CRAIL, Scotland -- The road from St. Andrews out along the A917 road east toward the Crail Golfing Society drives like a time machine.
Leaving from the center of this medieval town, you pass the Road Hole at the Old Course at St. Andrews, the town's cathedral ruins and Martyr's Monument.
Once you drive up the hill heading east out of town, suddenly you encounter some of Scotland's greatest modern links -- the Castle Course at St. Andrews, then the Torrance and Kittocks at Fairmont St. Andrews, and finally Kingsbarns Golf Links.
You're back in the 21st century, but not for long. Keep going a few more miles and, eventually, the old world is restored. The road winds its way into Crail, a small village on the easternmost edge of Fife, where the Crail Golfing Society has played the game longer than all but six clubs in the world, and it's still going strong.
Evidence shows golf was played at Crail long before the club was founded on the Sauchope farm. Crail Golfing Society was founded in 1787, the seventh-oldest golf club in the world, and eventually moved the playing grounds down to the Balcomie Links on the sea. Old Tom Morris laid out the course in 1894, but competitions were played here before then.
These historic links are named after Balcomie Castle, and ruins can still be seen from the golf course. This village dates back to 800 A.D. and was especially important because it housed a brewery.
"They had to brew beer because water was unsafe to drink," said Bob Taylor, a member at Crail and operator of Links with History, a four-course cooperative in Fife. "So they'd brew it once for the men, but it was too strong so they'd brew it again to be weaker for the women, then they'd brew it again for the children to drink."
Crail Golfing Society's Balcomie Links is not only one of Scotland's oldest links, but also one of Fife's most scenic and fun to play.
The course is a par 69 and just less than 6,000 yards from the medal tees. It's also more wide open and forgiving compared to the bunker and gorse-heavy St. Andrews Links Trust courses. Many of the par 4s are short, though wind direction plays a major factor in whether they are reachable from the tee -- or a long-iron approach shot.
The weather is usually a little worse up here on this exposed East Neuk of Fife, which can make the course play a little tougher. The fifth hole is named "Hell's Hole" and is fittingly the No. 1 handicap hole on the course. This long par 4 wraps around Hell Bay, which, when the tide is out, reveals many large, jagged black rocks (and sadly, my golf ball) that you wouldn't want to bring your boat anywhere near.
Crail Golf Society continues to thrive
Celebrating its 225th anniversary in 2011, Old Tom Morris would be mighty proud of what's happening at Crail in the 21st century.
The club recently unveiled improvements to the clubhouse, which sits on a perch overlooking the final four holes of the Balcomie Links. A new chef team was also hired, and they serve up affordable and delicious lunch or dinner. After a rainy morning out on the links, their chili bowl hit the spot. They also restored the par-3 14th hole's large front bunker lined with railroad ties, which had been converted to two smaller bunkers over the years.
"Old Tom Morris was using railway ties long before Pete Dye," Taylor said.
Members get a good deal at Crail. Not only do they have access to two 18-hole courses, but also they are the only ones allowed to caddie at Crail. Taylor, who is now in his 70s, said he still caddies about 30 rounds a year. So if you like your caddies to be full of course knowledge, whom better to ask?
Crail Golfing Society's Balcomie Links: The verdict
For scenic and player-friendly golf in Fife, it doesn't get much better than the Balcomie Links. If your group wants a break from the St. Andrews courses in town, this is as good of an option as there is.
Green fees on the Balcomie Links are 57-72 pounds in the peak season. Day passes include the option to play the newer Craighead Course at Crail. Opened in 1998, the Craighead is longer and is more of a championship standard, though further off the sea compared to Balcomie and less of a destination play for visitors.
Crail's facility also has a huge, full-length driving range, an amenity that is pretty uncommon for links clubs this old that are usually tight on space.
The club is also accommodating to groups who are selected in the Old Course lottery the day they are on the tee sheet at Crail, so be sure to call the course as soon as you find out to reschedule.