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October 8, 2012

EAST LOTHIAN, SCOTLAND - It’s the cloudiest and rainiest summer on record in this part of the world, which is going some, since summer in Scotland generally requires cashmere and Gore-Tex at its best. The rough is record-breaking, a foot-and-a-half of wispy, native links grass and about a foot of green, lush undergrowth that eats golf balls for every meal at most every course.

“You’ll hate yourself if you find your ball in that stuff,” says the starter at Gullane No. 1. One of the locals says most courses will mow the rough down and bale it after the summer season is over, and you find yourself wishing that was now.

Still, it’s golf of the highest quality on the auld sod, even if it’s not the most famous in the country. St. Andrews casts a long shadow in the east of Scotland and golfers who trek to golf’s shrine can’t resist the effort to try to get on the Old Course as part of a oncein- a-lifetime trip.

But if you’ve ticked St. Andrews off your bucket list and are looking for exceptional golf a little off the beaten path, there is a strip of linksland in an area of the country known as East Lothian that lies along the Firth of Forth on the edge of the North Sea. It boasts some courses that if you play them once, you’ll want to play them again and they will jump onto your list of Scottish favorites.

And they aren’t even very remote, like some of the more famous venues to the far north. Most East Lothian courses are within a half-hour train ride of Edinburgh, the cultural center of Scotland. It’s just that the St. Andrews- Carnoustie-Kingsbarns area in Fife to the northeast of Edinburgh on the other side of the Firth of Forth gets all the attention on must-play lists.

But you can spend a week in East Lothian, never stray very far off the road marked A197, and play as much good golf as you could find in most any other section of the country.

East Lothian is the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, whose home is Muirfield Golf Club, which will host next July’s Open Championship. The Honourable Company is the world’s oldest organized golf club, founded in 1744. Old Tom Morris laid out the original links in 1891 but H.S. Colt configured the current course in 1923.

Muirfield is the best known of the courses in East Lothian and the most difficult to get on. It’s not impossible, but visitor days are Tuesdays and Thursdays and these become booked very quickly and quite a ways in advance.

In-season greens fees are £195 for one round and £250 for two rounds. Traditionally, a day at Muirfield consists of a fourball in the morning, lunch, then foursomes (alternate shot) in the afternoon, which is the only game allowed at Muirfield in the afternoon.

Visitors must have a maximum handicap of 18 and documentation is required. Jacket and tie are required in the clubhouse after 10 a.m., and cell phones are strictly prohibited anywhere on the property.

Despite all the rigidity, Muirfield is one the best links courses – or a course of any kind – anywhere in the world, and a day at Muirfield is among a golfer’s most memorable.

North Berwick Golf Club is consistently among the favorites of visitors to East Lothian because of its history, its architecture and its seaside views. The club was formed in 1832 but the course didn’t take its final shape until 1932, the club’s centenary.

The most famous hole at North Berwick is the 15th, called Redan, which now has become a style of architecture. The par 3 of 190 yards features a green that slopes from front right to back left. C.B. Macdonald brought the style to Shinnecock Hills on Long Island and built the seventh hole there in the same style. The hole has been copied numerous times all around the world.

The 13th is called Pit, a short par 4 of 387 yards that features a sunken green behind a short rock wall. Any second shot not struck solidly enough will leave a third that leaves you dealing with playing around or over the wall. To the west is a wonderful view of Fidra, the island that is said to be Robert Louis Stevenson’s inspiration for Treasure Island. John Ashworth, of golf clothing fame, has a house in North Berwick and named one of his clothing companies after the island.

Perfection is the name of the par-4 14th, and at 374 yards with a steep hill that you have to drive around or over, it requires two near-perfect shots to reach the green.

North Berwick is as welcoming to visitors as Muirfield is more than slightly stuffy. But don’t wait until the last minute to try to make a starting time. The course fills up quickly.

Gullane Golf Club is just down the road from North Berwick and features three courses, the most well-known of which is No. 1. Gullane No. 1 has been host to final local qualifying for the Open Championship six times and will be again when the Open returns to Muirfield next July.

Gullane No. 1 was designed by Willie Park in 1884 and features a variety of holes that run up, down and around the expansive Gullane Hill. In fact, the view from the seventh tee at No. 1 is unmatched, certainly in this part of Scotland. Muirfield, Arthur’s Seat – one of the seven hills of Edinburgh – and into Fife across the Firth can be seen from this vantage point.

It’s said that the locals like Gullane No. 2 better than its more well-known sister, and it was designed in 1898 by Willie Park Jr., who also designed Gullane No. 3 in 1910.

The most pleasant surprise of the trip was Craigielaw Golf Club in Aberlady, one of the newest members of the East Lothian family. Craigielaw was designed by Donald Steel with cavernous bunkers and a definite linksy feel. From the member tees, it’s a real challenge but leaves you feeling ready to tackle it yet again. There also are great views of the Firth of Forth, Gullane Hill and across the Firth into Edinburgh and Fife.

Besides the great golf, the Lodge at Craigielaw is on schedule to be open in May 2013 with 25 rooms from which to base yourself for an East Lothian golf trip. And Edinburgh is no more than 20 minutes from Craigielaw by train.

A perfect day

ABERLADY, SCOTLAND - This day begins and ends at Duck’s, a quaint, comfortable “restaurant with rooms,” as proprietor Malcolm Duck prefers to call his inn in this historic Scottish village. It’s tough to pull yourself out of the comfortable bed when the alarm goes off, but there’s a lot of golf ahead.

Breakfast at Duck’s is simple – cereal and fresh fruit or eggs and bacon cooked to order or hot porridge or any combination thereof – along with coffee or, naturally, tea.

And it’s off to Luffness New Golf Club, just around the curve from Duck’s on the A197 and an appointment with Group Captain A.G. Yeates, the affable club secretary. There is no professional’s shop at Luffness, just a relatively small but well put together clubhouse.

Luffness has been a Final Qualifying site for the Open Championship in the years the Open has been at Muirfield, which will host the Open in 2013. Yet, Luffness might be left off the list of qualifying sites because the R&A thinks the course is too short for professionals. Whatever the length, Luffness is a good, strong test of golf and the Scottish rough is brutal at best.

The good Group Captain shows me a couple of places where the course has been lengthened, hoping for some good news from St. Andrews.

Then, it’s a hop in the car and six or so miles to Gullane Golf Club and an afternoon starting time with Mr. Duck, who is quite a fine player in his own right and quite keen about the quality of golf in East Lothian.

We tee up at Gullane No. 1, also a Final Qualifying site for the Open, and a good walk unspoiled. The second hole at No. 3 is a par-4 up what looks like a ski slope and narrow as a bowling alley. A straight drive and a 5-iron for the 379-yard hole will get you a par on most days.

At the top of Gullane Hill, at the seventh tee, the view is spectacular, the best in all of East Lothian and perhaps this part of Scotland. It’s a partly sunny day, quite clear enough to see Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth.

At the end of the day, it’s back to Duck’s and a drink in the cozy bar at the inn. Duck hauls out a couple of putting skill contraptions, which are better played early in the evening before too many cocktails have freely flowed. Dinner in Duck’s restaurant is sublime, tonight a feast of seared Hebridean scallops to start, followed by slow-roasted pork belly (yes, it was exquisite) and rumbledethumps, which are mashed potatoes mixed with cabbage and onion, to go with Duck’s Courtyard Pear Chutney. Dessert was apple pudding with butterscotch sauce, gingerbread ice cream, apple and cardamom puree.

If you don’t quite feel up to fine dining at Duck’s, there is another restaurant in house, Donald’s Bar & Bistro, named for Malcolm’s father (that’s right, Donald Duck) with a full menu are plush anthat includes the best cheeseburger in all of Scotland.

After dinner, those who are willing repair to the bar, which can become lively at night. But after 36 holes on foot and a full meal, that bed in room No. 8 is calling, quite loudly, in fact.

Renaissance Club: Well Worth The Wait

DIRLETON, SCOTLAND - New courses in the old country aren’t always accepted immediately. Case in point: Kingsbarns, designed by Kyle Phillips on linksland near St. Andrews, and Carnoustie in Fife, took several years to fit in with the existing historic and classic courses.

Renaissance Club, next door to Muirfield and North Berwick in East Lothian, is striking and dramatic but it has been a part of the landscape only since 2008. However, it has already attracted a great deal of notice and talks are underway that might have the club one day soon hosting the Scottish Open, alternating with Castle Stuart in the north.

Tom Doak, the noted minimalist, designed Renaissance Club and moved very little dirt to do so. But he did clear a huge number of pine and sycamore trees on this 300-acre tract. It has a links feel on the front nine before turning into a back nine where stands of trees frame the holes.

But three new holes at Renaissance Club are getting the most attention. When owner Jerry Sarvadi bought the land for the course in 2005, he also acquired a piece of headland along the Firth of Forth in a land swap with neighbor Muirfield. The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers wanted to extend Muirfield’s ninth hole to the east.

Sarvadi’s patience is exemplary because environmental agencies wouldn’t allow holes to be built on that property until 2011. In the meantime, Sarvadi had built the course without that land but is now in the process to include it. And the land is remarkable.

The first three holes in the original course will be turned into a practice loop and the three coastal holes will be inserted as 9 through 11. The new No. 10 is the most stunning. It’s a par-4 cape hole, the likes of which you almost never see in links golf. It requires a heroic tee shot over the Firth of Forth, followed by a courageous second to a green that sits on a precipice.

The holes have been built and grassed and club officials are waiting for a little more maturity before they open. But when they do, it will be the talk of East Lothian, if not all of Scotland.

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