Muirfield. Golfers all over the world will know the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in Gullane, East Lothian as one of the finest links courses in the world. I'd played it a few times and had never got remotely near playing to my handicap. That didn't really matter since the experience of walking and playing such a prestigious layout was what it was all about. The golf society (SEDGC) I'm still a member of used to go there every year until around the mid 1980s and if memory serves I first played Muirfield in 1981, when my handicap would have been around 18. I didn't beat 100 net (!) and in particular, was completely beaten up by the severity of the bunkering. Some years later I managed a gross 89 by avoiding most of the bunkers, hitting straight(ish) and putting reasonably well, but that was my best and over the years I'd harboured ambitions to try to play Muirfield again and beat that score.
Fast forward to earlier this month when Colin, my buddy at Dunbar GC, asked me whether I wanted to play Muirfield on 24 January 2023. His son in law Stuart is a member of the Honourable Company and had invited Colin to bring along a couple of friends for a morning fourball, followed by a leisurely lunch and light permitting, a few afternoon foursomes holes. Suffice to say I jumped at the chance, as did Gordon, one of our other Dunbar buddies. January in East Lothian has been typically cold, wet and pretty miserable, so much to our delight 24 January was a perfect day for golf, a bit cloudy but otherwise mild, with just a light breeze across the links. I'll get to the actual golf, but first some history and context.
In 1744, Edinburgh Town Council agreed to present a Silver Club to the winner of an annual golf competition over Leith Links. The Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, later renamed The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, codified and wrote the original Rules of Golf as a precondition of receiving the Silver Club, which remains the oldest trophy in world golf. From the 1820s onwards HCEG members played more at Musselburgh and by 1836 the club had relocated. A dedicated clubhouse was built in Golf Place Musselburgh in 1865 and as one of the original subscribers for the Claret Jug, along with Prestwick and the R&A, the HCEG hosted 6 Open Championships between 1874 and 1889. Due to overcrowding on the Musselburgh Links, the HCEG moved to Muirfield in July 1890. The Muirfield course, designed by old Tom Morris, opened in May 1891 and in 1892 the course hosted the first 72 hole Open Championship. In 1922 the HCEG purchased the existing links and added a further 50 acres of land. The layout was redesigned by Harry Colt with advice from a past HCEG Captain and since 1892 it has hosted the Open Championship 16 times, together with the Ryder, Walker and Curtis Cups and numerous other international and national competitions.
Muirfield is different from the classic 9 out 9 back links layout, with the opening 9 holes circling clockwise around the perimeter of the course, and the closing 9 holes running anti-clockwise inside the first 9. Although there are fine sea views on some holes the course is separated from the sea by trees and natural dune land and wind can be a significant factor here. We played from the Red (front 9) and Yellow (back 9) markers, meaning the course played to 6457 Yards, Par 71, with a Course Rating of 72.5 and a Slope Rating of 139. Note that the Red tees aren't "for Ladies'" play. It's just another of the ways that the ECGC does things- Red out, Yellow back. At Dunbar GC our comparable numbers are 6196 Yards, Par 71, Course Rating 70.4 and a Slope of 124. My 8.6 Handicap Index converts to a Playing Handicap of 9 at Dunbar and 11 at Muirfield so it was obvious that Muirfield would be a significantly more difficult challenge. However, I was still hopeful that I'd manage to beat that 89 from many years before.
A view from the first tee back to the clubhouse. The first hole is almost a flat dog leg right 420 Yard Par 4, played directly into the prevailing wind (such as it was). We'd had coffee in the clubhouse rather than a warm up so I wasn't surprised to find myself still 80 yards short of the green in 2. The greens would prove to be faster than they looked (stimping around 9.5?) and after misjudging the pace my 3 putt double bogey wasn't ideal.
The second was shorter at 346 Yards, with OOB close to the left side of the green. Bogey there, but at least I was warming up. Next, a 370 Yard Par 4. The last 60 yards of the fairway is squeezed between mounds that reduce it to a narrow strip, with the mounding also restricting visibility of the green itself. Gordon on his way along the 3rd fairway.
A decent drive and a 6 Rescue to within 15 feet set me up for an easy par, but any thoughts of a continued scoring trend were ended at the 4th, a 180 Yard Par 3. The pin was mid-right on the plateau green close to deep bunkering and grassy hollows. I missed my "brave" target line by a couple of yards and had a blind shot up a 10 foot bank for my second. However, a double bogey was poor from there.
The 5th is slightly uphill and is a short 487 Yard Par 5. Easy enough if you keep to the fairway. Stuart's advice was to avoid the 5 bunkers to the right of the fairway and target my tee shot short of the second of 3 bunkers on the left. Unfortunately my drive went right of the right side bunkering, leaving a hugely awkward stance. I was happy enough with a bogey in the circumstances. Next came the 419 Yard Par 4 6th, which the Course Guide describes as "probably the most demanding hole on the course." Flying the 4 bunkers on the inside of the bend in dog left left fairway wasn't deliberate but somehow I managed what for me was a long drive, setting up a 4 Rescue to the green, a mere 44 Yards long! Bogey again but I suspect I've scored worse there.
This is the 7th, a slightly uphill 147 Yard Par 3, played to a plateau green with heavy bunkering and grassy hollows waiting to gobble up anything remotely wayward e.g. my tee shot. I was only a few feet offline to the right but ended up 20 yards right and 15 feet below the green. My lob wedge to 6 feet was given rightful applause by my playing partners but any hopes of a stunning par didn't last long and a tap in bogey was scant consolation.
The 8th is the Stroke Index 1 hole, for good reasons. It's a daunting 430 Yard Par 4, requiring a good long drive, left of the 5 bunkers that hug the inside of the dog leg right fairway. I got that bit right but I still had around 190 to the green. Three bunkers protect the approach to the green from 58 to 17 yards out, so I tried to steer a 3 wood left to avoid them. I hit a reasonable shot but at Muirfield the catchment areas for bunkers are often quite considerable and my approach shot rolled sideways into the biggest and deepest of those bunkers, as seen below.
I'd a hugely tricky shot just to get out, but it was disappointing that I ended up in another bunker on my way to a snowman 8. That meant I was now 12 over after 8 holes! The 9th offers no relief and for me, is probably the most tricky hole on the course. This is a 474 Yard Par 5 that plays directly into the prevailing wind. I'd hit a decent drive but had an awkward stance in light rough. My weakest shot of the day dribbled into a fairway bunker (again!) and after 4 shots I still had to avoid another 5 bunkers protecting the green. Another 8 for a poor outward 51. This is a view of the 9th green, clubhouse in the background.
This is the 13th, a tricky 156 Yard Par 3. The Course Guiide says " The green should be an easy target but but is never more than 15 paces wide and angles off to the left in a hollow in the dunes. On top of that, it is severely bunkered on both sides, drops sharply from back to front and falls away to the right. You just have to stay out of the sand." And that's an easy target?
And so to the 17th, a 478 Yard Par 5 that normally plays downwind and should be fair;ly straightforward. I'd hit a reasonable drive down the right avoid the 4 bunkers but leaving a semi blind second over another 4. I just found this bunker, had a poor lie and was daft enough to try to play over the bunker just beyond it as shown here. I then had an almost impossible lie and had to play back down the fairway. Another double bogey was on the card!
Thank you again Stuart for your hospitality and kindness in making our day so very special.