• kilmarnock arms hotel, cruden bay golf club

Cruden Bay

Old Tom Morris, Tom Simpson
Awe inspiring, Old Tom Morris and Tom Simpson traditional links. Fine grasses and splendid views.
20 miles north of Aberdeen. Postcode: AB42 0NN
Les Durno
01779 812285
Neil Murray
Green Keeper
Alister Matheson

An awe-inspiring  five-Star 'Joy to be alive' running-golf experience.

Access Policy:
Visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
Well-behaved dogs on a lead welcome
Open Meetings:
Challenge Cup - July. Hawklaw tankard - August.
Fees in 1960s
Fees today
£110 - 2017


It’s an incomparable amalgam of Seascape and Dune-land; a links whose beauty is enhanced by its quality and a near mischievous eccentricity. 

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Railway poster with 1895 Hotel behind

Might have been proclaimed by Old Tom Morris, the keeper of green at St Andrews, who was retained as the original designer of Cruden Bay by a railway company which was building a big hotel here in the 1890s and wanted to create a ‘Brighton of Aberdeenshire’. Actually it is a fine quote from ‘Golf Monthly’. 

The unique course we have today is the combination of Old Tom’s (with the help of Archie Simpson) challenging green sites and the re-routing of fairways by arguably the most creative of all golf course architects, Tom Simpson. Some declare that this is Simpson’s best ever work and gives abundant seashore grandeur. 

Aspects of the history of this place only enhance its aura. The devilishness of the design of the two great Toms makes it seem appropriate that the character of Count Dracula was said to have been conceived by Bram Stoker while he visited the splendid Slains Castle that overlooks the course, when staying in one of the oldest hotels in the North East, the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel. 

Similarly, the mound in the centre of the seventeenth fairway is said to be the burial ground in 1012 of those who fought in the last battle between the Scots and the Danes with King Canute, no less, involved, the later king of England, Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden. The Coat of Arms of the Club reflects this fine historical connection. 

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Dexter views Scaus Rocks from the high tenth tee

The second hole with its high flat green is called ‘Croch Dane’ which means “the slaughter of the Danes”. The tenth is called ‘Scaus’ after the menacing, jagged rocks, seen from its high tee at the southerly end of the bay, which have been the cause of many past shipwrecks and is near to where the first oil pipeline from the ‘Forties’ field came ashore, though that is well-hidden under the dunes just south of the course . 

The holes near the modern panoramic club house that sits proudly overlooking the links, are quite Royal Dornoch-like in their design with fall-off from the greens at one, two, seventeen and eighteen and a gathering-in at the third after a tight drive. Such comparisons demonstrate the quality of the course and we are not yet even talking about the most iconic holes. 

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Tom Simpson’s par three 4th hole

Simpson’s classic long par-three across a valley, that starts the “unforgettable sublime stretch” of holes four (‘Port Erroll’ – 190 yards) through seven (‘Whaupshank’), has recently been ‘improved’ by creating more of a bale-out area on the right. The fifth (‘The Buck’ – 490 yards) gives a blind drive from a high tee into the valley floor to a ‘run-up’ green recently extended to a sunken area at the back, which was once an original Old Tom Morris green and has now been lovingly brought back into play. 

Simpson’s re-routing of the sixth, to make more room for the shorter 9-hole St Olaf course within the championship course, now provides an even  greater par five of 530 yards with two sentinel bunkers on the outside of the sharp dogleg some 100 yards from the Old Tom Morris two-tier green sited above the fairway and protected by bunkers left and right. It is called ‘Bluidy Burn’ as after the Battle of Cruden in 1012 the burn was said to have

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The extended fifth green

run red with blood for several hours. Both the tiger and the high handicapper have to carry that burn that runs across in front of the green with their second or third shots respectively. Double figures here are common even for the better players – it can be a real card wrecker! 

‘Whaupshank’ (380/450 yards) is a Scottish turn of phrase to describe the seventh’s crooked dog-leg, rather than a phrase referring to an aspect of golf we would all rather not mention! The hole requires the correct line of drive to set up your uphill approach to an original Morris green set between two sand hills. 

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The hemmed-in eighth hole

The next two holes visually are out of character with the rest of this classic old-fashioned links as the eighth (‘Ardendraught’ – 257 yards) has a plateau green tucked away between huge dunes on three sides. 

There is an optical illusion at play here, making the pin look much closer to the tee than it really is. Simpson described it as “mischievous, subtle and provocative” and not surprisingly was one of his favourite holes. 


The quality of grass on this green has always been poor and discovering  recently impervious clay just below the surface, this green has now had a rootzone revamp by the brilliant local greenkeeping team.

The ninth (‘Hawklaw’ -450 yards) is a ‘downland’ style of hole along the top of the agricultural escarpment above the links, now much improved with a new, dazzlingly scenic tee that makes the hole doglegged from the left. The green, with a touch of fall-off on the left, is played down to, from a flat high fairway. With only one bunker on the higher right-handside of the green, we don’t have the usual visual fix and we have fun trying to work out the strength needed for the approach run-in. 

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view of 15th and 16th par threes from nineth tee

After the dramatic tenth (‘Scaus’ – 380 yards), the eleventh (‘Mishanter’ -147 yards) is a Simpson hole to an elevated green with an unusual collection of bunkers running across the hill on the left. These not only collect many tee-shots but also often the fluffed second shot into the higher bunker by players trying to be too subtle and seeking to avoid running over the narrow green and down the steep bank on the right. To think that it has some similarity, conceptually speaking, to the second at Royal Dornoch, will not assist you in surmounting your terrors. 

This course is one of the least boring of any that I know! 

Great courses, it is said, are defined by their ‘420-450 yard’ par fours of which there are plenty here but there are also two proper par fives of 530 to 550 yards that are not sloggy but do require correct precision and thought, as well as four quirky, shorter, par fours of less than 340 yards. 

The twelfth (‘Finnyfal’ – 310 yards) is the last of these before we face up to the testing run-in for home from the end of the course and this hole has an eminently three-puttable Morris green. 

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The twelth hole wriggly burn

There had to be somewhere a North Berwick ‘Redan’-style green that runs away to the back and this is found at the par five thirteenth where the burn encroaches on the drive, frustrating to the ‘tiger’ who might have hoped to be up in two. 

After what all that has been experienced up to this point in the round, how can this course surprise us still further? Some say the next two holes define its uniqueness as they run along the narrow neck of shoreland between the high escarpment and the beach, giving two completely blind approach shots. 

tom simpson golf architect, cruden bay golf club, fine golf course review, old tom morris

The sunken 14th green

At the fourteenth (‘Whins’ – 415 yards) the drive is played in echelon to the tumbling fairway and being down the prevailing wind the numerous, well-placed bunkers are difficult to avoid before reaching a blind approach to a sunken green. This green has been recently raised by one yard and turfed with fine fescue grass by the young, able, ex-Royal Dornoch deputy course manager, Alister Matheson, who is doing such a wonderful job here of encouraging the indigenous bents and fescue grasses that enhance the ‘running game’.

It is not surprising that Cruden Bay was given the ‘course of the year’ award by Golf Tourism Scotland in 2012 and is enjoying greatly increased visitor numbers, though this is also partly because of the ‘Trump’ effect, that has put Aberdeenshire firmly on the overseas golf tourism map.

The fruits of the green conversions back to traditional links grasses that Alister’s team are encouraging by using less inputs and cutting at 4.8mm have enabled the winter golfers to benefit from the privilege of ‘summer’ greens all year round.

This course’s greens are a wonderful example of how 20/80 FescueBent/Poa annua grasses can be recovered to 75/25 FescueBent/Poa annua within a five year austerity greenkeeping programme while having a high number of rounds of golf played and with the reliability of the turf objectively measured with a Greenstester.

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Clubhouse behind the 15th tee-shot

If you enjoy ‘The Dell’, Old Tom’s 150-yard fifth hole at Lahinch in South West Ireland, it will give some idea of how to play his fifteenth here called ‘Blin’ Dunt’ because of the blind tee-shot played over the side of the escarpment to a large green. Old Tom had it at 150 yards but Simpson lengthened it to between 190 and 240 yards depending on which tee is used.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of luck coming into play as in life, though perhaps the next, another par three (180 yards) called ‘Coffins’ after its small grassy bunkers, shaped like coffins, lying next to the green, is a fine Simpson hole, played over a rise to another green that slopes to the back.

There is a choice to be made on the seventeenth (‘Bilin’ wallie’ or ‘boiling well’) when choosing to drive either side of the mound and then select an approach that needs a well struck shot so as to cling to the flat plateau green.

As usual Donald Steel sums up so accurately “ The course is a perpetual battle of wits but it is all unmistakably fun and, since golfers are inclined to take themselves and the game too seriously, that is a great compliment. Majestic is almost too weak a word to describe it all although Simpson’s high ranking of the eighteenth might be considered a little overdone. However with out-of-bounds on the left, a burn running across the fairway and a rumpled fairway culminating in a diagonal ridge in front of the green, it underlines the need for a sharp cunning and judgement.”

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John Glennie

One of Scotland’s best professional golfers, Eric Brown, was based here in the 1960s. Perhaps even more importantly for the Club, it was John Glennie, a scratch player for forty years, who helped purchase the course for the members from the railway company in 1951. John, incidentally, did the research to help create the Standard Scratch Score calculation for golf courses, launched in 1964, and this work the world of golf may remember for longer.

The well written A Century of golf at Cruden Bay has a whole chapter of quotations from various golf writers all “singing our praises” from which it is pleasing to learn that it was Frank Pennink’s Golfer’s Companion that brought this course to the attention of James W. Finnegan. He goes on to say of the links’ topography that these sand hills are in his experience, the mightiest in Scotland. That claim may no longer be the case since Martin Hawtree designed the Trump International ten miles south, of course.

Everybody who visits Cruden Bay sings the course’s praises and rather than attempting to emulate their enthusiastic compliments, let me just say that the whole card gives a FineGolf ‘running-game’ golfer a continual five-star ‘joy to be alive’ feeling.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith  2014 

Reader Comments

On January 19th, 2014 chris cooper said:

Although it is some years ago arguably my most enjoyable golfing day ever was made up of 18 at Royal Aberdeen in the a.m. with 18 at Cruden Bay in the p.m.

On January 20th, 2014 Peter Gompertz said:

Couldn’t agree more Lorne, although I played it on my own it was three hours of unalloyed pleasure, helped perhaps by parring Bluidy Burn and the 18th off a mid twenties handicap.

On January 20th, 2014 Robin Brown said:

A must play course! It has such a variety of holes and offers a warm welcome.Every shot in the bag is needed!

On January 31st, 2015 Tom Coulson said:

Wow, what a course. I played it at the end of october when it seemed some of the rough had died down and made holes that relied of turf grasses opposed to marram and lyme appear bland. 1 and 2 were examples of this. The majesty of the good holes here make the poor holes look worse than they really are, 1 and 2 are weak holes, although interesting. 8 is a strange hole, 9 is not in keeping with the land the other holes are built on. 10 is dramatic, but again a little too clifftop for my tastes. I also felt that the 17th and 18th were a let down also, but i’m sure with-in season whispy grasses framing the fairways along with the gorse they would look better.

The rest of the course is incredible, 3rd is superb, 4 a great par 3, 5th championship tee is an incredible site, 6th awesome, 7 with the raised alleyway to the green is great fun. the short par 4 11th is cute but deadly, a tiny fairway to find with even a long iron. 12,13 and 14 are great holes. I like the quirkyness of the dog leg par 3 and the blind green in 15 and 16.

An unforgettable experience playing here, brilliant

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