Muirfield is widely acknowledged as one of the toughest challenges in links golf. Nicklaus rates
it the best course in Britain. What’s it like for the average club player? Gi’s Peter Swain found out
Let’s meet for a jolly good lunch in
the clubhouse, then go out at
about 2pm.” When one receives
an invitation from a member of
the Honourable Company of
Edinburgh Golfers to follow in the hallowed
footsteps of 15 Open champions,
it’s churlish to question the order of play.
But lunch first, then the round?
Us finely tuned athletes usually take
our ‘A’ game into battle before not after
relaxing in the snug. But, as I discovered
on a wintry March day, at Muirfield they
do things their own way.
Once through the slightly forbidding
gates of East Lothian’s most famous club,
visitors, suitably attired in jacket and tie,
are greeted by hospitality reminiscent of
Simpson’s in the Strand circa 1935. After
a wee dram in the Smoking Room (where
smoking is no longer allowed), I am treated
to a sumptuous repast, with wonderfully
Members often play nine holes before
lunch, and nine after, so one might
expect a degree of restraint, but there are
no signs of it. Seated at long tables,
around which Eton and the Guards are
well represented, there is talk of the
upcoming Open. All are proud of their
course, its fine championship traditions,
and the financial benefits thereof. But the
loss of access over several balmy summer
weeks is not altogether popular.
Following whitebait and a roast with all
the trimmings, washed down by several
glasses of house claret, I try to draw
breath. But when my host suggests “you
won’t have seen a finer dessert selection since the days of nanny and the nursery”,
I succumb to the treacle pudding.
My pre-game preparation going swimmingly,
a glass of the club’s favourite
tipple, Kümmel, is a shoo-in.
So, tip number one: whether playing
as a visitor – tee times available
Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8.30am
to 9.50am – or as a member’s guest,
don’t miss lunch. It’s a hugely enjoyable
part of the Muirfield experience.
The day is chilly, even by Scottish
standards: actual temperature +5C; with
the wind-chill factor, -5C. But playing
conditions are actually in my favour, as I
soon discover on the first tee.
With OB down the left, past Ronnie
Corbett’s house, the high rough on
either side of the narrow fairway usually
makes for a challenging opening drive.
Except in March, the rough is almost flat.
So tip number two: the course is substantially
easier, if that’s what you want,
from November to April.
Visitors can play fourballs in the mornings, but members traditionally
play foursomes. It’s a particularly
sociable form of the game, with
rounds here lasting more than 3½
hours the exception. On this occasion
my two hosts kindly invite me to play
my own ball while they alternate playing
the second, and as both are
advancing in years, we agree to play
from the seniors’ tees.
At the Open, the 1st will play 448
yards, but for us it’s only 404. I get a
good drive away, just catching the rough
at about 240. In high summer, I might
have lost my ball, but today it’s sitting
up nicely. I am advised to land the ball
10 yards short of the green and run it
up. Having lost my 7-iron in Casablanca
the week before (I blame the caddie), I
take an 8 and flush it pin high, left edge.
Now, I play off 16, so with a putter in
hand, a net birdie beckons. The green
looks relatively innocuous, but the first
putt comes up short and I miss the second.
Still, a five is one better than Tiger
in 2002. That’s half the thrill of playing
Muirfield: history is everywhere.
Taking advantage of the post-Kümmel
glow I score fives on both the shortish
par-four 2nd and 3rd holes. Three net
pars, so far so good, but I admit the forward
tees are helping.
By now, I’m beginning to get the hang
of things. My hosts are short off the tee
but straight and low, and dynamite
around the greens. Muirfield is a great
test of the short game, with the 40-yard
putt, and the mid-iron bump-and-run
essential parts of the armory. My first
shot out of a greenside pot bunker, at
the par-three 4th, comes out to 6-feet – a
moment of sheer triumph.
The course’s third protection, after the
rough and the bunkers, many of which
are invisible from the fairway, is the
wind, which really kicks in on the parfive
5th. With a prevailing westerly, good
players can reach in two, but in today’s north-easterly, I’m struggling to get up
in three. Some of Muirfield’s holes look
relatively benign, but in the wind, with
the rough up, from the Tiger tees, it’s
an entirely different game.
The 6th is a tough dogleg left, with a
crosswind and a wall just to the left of
the landing area. I struggle but still
manage a half. Members seldom compete
in stroke play events, and I now
Distracted by the pot bunkers on the
short 7th, I chunk it, giving a hole back.
The elevated tee on 8 encourages ambitious
driving, but no fewer than 12
traps are lurking out there.
The newly lengthened par-five 9th is
simply a great hole. The drive is relatively
straightforward, but the second is
a beast. With OB all the way down the
left, and five traps on the right, my host
advises a low chaser down the left side.
Apparently a member’s kick off the wall
is not unknown. Ignoring all that, I find
the first in the row of pot bunkers.
Making a rookie error, I play out
towards the green, only to find the next
trap. Then, to compound the mistake, I
do the same again.
Tip number three: when in a pot
bunker, take your punishment and
splash out sideways if that’s what it
On the back nine, the first stand-out
moment comes on the 11th. After a
blind tee shot, one walks up and over a
small rise to see the green framed by
seven bunkers and the Firth of Forth
with the snowy hills of Fife behind.
Magic. Too busy admiring the view, I
land my approach 25 yards left, on the
Gary Player reckons the par-three
13th (pictured above) to be one of golf’s
great short holes. Protected by five
bunkers, the severely sloping green is a
narrow target up in the dunes, so any
tee shot staying on the putting surface
is a triumph. I lose my ball in the
heather to the left, much to the annoyance
of a nesting curlew.
By now, the wheels are beginning to
come off. To my average club player’s
eye, with the rough down, Muirfield isn’t
an exceptionally tough driving course,
but the approaches are fiendishly difficult.
Any lapse in concentration is
At least I manage to par the 18th,
which caps a truly memorably day. I can
honestly say I have never enjoyed being
beaten up quite so much.
My advice is to beg, borrow and book
18 months ahead, but whatever you do,
don’t miss lunch at Muirfield.
Oh yes, and the course is absolutely
LUXURY ON MUIRFIELD’S DOORSTEP
Overlooking Muirfield’s 9th green, Greywalls is
the perfect country-house hotel for the discerning
golfer who appreciates Lutyens, Gertrude
Jekyll, and fine dining provided by Albert Roux.
Its Open credentials are impeccable. Gary
Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson,
Nick Faldo and Ernie Els all stayed in this 23-
room Relais & Chateaux gem while winning
their respective Muirfield Championships.
Hoping that history rubs off on them, some of
the world’s best players will be there again during
the third week of July. But after the circus
has moved on, the hotel is well worth a visit.
In contrast to other grander and more
famous golf hotels, the Edwardian Greywalls,
designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, is positively
cosy. From the whisky and cream served with
the morning porridge to the roaring log fire in
the library, and the beautiful rose garden created
by Gertrude Jekyll, the ambiance is that of a
large private house.
It also has an interesting royal connection.
Early owner Willie James married a local Scottish
girl, Evie Forbes, who was the natural daughter
of Edward VII. Their son was christened Edward,
and the King became his godfather. The King
and Court were frequent visitors, even occasioning
the building of a small addition on the south
side still known today as ‘the King’s Loo’.
The bar has a good selection of single malts
including the local Glenkinchie. Service is
impeccable, and personal, but best of all,
there’s a drying room specially designed for
soggy golf clobber.
Of course, Greywalls is the ideal base from
which to play Muirfield – there’s even a gate
leading directly to the back of the clubhouse.
But with 9 other courses within five miles,
including the three Gullane set-ups, and North
Berwick’s idiosyncratic links, there’s nowhere
better from which to explore the golfing treasures
strung along the East Lothian coast.
Contact: 01620 842144; www.greywalls.co.uk
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine