There are no signs. The implication is that if you don’t know where to go then you shouldn’t be here. It will be different when the Open arrives along these shores but at all other times, Muirfield is discreet, understated, almost forbidding.
It starts in the car park. Should I really be here. Is this row of covered stalls really intended for guests. The pewter grey Elise looks perfectly at home, more at ease in its surroundings than me. The walk to the course and clubhouse is no less a pilgrimage than first steps along Magnolia Drive. Still there are no signs but the imposing P Johnson & Co Iron Gates is the obvious direction – if Bates Motel had boasted a golf course, this is how the entrance might have looked. To the right is the pedestrian gate and this alone solemnly announces that you have arrived at The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
Inside the clubhouse my generous host for the day gives me a tour of the inner sanctum: the wood panelling and changing room reminiscent of a boys grammar; the polished trophies, some of the earliest ever played for; the tall red-coated portraits; the maps portraying the evolution of the course; the dark bust of the 1950s Captain, C J Y Dallmeyer; the scorecards from past Opens and a replica of the Claret Jug, complete with up-to-date engravings – 2017 Open Winner, Jordan Spieth. Quiet as a library, this place is special. In the hall I meet the Recorder, various members and later the Captain – all welcoming, polite, men of standing. This is not the stuffy, jurassic establishment portrayed by the social and print media, this is the polar opposite.
We play foursomes, the traditional Muirfield game – my playing partner takes the odd tees and I take the evens such that I will take the final drive up the eighteenth. I had no preconceived agenda about setting a score so assistance and a joint responsibility suits me fine. More than that, it is a thoroughly enjoyable team game and we rise to the occasion, hitting fairways and sinking putts – a birdie at the par 5 ninth puts us five up. At the turn, we head to the clubhouse for lunch. This is how all golf should be played. ‘And, if it be retorted that a player plays twice as many shots in a fourball game as in a Foursome, the Muirfield man would reply – “Play 36 holes in 4 ½ hours and you will get the same number of shots, twice the exercise, far more fun, and you won’t have to wait between shots. Furthermore you will learn to play better golf.” ‘ – Foreward to G Pottinger’s Muirfield and the Honourable Company.
Lunch is taken in the lounge, jacket and tie being mandatory. I have brought a tie from the funerals drawer for the occasion – I am a guest and I must honour club traditions, no matter that such attire is at complete odds with my late hippy demeanour. A generous tray of sandwiches is accompanied by a gunner (ginger beer, ginger ale, dash of lime and a measure of angostura bitters), followed by coffee and the traditional Muirfield and Prestwick liqueur – kümmel, a sweet, colourless drink flavoured with caraway seed, cumin, and fennel. First impressions are mixed but I warm to it as the glass empties. I am unsure of the effect it may have on the back nine.
Sure enough, post lunch, our partners make a comeback. We are playing to Colonel Dallmeyer’s rules. Individual handicaps are ignored – each team plays level until one pair goes three-up and your opponents receive strokes until the leading pair are back to one-up. After the sixteenth we are playing level again – we lead by one with two holes to play. All of the Muirfield holes have witnessed high drama and historic occasions, none more so than the 17th at the 1972 Open. Trevino has hacked his way into rough at the back of the green in four, Jacklin is sitting comfortably on the green in three:
On the same hole we are lying three in the semi-rough to the right of the green having avoided some monstrous bunkers – our opponents have been in several:
I chip within a distance short enough to be given the hole – we have won 2&1 – what Jacklin would have given for five at the 17th in 1972. That year I was oblivious to the high drama being acted out at Muirfield. On the same day and around the same time I know exactly where I was – at Brands Hatch for the 1972 British Grand Prix, watching Emerson Fittipaldi take the flag for Lotus. In those far-off days, major sporting events were concluded on Saturdays, not Sundays. The modern migration to the Sabbath has less to do with the slackening of religious observance and more to do with maximising TV exposure. This fuzzy clip from Brands was filmed by BBC Eurovison and the commentary is in Austrian:
This youthful obsession explains the Lotus in the Muirfield car park – it is not about prestige or one-upmanship, it is about history, teenage dreams and the joy of driving – as Andrew Frankel recently observed in Motor Sport – ‘The secret is not to go lobbing it around – the pleasure comes not from power and slides but feel and finesse’ – it has ‘a level of feel that makes all other sports cars seem like you’re driving them wearing oven mitts … the car is simply fabulous’.
However, I confess, given the choice now, I would be at the Open – modern day F1 is a pale shadow of its former self. It has been a convoluted journey from Kentish tarmac to the fairways of East Lothian.
With sincerest thanks to David S-S for organising my visit and to Hew and Mark for their excellent company. A very memorable day.