Edinburgh and Points East
It was a morning in August, the sun was fighting a losing battle with the thick cumulus clouds above the city, and I was playing alone. I had examined the line of my putt on the first green with some care -- after all, how many 12-footers for birdie can I reasonably expect to have these days? -- and now took my stance at the ball, striving to avoid a death grip on the putter. Just as I was about to draw the club back, a second ball crept silently into my peripheral vision. Startled, I straightened up and walked toward the offending sphere. Then I stopped. There was no one in sight as I looked back up the fairway. Of course there wasn't. I smiled at the realization that someone had just driven the green on this blind 325-yard opening hole, where the last 150 yards are steeply downhill and likely to be as fast as an Olympic bobsled chute.
I missed my putt and proceeded to the second tee, the sting of the blown birdie opportunity assuaged by the knowledge that the happiest golfer in Edinburgh was playing right behind me. He would be starting his day with a shot at an eagle. Golf at Braid Hills is nothing if not exhilarating.
This is city golf (green fee less than $15, call ahead for a starting time), on the south side of town and all of 10 minutes from Princes Street, the sparkling main thoroughfare of the capital, with its monuments and sunken gardens on one side and its engaging hodgepodge of shops, banks, clubs, and hotels on the other. Play began here on September 5, 1889, two years before the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers first tested its links at Muirfield. In fact, the Honourable Company was given the opportunity to acquire the land at Braid Hills for its new course and politely declined. The rest of the world must be eternally grateful, for the city then stepped in and promptly built its first municipal course, Braids No. 1. Thirty years later, Braids No. 2 opened for play.
A quick scan of the scorecard for Braids No. 1 may prove disappointing. How, you ask, can anyone take seriously a course that, from the back of the tees, measures all of 5,731 yards against a par of 70; where four of the two-shotters are under 300 yards and five more are between 300 and 350 yards; and where, as we have seen, the opening hole -- the blind fairway beyond the crest is among the world's widest -- is ludicrously easy? But the 2nd, 134 yards, climbs almost vertically to a vast level green with a steep falloff on its left flank. And now the game is on: narrow plateau fairways to be hit and held; gorse-covered hillsides (like those at Royal Dornoch, a blaze of gold in spring) to be given a wide berth; frequent rock outcroppings topped with gorse or long grasses or both; even more frequent humps and hillocks and hollows; doglegs both sharp, as on the 8th, and gentle, as on the long sweeping downhill 11th; tees high and cruelly exposed to the winds (this is the "breezy Braids"); greens on perilous ledges or in lovely dell-like settings. And all of it roams across this splendid hillside, with its distractingly gorgeous views -- which explain the presence of strollers, hikers, and joggers with whom we must share this common ground. To say nothing of the schoolboys, whose cries of success can be heard from time to time as they uncover yet another lost ball in the impenetrable gorse. They will soon be along to offer a bargain buy. It is all part of the rough and tumble of the game here.
Admittedly, there are four or five pedestrian holes. But there are many more that range from good to great. The memorable 202-yard 13th, for instance, rises gently on a lofty ridge, over broken ground to a tightly bunkered green where nothing less than a perfectly struck wood -- often a driver -- will suffice. Then we must be prepared to repeat that perfect driver swing immediately, for the 378-yard 14th calls for a long forced-carry from an elevated tee across a gorse-covered slope to the safety of a hidden landing area in the valley far below. That accomplished, we are now left with a medium iron over another expanse of the fearsome gorse to the haven of the green.
A word about the last hole. It is a par four of 261 yards. From a knob, we drive across a deep swale into a steep hillside pocked with mounds. If our drive is long, it is also blind, cresting the hill and disappearing. If our drive is short, then our second shot is blind. In either case, we arrive at the green to drink in one of the three or four most intoxicating panoramas in all of golf: Arthur's Seat; the city of Edinburgh, including the Castle on its crag; the Firth of Forth, with Fife on the far shore, Gullane and North Berwick and Bass Rock a bit nearer out the East Lothian coast; the Pentland Hills and the Lammemuir Hills. It is the summation of all the splendid views that have accompanied us on our delightful round.
It is common in Scotland for golf clubs to grow up around municipal courses. The town -- as, for instance, is the case with St. Andrews, Carnoustie, and Montrose, as well as Edinburgh -- owns the courses, while the club owns only its clubhouse. Here at the Braids there are five golf clubs: Braids United, the Harrison, Edinburgh Western, Edinburgh Thistle, and Allermuir.
The first time I played Braids No. 1 it was in the company of Norman "Norrie" Robertson, Secretary of the Braids United Golf Club. An RAF pilot in World War II, he had received his flight training at Pensacola. He was 65 years old when we met and playing to an 8. He had been scratch in his prime.
"You may know that Tommy Armour developed his game here," he said. "He won the championship of Edinburgh Western. That was in 1919. And James Braid -- no, no, Braid Hills is not named after him -- was champion of the Thistle, Edinburgh Thistle, in 1892, which would not have been long after the course opened. Yes, they both played here when they were young men and it did their game no harm."
I asked Norrie whether he had ever won the championship of Braids United.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "I have -- four times running, '59, '60, '61, '62. But I must confess," he laughed, "there is no name like Armour or Braid sharing the champions' plaque with me. I will tell you, however, that Ben Crenshaw is an honorary member of Braids United."
A little later he said that his brothers had also won the club championship. "Ed's name is up for '46 and '47, Albert's for '37, '41, and '42. They were both much older than I."
When we reached the 9th, a superb one-shotter of 175 yards where the green, on a knob, is slightly above the tee and there is a falloff front and left and gorse on the right, Norrie said, "Albert once hit the most remarkable shot on this hole. It was in the early forties. You cannot imagine how fast, how fiery fast, this course once played, the way the links courses all used to play in high summer -- yes, I know this is not a links, but it is very like one, isn't it? Well, on this particular day a powerful wind was blowing, and Albert was playing right into the very teeth of it here on the 9th. Any ordinary shot would have gotten up in the air, then blown right back in his face. But the ground was like a motorway, so he took out his putter -- Albert was very strong -- and cracked his tee shot right onto the green, a 175-yard putt that never left the ground, just skimmed along on that burnt-out, frictionless surface and wound up traveling the full distance. They still talk about it."
Norrie also spoke of the No. 2 course, cocking his head back and looking heavenward. I followed his gaze and, to my astonishment, could make out golfers silhouetted against the sky. If Braids No.1 is on the heights, then Braids No. 2 is on the peaks. The notion of even climbing to that altitude, let alone playing golf shots on those vertiginous slopes, was beyond my grasp.
"It's much shorter," Norrie said, "only about 4,800 yards, but it's tighter and not to be thought of as a place fit only for women and children. Indeed not.
"It was up there that the 'mock city' was built at the start of World War II. It was a decoy -- not real houses, you understand, that people could actually live in. But from thousands of feet in the air, from German bombers, it was deceptive. So if they had attempted to bomb Edinburgh, they might have been fooled into dropping their bombs on Braid Hills instead of on the heart of the city.
"But it's this course, the No. 1, that is the marvel. In season it is always covered with golfers from dawn till dark. That's why I am also a member of the Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society, over in the Davidson's Mains section of the city. It's a private club that has its own eighteen. There's no trouble getting on the course there. But" -- and now a note of confidentiality crept into his voice -- "I could never leave the Braids. Ah, the Braids...to play here...the wonderful naturalness of it and the beauty and the thrill of the shots themselves...this is the game."
Norrie Robertson's "other" course, Bruntsfield Links, is short on thrills, and scenically it cannot approach his beloved Braids. Still, it is a perfectly pleasant layout. So is its next-door neighbor, Royal Burgess. As you would expect, Edinburgh has a number of good courses, most of them of the parkland variety. At Duddingston, for example, the sinuous Figgate Burn comes between player and target no fewer than 11 times in the course of the round. At Dalmahoy, a bona fide country club, there are two eighteens (the 6,700-yard East Course, on which the Solheim Cup was played in 1992, is the serious one), squash, horseback riding, loch trout fishing, clay pigeon shooting, archery, and a classically elegant clubhouse/hotel built in 1725 (with a flying external double staircase, no less!) for the 13th Earl of Morton. The Musselburgh Golf Club, at Monktonhall, forgives the less than accurate tee shot and offers a nice feeling of solitude. It is not to be confused with Royal Musselburgh, considerably tighter thanks mainly to trees, or with the historic Musselburgh Old Course, where, in the sixteenth century, Mary Queen of Scots is supposed to have whacked a ball, and where -- this is not a matter of supposition -- six Opens were contested, the last in 1889. Generally believed to be the oldest unchanged course in the world, it was once the home, concurrently, of the Honourable Company (they moved from here to Muirfield), Royal Musselburgh, and Royal Burgess. This nine-hole Old Course is located in the middle of a racetrack, and your first impression is of a dust bowl with, here and there, a flagstick. Nevertheless, this is hallowed ground, so you may want to park your car at the grandstand and have a look. Like the Braids, it gets plenty of play, and steps are now being taken to spruce it up. The trick will be to improve its condition without destroying its irreplaceable sense of times long past.
Edinburgh, it need scarcely be said, has a number of good hotels in the center of town (the Balmoral, the Caledonian, and the George, to name just three) and in its environs (Dalhousie Castle, Prestonfield House). There is one other accommodation, however, that I must mention, and it is not a hotel. It is Rosslyn Castle, in Roslin, no more than 20 minutes from down-town, yet isolated on a wooded and rocky promontory high above the river North Esk. Don't be put off by the name. A mere fragment of its fifteenth-century splendor, this dwelling sleeps just seven. There is no housekeeper, no cook, no help of any kind. Still, it is entirely manageable and, of course, wonderfully atmospheric, though perhaps it does not provide all the comforts of home; getting it warm enough in early October proved an insoluble problem, but stick to the summer and you won't have to worry about that. My wife and I occupied it for a week in 1986 while I was playing a number of the Edinburgh courses. You rent it from the Landmark Trust, which has its headquarters outside London.
Beyond Musselburgh, and sticking to the coast road (A198) along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, we drive through Prestonpans and pretty Aberlady -- the charming if unexceptional Kilspindie course is here and, not much farther on, Longniddry, which is partly links, partly parkland -- and within minutes we arrive in Gullane.
Gullane is a village whose raison d'être is easy to discern: golf. Unless I'm mistaken, on any day in high summer there are likely to be more golfers here than inhabitants. That's because Gullane is the home of three golf clubs, one of which has three eighteens and a short nine. This place is a hotbed of the game.
I have yet to play the links of the Luffness New Golf Club, whose holes are laid out on relatively flat ground, whose steep-faced bunkers are to be avoided like the plague, and whose greens -- this I can confirm from a recent inspection -- are among the very finest in Scotland. (No wonder it is referred to as a junior version of Muirfield.) Playing Luffness New is, I suspect, a pleasure I have too long deferred.
It is Gullane Golf Club, founded in 1882, that offers three eighteens, not to mention the useful little children's nine, which is tucked away down a lane that also accommodates the Old Clubhouse pub, a convivial spot for drinking or dining. Gullane No. 1 has been the scene of the Scottish Amateur, the British Ladies', the Home Internationals, and final qualifying for the British Open when it is played at Muirfield. Today few visitors realize that it was here in 1947 that Babe Didrickson Zaharias became the first American to win the British Ladies' Championship. Some locals, however, still remember her triumph, and they speak in awe of the great Olympian's raw power. The 15th is a par five of 535 yards. The first 350 yards are level; the remainder of the hole climbs to a hillside green. In one of her matches, assisted by a moderate breeze, Babe reached the green in two, with a drive and a 4-iron.
At the start of the round, the sea is nowhere to be found. The culprit is Gullane Hill. This immense blockade stands squarely between the opening holes and the Firth of Forth. We must surmount it. The 1st hole on Gullane No. 1 is short and flat and gentle, a straightaway 300-yarder that should find us putting for a 3. The second hole is neither short nor flat nor gentle, though it is straightaway; it climbs straight up for the entire length of its 380 yards. There is a sheltered look to it, for it follows a natural cut in the hillside, but the prevailing wind, off the still hidden sea, comes whipping down against us, the cut functioning as a perfect funnel for it. The fairway is tauntingly narrow, with long bent grasses on both sides lurking to devour the shot that strays by so much as two paces. I have never known the hole to play less than 425 yards. It is merciless. Accept your 5, rationalize it as a par -- you are not stretching the truth too much -- and climb onto the 3rd tee.
Now indeed have we come up in the world, though we are not yet on top of it, for that must wait till the 7th. Nonetheless, a great deal of the vast golfing landscape stretches away before us, and the Firth itself is in view, its gray-blue waters stretching away toward the horizon.
Here begins the 14-hole stretch on the seaward side of Gullane Hill. And what delightful and challenging stuff it is, the holes running up and down, over, across and around this mini-mountain, constantly changing direction so that our joust with the wind calls for never-ending adjustments in alignment and strategy. Neither water nor boundaries bedevil us, and there are, of course, no trees. But the sand and slopes and gusts are more than enough to keep us off balance.
The 5th is the finest hole on the course -- in all candor, it may be the only great hole on the eighteen, though many are very good. A 450-yard par four, it swings left around deep pits in the crook of the dogleg, then climbs vigorously to a vast green carved out of the hillside. If, somehow, we should couple two superlative wood shots and reach the putting surface in regulation, we may yet face more than we can cope with, for the green tilts sharply down from back to front. Ah, this is splendid golf!
The 6th also climbs, but at 324 yards and with a very generous fairway, we catch our breath here. Its chief function is to lead us to the 7th tee, perched upon the pinnacle of Gullane Hill.
Yes, 7 is the summit, and one of the half-dozen most enthralling spots in all the world of golf. The hole plunges 400 yards straight down, and though there is sand to imperil the approach shot, on the drive we are encouraged to swing from the heels. But playing the 7th is almost incidental, for the spectacle is mesmerizing. Colorfully dotting the landscape below are countless flagsticks on the three Gullane eighteens. A mile or two down the coast lie the pale green fairways of Muirfield and, beyond them, Bass Rock and the volcanic upthrust that is Berwick Law. Turn the opposite way and the elegant tracery of the great Forth Road Bridge transfixes the eye. And again, as from the final green at Braids No. 1, the capital itself is revealed and so is Arthur's Seat. Fourteen counties can be see from this tee on a clear day, including, some 15 miles across the water, that of Fife. As you stand there, with the sharp, clean sea breeze rushing into your lungs, you may be forgiven if, for a moment, you are overcome by this extraordinary combination of setting and sport.
At 3,500 yards, the inbound half is some 500 yards longer than the first nine. Early holes bring us close to the sea, with the tees at the par-five 12th and the par-three 13th set high above the strand. Here the huge gray concrete blocks, lodged in the thickets above the beach almost 60 years ago to stymie the German tanks that never came, serve as grim reminders of World War II.
The long run home, almost always with the breeze at our back, is full of satisfying golf, with the shot along the ridge to the narrow and beautifully bunkered green on the 186-yard 16th especially memorable. And at last, on the 17th, we gain our revenge on the 2nd, which parallels it. The 2nd went straight up, into the wind. The 17th -- it is not called "Hilltop" for nothing -- goes straight down, with the wind. That anemic 162-yard drive 15 holes ago is now miraculously metamorphosed into a Brobdingnagian blast of very like 315 yards. For most of us, it is the single longest tee shot we shall ever hit. And if the remaining 80-yard pitch over the fronting bunkers can be handled with restraint -- who knows? -- a birdie may await. If not here, perhaps on the equally hospitable home hole, a 355-yarder where a well-struck -- and wind-assisted -- drive will also leave us with dreams of glory.
To play on Gullane Hill is to experience simple, unalloyed joy. Were someone to ask me to nominate the ideal course on which to be introduced to seaside golf, it might well be Gullane No. 1. And I would then urge the questioner to find time for a game on No. 2 and No. 3 (both somewhat less testing, but, routed over the same magnificent terrain, also grand) and time for a visit to the one-room museum next to the golf shop, itself adjacent to the first tee on the No. 1 course.
If the golf here is a thoroughgoing delight, so is Archie Baird's outstanding exhibit. Through a skillfully arranged selection of paintings, prints, postcards, and photographs, of balls and clubs and costumes, of antique medals of silver and antique buttons of brass, the story of the evolution of golf from its origin 500 years ago is presented. The owner and curator, Archie Baird, member of Gullane and the Honourable Company, and the foremost collector of golfing art in the world today, is also the presenter. Listening to him and examining his memorabilia is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He somehow manages, nearly at a dead gallop, to be lucid, comprehensive, and engaging all at once. He is one of the two or three most irresistible expositors I've ever encountered. Understand, however, that Archie does not spend his days in the little museum; he is usually out on the links of Gullane or Muirfield, often enjoying 36 holes when the weather is pretty, so the door is generally locked and visits are by appointment only. Still, a telephone call -- 0875 870 277 -- is all that is needed to open this treasure chest.
Not too many years ago there used to be a tiny sign peeping out of the grass on the left side of the road at the far end of Gullane as we headed toward North Berwick. All it said was "H.C.E.G." Only the hawk-eyed were likely to spot it. It marked the lane that leads to the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield. That sign is gone now, but there is a little one for Greywalls, the inn located near the 10th tee.
The course sits well above the sea and at a considerable remove from it. But the nobility and serenity of its location and the beauty of its distant views across this arm of the North Sea are enormously appealing.
The very first moment at Muirfield proclaims the specialness of the place: you park your car not in a lot but in a garage. Only one other golf club in my experience offers this amenity: Royal St. George's, Sandwich, another Open venue.
Fourteen British Opens have been contested at Muirfield. Nicklaus has won here. So have Player, Trevino, Watson, and Faldo, to say nothing of Harry Vardon, James Braid, Walter Hagen, and Henry Cotton. It is awash in lore. It was at Muirfield in 1901 that Braid won the first of his five Opens despite starting the championship by hooking his drive out of bounds, and finishing it with an aggressive swing from nearly 200 yards out that sent the clubhead flying off the shaft and the ball flying onto the home green.
Forty-seven years later, when Cotton won, there was an incident that strikes me as the quintessential Muirfield story. Winged Foot's Claude Harmon, having won the Masters in April, had come over to play in the British Open. Just as he was about to tee off he was advised by an R&A official that his playing partner had withdrawn. A hasty search of the clubhouse for a substitute uncovered only a retired army major, one W. H. Callender, who obligingly said he would "be delighted to give the fellow a game." Reporters subsequently observed something out of the ordinary taking place on the 3rd fairway. Hurrying over, they found Callender offering Harmon advice, complete with a demonstration. "Gripped down the shaft," the major was saying, "a short swing controls the ball more easily in the east wind." Muirfield is that kind of place.
Muirfield accommodates many hundreds of visitors annually (on Tuesdays and Thursdays, only, for those unaccompanied by members). But it does not seek this lucrative guest play, and tee time reservations must be made weeks -- for safety's sake, months -- in advance. Legion are the tales of those without reservations who have been turned away by the sometimes stiff-necked club secretaries. But these "defenders of the shrine" have an obligation to their members that cannot be ignored. Otherwise the course would be aswarm with outsiders.
Captain P.W.T. "Paddy" Hanmer, Secretary at Muirfield throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, once told me with considerable relish the story of the golfer who, with no prior communication, presented himself in the office and requested to play the links.
"Where is your home?" Hanmer inquired.
"New Zealand," the golfer replied. "Wellington."
"So you booked a flight to the U.K. and here you are," Hanmer said.
"Yes, been here about ten days now."
"Ah, you're touring Scotland in a rental car. You booked it before you left home, did you?" the Secretary added.
"Yes, that's right."
"And the same with your hotels, I don't doubt, booked them well in advance."
"Oh, yes, it's all working out just as I planned," said the golfer.
"Well," said Hanmer, "you obviously had not planned to play here, so you will not be upset if I tell you that it is impossible. You booked the plane, you booked the car, you booked the hotels, but you did not see fit to book Muirfield. Perhaps on your next trip you will think to advise us in advance, that is, if you still have an interest in playing this course."
Americans make up a large share of the visiting cadre at Muirfield. And they love it for a host of reasons (not least of which is the six-course lunch). The course is less foreign in feeling than other seaside layouts -- there are few capricious humps and hollows to send the ball skittering off line. Its condition is generally excellent; probably, day in and day out, there is no Scottish links boasting finer fairways and greens. It puts little priority on local knowledge. Oh, the second shot on 10, over the cross bunkers, is blind, and so is the drive on 11, over what passes for a hill on this most gently rolling of courses. But otherwise, the problems are fully and frankly stated. The greens present clearly etched targets, each putting surface defended, usually on its flanks, occasionally in front, by bunkers that are at best punishing and at worst lethal. The other principal protector of par is the high and strangling rough. Muirfield is one of the most rigorous tests of driving in the world.
Some years ago I asked Jack Nicklaus whether there was anything in particular -- a specific shot, an attitude, a strategic decision -- to which he could attribute his victory there in the 1966 Open. "At Muirfield that year," he replied, "the fairways were the narrowest I'd ever seen, and the rough was a foot and a half high in some places so that it looked like wheat waving in the wind....The whole secret was to keep the ball in play and not depart from that discipline. I actually used my driver only seventeen times in the entire tournament, four times in each of the first three rounds, five times in the last round."
At Muirfield there are no water hazards, no pulse-quickening forced-carries over gorse-infested swales. There are no "death or glory" holes. Unlike Pebble Beach, Muirfield is not thrilling. Unlike Ballybunion, Muirfield is not dramatic. Yet we never find ourselves wishing for a more adventurous landscape. No, there is a simple rightness about it all that serves us admirably as we play the round and makes a strong claim on our affections as we look back on the game later. Each hole is worthy. The good shot is consistently rewarded; the indifferent shot is just as consistently chastised.
Among the half-dozen great holes are three long two-shotters (par fours): the 6th, swinging left, a nest of gathering bunkers in the crook of the dogleg; the 8th, turning right, an even more alarming cluster of voracious pits in the angle; and the straightaway 18th, where the green, under the very windows of the clubhouse's principal room, is blockaded across the front and flanked on both sides by sand.
I recall an occasion many years ago when my second son and I -- he was then 18 -- hit splendid shots to the last green, mine a suspenseful 3-wood that barely breathed over the fronting bunkers then skipped up to within six feet of the cup, his a high, soft 4-iron that homed in on the flagstick from the moment it left the clubface and rolled to a stop four feet from the hole. We strolled confidently toward the green, congratulatory -- and self-congratulatory. Who had ever witnessed two shots in tandem of such princely sheen on this hallowed hole?
Five or six members sat behind the clubhouse glass, doubtless identifying us as the impudent American visitors we were. There were no borrows, subtle or otherwise, in my six-footer: it was string straight. "Knock it in, Dad," John murmured. I shoved it dead right.
Now it was his turn. I did not speak. Surely he would salvage our collective honor with this routine four-footer.
He yanked it dead left.
The faces in the window turned away, resuming their conversation, reassured that, indeed, God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. John and I slunk off miserably to our rental car in the garage.
Gullane possesses two outstanding places to stay and one equally outstanding place to eat. Greywalls, less than a hundred paces from the Honourable Company's clubhouse, is, for many experienced travelers, the ideal country-house hotel. Its traditional decor (antiques, chintzes, old dark paneling, abundant fresh flowers), its excellent food, and its distinctly clublike atmosphere invite a protracted (if costly) stay. But its real distinction may lie in its exterior. The celebrated Sir Edward Lutyens designed the house almost a century ago (golden beige Rattlebags stone from a local quarry and red roof tiles made especially for it in Holland), and the equally celebrated Gertrude Jekyll, so often his partner, laid out the ravishing formal gardens. Be sure to visit it, regardless of whether you are staying here. Incidentally, a reservation at Greywalls is no guarantee of a game at Muirfield -- but it doesn't hurt your chances.
The other extraordinary accommodation in Gullane is called Seahouse. It is not a hotel. A stout brassie down the lane from that nonpareil 7th tee on Gullane No. 1, this is a handsome late nineteenth-century stone residence -- gables, chimneys, high-ceilinged principal rooms with long windows, unobstructed views across the Firth toward Fife, rear garden sloping down toward the sea -- that is offered for rent, generally by the week, from April through October. Unlike Rosslyn Castle, Seahouse comes fully staffed. It sleeps nine (eleven in a pinch), and the cooking is as fine as the house and the setting.
As for the restaurant, it is called La Potiniere, it is on the main street of Gullane, it is very small (capacity 26), and it is renowned for its French-inspired cuisine. Hillary Brown cooks, David Brown serves (and presides over the wine cellar, which, he once admitted to me, is larger than the dining room). The meal is complete and prix fixe and leisurely -- the better part of three hours. There are no choices. You eat whatever Hillary is cooking -- perhaps mousseline of sole and smoked salmon, pigeon breast with chanterelles and lentils, and a soufflé glace au Praline with raspberry sauce. Don't be like Paddy Hanmer's New Zealander: book La Potiniere well in advance.
Four or five miles beyond Gullane lies North Berwick, with its two widely curving bays, its pretty protected harbor, and the rocky islands of Bass Rock, Fidra, the Lamb, and Craigleith distinctive features of its seascape. Developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a golf and holiday resort -- it was then that the substantial Victorian and Edwardian residences that give the town its air of dignity and permanence were built -- North Berwick has never gone out of fashion, chiefly, one suspects, because the two courses, both seaside, have continued to attract golfers from all over the world.
The East (or Burgh) Links is the lesser of the two and should be thought of strictly as holiday golf. James Braid had a hand in expanding it from 9 to 18 holes in 1906, and Philip Mackenzie Ross revised it following World War II. Like Pebble Beach, it is a headlands course, stretched out high above the sea and affording uninterruptedly delightful views, which, on the way in, encompass the town. The overall length is less than 6,000 yards, the fairways are vast, and there is no rough to speak of. But the one-shotters -- particularly the 4th (190 yards), the 9th (250 yards), and the 16th (200 yards) -- are quite testing, and with the breeze out of the west so are a handful of the par fours. Few Americans of my acquaintance have ever played the East Links, but those who have think of it warmly and with a smile.
It is the West Links, home of the North Berwick Golf Club (A. J. Balfour, later Prime Minister of Great Britain, was captain in 1891 and 1892, and Burt Lancaster was a member in the 1970s), that gives North Berwick its fame. Golf, more or less as we know it, has been played on this stretch of linksland for at least 175 years.
Remarkably, for more than a hundred years the best holes have been changed very little. This is a course on which dunes, beach, burns, blind shots, and stone walls are the order of the day. It is, like the Old Course itself, a narrow out-and-in scheme -- the 9th green is the farthest point from the clubhouse -- but here the plan is a figure 8, albeit with a somewhat compressed look about it. We start along the sea for three holes, turn left at the short 4th and stay "inside" (though scarcely inland) through the 9th, return to the sea at the short 10th, following the strand through the 14th, then edge right to play the last four holes "inside." There is a charming unpredictability about this routing plan, but then, there is an element of surprise about much of the West Links. And it begins with the 1st hole.
Called "Point Garry Out" (the 17th is "Point Garry In") and measuring just 328 yards, the opener, with the beach tight along the right, is unusual and unnerving. A vast sandy area some 190 yards from the tee isolates the well-elevated green from the fairway, forcing us to lay up with our drive and then play a longer approach than we otherwise would to a target perched above on a spit of land. The green, partially hidden, is firm and fast and slopes wickedly right toward the rocks and the sea. Entirely natural, this hole also strikes me as wholly original. It is great fun, great sport -- and potentially ruinous. Johnny Laidlay, one of North Berwick's most famous sons and winner of the British Amateur in 1889 and 1891, once got down among the rocks in a playoff for an important cup and took so many shots, all unavailing, that he finally picked up his ball.
The next two holes are long, wonderful two-shotters, and when the wind is out of the west they are more like three-shotters. On the 2nd, the view from the elevated tee will not reassure the timid: the shoreline eats into the fairway on the right, and the slightest push sends us down onto the beach. The power hitter will, of course, bite off as much as he thinks he can chew, but it is a dicey business. On the 3rd, 460 yards, the sea again imperils the drive and a low stone wall must be carried on the second. Only with the wind at our back can we dream of a total of 8 on these two tartars. After playing them, we are not surprised that the course has, from time to time, served as a qualifying site for the Open.
There is a matchless trio of holes on the inbound nine. On the 355-yard 13th, the green is set in a small hollow between another of those North Berwick low stone walls and the sand-hills. It is one thing to have to clear the wall on our approach, but quite another to learn that this obstruction actually marks the collar of the green. It is thus possible to incur an unplayable lie on a putt! This is one of the North Berwick holes that has about it, to use Donald Steel's felicitous phrase, "a whiff of eccentricity."
The 376-yard 14th, called "Perfection," may not live up to its name, but it is a dandy nonetheless. Here both shots are blind, the drive into wildly choppy terrain and the iron over a diagonal ridge and downhill to a bunkered low-plateau green not two strides from the beach. We are hitting straight out to sea on this second shot, trusting that somewhere down there is a safe harbor. Choosing the right club is as critical as swinging it smoothly.
Which brings us to 15, called "Redan." It is perhaps the most copied hole in the world. The green on this 190-yarder is hidden from the tee beyond a fearsomely bunkered ridge, though the flag itself can be seen. Angled away from the line of flight behind a deep bunker under its left front flank, the green also slopes off to the left and the rear. Complicated as that all sounds, the hole does reward the properly aimed and struck shot. Charles Blair Macdonald simulated it -- perhaps even improved on it -- at the National Golf Links of America, his incomparable layout at Southampton. Among the many superb holes on this, America's first great course, is the "Redan" 4th.
Speaking of Macdonald, we are again reminded of him at North Berwick's 16th, a 400-yarder where our drive clears first a wall and then, with any luck, a ditch about 200 yards out. The green here may be the only one of its kind in the British Isles, a long, narrow surface divided into three parts, from front to rear: plateau, hollow, plateau. It obviously inspired the similarly eye-popping 9th green at Macdonald's mighty Yale University course.
For sheer golfing pleasure -- a pleasure bred of variety, unpredictability, challenge, and proximity to the sea -- few courses surpass North Berwick's West Links. Admittedly, it is old-fashioned and, on occasion, even odd. But it is irresistibly old-fashioned and irresistibly odd.
A couple of miles west of the A198, the road linking North Berwick to Dunbar, there is a new course. Called Whitekirk, it opened in June 1995, and is a public course that welcomes everybody at all times. It was laid out by a young Scot, Cameron Sinclair, whose previous design experience was confined to courses in the Far East. On the basis of this eighteen -- 6,420 yards, par 71 -- the future should find him in demand back home. On 160 acres of high, hilly, and treeless land, he has imaginatively routed a series of holes that are never less than good and, on at least one occasion, can claim greatness: this is the thrilling 420-yard 5th, which climbs, veers left in the tee shot landing area (a trio of bunkers here), and then plunges precipitously into a hollow only to rise even more precipitously to a shelf of green angled to the line of the long second shot.
Despite its location a good five miles from the sea, Whitekirk is distinctly linkslike in feeling, thanks to its openness, its undulating fairways (which are generally broad), its spirited greens (sometimes unaccountably narrow), and the marvelous naturalness that imbues it all. Blind and semiblind shots are not scarce. This is minimalist course design -- very little earth was moved, and relatively few cavities were dug (the bunkering is light). There is gorse, but no heather. Water on the right imperils the drive on the 389-yard 11th and the second shot on the 13th, which, at 447 yards, is the longest of the two-shotters. The numerous lofty tees afford 360-degree views of the world of the East Lothian region, with rich farmland ringing the course, an occasional village catching our eye, Berwick Law and Bass Rock in the middle ground, and Fife itself on the horizon across the great Forth. On the grand 220-yard 17th we take dead aim on the Isle of May. And as we stand on the noble 18th tee, the ruins of Tantallon Castle lie far below on our left, Dunbar off in the distance to our right. It is all gorgeously distracting. Does Whitekirk, you may ask, deserve a place in the galaxy that includes Muirfield and Gullane No. 1 and North Berwick and Dunbar? It does. What's more, the green fee is about half what you will pay at those courses.
One final note about this newcomer: at the foot of the great hill over which many of the holes are laid out (and which does indeed call up Gullane Hill) is the endearing hamlet of Whitekirk, with its substantial fifteenth-century church and its two-story sixteenth-century barn, both built of what is now a deep rust-brown stone. Only a few steps from the old church is Whitekirk Mains, an attractive eighteenth-century farmhouse of considerable character -- on the exterior at any rate -- which happens to be a B&B with all of three rooms, each of which has its own bath. Moreover, it is the property of George Huer, the canny developer/owner/operator of the golf course. My wife and I have not been inside it. Mrs. Huer runs it and Mr. Huer assured us that it is quite comfortable. I don't doubt it for a moment.
Continuing on to Dunbar, the easternmost of the East Lothian courses, we are no longer in the Firth of Forth, but out on the North Sea itself. If you wish to ingratiate yourself with the locals, you will put the emphasis on the second syllable, Dun-BAR. It took me only 20 years to catch onto this, and now that I have got it right, I find myself going out of my way to proclaim the word.
Like North Berwick, Dunbar is also a seaside resort, though the stateliness of the former is missing here. There are 20 hotels, miles of attractive beaches, two picturesque harbors, the Dunbar Winterfield Golf Course (about 5,000 yards long -- I have not played it), and the Dunbar Golf Course, where the links served as a qualifying site for the 1992 Open, held at Muirfield.
The start of the round at Dunbar is unusual and unprepossessing: a couple of flattish and prosaic par fives run back and forth beside each other. They are inland in character. So is the 3rd, a falling one-shotter with its green squarely beside the clubhouse, but it plays straight toward the sea and holds out the promise that we are soon to taste the golf we have come for.
It is with the 4th that the real Dunbar commences. The next 14 holes are laid out -- sometimes shoehorned -- between the old deer-park's high and handsome fieldstone wall and the sea. This is no place for a slicer; the boundary wall nags all the way out and the rocky beach threatens all the way home (well, at least through the 17th, for the 18th is on the landward side of the wall, clustered there with the first three holes).
There is a pleasantly rolling quality to this long strip of land beside the crescent of bay. On the whole, the bunkering is light, but gorse rears its prickly head from time to time. The 7th, 386 yards long, is a particularly good hole, doglegging right and with a semiblind second shot over gently rising ground down to a green tucked between the great wall and a beautiful old barn called Mill Stone Den. On the rather easy par-four 8th, a steep ridge backdrops the green. Nine, the longest hole on the course at 512 yards, is inviting. A solid drive along the flat brings us within sight of the Barns Ness lighthouse and sets up a full-blooded 3-wood that, sailing high above the tumbling, sloping fairway, should put us within a very short pitch of the green far below.
The inbound half is played essentially along and above the North Sea; and into a westerly it can be a beautiful but losing battle. Four of the two-shotters measure 414, 464, 436, and 441 yards. Not only are they long, but three of them are perilous, with the greens at 12, 14, and 15 sited above the rocky shore. Land is at a premium now, so much so that by the time we reach the 166-yard 16th the space between the stone wall and the beach is a scant 30 yards.
It is not easy to call up any stretch of holes with lovelier views than those at Dunbar. On a fine day, the blue of the sea is a cobalt reflection of the blue of the sky, the gannets chatter away as they dance from rock to rock, the fishing smacks net their catch not a mile offshore, and the Isle of May and Bass Rock and the distant outline of Fife all vie for our attention.
There is, of course, much to see and do out here in East Lothian, though a great deal of its natural glories can be appreciated without ever leaving the seaside golf courses. The town of Dirleton, on the road between Gullane and North Berwick, boasts two triangular village greens and a thirteenth-century castle, the substantial remains of which encompass a garden and a seventeenth-century bowling lawn. Half a dozen miles inland, Haddington is an ancient royal burgh of charm and substance, but its most beguiling moment lies well away from the town center, where the Church of St. Mary, dating from the thirteenth century, stands on the banks of the river Tyne. An arched sandstone bridge over the water provides a prospect that, both upstream and downstream, is idyllic.
Dirleton is also the home of a well-regarded inn, the Open Arms (a poor joke, but what can one do?). The guest rooms incline to be rather small, but the cooking -- a "Taste of Scotland" menu is featured -- is of a high standard. For those who wish to stay in North Berwick, the Marine is an imposing gray-stone turreted Victorian hotel adjacent to the 16th fairway of the West Links and affording splendid views to the Firth. Large sums have been spent in recent years to transform it from a once somewhat dreary hotel to a sparkling, comfortable, up-to-date place providing just about any service. Much closer to the 1st tee are Blenheim House and Point Garry, small hotels that also make a specialty of catering to golfers. Both are quiet, spic-and-span, professionally run. Neither makes any claim to luxury. But Blenheim House has, in Room # 15, a spacious accommodation with a large bay window that commands the vast municipal putting green, the 1st tee of the wonderful old links, the strand, and the sea. Like all of East Lothian, it is all we could wish our seaside travels to be.
Copyright © 1996 by Aberdovey, Inc.
A Golfer's Pilgrimage to the Courses of Scotland
Blasted Heaths and Blessed Green
A Golfer's Pilgrimage to the Courses of Scotland
For the tourist or the dreamer, there can be no better guide than James W. Finegan. A passionate advocate of the game that's played on the links between land and sea, Finegan combines a writer's eye, a historian's knowledge, and a golfer's sense of wonder and apprehension to provide an impossibly ambitious grand tour of golf's native land.
In a loop of a thousand miles that begins in Edinburgh and ends across the Firth of Forth in St. Andrews, Finegan covers some sixty courses, visiting the true shrines of the game, the courses that are well known and respected, and the little-known gems you might otherwise pass right by. He shares the history of the courses, both of their creation and of the most famous matches played there; he also writes marvelously about the scenic and strategic charms to be found as you play them yourself. And he provides all the information you need to make your arrangements to do just that -- because, unlike most championship courses in the United States, the great courses of Scotland are available to the public.
In addition to his delightful descriptions of the golf to be found there, Finegan gives us his recommendations for places to stay, ranging from the most modest bed-and-breakfast to the most magnificent castle hotel. He describes the pleasures to be found off the beaten track: the spectacular views from a country road, or the ancient cathedral that's worth a stop on the way to the first tee. And because all the travel within the country is done by car, he spells out the actual routes from town to town and course to course.
Blasted Heaths and Blessed Greens is a book to be read, to be savored, and to be tucked away in your suitcase when you finally undertake the journey of your dreams.
- Simon & Schuster |
- 288 pages |
- ISBN 9780743264846 |
- January 2004