Appeared in July/August 2002 LINKS
It’s a tough call as to which is more famous—the golf course or the golf club. In addition to being one of the world’s greatest links, Muirfield just happens to be home to the world’s oldest private golf club, the 258-year-old Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
Muirfield, which dates “merely” from 1891, is the Company’s third home. Beginning in 1744, this august body played over the ancient links of Leith. Nearly 100 years later, the club moved to Musselburgh, which became the regular home of the Open Championship in 1874. Consequently Musselburgh grew so popular that the club decided to look for an altogether more private location. On the edge of the village of Gullane, some 20 miles east of Edinburgh, it found a quiet, almost hidden domain of rolling linksland overlooking the Firth of Forth.
Within a year of its opening, the new links was reckoned good enough to host the 1892 Open. One professional famously described it as “nothing but an auld watter meddie” (old watery meadow). But it seems these and other derogatory remarks may have been provoked by jealousy, for when the Honourable Company left Musselburgh, it took with it the staging rights to the Open.
Muirfield today is acknowledged as an architectural masterpiece. It’s not the most natural links in the world; it isn’t the most spectacular. But it is peerless when it comes to shot values. Muirfield is laid out in two loops of nine. Broadly speaking, the front nine heads in a clockwise direction on the outside loop; the back nine runs counterclockwise on the inside. This layout ensures the golfer will confront the prevailing wind from every possible angle.
The unceasing wind is a reason Muirfield is considered one of the most difficult links on the Open rota. (Perhaps only Carnoustie is tougher.) There are at least three other reasons: the nature and extent of the course’s bunkering, the severity of its gold-tinted rough and the relatively small size of the putting surfaces.
Muirfield’s bunkers are its trademark. There are nearly 150 in all, each capable of affecting play. They are invariably deep—rarely will a player be able to reach the green from a fairway bunker—and they tend to gather the ball from the fairway. Around the green complexes, the tendency is to limit the importance of putting, or at least keep it in proportion to other aspects of the game. Skillful pitching and chipping from around the classically sculpted edges are handsomely rewarded.
Muirfield’s great mix of defenses is prominently displayed on the 1st and 18th holes. Few courses in the world start and finish as impressively as Muirfield. No. 1 measures 447 yards and doglegs mildly to the right; the 18th measures 448 yards and slides fractionally to the left. Each has a wasp-waisted fairway and is liberally sprinkled with pot bunkers. Each also has a distinct and dominant sand feature: a horseshoe-shaped fairway bunker on the left at the first; an island of turf in the center of the greenside bunker to the right of No. 18.
Muirfield’s quartet of par 3s is outstanding, each presenting a plateaued green staunchly defended by pot bunkers and myriad slopes. There can be no criticizing the variety and quality of Muirfield’s trio of par 5s, which includes the 9th. The dogleg 17th has decided many an Open Championship, most memorably Lee Trevino’s duel with Tony Jacklin in 1972, when Trevino holed a chip there to edge Nicklaus and Jacklin.
Of all the current British Open venues, Muirfield has consistently produced the greatest champions. Its post-war honor roll speaks volumes: Henry Cotton (1948), Gary Player (1959), Jack Nicklaus (1966), Lee Trevino (1972), Tom Watson (1980), Nick Faldo (1987, ’92) and Ernie Els (2002).