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.
Wow, what a day that must have been. I have a deeper understanding of this rich (in spirit) tradition. it goes far beyond being a pastime. It’s always a delight to discover that preconceptions about certain clubs/cliques are false. I’m glad you were made to feel welcome.
Thanks Julie – I have had some very memorable days this year but this one tops the lot (although the tour of the Lotus factory in July comes pretty close 🙂 )
Love the vintage ‘feel’ of the photos, Robin. Golf is not my thing, but I do quite like golf courses. My parents were stalwart supporters of Alsager golf club, a place where I spent much time hanging around with a bottle of lemonade. The club was a shack in a field. There was no golf course, as far as I know, and father spent all his time there playing snooker.
Thanks Tish – There’s coincidence, I know it well – it even gets a mention in Golf in the Wild: “Golf clubs without a course are not without precedent. Alsager Golf Club on Linley Road north of Kidsgrove famously has a splendid clubhouse but no course for its members to play on. The adjoining land was returned to agricultural use in 1953 but as the members owned the building and the land it stood on they have kept it running as a private members club ever since”.
Between 1978 and 1982 I worked up the road at ICL Kidsgrove so knew this “course” well – it must be on a sound footing as the clubhouse is now brick built rather than the shack you remember. All the best, R.
I like that our paths have crossed – or almost – back in time. V. Alan Garner-ish.
A wonderful read and makes me all the more determined to play Muirfield! Funnily enough, I encountered a gunner in Ireland for the first time this year. I think it’s also called a Rhodesian or rock shandy. You mention East Lothian; you may well have played some other courses there – if not North Berwick (west course) and Kilspindie are great fun.
Re ‘wild golf’, I’d recommend Shiskine GC on Arran – a 12 hole links, all great holes. Still struggling to blip. Too busy with golf!! Ian.
Many thanks Ian and good to hear from you in this non-Blip territory 😉 My exposure to East Lothian is fairly limited but I have been to Arran. I was inspired to play Shiskine after reading Andrew Grieg’s Preferred Lies which in turn inspired me to write Golf in the Wild (duly acknowledged in the introduction). Being a fan of quiet 9-hole courses in out of the way places, I was also much taken by Machrie and Corrie. I understand the problem with Blip and golf which is why so many of mine have a golfing theme – that and charging around on bikes is why the GITW sequel is so slow in coming … and the lack of a financial incentive 🙂 Tomorrow it’s Bamburgh GC so you know what to expect – Best regards, Robin
Yes, Preferred Lies is excellent. Good luck tomorrow!
Wonderful read and images 🙂 I tried golf at a basic level but I found the rules about allowing the ‘better’ players to ‘play through’ so as not to hold them up a bit open to abuse and decided that it wasn’t the game for me. It felt that beginners weren’t entirely welcome and totally the opposite of my experience when I went to a flying club. So I chose that road instead.
Many thanks for the generous words – I suspect your experience of golf can be all too familiar. My solution was to find a small course with empty fairways which eventually sowed the seeds for http://www.golfinthewild.co.uk – flying seems an altogether more adventurous alternative. Brave man! 🙂
Nothing too brave about it – much safer than motorcycling 😉
Indeed so, just don’t tell my good lady 😉
Flying scarf in mouth… can’t speak 😉
Apologies for the self-promotion but your mention of flying scarves reminded me of this:
LoL – fair share 🙂