I was introduced to golf by my grandfather, Bob, back in the Seventies. By then he was already nearly 80 and used to curse his failing strength, but if he had lost some length, his swing retained an easy rhythm which propelled the ball relentlessly straight with the minimum of apparent effort. He died in 1984 but how I would have loved to have had him with me as I teed off on the Old Course at Musselburgh the other day. He was a Scot from Carnoustie and traditional links golf was his first love.
Musselburgh, on the eastern fringes of Edinburgh, is an essential visit for anyone who is interested in the links tradition and the history of the Open. It vies with St Andrews for the title of the oldest course in the world. Golf is documented here in 1672, and Mary, Queen of Scots is reputed to have played in 1567.
Not only that, but during the late 19th century it hosted the Open Championship six times – selected, it must be said, not because it represented an epic test of golfing prowess, but because it was used by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers before they retreated to their men-only bastion of golfing exclusivity further along the coast at Muirfield in 1891.
Fascinating though it is from a historical point of view, Musselburgh’s problem is, to be frank, that it doesn’t adapt terribly well to the modern game. Sure, the par threes are surprisingly challenging but overall it is rather short and a little dull: a simple, flat, nine-hole links encircled by the racecourse. In fact, the stables are a lot more impressive than the golf clubhouse next to them.
But it is proud of its history, and it has come up with a rather elegant solution to appeal to the many visiting golfers who come to appreciate this most historic of courses: instead of using your highly engineered 21st-century clubs to power your way around this historical curiosity, you can hire an old set of hickories instead.
It gives you a much better insight into the challenges faced by those golfers in its glory years as an Open Championship course. As it happens, I still have a couple of sets of hickories at home which my grandfather had kept since his youth and left to me when he died, but I’ve never dared use them, for fear of splitting the shafts. So I relished the chance to borrow a set – driver, three-iron, mashie, niblick and putter – and try them out at Musselburgh.
I loved them from the off. There’s a softness, a sweetness to the strike – and something about the feel of the club, the shorter shafts, the thinner grips, the heavy weight of the iron heads, which stops you trying to force the shot and concentrate instead on timing. You end up swinging more easily, more rhythmically, and with much more focus on accuracy than length. I had a few duffs, of course, but, as I gradually acquired the knack, and felt one of my better attempts with a niblick soar high and straight towards the green, I suddenly understood the secret of my grandfather’s easy, simple swing – it was ingrained from his early years’ golfing with hickories. He was there with me at Musselburgh after all.
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North Berwick, about 20 miles to the east, has less need to evoke the spirits of the past. It certainly has a venerable history – the club was founded in 1832 and golf has been played over these links since the 17th century – but it is one of Scotland’s most popular courses, and, in summer, the demand from visitors means that you will need to book weeks in advance to get a starting time.
The reason for its popularity is, to a large extent, pure aesthetics: this is an outstandingly beautiful course with glorious views across the Firth of Forth and Bass Rock.
Historically, the original holes were played on the dunes between the town and the beach, but over time the course has stretched further along the coast and become a stiff challenge even when armed with modern equipment. I was lucky to be there on a golden breezeless evening in late June, but if you can see white horses on the Firth of Forth when you arrive, you will be in for a tricky time.
Like any great course, North Berwick saves its best for last. The final six holes form one of the most memorable finishing stretches of any golf course I have played – a brilliant mix of quirkiness, character and downright difficulty. At 13 you must shape your second over an old stone wall which runs at an angle immediately alongside the green. At 14 there’s a blind approach over a ridge to the green down by the beach.
The famous 15th – Redan – is a treacherous 190yd par three with a green half hidden by dunes sloping away from you, while the green at 16 is one of the most extraordinary ever built, long and narrow with a deep gully right across the middle, like a rucked-up fold in a rumpled blanket. The penultimate hole is the trickiest of the lot. Some 428yd from the back tees, no matter how straight and true you can hit, you will have to shape your second to hold an elevated green. Aim directly at Bass Rock in the far distance and hope. I pitched it short into the trench-like bunker in front.
The last at North Berwick evokes direct comparisons with a more famous finishing hole a few miles away in Fife. There is no Swilken Bridge but there are strong echoes of the 18th at St Andrews – a broad fairway shared with the first, no rough, no bunkers, cars parked on the road lining the right-hand side, a deep valley just in front of the green, and a clubhouse reminiscent of the RA. It’s a great finish to a great course.
There are many more historic clubs along this stretch of coast – those at Gullane, Muirfield and Dunbar, for example, are all outstanding – but I also wanted to try something new, so I took up an invitation to stay and play at the Tom Doak-designed course at the Renaissance Club.
In its way, it too has a curious – if much shorter – history. It was founded 10 years ago by the Sarvadis, an American family who were attracted by its location bordering Muirfield. Their ambition was to create an exclusive private club that could compete in quality with the very best traditional links courses. Echoes of Donald Trump? Perhaps, but this is an altogether more subtle project, and it is one that has had to be adapted.
Thwarted by the 2008 financial crash that came just after the course opened, the Sarvadis have yet to recruit enough members to sustain the original concept of a purely private club with a membership of 300 or 400 paying hefty debentures to join. Jerry Sarvadi, who runs the club, is quick to point out that it remains debt-free, but keen to raise awareness of the course and club, he has opened its doors to the public. You can, subject to invitation, come and play on a “one-time experience” – it’s certainly not cheap, but it’s a chance to see how one of the world’s great designers, Doak, has responded to a pitch among some of the world’s greatest courses.
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The American influence is evident as soon as you drive in through the electric gates and sweep up the long drive to the clubhouse. There are balls piled up in neat pyramids on the practice ground, the caddies wear white overalls, Augusta National-style, and helpers offer to clean your clubs before they are spirited into the clubhouse beyond.
But it wasn’t so much the club as the course that interested and, ultimately, impressed me. Doak has done a remarkable job, responding to the challenge with subtlety and wit. When work started a decade ago, this was a low-grade and neglected conifer plantation. Thousands of trees have been removed to restore a landscape of sweeping sand dunes, marram grass and the occasional rough stone wall reminiscent of those at North Berwick and Muirfield. No sooner was this work complete than the club got permission to clear long swathes of invasive scrub and blackthorn which ran down to the rocky shoreline where the dunes were also restored.
It is here that the course really comes into its own. The four holes from the ninth onwards, which have views of the Firth, are outstanding: the 10th, in particular, is a direct quote of the great dogleg 12th that runs along the foreshore at Kingsbarns over in Fife, while the wall that separates the ninth and 11th greens is a witty touch, a knowing glance to the 13th at North Berwick.
There’s a fine finish here too – the par five 16th offering potential birdies, a 200yd par three at 17, and finally a mammoth 480yd par four where both the drive and second shot are played over stone walls.
Is it worth the £250 green fee? It depends what’s important to you. It is certainly a wonderful course – as challenging as Muirfield and with the scenic appeal of North Berwick. But you can play the latter for half the price of the Renaissance; what you get here is the luxury of time and space. This is high-quality golf at its most relaxed, where you can play at your own pace and never have to worry about the four-ball ahead or the two-ball behind.
What’s more, on a stretch of coast that, apart from Greywalls, is short on really good places to stay, it has comfortable rooms and a clubhouse that puts even the stables at Musselburgh in the shade.
Note: all green fees are for summer and advance booking is essential.
Musselburgh Old Links (0131 653 5122; musselburgholdlinks.co.uk) – green fee: £15.30, hickory club hire: £37.
North Berwick Golf Club (01620 895040; northberwickgolfclub.com) – green fee: £105 per round, £150 per day.
Renaissance Club (01620 850901; trcaa.com) – the one-time experience green fee, which is subject to invitation/prior application, is £250 per round; overnight accommodation costs £350 per room per night (rate for two sharing a twin room and including 18 holes is £650). Visitors are also required to hire one fore-caddie per group at a cost of £60 per round. This year the club, along with Muirfield, will host the 90th Boys’ Amateur Championship from August 9-14. It also will be a qualifying course for the 2018 Open.
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Three of the best historic Open courses
Muirfield recently lost the right to stage the Open because of the club’s refusal to admit women members. No doubt that situation will change over time, but, along with Musselburgh, there are three other courses that have hosted the Open in previous years but have fallen off the rotation for a variety of reasons – usually because of a lack of space for ancillary facilities or because they are not long enough to challenge today’s long-hitting pros. But they remain challenging courses, with intriguing histories.
Prestwick, South Ayrshire
Just south of the links at Troon, this is the most famous of the former Open courses. Designed and built by Old Tom Morris, it hosted the event in its inaugural year in 1860 over a 12-hole layout and the Championship was held here 24 times until 1925. It still ranks second only to the Old Course (29 Opens). Green fee: £165 (01292 477 404; prestwickgc.co.uk).
Royal Cinque Ports, Kent
A wonderful course that runs along the beach at Deal, designed in part by James Braid and, later, Henry Cotton, Royal Cinque Ports hosted the Open in both 1909 and 1920. It would have hosted again – in 1938 and 1949 – but the course was flooded by high tides both years. Green fee: £130 (01304 374 170; royalcinqueports.com).
Neighbour to Royal St George’s, this Kent links held the Open just once in 1932 when Gene Sarazen won by five shots. Green fee: £60 (01304 611118; princesgolfclub.co.uk).