Golf in East Lothian

Golf in East Lothian

Author Curtis Gillespie spent a year in East Lothian living and breathing the atmosphere of a county steeped in golf’s traditions and its history. His book, Playing Through chronicles cherished memories of the personalities he met, the landscape, the essence of local life and, of course, the golf. Who better to take you on a tour of this beautiful corner of Scotland…

The Old Clubhouse pub, in the village of Gullane, east of Edinburgh along the south shore of the Firth of Forth, is a friendly establishment that overlooks the children’s par-3 course and the 18th hole of Gullane #3. You can almost always find a table at the Old Clubhouse to sit down and share a pint with friends to analyse the day’s oncourse damage, but come mid-July the place will be heaving with people. So will every other bar in Gullane and East Lothian – in North Berwick and Aberlady and Haddington – because Gullane also happens to be home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, otherwise known as Muirfield, site of the 2013 Open.

The eyes of the golfing world will naturally be on Muirfield during the Open, but it would be time well spent, should you have it, to consider East Lothian in general and, specifically, a coastal stretch roughly 20km in length running from Aberlady to North Berwick. It is an area blessed with such an embarrassment of riches one can be forgiven for questioning the fairness of God’s distribution system.

A beautiful summer’s evening, when the light is long and the air is dry and warm, is the perfect time to sit out on the patio of The Old Clubhouse and sip your pint as you consider what it is that makes East Lothian so unique in the golfing world. Because, to be sure, the words East Lothian carry a magic to them, an undertone of delight and purity few other golfing locations in the world possess. Yet what is the nature of the allure? After all, not only are there many other famous golfing jurisdictions around the world that boast multiple great courses in close proximity (Carmel, California; Bandon Dunes, Oregon; Long Island, New York; Melbourne’s Sand Belt), there are many other such areas even in Scotland (St. Andrews, Dornoch, Aberdeen, Prestwick). But there is nevertheless something utterly unique about this stretch of shoreline.

For starters, there is the profound sensory bath that comes with golfing here. The smell of the sea is everpresent, intermingled with the crisply herbal scents of gorse and fescue; you feel as if you’ve got one foot in the water and the other on turf. There is the sound, the sound of the waves crashing on a beach often near at hand, as well as the occasional echo of your own voice when you stand near a high dune. There is, of of course, the sight of it all, of that impeccable subtly rolling dunescape butting up against the Firth of Forth, Bass Rock a mile offshore, tiny steepled villages hiding some of the world’s best golf courses and above it all the dramatic volcanic plug of the North Berwick Law, standing over everything like a stern dorm master. There are many places along this coastline from which can see the Forth Bridge in the distance.

So, yes, the sights, smells and sounds are distinctive, but what brings me back here as often as life allows – to Gullane and North Berwick and Luffness and Kilspindie and Muirfield – is the feel of East Lothian. The tangible physical sensations of the place and of the golf. The feel of the firm fairway under my shoes, the perfect resistance of the turf against a crisply struck iron shot, the unique scrape of the crushed seashell on the paths between holes. Even the spatter of wind-driven rain on my cheek.

This sensory immersion is why golfers have long cherished East Lothian, or at least it’s why I do. Luckily, these sensations can usually be found on some of the world’s best golf courses, though many of them fly under Muirfield’s. I have often wondered what East Lothian did to deserve all of these riches? Gullane Golf Club, for instance, is one of the world’s great clubs, with its three tracks, lovely clubhouse, superior turf and jaw-dropping vistas.

Gullane #1 is one of the Open qualifiers whenever the Open is held at Muirfield (along with, in 2013, Dunbar, Musselburgh and North Berwick West Links). If Gullane #1 is good enough to be an Open qualifier, then Gullane #2 could easily serve the purpose as well. It’s not as famous as #1, and is known as #2 only because it denotes the order in which the courses were built. But it is one of the best in East Lothian and, unlike #1, it falls down into the dunes and marshy flats near Aberlady Bay, something Gullane #1 does not do. It might be one of the most beautiful golfing nooks in East Lothian, where the sea and wind can make it feel raw and remote. Gullane #3 is a short course, but with a superb set of greensites and with rough more vicious in spots than anywhere you’ll find during Open week at Muirfield. (More on Gullane #3 later.)

Even if East Lothian only had Gullane Golf Club as a draw, it would still be worth visiting, but this is only one of the rabbits the county can pull out of its magic hat. Right up against the western edge of Gullane #2 and #3 is the Luffness New Golf Club. It’s an Old Tom Morris design renowned for its superb conditioning, lovely green sites and private atmosphere; it’s a kind of mini-Muirfield. Just across Aberlady Bay from Luffness New, into the village of Aberlady, are Kilspindie Golf Club and Craigielaw Golf Club. Kilspindie dates back to 1867 and is perched on a spit of land that sometimes seems ready to crumble right into the water, whereas Craigielaw is a newer design, set back slightly inland but still possessing dramatic views of the water and, more importantly, featuring the famously firm East Lothian turf.

If these courses west of Gullane are superb and enjoyable, it’s east of Gullane where one’s pulse begins to accelerate. Literally over the fence from Muirfield is the new Archerfield complex. Two courses have recently opened here, set in Eldbotle Wood, and both are modern gems.

There are different feels to the courses, which sometimes play like links, other times like parkland tracks. Archerfield has a polished feel to it, and offers a pleasant alternative to East Lothian’s sometimes raw links experiences. Just down the road from Archerfield, past Dirleton, is North Berwick and its West Links, a course modern enough to challenge the best (it’s also used an Open qualifying course) but with a deep and compelling history. It was at the West Links in the fall of 1875 that Young Tom Morris and his father, Old Tom, were playing against the locals Willie and Mungo Park.

Hundreds of spectators were following the match. Near the end of the match, a telegram reached the players that Young Tom’s wife had gone into labour and was struggling.

They finished the last two holes, winning, and then Young Tom hurriedly crossed the Firth by boat. When he arrived at St. Andrews later that night, both his wife and his son were dead. Four months later, on Christmas Day, Young Tom died, some say of a broken heart. He was just 24, and his record of winning four consecutive Open Championships still stands. (The roots of the Park family course through East Lothian; Sheila Park, the great grand-daughter of Willie Park Sr., the first winner of the Open Championship, in 1860, married Archie Baird. Archie, aside from his primary occupation of taunting friends, happens to still own and run a hidden-treasure of a golf museum next door to the Gullane pro shop – visits are by appointment only.)

History aside, the West Links is golf as its peak. If you aren’t having fun playing the West Links, golf is not your game. There are tough holes, easy holes, quirky holes and holes that have forever shaped the nature of the modern game. The short pitch to the green of the par-four 13th must be played over a low stone shepherd’s fence. The green of the par-three 15th features the original Redan design – meaning a green set at an angle to the approach, raised at the front and then sloping front to back – an architectural feature that has been copied almost as often as any in the game.

And of course, as if all these gems were not enough, East Lothian can boast of the colossus that bestrides them all – Muirfield. It is not just one of the best courses in East Lothian, or Scotland, or the UK, but in the world. It is justly renowned for its difficulty, its fairness, its ingenuity and its conditioning. It has a visionary concentric circle routing that means a golfer needs every shot in the ever-present wind, moving it both ways and with every trajectory. Every hole is hard but fair, challenging without being tricked up.

And the 18th hole approach, to that iconic clubhouse, is as good as it gets. Muirfield has a mystique to it that only adds to its allure. And it never fails to produce Champion Golfers of the Year who are among the game’s greatest players, even though sometimes the game’s greatest players can’t handle it. I was standing on the 10th tee in the 3rd round of the 2002 Open when Tiger Woods lost the plot. The weather was appalling that day (and beware to those planning to go the Open; if the wind is out of the northeast in the morning, take your rain gear), and Tiger, then in peak form, simply could not handle the conditions. He shot 81, still his worst Major round ever as a pro. Muirfield can do that to you.

Yet for all the undeniable excellence of its golf course Muirfield remains something of an outlier in East Lothian golf. To begin with, it’s not actually seaside. The closest it gets is on the 3rd tee, which is a couple hundred yards from the Firth. Furthermore, Muirfield still refuses to allow female members, an indefensible fact in this day and age. I was critical of this practice in the local press when the Open was last there in 2002, and the intervening 11 years appear to not altered the mindset to any noticeable degree. Nor does the club feature a surfeit of local members; rumour has it that a considerable portion of the membership is comprised of the Scottish business and political elite living in Edinburgh. Still, we must remind ourselves that it is a members club and is, after all, not named the Honourable Company of Gullane Golfers. Point taken. In any case, the club’s idiosyncratic membership policies do not detract from the quality of the course. It’s as pure as it gets, which is why Jack Nicklaus chose to name his home course Muirfield when he got around to building it.

East Lothian, then, has an abundance of great golf, but part of its magic remains the sheer proximity of the courses. Unless you visit there, it’s hard to accurately convey just how close together they are. Kilspindie and Craigielaw are side by side in Aberlady. Just across the Bay, within sight, is Luffness New. The 8th hole of Luffness New runs directly parallel, and just a few yards from, the 7th hole of Gullane #3. Muirfield is visible from the 7th tee of Gullane #1.

Archerfield is just over the fence, literally, from Muirfield. And the easternmost tip of Archerfield is no more than 500 metres from the 9th green of North Berwick West Links. The compact excellence and variety of it all is, as far as I know, unrivalled in the world of golf. (Special mention must be made of Dunbar here. It’s another excellent Open Qualifying course used when Muirfield’s name comes up in the rota, and although it’s not directly in this stretch of courses, it’s still only 20 minutes down the coast from North Berwick.)

Yet all this outstanding golf is just part of East Lothian’s magic. The county is not remote yet it still somehow manages to feel one step removed from the hurly-burly; you can be in Edinburgh in under an hour, but the small villages feel part of a bygone era. Being in Scotland no doubt adds to the charm – the Scots along this stretch of coastline are not so much crusty as wary. Once you’re “in” they’re as friendly as they come, but there won’t be any false camaraderie. And the non-golfing delights of East Lothian are endless.

The pubs seem to appear around every corner, and my two favourites are the aforementioned Old Clubhouse and The Golf Inn, both in Gullane. If time allows one day, take a stroll through the dunes out past Gullane #3 and Luffness New, down into the marshes of Aberlady Bay (if the tide is out, that is); the bird life is awe-inspiring. And a hike up the North Berwick Law will offer a breathtaking view of that corner of East Lothian, not to mention views across the Firth to Fife and even as far west as Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge.

As someone who has lived in Gullane, however, I have to say that East Lothian produces intensely personal memories and moments, mostly, I think, through the combination of its stunning locale and its people. By way of example, the 1st tee of Gullane #3 and the 9th tee of Gullane #1, two of my favourite places, are forever tied to certain people. The first tee of Gullane #3 holds special memories, as it was the place where I so often met up with my old friends Jack Martson and Archie Baird, and where their banter and gamesmanship began in earnest (which I wrote about in a book called Playing Through). I loved hearing their jibes and jokes and excuses and mind games get rolled out prior to the first ball being struck. We played #3 more than any other course and so I remember it most clearly.

The 9th tee of Gullane #1 has a more poignant meaning. It is less famous as a vista than its majestic counterpart back up the hill, the 7th tee. The 9th tee is not quite as elevated, but it sits closer to the sea and is perhaps a more visceral experience. Most Gullane visitors adore the view from the 7th tee, but most Gullane locals cherish the 9th tee. It was this way with my dear friend Jack Marston, whom I came to know intimately during our time in Gullane. He was like a second father to me. He always said, jokingly, in that way people do, that he hoped when he died it would be on the 9th tee. Late in June of 2009, Jack was playing with Archie and a couple other friends when they came to the 9th tee. Jack was almost 91 years old, Archie not much behind him. Jack had not said much that day, just commented occasionally on how gorgeous the day was, how lucky they were to be playing together, how wonderful a place Gullane was. They stepped up to the tee, whereupon Jack suffered a massive and instantaneouslyfatal heart attack. He was dead before he hit the ground.

At his funeral a week later, many a person remarked that there was something very special about this place, this village, this area, all of which helped make Jack who he was – an open-hearted, kind, funny man, who loved golf to its core and understood the game, who gave to golf and got something back in return, namely a life of camaraderie and exercise and vitality. This is the way it was and is in Gullane and along this stretch of East Lothian. Jack Marston embodied it, and his reward was to have the golf gods give him as charmed a passing as his living had been. He will forever have a perfect tee shot on the 9th caught in his soul because he never had to play it, only envision it.

East Lothian is a place to golf, to live, and to marvel at the gifts we sometimes find in front of us. Muirfield is the glittering gem of the area, rightly so, and while it holds its place of pre-eminence in my golfing brain, my golfing heart is filled with other aspects of East Lothian, things that are partly about golf but mostly about life. That’s as it should be, and that’s what East Lothian can give us, if we remember to look.