Golf at its Best in East Lothian

Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, is undoubtedly one of Europe’s tidiest and most civilized cities. But for avid golfers intent on experiencing one of the most fascinating precincts in the Home of Golf, it is first and foremost the gateway to East Lothian. A 45-minute drive east of the city lies one of the most authentic and welcoming golf destinations anywhere.

For starters, there’s Gullane, a charming little village that has unashamedly given itself over to golf. Gullane Golf Club, a 54-hole facility (three eighteens plus a 6-hole children’s course), is a gathering place for locals and visitors alike that musters more enthusiasm for the game than the law allows. There can be few better introductions to Scottish golf than Gullane No. 1, a bracing journey that begins at sea level before climbing a large, conical hill. Along with a sturdy challenge—golfers march nearly single file up the narrow, steeply pitched fairway of the par-four second, called Windygate–the layout’s topmost holes, notably the pinnacle at the seventh tee, offer stirring panoramas of the steeples of Edinburgh, the broad expanse of the Firth of Forth and, on a clear day, 14 counties, including Fife, home of St. Andrews. What a place to take a deep, bracing breath of air as it rushes up the hill off the sea!

Gullane No. 1: A classic East Lothian links

In addition to the superb and varied test of golf it presents, Gullane No. 1, an Open qualifying venue in the years when the Open Championship is held at nearby Muirfield, has what British author and designer Donald Steel calls “the dash of adventure.” There are slopes and undulations to be negotiated here that are not found on flatter seaside courses. Also, the treeless mount on which the course was etched by Willie Park in 1892 is routinely buffeted by a tangy sea breeze that seems to get stronger the higher one ascends. The vintage No. 2 (1898) and No. 3 (1910) courses at Gullane are shorter, less taxing but no less enjoyable than the king of the hill.

A few miles east of Gullane is North Berwick (pronounced Berrick), its West Links arguably the most sporting and enchanting links ever devised by man and nature. The card—6,464 yards, par 71—gives no indication of the many endearingly eccentric holes to be found on this extraordinary links, which dates to 1832. There are greens guarded by stone walls (at the 13th, called Pit), outrageous blind shots (both on the drive and approach at the par-four 14th, Perfection) and a green (the 16th) with a six-foot-deep trough in its center. There are also lovely views of the Firth of Forth and its rocky islands. The best-known hole at North Berwick and probably the most copied par three in the world is the 15th, the Redan, its tilted plateau green skewed to the line of play and defended in front by a menacing bunker. As it has for decades, this hole will appear to be a conundrum wrapped inside an enigma to the hundreds of elite competitors who will arrive in June, when North Berwick co-hosts the British Amateur with Muirfield. More than a test for the best from the tips, the West Links is a playable antique, an oddball charmer that presents holiday golf at its finest.

After tackling the West Links, an afternoon round should be scheduled on the East Links, a.k.a. Glen Golf Club, a sporty 6,079-yard, par-69 layout that ascends a plateau and serves up stupendous views of Bass Rock, one of the world’s largest bird sanctuaries. Back on land, ancient castle ruins loom into view at the far end of the course. The 13th, a par three called the Sea Hole, drops from an elevated tee to a green sited at the edge of a cliff. Depending on the breeze, this thrilling hole, much like the seventh at Pebble Beach, can require a pitching wedge one day and a 3-iron the next. A headlands course rarely patronized by Americans, the East Links was expanded by James Braid from nine to 18 holes in 1906. It is one of East Lothian’s hidden delights.

And then there’s the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, a.k.a. Muirfield, the oldest golf club in continuous existence (1744). It is also, hands down, the starchiest and most exclusive club in Scotland. One does not decide on a whim to show up at Muirfield for a friendly game. One writes months in advance with handicap data and a flexible range of dates, which are confined mainly to Tuesdays and Thursdays. Assuming the golf gods have smiled on one’s humble entreaty, one arrives suitably attired in coat and tie. One dresses for golf in the visitors’ locker room and plays, shot for shot, the finest, fairest and most flawlessly conditioned course in Scotland. Two contrasting loops of nine holes box the compass, inviting the wind from all directions. Thick rough and sod-walled bunkers punish the wayward. The subtly undulating greens are firm and true. The course is all of one piece: There are no truly outstanding holes, but neither is there a klinker among the 18. Superlative is the word, even if the links is, ahem, slightly removed from the sea.  Honest and straightforward in its presentation of challenges, Muirfield has hosted 15 British Opens and has produced many great champions, from Harry Vardon to Tom Watson. It is, as my Jim Finegan has remarked, “awash in lore.”

A stylized bunker at redoubtable Muirfield

After the morning round, players who’ve made the necessary arrangements can freshen up, put the coat and tie back on, and enjoy the famous Muirfield lunch, a memorable six-course repast. After lunch, it’s back onto the course for an afternoon of Scotch foursomes–partners play alternate shots. It’s a delightful, social game that takes three hours or less. Need a final, ringing endorsement before you’ll jump through the hoops to play this unassailably great links? Consider that Jack Nicklaus chose Muirfield when it came time to name his Village in Ohio.

The supporting cast in East Lothian is strong. Heading the list is Luffness New, a delightful par-69 layout that may prove short for big hitters but which gives pleasure to average players. The bunkers are well-sited, the greens are perfect. Many describe it as a junior version of Muirfield.

Dunbar, easternmost of the East Lothian courses, is a very old club (1856) set along the North Sea. The first three holes are inland, as is the 18th, but the core of the links traces the curve of the rocky shore. Dunbar, an Open qualifying course, is generally the windiest links in the region.

Midway between Dunbar and North Berwick is East Lothian’s newest venue, Whitekirk, a 6,526-yard, par-72 links unveiled in 1995 that shows no trace of its recent vintage. Laid out on high ground set back from the coast, the course nevertheless shares the characteristics of a links. Course designer Cameron Sinclair, a young Scot, used the natural water hazards and considerable movement in the ground to produce a solid test that becomes something more than that on a windy day. The views over the Firth of Forth and Tantallon Castle are inspiring.

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