There’s no quibble that six Open Championships were held here, the last in 1889, when the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers pulled up stakes and moved a wee bit east to a little place called Muirfield. And there’s no question but that the game’s early greats – Mungo and Willie Park, David Brown, Young Tom and Old Tom Morris – trod the nine holes at Musselburgh still here, mostly within the Musselburgh Race Course track, though play is wisely suspended when the horses are running.
It’s not likely an American will cross the pond with play at Musselburgh Links at the top of the to-do list, but it’s tough to nudge much closer to the origins of the game than roaming over the par-34, 2,808-yard shrine with a light canvas bag filled with a hickory-shafted brassie, cleek, niblick and putting iron.
Indeed, my mistake in past Scotland trips was not lingering in the Lothians. Like most visitors, I would touch down in Edinburgh and head off to Turnberry, Royal Troon or other Scottish gems, drawn like a magnet in particular to St. Andrews. Fine destinations all, but golfers who leave the southeastern Scottish coast off their itineraries are repeating a mistake I’ll never make again.
There are 21 courses in East Lothian alone, all decent, some great. The total will climb to 22 in about a year, when the Tom Doak-designed Renaissance Club will be ready for play virtually next door to Muirfield.
I began my visit slightly west of Edinburgh at the Marriott Dalmahoy Hotel & Country Club, all of three miles from the airport, making its West Course (5,168 yards, par 68) a perfect
jet-lag round, though the tree-lined fairways of this parkland course might look a little tight to the bleary-eyed.
A full-service luxury golf resort with academy and spa, the Dalmahoy is within sight of Edinburgh’s famed castle, yet seemingly worlds away on 1,000 acres of Scottish countryside, housed partially in a 1720 Georgian mansion. Mary Queen of Scots, who apparently kept
her bags packed, also was said to have visited Dalmahoy, though well in advance of James Braid, who laid out the resort’s two courses in 1927.
A grand statue of Braid gazes over the first and 10th tee boxes of the championship East Course, site of the Solheim Cup in 1992, and now, after
a few holes were rejiggered, the longest course in Scotland at 7,475 yards – a distance not even tested by the pros when Sam Torrance won the Scottish Seniors Open here in early September. But the bragging rights are there to be had.
Edinburgh, surely one of the planet’s most agreeable capital cities, almost doubles in population to 1 million during August’s Festival month, when six international arts festivals run concurrently. But there still are plenty of tee times to be had, especially if one tootles 20 to 40 minutes along the road east.
My first round in East Lothian was at Dunbar, 29 miles from Edinburgh, and my zeal for this links course, with 14 consecutive holes running along the shores of the North Sea, is only partially because I shot my lowest round ever. True, I had an assist from the weather, which was unseasonably calm and mild during my week’s visit in late September. Of the 135 holes I played, only the last two had me toting the umbrella.
Maybe it was something speaking to my Celtic blood, but Dunbar felt like home, the relatively flat Old Tom Morris layout with its huge and speedy greens blending harmoniously with sea and sky, the distant view of the town, the iconic Bass Rock a constant sentinel rising from the waters. Maybe it was just the joy of the bump-and-run game, where I could putt from 30 yards off most greens and concede nothing to shaky wedge play.
There was more of the agreeable same to come in the days ahead, as I was in the good company of Minto and Rob Steadman, both coordinating an alliance of courses, accommodations and attractions called Golf East Lothian. Both are members of one of the newer East Lothian courses, Craigielaw, an engaging 2001 design from Tom Mackenzie. Craigielaw’s membership has an average age of 35, younger than more established area clubs.
Notice I didn’t say stodgy, although that’s the accusation directed at the likes of Muirfield even by its next-door neighbor, Archerfield Links, whose Web site includes this backhanded swipe: “We’re not about clubhouse cliques, old-fashioned dress codes or petty rules. After all, this is the 21st century.” True, visitors can play Muirfield only Tuesdays and Thursdays (which let me out, alas). It’s also true that visitors have to enter the clubhouse well-dressed, change into golf attire and then change back into decent garb after the round, giving rise to the old joke that clothes are on and off at Muirfield more often than at a brothel.
Otherwise, getting on Muirfield is easier than
at the more private Archerfield Links. So if that’s what the 21st century has to offer, give me
old-fashioned. Which model Jerry Sarvadi, the American developer of the Renaissance Club,
will follow still is unclear, though locals clearly hope it will be left open for some visitor play.
Muirfield is the premier draw for East
Lothian visitors, 15 times the host of the Open Championship, ready to host its first Senior British Open in 2007. Look for Nick Faldo to show, since he won two of his three Open titles there.
As great as Muirfield may be, it’s a little difficult to imagine a round there surpassing my experience at North Berwick. An Open qualifying course like Dunbar (as is Craigielaw for the Senior Open), North Berwick also is a breathtaking seaside beauty, albeit a far more idiosyncratic track with all manner of blind shots, cavernous bunkers and beachside shotmaking. Indeed, the beach is in play and some of the inbound holes are downright comical. The 13th requires negotiating a stone wall scant yards from the green. The 16th green is more like two outcroppings with a connecting valley, and woe to those on the promontory without the hole cut.
Then there’s the 15th, a 180- to 192-yard poke over a yawning bunker with a green that runs away from the tee and often is a blind shot as well. Yes, it’s the Redan hole, surely the most copied in golf design, here in its original and brusque character, though who the original designer was is lost to history.
One note of grace at North Berwick is that the rough isn’t too penal. Not so at Gullane where, other than the wind, the distinctively high grass is the primary defense at this treeless expanse.
The town of Gullane is all golf all the time. Aside from the three courses at Gullane Golf Club, you’ll also find Muirfield and Luffness New there. All of them are within view from what many say is the finest panorama in all of golf, from the top of Gullane Hill at the seventh tee on Gullane No. 1. One can wrestle such subjective pronouncements to exhaustion, but suffice to say the impression of Aberlady Bay down toward Musselburgh, across the Firth of Forth toward Fife, and the more immediate plethora of flagsticks of the Gullane courses, puts the view solidly in the running.
Though my rainsuit finally came out on the penultimate hole, I was reluctant to finish the round, my last before departing. Minto, Steadman and I headed to The Old Clubhouse pub and restaurant in Gullane to finish off a few rounds of Belhaven Best ale and a hearty snack of some bangers and mash – with sausages made a few miles down the road in Ballencriff.
It was in this state of post-golf contentment that the feeling I had had at Dunbar returned. It occurred to me that there actually are many homes of golf, and I was happy that this felt like one of them.