The Walker Cup golf match will be played on May 15 and 16 at Muirfield, the course of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The British Open Championship will also be played there June 29 to July 3. It is worth the while of any sportsman to visit this heartland of golf, but for those who have not had the opportunity let me describe such a journey and some of the memories it evokes in my mind.
Drive east from Edinburgh on the coast road and, after an enchanting 20-mile journey through, first, suburbia, then a mining area and, finally, farmland and seaside, you will pass through the heart of four golf courses into the villas, golf clubhouses and hotels of Gullane, a resort as dedicated to golf as St. Andrews itself.
But Gullane (pronounced Gill'n, with the g hard as in golf) is not our destination. A few hundred yards beyond the little town a private road leads off seaward, to some houses, a hotel that used to be a mansion house of great architectural distinction, and the clubhouse of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. It is a rambling, commodious, late 19th century building, with high ceilings over huge rooms, always maintained to a perfection that would make the most house-proud chatelaine envious. Equal care and devotion are lavished on the course, so that Muirfield, besides its other distinctions, is accepted as the best-groomed of all the championship links in Britain.
The visitor may at first have eyes only for the clubhouse and its treasures. Raeburn portraits (the great artist was once a member of the club), other paintings and photographs of past captains and personalities line the walls of the dining room and lounge. There are trophies which tradition has put beyond price. There is a case of last-century clubs looking as though they were made yesterday. Around everything is the aura one expects to find in the home of the oldest golf club in the world.
May 10, 1959
If the day should be unkind, which it rarely is in East Lothian, and the visitor wins the ear of Colonel Brian Evans-Lombe, a former cavalry officer who is now secretary to the Honourable Company and brings to his duties immense enthusiasm, energy and devotion, he can spend hours browsing over the old records.
From the dining room window almost the whole course can be seen, for Muirfield is unusual among seaside links in that it lies slightly below the level of the clubhouse in a great sweep of linksland ending in tumbling sand hills on the edge of the Firth of Forth. On the right lie the stunted, wind-beaten trees of Archer-field Wood (the Graden Sea-Wood of Stevenson's Pavilion on the Links) into which J. J. McDermott, then American champion, once hooked so many balls that he failed to qualify for the Open championship.
For the rest, apart from a couple of copses, there are no more trees than at St. Andrews itself and the American golfer may feel a little exposed and unprotected against the fierce winds from the west.
CHILL WIND BLOWS NO GOOD
It was chill winds and slippery greens that helped to beat the American Curtis Cup team on the same course in 1952, at a period of the year later than this year's Walker Cup match will be played. Chill winds there may be again, but unless the weather is notably unkind in the growing season before the match the putting surfaces should be smooth and consistent, which could not always be said of the Muirfield greens.
The course took a long time to live down the acid condemnation of Andrew Kirkaldy that it was "an auld water meadie," which is to say a cow pasture, but Kirkaldy's scorn was sour grapes over the victory of an amateur in the Open championship played there in 1892, and an Englishman at that—Harold Hilton.
Muirfield was opened in 1891, and the first layout, enclosed within a boundary wall, was only 5,280 yards long. Now it is over 6,800 yards, for some wonderful golfing country was taken in on the seaward side of the wall, which was razed, and since the early '20s the layout, if not always the condition of the course, has been the admiration of all golfers.
It has many merits, but one is preeminent on a course where the wind rarely dies to a puff. The first nine holes describe a circle clockwise, with the ninth green, in the best American manner, lying only a wedge shot from the clubhouse. The second nine holes describe another circle inside the first nine, only this time the holes run counterclockwise. Thus in any wind the golfer will encounter all manner of shots, with, against and across the wind from either side—which puts a premium on shotmaking and underlines the validity of the club motto, Vi et arte (By strength and skill).
In recent years the course has become firmer and faster, probably because it is always liberally sanded when the wind blows off the dunes, and there are no finer fairways or greens to be found in all the British Isles. Fast the greens may be, but they are true and uniform, and the man who finds his touch should have a field day—provided he can find the fairways from the tees and escape the multitude of bunkers with their faces walled in turfs laid one on top of the other like flat stones in a garden wall. This refinement of bunker design is not for mere prettiness: it is a protection against the sand blowing out of the traps.
Still, if there is one seaside course that should satisfy American golfers beyond all others in Britain it is Muir-field. The fairways are so beautifully outlined between the fierce, flanking rough, and so many of the greens are ringed with bunkers, that it is target golf of the highest quality.
Oddly, Muirfield is a course that has not often been kind to American players, though some of them have had their hours of triumph. McDermott I have already mentioned as a victim of the west wind, Archerfield Wood and a grievous hook. R. A. Gardner, the great amateur, was unlucky in a different way when he played there in the first amateur championship after World War I. He reached the final, where he met Cyril Tolley, who was then an undergraduate at Oxford.
The curly-haired, burly, pipe-smoking student had his man on the rack when he was 3 up and four to play, but Gardner hung on, Tolley faltered, and there was all to play for after 36 holes. The first hole was then, in 1920, a long one-shotter (it is now a fierce two-shotter), and both players found the green, Tolley's shot having the more merit not so much because he was closer to the hole as because he hit and held the green after Gardner was already there.
Then Tolley, with that majestic air that only he and Hagen possessed, walked up and rolled in his 12-footer for the match. It is said that he had provided himself with a ¬£5 note for his caddie and that the reward was pressed on the henchman before the ball had reached the hole.
Six years later the American amateurs came again to Muirfield, as a battalion commanded by no less a champion than Bob Jones himself. An American did win but, as all the world knows, it was not Jones—beaten by an unknown Glasgow golfer, Andrew Jamieson Jr., with a hot putter—but Jess Sweetser. Gardner played in that championship, too, but he was beaten by another Glasgow golfer, H. M. Dickson, who has since been president of the Scottish Golf Union.
CAMPBELL DEFEATED IN 1954
Another six years passed before the amateurs were at Muirfield again, but the American challenge was meager in number and quality, and all disappeared early. Five years ago there was something of a repetition of the 1920 championship. William Campbell, like Gardner tall, lean, athletic and a beautiful golfer, made an expedition in search of a championship that we in Britain would gladly see him win if the winner had to be an invader. Like Gardner he reached the final, though after some desperately narrow squeaks, only to fall to Douglas Bachli, an Australian.
So much for the amateurs. The records should be encouragement for Britain in the forthcoming encounter at Muirfield where, it is also remembered, the British women golfers inflicted the first defeat ever on an American Curtis Cup side. Good golf by the home players, allied to a searching wind and greens so keen and kittle that the traditional American putting superiority was canceled out, brought that famous victory.
Lest we become too confident we in Britain would do well to remember one of the Open championships played at Muirfield. Just 30 years ago American professionals, then admittedly at the peak of their power visa-vis Britain, so dominated the championship that they filled the first three places and eight of the first 10. The last day of that championship was played in precisely the kind of weather that British golfers used to think they could master better than any invader. A 30-mile-an-hour wind swept over the links, which were dry and cruelly fast, with the greens almost glistening in the pale sunlight.
Only one man really mastered the weather, the course and the greens—Walter Hagen, who put together two 75s with a display of resource and nerve that only he could command. I verily believe that the Honourable Company, cherishing their ancient traditions and privileges as does no other club, would willingly have declared Hagen Captain of the Golf for his display on that day.
It was in that championship that Hagen hooked against the boundary wall that flanks the par-5 ninth hole. Undismayed he took his blade putter, stood "the wrong way round" to the ball and played a left-handed shot far enough along the fairway to let him reach the green in his par figure. In that championship, too, I had reason to know that under the inscrutable mask that Hagen presented to the world on such occasions seethed feelings just as human as those dismaying lesser mortals.
I had some small acquaintance with him, and he spoke rather agitatedly to me as he was walking to the 17th in his last round. He was winning in a walk, and that was the reassurance I gave him when he asked the state of affairs. He then tried to light a cigarette and, believe it or not, the great Hagen's hands were shaking so much that he could not bring the match to his cigarette. Maybe it was the cold wind; maybe, as I prefer to think, it was nerves. But when he stepped up to play a long iron to the heart of a tightly trapped green his hands were as steady as a surgeon's.
That was the only Open championship won at Muirfield by an American. In 1935 it was an unknown, roly-poly British professional, Alf Perry, who won easily with the wonderful aggregate of 283, a stroke less than Cotton when he won in 1948.
There is therefore in the records no lack of encouragement for the British amateurs, no lack of incentive for the Americans. One thing at least is certain. All the players will know they have been playing on a great course where only the best of golf is good enough. That is the way it should be, especially at Muirfield, for the Honourable Company insists, very properly, that only the best is good enough for them. They draw their members from the professions, especially the law, banking, medicine and the higher echelons of the civil service, and from the lairds and landed proprietors. And among them are many who know a golfer and how a golfer should play and conduct himself. They are the inheritors of a great golfing tradition which their club more than any other, including the Royal and Ancient, helped to create. It is fitting that the Walker Cup, which has made its own traditions in less than a fifth of the time the Honourable Company has existed, should be played on their noble course.