Third in a series
GULLANE, Scotland – One of the most distinguishing features of venerable Muirfield is you can’t see it. Unless you know where it is, you’ll have trouble finding it.
That’s just fine with the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the button-down outfit that has overseen play on the course(s) since 1744. These folks relish that sort of abstruseness. They play hard to get.
The course is located about 40 miles northeast of Edinburgh along the Firth of Forth inlet. When you reach the lovely town of Gillane, you are close to the 121-year-old property, but still without a clue. Or a sign. The majestic 135-acre Muirfield course is there somewhere, hiding behind hills and houses. There’s a narrow two-lane road, Duncur Road, to the entrance, the last left as you leave town. You drive about 200 yards to an iron gate that says, ‘The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.’ Unless you have a tee time, a lunch date or Claret Jug, you can’t go beyond that point.
It’s a gate that holds back the world from the elite membership full of lords, sirs, colonels, physicians and professors. It’s their special place of tranquility, fraternity and continuity. The club maintains a strict jacket-and-tie policy in the dining area, it restricts access for guest golfers – who pay handsomely for an opportunity – to just two days a week and the members almost never play their own golf ball. They all share. It’s the Muirfield way.
Muirfield, which will unmask itself briefly next year when it hosts its 16th British Open Championship, is run by the world’s oldest golf club (with records). The Honourable group is proud of its past and clings ferociously to it. Other courses may bend traditions, change with time and allow accommodations. Muirfield does not.
After all, this group set the bar. It established the first 13 Rules of Play. By the late 19th Century, the Company passed over rules authority to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. Strangely enough, mulligans were never mentioned.
“We haven’t adopted modern trends in golf,” Muirfield secretary Alastair Brown said. “We have not relaxed our dress regulations. We haven’t relaxed our attitudes. Some people see it as rules. I don’t see it as rules. It’s just the way we are. There’s probably no where in the world a club as traditional as this.”
Yet, ironically, over the past 268 years since those tradition-abiding men formally formed the club, what has changed dramatically is the course. Or courses. This is actually their third site and probably one they’ll keep for a few more millenniums.
The initial site the Company associated with, in 1744, was five-hole Leith Links about 30 miles east of here, just north of Edinburgh. In 1836, the club switched allegiance to Musselburgh Links, just northeast of Edinburgh, adjacent to a horse racetrack. That site was shared by four other clubs and the public so the Company sought more exclusivity, settling here in 1891 and calling it Muirfield. It was originally designed by Old Tom Morris, the renowned Open champion and famed designer.
One year later, in 1892, the course hosted the Open Championship, the first to be contested over 72 holes. Harold Hilton won that year but the course was not challenging enough. It needed to be improved. Four years later, Muirfield hosted the Open again with Harry Vardon winning it.
Yet more changes were necessary. The problem was the course dimensions were restricted by an ancient stone wall that surrounded the entire property. In 1907, 13 acres were added and, in 1923, another 25 plus acres were acquired in a land exchange with the Duke of Hamilton, one castle over to the east. That provided enough space to enhance and lengthen the sixth, eighth and ninth holes.
Designer Harry Colt incorporated the new acquisitions, staying true to Morris’ vision, as he revised 14 holes. His flow was more in concentric circles. More changes came in 1935 with a remodel of the 13th hole while some tee positions were moved back.
Since Muirfield last hosted the Open in 2002, 15 holes have been altered, adding more than 200 yards to a par-71, 7,245-yard test for the professionals next summer.
Change has been constant amid membership inertia.
What hasn’t changed over the centuries is the elements. Muirfield does not sit on the water but a bluff above the Firth of Forth, a deep, wide channel that flows into the North Sea. What that yields on most days is a stiff westerly wind off the water, creating havoc for a golf ball.
Since this course differed from most Scotland courses at the time – which were typically nine out, nine in – the concentric circle design meant that the wind changes a notch from hole to hole, upwind, crosswind, downwind.
That wind, along with other elements such as the deep bunkering and the formidable rough, is why Golf Monthly has listed this as the No. 1 course in the world. Concentration must be keen during your entire round to stay out of both bunkers and rough.
“Our untreated rough (by late spring) is more knee high while all the rough is higher,” Brown said. “It’s really what Muirfield has got, bunkers and rough. That’s our protection. The rough, in a way, seems to intimidate the players because no one has really taken Muirfield apart at the Open. I’m talking a four-round score.”
Tom Watson has the best four-round Open score with a 271 when he won here in 1980. Nick Faldo had 272 in 1992. But most championship scores here have been much higher, such as Gary Player in 1959 (284), Jack Nicklaus in 1966 (282) while both Lee Trevino (1972) and Ernie Els (2002) shot 278.
“If you’re in the rough here, there is no bail out,” Brown said. “Either it’s a lost ball or a dropped shot. Then you play more cautiously.”
After traveling essentially 20 hours the day before – getting to bed around 11 p.m. – our tee time was at 9 am, the opening course for my son Bobby and me on our Scotland golf tour. Once we finally located the course – by asking a school guard – we were granted approval by the starter to pass through the iron gate. We were inside.
The whole layout, west-to-east, clubhouse-to-bluff opened up. What you notice is the yellow gorse, a handful of trees and plenty of undulations. It’s breath-taking.
You actually feel privileged to play it, as it has been listed as one of the world’s three toughest courses to get on, along with Augusta National and Cypress Point. It’s only accessible to the public two days a week and costs about $300 per round. When I mentioned the price to my club pro before the trip, he said, “yeah, but it’s Muirfield.”
“We do not get a lot of complaints about our high price,” Brown said, “because I would ask people how much do they pay to get on Augusta or Cypress and they would say, ‘I don’t know. I can’t get on those.’ Well, you can get on here.”
That’s the thing about Scotland. Golf is one of its greatest commodities. That’s a matter of pride for the Scots. They want to share it with the world. So visitors have access to just about every course in the country – for the right price. You can’t say that about many of the elusive clubs in America and elsewhere.
Jack Nicklaus, who named his own Columbus, Ohio, handiwork ‘Muirfield Village’ in honor of this time-honored course, said the first hole, par-4, 447 yards, “is one of the toughest opening holes in golf.” Tiger Woods took a double bogey six here in 2002 and everyone within earshot knew of his displeasure.
For us, the first hole was as benign as it could be, for three reasons. We were not playing the championship tees so our tee shots could carry the rough and into the narrow fairway. The rough had been recently cut so we could find and hit our balls. And the wind, usually directly into the golfer’s face here, was scant. Yet we both finished with 6s primarily because we had not adjusted to the roll of the greens. We both three-putted.
The ancient stone wall came into play at the end of the second hole when Bobby hammered a bunker shot over it. He would have his worst struggles of the week at Muirfield as he landed in seven bunkers and needed 12 shots to get out of them. They’re diabolical because they are deep and force you to hit laterally most of the time. They’re shot-takers.
The second shot on the par-4, 377-yard third hole is blind over a mound to the green. Without local knowledge, we had no idea what was behind the hill and how far the pin was. We both ended up in the rough along the right side. It’s one of many blind shots that Morris and Colt built into this earthly creation.
One of my best shots of the trip came in the fourth hole, a par-3, 182-yarder with an elevated, slanted green, bunkers left and right and a steep right-side slope that will carry your drive into the rough. I managed to left-to-right my drive behind the pin about 20 feet then two putted for par.
The sixth hole, coming away from the water, is just so darn long and difficult. It’s a par-4, 440 yards, with a dogleg to the left. Just at the dogleg, there’s a conveniently placed bunker that took three shots for Bobby to get out (rule of thumb in Scotland: Try not to be a hero; sideways works better). The old stone wall also inserts itself along the left side of the fairway. The entry point to the green is narrow with slopes on either side and bunkers all around.
The eighth hole is quite similar, also a par-4, 443 yards and a dogleg right. But this one has bunkers in abundance. There are six around your landing drive and another six protecting the green, with rough on either side. It’s an acute test of accuracy.
Both Bobby and I parred the ninth, a par-5, 505-yarder. We were fortunate because the rough was short and the winds were light (like the first hole, this one is directly into the prevailing wind). You can see the championship tee set up for the professionals next year 57 yards behind us. There’s a new bunker on the right that may catch many of the pros and the left side is bordered by the stone wall that runs tee-to-green.
The most difficult hole in Scotland, for me, was No. 10, par-4, 470 yards. The fairway has been shifted to the left 15 yards since the 2002 Open, bringing the rough much more into play. A straight drive practically puts you on the edge of it. There are two huge bunkers that will gather your drives, or second shots. Once you get past those, there’s quite a bit more distance, more rough and more bunkers. I took an eight. Tough hole.
It’s my feeling that headwinds are not nearly as difficult as crosswinds. We experienced that at the par-4, 354-yard 11th. The crosswind was whipping a bit, taking drives to the right. From the tee, there’s a 40-foot-high ridge about 190 yards out and if the wind holds you back or takes you to the right, you generally fall into the deep rough. Most pros clear the mound to the short grass beyond but a strong crosswind could make this hole an adventure.
The course then takes you in different directions, like ticks on a clock, facing various wind challenges. You’ll get a few glimpses of the Firth of Forth over the north edge of the course. Our weather experience was exceptional, with sunshine throughout the day, mild temperatures and a light breeze.
The par-3, 156-yard 13th is a hard green to hold. There’s the usual assortment of right and left bunkers but the green is tilted toward the tee with slopes and swales. It’s a beauty, one of the hardest par-3s greens you can play.
The final two holes can be a test but also ones in which, on the final round at the Open, you can see the pros taking chances to catch the leader. The 17th, par-5, 506 yards, will play somewhat with the prevailing winds. It’s a dogleg left. There’s a clear avenue for a bump-and-run approach, as it undulates down to a mostly flat green. I punched an eight-iron from about 90 yards to within 18 inches for a par.
The final hole is not that tough for middle tee box guys like most of us. You can reach the green in two but there’s a pot bunker in front and a unique grass-and-sand bunker on the right. I missed an eight-footer for a bogey and a 92. Sand-troubled Bobby shot a 101 but he would recover nicely, cutting 20 strokes off that the next day.
The course gives you the option of lunch, which meant we brought along our jackets and ties just for this experience. It was a gentile atmosphere, although not without my breaches in decorum. When I entered the clubhouse to change, I saw a distinguished gent carrying golf shoes into the clubhouse attendant’s office. “You must be the clubhouse guy,” and almost instantly I knew he wasn’t. “No,” he said with an admonishing smile.
He was a Honourable member, probably a lord or sir or maybe a saint, and I had just leveled my first insult of the trip. I tried to humor-excuse my way through the faux pas but he mused, “it’s too late for that now.”
Then as I entered the elegant high-ceiling dining hall, the head waiter immediately asked if I had another pair of shoes with me, not the tan Hush-Puppy-like ones I had brought. I didn’t so he directed me back to the clubhouse where the real attendant was waiting, seemingly knowing I’d return. He was holding a box of respectable shoes.
The lunch was fantastic, highly recommended. The food was delicious, well-prepared, particularly the desserts, and you get a feel for the history and the traditions that the members embrace so ardently.
This is a unique experience with a special membership here. When a previous Muirfield club president was asked once how long it takes for a member to play the course, he said, “two-and-a-half hours, two-and-a-half hours and two-and-a-half hours.”
By that, he meant two-and-a-half hours for the morning round, two-and-a-half hours for dining and conversations with other members then two-and-a-half hours for the afternoon round.
“The philosophy here is the club is not just a golf course. It’s a more holistic thing,” Brown said “There’s the golf and there’s the good company you share lunch and a good bottle of wine with. So why not share a golf ball? This tradition is absolutely ingrained. So balance both on and off is a tradition here.”
By sharing a ball that means foursomes play. Generally, four golfers would play teams of two with each team member hitting alternate shots, similar to a Ryder Cup format. That’s why they can get around so quickly.
“Not many clubs,” Brown added, “still have the tradition of foursomes golf.”
Even in this evolving world, Muirfield holds tight to the game’s traditions. Not such a bad thing.
PART FOUR – Kings at Gleneagles