The vast majority of golfers, even those natives of the game’s homeland who ought to know better, mention of East Lothian generally brings the knee-jerk response of “Muirfield, magnificent Muirfield.” Yet in historical terms, the present home of the ancient Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is a Johnny-come-lately upstart on the peerless stretch of near-unbroken natural linksland which stretches eastwards from Edinburgh along the southern shores of the Firth of Forth.
After all, that august body did not move to their own course at Muirfield from Musselburgh until 1891. Admittedly that was some 147 years after the club had been founded. But it was still nearly 300 years after golf had first been played at Musselburgh—and at North Berwick, five miles east of Muirfield.
It is well-documented that fear of invasion from marauding Englishmen had the Scottish Parliament, based in Edinburgh, thundering against the gentle pastime of golf in the 15th century, and the Kirk (Church) Session records of North Berwick in 1605 make mention of the “toune links.” In other words the good burghers of North Berwick were playing golf on the little fishing town’s common land at least 20 years before the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower for the New World.
By common consent, golf historians acknowledge that only at Musselburgh is there a longer period of unbroken golf than at North Berwick. Yet for far too long, as far as overseas visitors are concerned, it has been little more than a golfing backwater, totally overshadowed by world-famous neighbor Muirfield and Scotland’s other great championship venues such as St. Andrews, Turnberry, Troon and Carnoustie.
In fact, although Royal Dornoch and Gleneagles’ courses have a higher profile, North Berwick’s West Links has an antiquated charm all its own with walls, burns, yawning bunkers and in No. 15, “Redan,” probably the most frequently and copied short hole in the world.
“Best of all,” resident professional-cum-course manager David Huish (pronounced Hush) will tell you, “we have something none of the more famous courses have, including Musselburgh, and that is a view of the sea from every hole. This is a true links. Some people may say it is a little quirky, even quaint, but I have played all over the world, and even after 29 years here I would still rather play golf at North Berwick than anywhere else.
“You never play the same course twice. Depending on the weather—and we get lots of it—and the sensible use of a variety of tee and pin placements, each hole can vary as much as four clubs. In other words, what may be a 7-iron shot one day can be a 3-iron the next. It’s a great place to play golf.”
Of course Huish, a genial giant who in his younger days was good enough to represent Scotland in the World Cup, lead the 1975 Open championship at Carnoustie after 36 holes and play several times in PGA Cup matches as British champion, is just a wee bit biased. Now a member of the European Ryder Cup committee, he has a well-thumbed passport and a great breadth of golfing knowledge and vital know-how.
He is acutely aware of his course’s rich history and toils ceaselessly to put North Berwick, a half-hour drive from Edinburgh, back into the prominent position on the golfing map it enjoyed more than a century ago.
Back then, as many as 7,000 townsfolk would throng the links to watch big money challenge matches between the great players of the day. Willie Park of nearby Musselburgh was one of the game’s giants, having won the first-ever Open at Prestwick in 1860 when, it is well worth noting, the 36 holes were played on the same day with the first competitor teeing off at 1 p.m. That first Open was held in October when daylight could not have lasted beyond 4:45 in the afternoon.
Old Tom Morris was in his heyday at that time, and Park and Old Tom won six of the first seven Opens before Young Tom Morris broke the stranglehold, winning the Belt outright with three successive victories in the years 1868 to 1870. Back in those dim and distant days prize money was little more than a pittance, and in order to earn themselves substantial sums the best players, with generous backers, would pit their skills against each other in challenge matches for as much as 100 pounds or more. In modern fiscal terms that would equate to at least $15,000.
One such challenge was held on the North Berwick Links in September 1875 between Willie Park and his brother Mungo against the Tom Morrises, Old and Young. The match ended abruptly when a telegram arrived with the news that Young Tom’s wife was seriously ill across the Firth of Forth in St. Andrews following the birth of their child.
The Morrises set off for home, but before they could board the yacht put at their disposal by an Edinburgh man who had been in the gallery, a second message arrived with the tragic news that mother and son had both died. Old Tom did not break the sad news to his son until they were in sight of the pier at St. Andrews, and the effect was so devastating that Young Tom never recovered, dying three months later on Christmas morning.
Such was North Berwick’s fame and renown in the latter part of the 19th century, that it was one of four clubs regularly used for such big-money matches, the others being Prestwick, Musselburgh and St. Andrews.
While St. Andrews continued to flourish, the other three slowly slid out of the Big Picture, so to speak, with Musselburgh in particular struggling to stay afloat.
That is not to say that North Berwick became a total backwater. The club that today calls North Berwick home was founded in 1832 and is the 13th oldest in existence. It lost a certain amount of the influence it once exerted on the Royal and Ancient game, but was never in any real danger of disappearing out of sight—even if part of its course was used by the military during World War II and portions of it blown about a bit in gunnery practice.
The list of past captains on the wall of the clubhouse’s dining room brings echoes of a distinguished past, littered as it is with Knights, Earls, Lords, the odd Marquis and, in 1891-92, former Prime Minister of Britain A.J. Balfour or, as the satirical Punch cartoon christened him, “Golfour.”
The blue-blooded connection was continued by the diminutive townsman Ben Sayers who competed in 43 consecutive Open championships and became a world-renowned club manufacturer and teacher. His celebrated pupils before World War I included King Edward, King George and Queen Alexandra as well as Grand Duke Michael of Russia.
Wee Ben, 5’ 3½”, was an extroverted humorist who, while on his first visit to the USA in 1914 to visit his son George (at the time professional at Merion), sent a postcard home to old adversary Andrew Kirkaldy. He addressed it: “Andra, Hell Bunker, St. Andrews, Scotland.” The card was delivered. Sayers’ first workshop still stands, in a fold in the rumpled ground close by the first tee of North Berwick’s West Links. It is now David Huish’s professional’s shop.
A further royal link was forged in 1995. Huish first met His Royal Highness the Prince, Duke of York, at the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, and when told Prince Andrew had indeed golfed in East Lothian, at Muirfield of course, David suggested that any time he wanted a really enjoyable game he should travel a further five miles and play at North Berwick.
Prince Andrew duly turned up one day, went out for a game and had a great time. While the Duke was admiring the skills of one of his four-ball partners, North Berwick’s LPGA member Catriona Matthews, Catriona’s father, Mike Lambert, dispatched members of the club staff into town to purchase food fit for a Prince, if not a King, for lunch.
The best Scottish salmon and sundry other seafoods, as well as other provender were purchased to prepare a succulent spread for the Royal visitor. However Prince Andrew, unaware such elaborate moves had gone on while he was out on the links, settled for a straightforward golfer’s lunch from the menu of soup, fish and chips and some sponge pudding with custard to follow. “The Duke must have enjoyed his lunch and his golf because he has been back since,” says Huish.
At 6,420 yards off the back tees, North Berwick is not overly long. Under the wise guidance and stewardship of the canny Huish, subtle but important changes have been made since he assumed responsibility for course management some eight years ago. One of the most significant of these changes is to raise the right hand side of the first green some four-and-a-half feet. Since time immemorial that putting surface had resembled a ski-slope so much as to be cruelly unfair and ruined many a card before the second tee had been boarded. It did nothing for the temper either.
Changes have been made to several other tees, as well, the most striking of which are at the short 10th and the long 11th, which was unashamedly reproduced by Donald Ross as Seminole’s 18th. Both tees have been moved seaward into the dunes, opening up supreme vistas of the beaches, rocky outcrops, the Bass Rock and the Fidra lighthouse, as well as views across the Firth to Fife.
Among the many memorable and quirky holes at North Berwick, the four-hole stretch of 12 through 15 illuminates the course’s virtues perfectly. “Bass” is the name given to the 12th hole, a par-4 of 389 yards. The hole looks simple enough—dogleg left, pot bunker in the inside crook—just steer clear of the bunker, right? Hardly. The green is configured such that by far the easier approach is from the left side of the fairway, preferably from as close to the insidious pot bunker as you dare. The further away to the right of the bunker your drive is, the more difficult the approach. “Bass” embodies risk/reward strategy at its finest.
The 13th is a short par-4 of 365 yards called “Pit,” which combines superb strategic dimensions with Old-World quirkiness. An ancient stone wall lines the entire left side of this hole, which plays straightaway for several hundred yards, then bends to the left. Remarkably the green lies on the other side of the stone wall and runs at a diagonal to the preferred line of play. Thus, the closer your drive hugs the wall, the easier the angle of approach. A safe drive well to the right means you must confront the wall head-on on the approach.
A par-4 of 376 yards, the 14th hole is known as “Perfection.” One must approach blindly, over a high ridge dotted with bunkers, to a green not far from the beach.
Finally we arrive at the 15th, Redan, a 192-yard par-3 that Bernard Darwin described more than 85 years ago as a “beautiful one-shot hole atop a plateau, with a bunker short of the green to the left and another further on to the right, and we must vary our mode of attack according to the wind, playing a shot to come in from the right or making a direct frontal attack.” The left bunker is frighteningly deep and the green, which is set at a 45-degree angle to the left, falls away to the left as well. It is difficult to discern the greenside difficulties at first glance because a ridge some 40 yards from the green blocks your view. It is not until you are practically on top of the green that you fully realize the true demands of Redan.
The land the course sits on does not belong to North Berwick, but to any golfer at virtually any time. Unlike certain courses in the area, access isn’t limited to its 600 male and 200 female members. The club recently negotiated a new 100-year lease to ensure the members’ playing privileges and also those of the many visitors. According to Huish they entered the new agreement on the condition that visitors continue to be allowed to enjoy the course and for a reasonable price.
“Not every visitor to Scotland can play the championship courses and our aim is to make ours as attractive as possible,” Huish says. “Right now the course is the best it has ever been I feel—thanks to green fee revenues of as much as $400,000 a year. My argument has always been that people do not come here principally for a nice lunch. They come primarily to play golf and then have a nice lunch in one of the best clubhouses in the country, steeped in history.”
Not everyone is welcome all the time however, as Tom Watson will readily testify. North Berwick was used as one of the qualifying courses for the 1992 Open, and as such was closed to everyone except competitors. As dusk fell on the first day, course superintendent Stewart Greenwood, himself a good golfer, was making his weary way home at the end of a 15-hour day when he spotted someone hitting shots to North Berwick’s unique 16th green. The elevated green lies like a narrow shelf across the fairway and is split in two by a four-foot-deep, but closely mown gully. Only a perfectly struck shot will hold the surface, but if the ball ends on the wrong half of the split, aircraft-carrier-deck-like green the first putt can be nightmarish.
The figure Greenwood quickly recognized as Tom Watson explained he had been watching from his hotel room window just a few feet away and had become so intrigued and fascinated watching hopeful qualifiers trying to negotiate the green he wanted to have a go himself.
Very politely, but very firmly, the five-time British Open winner was told he had to quit because the course was closed. Tom—who had been thrown off Muirfield’s 18th green, also in near-darkness after his Open win there 12 years previously—graciously acceded to Greenwood’s request to leave the course.
That 16th green, along with some blind shots on other North Berwick holes, is something of an anachronism. But they are a large part of the charm and fascination of centuries-old golf. The course may be old fashioned, it may be quirky, but is in superb condition, generally user-friendly and the clubhouse provides good fare in tastefully furnished surroundings—as the Duke of York knows—and visitors are assured of a warm and friendly welcome—as long as they arrive before dark.