It is hard to imagine the small, isolated town of Cruden Bay, some 20 miles north of Aberdeen, as the high-society resort it became during the first half of the 20th century. At its peak, this was a destination the equal of Turnberry, in the opposite corner of Scotland. The hotel was connected to London by the main east-coast railway line and the town acquired the title ‘Brighton of the north’.
Opening for business in 1899, it attracted politicians (Prime Minister HH Asquith), royalty (the Earl of Caithness), sports stars (Wimbledon champion Dorothy Round) and captains of industry together with their families, like the Cadburys, Horlickses and Bovrils.
Then came the depression years of the 1930s and a major fire that destroyed much of the railway station. The hotel closed in 1932 and was then used to house the Gordon Highlanders in the Second World War. It was sold and finally demolished in 1947, an unhappy end to a glorious chapter of the town’s history.
The golf course, however, has aged much better. It remains as enticing a prospect now as it was 100 years ago. Originally designed by Old Tom Morris and Archie Simpson in the 1890s, the course that remains today was modified and improved by Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler in 1926.
The future of the club was secured in 1950 when a group of local businessmen invested £2,750 to buy the land. Little has changed since, as this truly is a links in the old-fashioned sense. Greens lie atop plateaux, or else in hollows. The turf is firm and bouncy, the terrain rumpled like an unmade bed.
At 6,395 yards to a par of 70, by modern championship standards its vital statistics are distinctly modest. Much like St Andrews, the ideal on which its original design was based, length comes a distant second to position in terms of importance.
As the club’s professional, Robbie Stewart, says: “Missing the target will not make the subsequent shot impossible – only more difficult.
“The result of an inaccurate shot is to make the next shot more difficult than it would otherwise have been.”
In other words, it’s a course that reveals its true nature gradually and over a period of time. Play it once and you can’t possibly hope to uncover even a fraction of its eccentricities and secrets. Play it twice and that task remains essentially just as big.
In some instances, that’s because you can’t even see these eccentricities and secrets until after you’ve played your shot. So if you think blind shots are an antiquated relic of golf in a different age, don’t even bother coming to Cruden Bay.
This is a links in the old-fashioned sense. Greens lie atop plateaux, or else in hollows. The turf is firm and bouncy, the terrain rumpled like an unmade bed.
That’s not to say that every tee shot is fired into the unknown – far from it – but one of the course’s greatest attractions lies in its sheer variety; the dramatic changes of elevation and character that seem to show every successive hole in a different light to the last.
Some holes are downright quirky – the 14th and 15th spring to mind – but Cruden Bay is all the better for them. It’s a course that makes the game fun again. It offers a reminder that this was never supposed to be a sport of such precision that anything other than a perfect, flat lie without a breath of wind causes hopeless confusion.
The impressive new clubhouse, built on the site of the hotel, commands a view of the sweep of the bay, several holes and the ruins of Slains Castle, just a mile up the coast. This 16th century ruin is said to have inspired the Transylvanian mansion in which Count Dracula lived in Bram Stoker’s classic novel.
The writer was a regular visitor to the area and apparently had initially planned to have the Count arrive in Britain here, rather than in North Yorkshire. If that makes Cruden Bay sound a foreboding prospect, a round here need not be a horror story, at least not unless a particularly fresh breeze is whipping off the North Sea.
Because of the lack of intimidating length, it can be a wise strategy to hold back off the tee. Instead, accurate tee shots can be threaded down the fairways, where they will invariably skip and run another 30 yards after landing. That’s certainly the case at the drivable 3rd, played towards the tiny fishing village of Port Erroll, where a birdie is only possible if the right line is found off the tee.
Since the next is a dramatic par three played over a valley to a green surrounded by wilderness, it is highly desirable to take advantage. The stretch of holes that follows is probably the most demanding on the course. If the first four holes are manageable, the 5th is very definitely a championship par four, measuring 454 yards from the back tees.
It’s followed by a delightful par five, a hole that relies on much more than length for its defences. Although relatively modest at 529 yards, the green is concealed behind the Bluidy Burn and sheltered by a massive dune, making it virtually impossible to attack in two.
Even though the 7th measures shy of 400 yards, it will normally call for at least a mid-iron to find the green. That’s because the hole doglegs sharply left and the beginnings of the pronounced slope up to the green tend to send drives to the right.
Tom Simpson once described the 8th, a drivable par four, as ‘mischievous, subtle and provocative’. From the tee it looks innocuous and inviting, but closer inspection reveals wicked contours around a green that, despite the lack of a single bunker around it, can only be approached from certain angles.
From this green it’s a significant climb to the 9th tee, but the views on all four sides make it more than worthwhile. Suddenly, and for one hole only, the course acquires a downland quality before the 10th tumbles back down to the lower land.
It’s a part of the course that’s difficult either to categorise or make accurate comparison to. The 13th is the longest hole, and well illustrates Cruden’s nature. Like the 6th, it is resistant to attack, with a burn crossing the fairway at driving distance. Instead the second ought to be positioned well to the left if the green is to be in full view for the third.
‘Whins’ and ‘Blin Dunt’ are the course at its idiosyncratic best. The former involves a fairway that pitches and rolls like the sea beside it and a sunken green hidden from view, the pin position indicated by a board on the tee.
As you might guess from the name, it’s a similar story at the 15th, a genuinely blind par three. Hit over the side of the hill to find a suitably generous, rolling green on the other side. It’s the first of back-to-back short holes, ‘Coffins’ describing the hollows at the back of the 16th green.
Then comes a par four featuring a mound that splits the fairway in two, the left side providing the easier passage to the green. Negotiate the out-of-bounds and the burn on the last and you’ll have every chance of a closing par.
Whether you manage it or not, the only thing to do next is survey the scene from the warmth of the clubhouse, just as the Victorians did over a century ago. What might have been and what once was – we golfers can only be grateful it was the hotel that is lost to the past and not this stunning course.