes never appear out of sync with their surroundings.
The most striking design elements at the Craighead are the bunkering and green complexes. The bunkers were created under the watchful eye of Walter Woods, a former green keeper on the Old Course at nearby St Andrews. So it should come as no surprise that some have likened them in quality to those at Muirfield. Putting surfaces were constructed to USGA standard, running very true and fast, with many contoured greens providing a real test for putting skills.
It’s a mystery as to why the Craighead has not featured in any golf course ranking tables since it came into play in 1999 – are golfers so enthralled with playing at the traditional links along the Fife coast that they are overlooking a genuine, modern day golfing gem that is staring them in the face?