Five-time British Open winner Tom Watson’s opinion of Muirfield leaves little room for interpretation. “I love the place,” he enthuses. “I love the feel of it, the smell of it, the taste of it. I love the turf, the feel of my spikes in it. I love the people.”
After all, this is the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which drafted the first-known rules of golf, the seminal Thirteen Articles, in 1744, the year of the club’s formation. Praise falls on their ears like a morning mist, and they cease to hear it. The members are proud of their club, and pride alone may have prevented the club from being known as “Royal Muirfield.” According to Emma-Jane McAdam of the Royal and Ancient’s Heritage Department, royal patronage was never granted to the club because “they probably never asked for it.”
Today, its missing Royal designation no doubt gives the membership a perverse pleasure. When a club official was once asked what would happen if the Queen of England arrived at the gate of this all-male bastion, he replied, “We would go down to the gate and express our loyalty to her, but she wouldn’t come in.”
Over the years, the men of H.C.E.G have made a virtue of throwing people off their course. The story goes that after winning the 1980 Open at Muirfield, he returned to the links after enjoying a few celebratory drinks in the nearby Greywalls Hotel. Accompanied by Tom Weiskopf, Ben Crenshaw and their respective wives, the men wished to try their skill on the noble turf with some hickory-shafted antique clubs—and were summarily turned away.
Why such a club would even open its doors to a major championship can be difficult to understand. But they do it out of a justifiable pride in their course, which is widely regarded as providing a searching but eminently fair test. Crenshaw describes it as “probably the most straightforward, honest test of golf in the world.” Darren Clarke wouldn’t find fault with that assessment. “It is a very special place,” he says. “You’ve got to hit every shot around there.”
Given its history and toughness, Muirfield is an alluring stop for tour pros even when the Open is not in town. A succession of Muirfield secretaries has upheld the reputation for firmness that comes with the post. The notorious of these was P.W.T. “Paddy” Hanmer, a retired Royal Navy captain.
Hanmer was a wonderful character who struck the fear of God into all comers while in office, yet projects the air of a good-natured uncle following his retirement. In the latter role, he recalls a visit from a golfer from Idaho who came to Muirfield “with no previous arrangements to play.” This was affrontery on the order of a country fiddler asking to play with the London Philharmonic.
“I told him he couldn’t get on, but he hung around all morning to see if there were any cancellations,” says Hanmer, who insisted to the Yank that cancellations would be of no help to him.” After lunch, the fellow was still there and he came round with a camera and said he wanted to take my picture.
“I asked him why and he said he wanted to show the folks at home a picture of the man who had kept him off Muirfield. I thought that was the best story I’d heard in all my time. I told him to get his kit and go out and play.”