In 1891, Old Tom Morris designed Muirfield, a new private course to become home for the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. Over the subsequent 122 years, the exclusive traditions of the golf club have changed very little.
To the benefit of golf aficionados, Muirfield has kept its private policies, but it has altered them to allow visitors on Tuesday and Thursday. Tee times are available from 8:30 to 10 a.m., but require years of forward-thinking and planning.
Last year, I embarked with my dad, my friend and his dad on the ultimate golf pilgrimage to watch the weekend rounds at the British Open. We then played North Berwick, Carnoustie, the New and Olde Courses at St. Andrews and with shrewd prepartion: Muirfield. Each of the five courses were dripping in tradition, but the elegance of Muirfield left it in a class on its own.
Muirfield’s swanky persona revealed itself upon arrival. Our taxi driver stopped at the end of the road that led to the club and told us that was as far as he was allowed. The membership did not want taxis to service the club’s entrance.
We were greeted by an ominous iron gate that read, “The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers,” protecting history that dates back to the adolescent years of the game.
Behind the gate laid boundless rolling hills of brown and green grasses that emptied into the ocean at the horizon, interrupted by narrow strips of lush green fairways, with yellow flagsticks peeking up arbitrarily throughout the field to ensure it was indeed a golf course.
The landscape emitted a simple beauty, but the vastness made you feel nearly insignificant.
Behind the gate was a man with a clipboard, who condescendingly asked, “What are you doing here?” We clearly were not members of the Company, but with golf bags slung over our shoulder, the answer seemed obvious.
Our names were on the visitor tee-time list, so he begrudgingly allowed us to enter the grounds. The un-welcomed feeling was easy to get past — we were just appreciative to be there.
We didn’t arrive early enough to hit balls on the range; I’m not sure they would have let us anyway. Before our turn at the tee, we only had time to hang our suit jackets and pants in the locker room. Formal attire was necessary to eat lunch in the dining quarters after the round, and we came prepared based on a tip from the manager at North Berwick the day before. The locker room had the feel of a fine cigar club with the elegant blend of comfort and wealth, surely a room that classy American golf clubs attempt to emulate.
Our names were called to the first tee, and as we approached nerves set in. The first hole is a 448-yard par 4 into a prevailing wind with treacherous fescue on both sides. An already narrow sliver of fairway seemed to disappear as we approached the teeing area.
All four of our drives found the fescue (which didn’t make our caddy happy), but we were relieved to get underway without total disaster.
After playing some military golf (left-right-left) on the first few shots, I had an approach shot into the green from the fairway. It’s not often that I’m hesitant to take a divot with a wedge, but the grass in the fairways made me weary to disturb such perfection. A tentative swing left me in the front right bunker, and after failing to get up-and-down, I tapped in for a humbling double-bogey.
A run of pars on the next five holes allowed me to get comfortable despite the intimidation of the atmosphere early in the round. I was faring well by keeping the ball out of the thick fescue for a while, but that only lasted so long.
Our group was losing balls by the dozen. We counted 43 lost balls collectively for the round (although my friend’s father may have underestimated his tally). The caddy was collecting more ticks than golf balls.
No. 9, a par 5, was one of the most memorable of the trip (and it had heavy competition). To the left of the hole was a working sheep farm protected by an old stonewall. The sight of hundreds of sheep placed you back in time to the origins of the game, with a loud and constant “baa-ing” from the herd. I’m not sure they will obey the “Quiet Please” sign at this year’s Open Championship.
The uphill 550-yard par 5 into the teeth of the wind made it a full three-to-four-shot hole. With pot bunkers drizzled throughout the fairway and guarding the green, fescue everywhere, a stonewall marking out-of-bounds on the left and the looming clubhouse of disapproving members behind the green, the loud animals was the least of its challenges.
A driver, 3-wood and healthy pitching wedge left me with a 12-footer for birdie to break 40 on the front side — I shot 41.
The back nine delivered much of the same as the front nine. It was a battle set upon a beautiful canvas, truly “a good walk spoiled.” Our caddy barely watched us struggle to hole out on No. 18 before he understandably took off for the local pub.
A 40 on the incoming 9 gave me an 81 for the round. This tied Tiger Woods’ score in the 2002 Open Championship on Saturday at Muirfield, confirming the fact that on an average day, I’m only as good as Tiger on the worst day of his professional career.
After the round, we were giddy at the opportunity to dine in the clubhouse. My hand-me-down linen 1970s suit jacket that I had bought at a local thrift store the day before worked well enough as upper-body attire, but we had forgotten to purchase dress shoes. They denied our entry to the dining quarters.
My dad quoted the movie Shawshank Redmeption, “I mean seriously, how often do you really look at a man’s shoes?”
The shoe-shiner in the locker room had extras stashed away in a box for these types of situations. I wear a size 12, and the largest shoes he had were size 10. Sacrifices had to be made.
The round was all-inclusive: the bar stocked with top-shelf liquor, kitchen with every meat on the chopping blocks and dessert table with mouth-watering treats was at our expense. My only concern was utilizing the appropriate fork and spoon at the proper time. Ladies were forbidden, and the dress code was strictly enforced; it didn’t seem timely to break the rules.
The meal was fit for kings, even though we were pawns wearing used suit jackets and ill-fitting shoes. Unfavorable stares from the members followed us out of the door following our meal, but it was a memory we will never forget.
As typical tourists, we wanted to buy souvenirs at the pro shop. We asked an employee of the club where it was, and his answer embodied the experience at Muirfield: “The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers does not see it fit to have a professional, therefore, we do not have a ‘pro’ shop.”
We should have expected that.