Craigielaw is different from many golf clubs but we warned. If you're a stickler for dress codes, think that women and juniors clutter up the place, and believe that a golf club membership is a measure of your social standing in the community, don't apply for membership because the chances are, you won't fit in.
Many clubs and courses like to claim that they're friendly but in this particular corner of East Lothian it's more than an idle boast. Craigielaw decided from the outset that it wanted no stuffy, fuddy-duddy ways, and that the often unwelcoming, positively cool reception that visitors get at some clubs would never be the norm here. And so far they've converted that laudable ambition into reality - and would that many other golf clubs could follow suit. And this overt friendliness is not simply an act that's put on to fool gullible journalists.
We realise that we lead a privileged existence and that often when a publication like ScottishGolf visits, we're shown an unrepresentative bonhomie and all the stops are pulled out to give us the red carpet treatment before we're packed off home, smiling but deceived.
But at Craigielaw this warmth of reception is extended to everyone, irrespective of appearance, age or perceived 'importance'. For example, during the Open Championship our editor, an unprepossessing chap at best (you're fired, Ed) called in at Craigielaw, unannounced and unexpected, to potentially set up a subsequent visit to discuss this feature. The only staff he met were the bar steward and the starter but he was forcibly struck by their warmth and helpfulness. So he went back two days later, and met the same smiling attitude from the same people, and was duly impressed. Perhaps next time we could suggest he rings in advance so that he at least meets the people he needs to in order to set up an interview (you're so fired it's not true, Ed)
It is a truism that an organisation reflects the views of the people who work in it, especially the more senior staff, so the Craigielaw style is very much down to its senior personnel - in particular general manager Alan Aitken and club professional Derek Scott. However, it's time for ScottishGolf to declare an interest because Derek was formerly at the National Golf Academy, Drumoig, and has written instruction articles for the paper, so we both know and like him. Alan, however, was an unknown entity but his beliefs about running a club are both heartfelt and uncompromising - in a service industry you need to good offer good service, and friendliness is a hugely important but often overlooked element.
'We want people to drive away thinking: "All right, I may have shot 104 but I had a great time,"' he says. 'Of course, we hope their score is also what they want it to be but most importantly, they should enjoy the experience of being here,' Alan says.
Alan is trying to bring down the stereotypical barriers associated with golf. As a result, the ladies and juniors have the same rights as men and the club is more relaxed in its interpretation of standards of dress. For example, no-one is likely to kick up a fuss if you forget to wear a collared shirt. This is but one illustration of Craigielaw's efforts to eradicate some of the 'Colonel Blimp' image associated with golf.
'Every piece of literature we produced said that ladies and juniors have full membership rights and that was setting our stall out and being brutally honest from the start,' Alan says. 'We almost aspire to be different.
'We have been criticised for being relaxed and liberal but I'm of the opinion that other golf clubs will have to change if they are to survive. If they don't, in my view over the next 5-10 years their businesses are going to go bang.'
Alan and his team want the golfers' experience to be pleasurable and in their view, a visitor can create enough divots to re-turf their garden, lose £20 worth of golf balls and still drive home smiling because they've had a good time.
Officially opened for play in May 2001 (although the first round was played in September '99), Craigielaw stands in God's own golfing coastline, virtually a drive and a long iron from Gullane, the honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield and Longniddry. It combines great views with a 6,601 yards par 71 course designed by Tom McKenzie of Donald Steele's company. Built on 153 acres owned by the Gosford family, the 18-hole course commands a stunning view of the Aberlady Bay and the Firth of Forth from almost every hole, making it difficult to believe it is only 16 miles from Edinburgh.
Although the course was officially opened last May the clubhouse will not be finished until April next (2003). However, the 'temporary' building currently being used would put many other facilities to shame and, as it is constructed from prefabricated sections, it can be sold on once the permanent building is occupied. It is reminiscent of a Lego building as it is essentially a series of miniature cabins fitted together seamlessly surrounded by wooden decking. One visiting golfer from the USA remarked that it was the 'Taj Mahal' of temporary clubhouses. And while that may, in true American style, be over-egging the pudding, it is easy to see why he was impressed.
The building boasts all the usual features, with one exception. Although equipped with changing facilities there are no showers - it was decided not to be worth the expense of installing specific drainage for an essentially temporary measure. It appears that the golfers are coping although ScottishGolf is too polite to sniff the armpits of strangers so we cannot offer conclusive proof.
The lack of a permanent base of operations has not dissuaded many people from joining Craigielaw. Already there is a membership of around 850 with plans to increase to possibly 1,000 with the completion of the clubhouse. But this golfing corner of Scotland also needs to attract visitors and last year 28,000 rounds of golf were played. The clubhouse plans, which include space for a courtyard restaurant and conference facilities, also suggest that that the club is not simply paying lip-service to the idea of attracting both golfers and non-golfing custom.
When asked how the membership numbers were comprised, Alan said: 'Off the top of my head there are 540 fully paid up men, 140 ladies, 80 juniors and the rest of the total figure is made up by overseas members. There are also plans to offer a limited number of corporate memberships from 2003.'
Certainly, the diversity of the clientele in the clubhouse was noticeable, ranging as it did across all ages and quite a few nationalities.
Alan Aitkin joined Craigielaw from Kilspindie GC and brought with him over 25 years of green keeping experience and a management team of four runs the course and surrounding grounds. A Members Liaison Committee was suggested but was met with a definite 'no' from the members. Alan thinks there is a new generation of golfer who doesn't want to be bothered with weekly committee meetings discussing relatively unimportant matters. With an average age of 33, most Craigielaw members are out making a living and want their club run professionally so that they can play golf when they wish on facilities of a high standard. Unlike older, longer established clubs, there are only 16 members at Craigielaw over the age of 50, so the majority of members have far more in their lives than golf alone.
But comment is neither stifled nor shunned - Craigielaw has its own website (www.craigielaw golfclub.com ) complete with online discussion board. The efficiency of the management team can be attributed to two factors. First, 'attitude'. All staff genuinely seem to believe they are there to serve the needs of members and guests. Second, they retain executive authority and as they see each other every day and don't have to wait a month for a committee meeting to raise issues, things can be dealt with quickly. Both factors allow for a swift answer to any suggestions or queries that may crop up.
The course cost £710,000 to build and the combined total spent on the two clubhouses will be £1.45 million. Further to these costs, another £40,000 has been invested in building a golf academy.
The 'Foreshot' Golf Academy provides excellent practice facilities and the ambition is that golfers always play off turf, using high quality balls. There is a 6,500 metre practice area, a practice bunker and contours not unlike those found on a golf course.
Furthermore, a short 6-hole course has been built, aimed at introducing juniors (with professional or family supervision) to the game. Each hole has three different tee positions allowing for a 6, 12 or 18-hole game. It is a challenging yet realistic beginning point for starters and good short-game practice for established players.
There is also talk of initiating a development ladder for the juniors - ultimately resulting in a certificate of achievement. The ladder will be flexible, allowing children to do what children do - get bored, go away and come back to it later.
This is probably the development over which resident pro Derek Scott became most animated and his ambition is nothing short of wanting to produce a 'conveyor belt' of juniors, both to compete in local and national events but, even more importantly, to discover and enjoy a game for life.
The first, great advantage that Craigielaw has over many new courses is its location, offering delightful sea views from virtually anywhere. One criticism is that hole lengths tend to be somewhat similar, so that on all the par threes and many of the fours the player has a mid to short-iron approach.
Club pro Derek Scott partially concedes the point but adds: 'Of course, on a classic links course, yardage and distance is only a small part of the story. I've played from the same spot to a green on consecutive days and hit a 9-iron and a 5-iron. So much depends on the weather, the way you see the shot and how you want to play it.'
When asked which were the strongest holes, five and 14 seem to be Derek's favourites. The fifth, Peffer Burn, is a par four that ranges from 355 to 424 yards, depending on the tee you use. Hole 14 is called Gullane Hill, surprisingly enough because the ball is hit towards Gullane Hill. This is another par four and is the course architect's favourite and he says of the hole: 'At 407 yards playing downhill and in an easterly direction, a central hump in the drive landing area must be carefully negotiated; downwind it can give a friendly kick on towards the green, but slightly weaker shots will be kicked left towards a line of drive bunkers and right towards the rough and a wall. The green is a tumultuous affair and the player who holds the ball on the left will gain maximum benefit by playing down the length of the green.'
But in truth, it's difficult to single out specific holes. And the experience of playing Craigielaw is not just about golf, although that remains, of course, the most important element.
Yet if Alan, Derek and their colleagues achieve their ambitions, no matter how you play you'll enjoy the experience. Unless, of course, you're a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who thinks that smiles and friendliness have no place in golf.
|| 26 - SEPTEMBER 2002