THE GOLF CLUB IS NOT MUIRFIELD. The golf club is the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which was founded in 1744," says Major J.G. Vanreenen, Royal Engineers (Ret.), the very model of a golf club secretary. "You will appreciate that this is a gentlemen's club. Ladies are perfectly welcome as long as they meet our requirements: a handicap of 24 or better from a recognized golf club and that they play in company with a gentleman." The Secretary presses the fingertips of his right hand against the fingertips of his left hand and continues. "In other respects this is an entirely male-orientated golf club. It is also a very private golf club. Visitors are allowed to play the course Tuesdays, Thursdays and mornings of Fridays."
A certain breed of golfer collects golf courses as he might butterflies, traveling the world in pursuit of the rarer species and cataloging his conquests for the bedazzlement of fellow collectors. Some collectors specialize in the rare and the inaccessible—golf courses that straddle the equator or cling to glaciers, that sort of thing. But for most golfers, collecting is a search for roots, the roots of the game and the roots of obsession. This sort of collecting leads to Scotland and, once there, inevitably to Muirfield, where the British Open will be played next week for the 13th time. St. Andrews is older, Dornoch is harder, Turn-berry is prettier, but Muirfield is, well, admirable.
The roster of Open champions at Muirfield reads like a 20th-century golfing Hall of Fame: Harold Hilton, Harry Vardon, James Braid, Ted Ray, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson. Only one winner, Alf Perry, a club pro from Surrey, England, who rose to the occasion in 1935, would not merit a chapter of his own in a respectable history of the modern game. The great Bobby Jones is missing, but one would like to think, if only for the sake of symmetry, that is merely because Jones never happened to play an Open at Muirfield. (He did, however, play a British Amateur there in 1926 and lost in the sixth round.)
The Muirfield course opened for play in 1891, which makes it about the same vintage as many of the grand old courses in England, Ireland and North America. It was built in the era in which the game that had been exclusively Scottish began to spread like a brushfire to wherever Scots had emigrated or the English had set up colonial shop.
July 12, 1987
But Muirfield's roots go deeper than that. The course is just the latest home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, a club that can document its continuous existence back to 1744. That makes it, as far as its members are concerned, the oldest golf club in the world. At least one other Scottish club, the Royal Burgess Golfing Society, claims to be older—but it doesn't have papers to prove it. The Honourable Company does, and facsimiles of them are on display in glass cases inside the rambling quasi-Tudor clubhouse at the edge of the village of Gullane (pronounced Gill'n), 18 miles east of Edinburgh.
The Secretary's opening remarks notwithstanding, Muirfield is a hospitable place, as "very private" clubs go. Every year, between 6,000 and 7,000 visitors play the course, some of them women. Once a visitor has passed muster he is encouraged to play golf as the Honourable Company does: that is, a round of "foursomes" in the morning, another in the afternoon, with the celebrated Muirfield lunch in between. Now, foursomes is a companionable game—one ball, two players, alternate drives and shots. And the golf course justifies applause—Nicklaus likes it so much he named his Columbus, Ohio, course Muirfield Village, which, were it anybody but Nicklaus, might have been presumptuous. But it is lunch that makes a Muirfield outing unique. The members are proud of their course, but they are almost equally proud of the table they set.
"A very high standard of feeding," says the Secretary. "Smoked-haddock pie and a choice of two soups to start, three roasts, beef, lamb and pork, steak-and-kidney pie, and mince, a minimum of six vegetables and two potatoes, a choice of 15 puddings—sweets, as you call them—and a choice of a dozen different cheeses."
And how does anyone play 18 holes after such a meal? "Very competently," says the Secretary. A local golfer, Rory Hamilton, says, "It is an easy matter to sort out members from guests. Members wear tweeds with leather-patched jackets and have small helpings."
After lunch, tradition dictates coffee and kümmel or port in the cavernous Smoking Room, where towering windows overlook the 18th green. From those windows, it is said, the members frequently wager on their colleagues "toiling thirstily up the 18th fairway."
Next door to the Muirfield clubhouse is a small, comfortable hotel called, simply, Greywalls. Greywalls is as much a part of the total Muirfield experience as foursomes. During the summer months about 70% of the hotel's 23 guest rooms are occupied by Americans, most of them golfers. During the Open, the Royal & Ancient, which administers the championship, allocates the rooms. "The secretary of the R & A goes to the Masters in April," says Henrietta Fergusson, the hotel's manager. "He nobbles the golfers and says, 'Do you want a room at Greywalls?' He starts at the top and works down the list. He uses up all 20 rooms, which is what they think we have. We like to set aside a few."
Greywalls was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1901 as a country house and its gardens were laid out by his partner, Gertrude Jekyll. Lutyens's work was the height of fashion in its day and is still prized for its graceful proportions. At one point the house belonged to a mistress of Edward VII, and at his request a small lavatory and exercise yard were built into a garden wall. Since then the space has been roofed over and turned into guest bedroom No. 17, but it is still known as the King's Loo.
Andrew Mitchell is the 26-year-old head chef at Greywalls. Mitchell comes from the village of Leven, near St. Andrews, and grew up on golf. He has played Muirfield only one time, but he does play once or twice a week, starting at 6 a.m., on Gullane's short No. 3 course, which he can get around in 2½ hours. "I love it so much," he says. "You forget if you had a bad night and something's been sent back. It's so peaceful."
Mitchell's view of the Open will be from his kitchen window, which overlooks the 10th tee, 15 yards away. "At least it will be something," he says. Fortunately, Mitchell loves his work as much as his golf, because during the hotel's season, from April through October, he works 6½ days a week, and the "half" day is eight hours. Mitchell's menu is as sophisticated as Muirfield's is plain.
On a magical evening in 1980, Tom Watson, who that afternoon had swept across Muirfield's rolling turf to a record 271 and the third of his five British Open titles, and his wife were on their way to dinner at Greywalls when they saw Tom Weiskopf and Ben Crenshaw, the U.S. Tour's leading golf antiquarian, heading toward the golf course. High spirits and the irresistible lure of a Scottish summer twilight drew the Watsons across the croquet lawn and over the low stone wall that divides Greywalls from the course. There, with antique wooden clubs, the three golfers replayed the 10th and 18th holes, followed by their wives, a few spectators and a bagpiper they picked up along the way. At the 18th green this merry band was met by the club secretary at the time—Captain P.W.T. Hanmer—who scolded them as if they were errant schoolboys, which, for that happy moment, they undeniably were.
It was not until the Honourable Company moved to its present home that it was able to assert sovereignty over its own turf. Originally, the members played on the links at Leith, the old port of Edinburgh, where they shared five holes with four other golfing societies. Not for nothing was the club uniform a bright red tailcoat. A red coat was not only a badge of membership, it was also the practical equivalent of a hunter's red cap. The links of Leith, as elsewhere, were common lands used for many purposes besides golf, everything from grazing sheep to drying laundry.
In 1836 the Honourable Company moved from Leith to Musselburgh, farther east on the south bank of the Firth of Forth, but even there, where the club remained for 54 years and where the Open was held six times between 1874 and 1889, the members shared a nine-hole course with three other clubs. Only in 1891 did the Honourable Company finally acquire Muirfield, a "Hundred Acre Field" on the outskirts of Gullane in the district of East Lothian.
In the beginning, the Edinburgh golfers were a rollicking band of golf nuts, given to claret drinking and wagering among themselves. In Tobias Smollett's 1771 novel, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, a character describes golf on the Links of Leith: "Among others, I was shown one particular set of golfers, the youngest of whom was turned of four-score. They were all gentlemen of independent fortunes who had amused themselves with this pastime for the best part of a century without having ever felt the least alarm from sickness or disgust; and they never went to bed without having each the best part of a gallon of claret in his belly."
It was expected of an 18th-century sporting gentleman that he put his money where his honourable mouth was. The club's Bett Book was instituted in 1776 to keep track of the matches and the wagers made on them. In 1783, the Bett Book records: "Mr. R. Allan betts one guinea that he will drive a ball from the Castle Hill without the gate of the palisade into the Half Moon battery over the parapet wall."
We have no way of knowing whether Mr. Allan regretted his boast the next day, but we can be fairly sure he at least attempted the shot, because to back out of a bet was a punishable offense. "Each person who lays a bett in company of the Golfers and shall fail to play it on the day appointed, shall forfeit to the Company a pint of wine for each guinea unless he gives a sufficient excuse to their satisfaction."
Claret is still the wine of choice among the Honourable Company, and the Bett Book is still in use. Six times a year the club holds a dinner at which matches are scheduled, and wagers on those matches are recorded in the Bett Book. According to George Pottinger, the club's biographer, "Most bets have been made on foursome matches, but when the wagery fever has reached its height at the end of the dinner, it is not unknown for bets to be laid on events like the University Boat Race."
At the turn of the century, East Lothian was already to Scotland what the Monterey Peninsula is to this country, a golfer's version of heaven on earth. Within a few miles of Muirfield, in the villages of Gullane and Aberlady and the small resort town of North Berwick (so fashionable in the 1880s it was known as the Biarritz of the North), were, and still are, seven courses, each with its own history and individual charms. No need for Muirfield visitors to sit idle on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday afternoons. The Luffness New course in Aberlady has greens said to be the best in Scotland. The West Links in North Berwick is an antique beauty that runs nine holes out and nine back along the very edge of the Firth. And the No. 1 course in Gullane, where Babe Zaharias won the British Ladies' Amateur in 1947, is still good enough to be a qualifying site for the Open.
The 7th tee of No. 1 is at the top of Gullane Hill, the highest point for miles around. The view from there is worth the trip even if one doesn't play the game. "You can see parts of seven counties on a clear day," says George Morin, the Gullane starter.
A few yards from the tee but facing away, toward Gullane Bay, the Firth, and the Kingdom of Fife beyond, is a plain wooden park bench of the sort one comes across at pleasing spots here and there throughout the region. Most of the benches are memorials. This one has a small brass plaque that reads: IN FOND MEMORY OF MY WIFE NORAH CRUICKSHANK, WHO DIED 5TH JUNE 1982. SHE LOVED THIS VIEW.
Muirfield has no teaching pro and no pro shop, but it does have a caddie master, Archie Imrie, and an electric golf cart, a concession to the decrepitude of a few of the aged members. "I have to give it some corn," said the caddie master one morning as he approached the shed with a gas can in hand.
"He means he has to feed it," said Martin McIntyre, a caddie from Aberlady who had been called to the course for a morning round. "That's one of his jokes. That's why he's a caddie master and not a comedian."
McIntyre once cad-died for the president of Gambia. When the president wanted to relieve himself, McIntyre pointed to a facility beside the 11th fairway. "It took his bodyguards 20 minutes to check it out," he says. "I was sorry I'd opened my mouth."
Muirfield caddies are also Gullane caddies. Their hangout is a bench outside Jimmy Hume's pro shop in the village. Across the road is the 1st tee, and next door is the ruin of the old St. Andrew's parish church, begun in the 12th century, abandoned in the 17th. One of the newer headstones in the graveyard that surrounds the ruin reads: ERECTED BY THE GULLANE GOLF CLUB TO THE MEMORY OF JAMES DOBSON 1853-1924 IN GRATEFUL APPRECIATION OF THIRTY YEARS OF FAITHFUL SERVICE AS STARTER ON THE LINKS.
One of the Gullane caddies, David Cochrane, 52, spent eight years in the merchant marine, and he recites his ports of call for visitors—New Orleans, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Los Angeles, San Pedro, San Francisco, and Guaymas, Mexico. Once a year, Cochrane carries the bag of a lady from Locust Valley, N.Y., who, he says, once played in the Curtis Cup matches between Great Britain and the U.S.
American golfers playing a Scottish course for the first time are sometimes disappointed. At first glance the course seems as fiat and featureless as a municipal course in West Texas. No water, no trees, just crisp turf growing on a bed of sand dunes whipped by the wind off the nearest firth. Muirfield is different only because it is separated from the sight of the firth and the surrounding towns by an ocean of scrub-covered dunes and the dark green density of Archerfield Wood, the 2,500-acre estate of the Duke of Hamilton, on the east boundary.
At Muirfield, the vague feeling of playing in a field rather than on a seaside links has not been to everyone's liking. Bernard Darwin, the great English golf writer of the first half of the century, and a traditionalist, found "something park-like about those lines of fairway, each between two lines of rough.... I admire it very much but I cannot find in it the supreme charm and the supreme thrill that belong to some courses." But to the modern professional, Muirfield is one of the very best because it is "fair."
The front nine circles in a clockwise direction, enclosing the back nine, which zigzags more or less counterclockwise. No matter which direction the wind blows, all golfers get some of the best and some the worst of it. At St. Andrews, by contrast, where the course runs nine holes out and nine back in the old manner, a golfer who starts with the wind at his back can gain an advantage over a later starter if the wind changes direction and follows him home as well.
However fair Muirfield may be, it still must be played wisely, because small errors of judgment can result in big trouble, usually in the form of deep bunkers whose sloping edges will gather in a shot that is even slightly misplaced. Some Muirfield bunkers are diabolical, notably one left of the green at the par-3 13th. Not enough that the bunker is below the level of the green, it is also six feet deep with a vertical face. The intelligent way out is backward, to a steep slope that can then carry the ball to the bottom of the hill. From there, at least a bogey is within reach. In such a bunker a golfer is likely to view as unfair not only Muirfield but life itself. "I call it a 3 or a 33," said McIntyre.
The 5th hole, the first of three fine par-5s, runs west to east along the northern boundary of the course. The prevailing wind at Muirfield is from the west. With it at his back in 1972, Johnny Miller scored a double eagle with a driver and a three-wood. With an east wind, the 558 yards, which rise gradually all the way to the green, are a long, hard slog. But the green is the highest point on the course, and if the golfer has avoided the seven bunkers that surround it, the views are reward enough.
The 9th hole has been called "one of the finest par-5 holes in existence" and "an antique rubbish." Some say it was a great hole until a man named Tom Simpson redesigned it, placing a bunker in the fairway, 44 yards short of the green, which forces the safe second shot left, where it is menaced by a low stone wall and out-of-bounds. In the last round of the 1929 Open, Hagen, pursuing his fourth British Open title, mishit his second shot and wound up at the base of the wall. His next shot—left-handed, with a putter—rolled across the green and several yards beyond. He left his run-up six feet short of the pin and two-putted, for a bogey. The lapse was not fatal. He finished with 292, the first American to win an Open at Muirfield, and the last until Nicklaus in 1966.
Muirfield's finishing holes—the par-3 16th, with seven deep bunkers around an elevated green; the par-5 17th, a 542-yard dogleg with bunkers threatening the player who tries to cut the corner; and the par-4 18th, whose tee shot requires steady nerves and cross-hair accuracy at the very juncture where, usually in the last round, they are the hardest to produce—are designed to draw the best from the best. They have before; no doubt they will again.
And when it's over, and the last skirl of the bagpipes has died away on an evening breeze and the setting sun has streaked the sky over the Firth of Forth with pink, admirable Muirfield will revert to its rightful owners, the pheasants, the rabbits and the tweedy gentlemen at the Smoking Room windows.