muirfield - 19 POINTS
Muirfield. Just the name itself to many conjures up images of a terribly old fashioned bastion of chauvinism and a place where outsiders are unwelcome. This is the oldest golf club in the world so what else do you expect? The reality of my visits there has been far from such an experience. The welcome has never been anything but warm and the course is actually very accessible for both men and women, with just a little planning.
I live only a few hundred yards from Muirfield but the course has a very low profile in the village which centres around the three courses of Gullane. Muirfield isn't visible from the main road and is very discretely positioned at the end of a dead end road. The only signpost on the main A198 is for Greywalls hotel which looks over the course.
On arriving at the course you will receive a very warm welcome from the senior starter who will tick you off on his list, shake your hands and show you through to the changing rooms which look over the 18th green. Pause to look at the notices on the board to get a little insight into the goings on of one of the most 'traditional' courses in the UK. The names of the members itself is like a who's who of the Scottish establishment, you will see notice of members guest's green fees (currently £5!) and very interesting a monthly rainfall chart going back several years. Fascinating stuff!
You will then be asked to see the secretary who will ask you to sign the book and she will enquire as to whether you are lunching and would like to play foursomes in the afternoon. I would encourage you to answer 'yes' to both to get the full Muirfield experience. Now, there is no pro shop at Muirfield (yet, it’s coming soon!) so if you need to stock up on gloves, Mars bars and spare waterproofs then you need to check in at the Gullane pro shop at the other end of the village.
There's a very nice range to warm up on - something you don't get at many links courses in the UK - and an expansive putting green. Play for visitors is on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from the 1st and 10th tees. Try to start from the 1st if you can.
The course itself is very highly regarded by many. The list of Open Champions here is an extremely impressive one - probably the best there is. The post-war Open winners at Muirfield reads Cotton, Player, Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, Faldo, Faldo, Els, Mickelson - it's the kind of course where the cream evidently rises to the top!
If I'm being very honest I would say that my appreciation for Muirfield has grown over time. The first time I played it I wasn't that sure what the fuss was all about. There was little spectacular about it - no sweeping views of the coast - and my initial view was that this course was just too tough to be really enjoyable. The bunkers are really very penal at times and the rough can be brutal.
But over time I have enjoyed it more and more.The course runs in two circles, the front nine clockwise and then the second nine running anticlockwise inside the front. It's an unusual routing but one which means that you never have a wind into you for too long and you are constantly shifting perspective on the course.The bunkers are crazy difficult to get out of at times but you have to take your medicine and accept them for what they are, true hazards. Even the rough isn't as bad as on that first play. We got very unlucky the first time in that it was a really wet summer and so they had not been able to get into cut it for some weeks, hence the problems. Well worth checking the rainfall calendar to see what you are in for!
There is only one blind shot on the course, the tee shot at 11 and there is nothing really tricked up. It is a tough track but never feels the slog of Carnoustie or the torture or Royal Lytham. There are definitely holes where if you play sensibly you can score on. For example the 2nd, 3rd and 5th can all present birdie chances , especially if you have the prevailing westerly wind. But of course some of the holes are real challenges. The par 3 4th and 13th are both as tough as you will come across if you miss the greens on the wrong side and par 4s like the 8th, 10th and 14th will be at the limits of the ability of most amateur golfers. I would encourage you to watch this preview of the course to give you a good feel of what is to come before venturing out, forewarned is forearmed!
All in all I Muirfield would be a tremendous addition to any visit to Scotland and there are many other fantastic courses in the area to make up an awesome tour.
It is a traditional club for sure, but then again it is the oldest in the world. In my experience you really will not be made to feel uncomfortable and you will remember the experience for the rest of your days.
BOOKING THE COURSE
A little planning is required if you are going to play Muirfield in high season. The course is open to visitors on Tuesday and Thursdays. There is a two tee start on both days from 8.30am to 9.50am - that means there are almost 2,000 available fourballs a year. Tee times are released roughly twelve months in advance, although in my experience it tends to be a little less than that. You can book everything online here. In reality, if you want to play outside of the May - September period you will be able to get a tee time at relatively short notice, in the high summer you really do need to plan up to a year ahead. You won't normally find Muirfield as part of any other packages or the like, however if you stay at Greywalls Hotel they do have a very limited number of times available on a Monday or Friday if you are staying at the hotel for three nights so worth trying that route if you are really stuck although you won't get access to the clubhouse for lunch!
The green fee is £250 a round in the summer months, £110 in the winter. In the summer though you have the option on the day to pay another £100 per person to play a second round - rather than decide up front you can decide on the day should you wish. The only catch is that the second round can only be played with 2 balls so if you are a four then you need to play foursome (alternate shots) in the afternoon. This is actually the usual game played at Muirfield by the members and it is quite an art to see it in action. Player 2 will walk to where they expect Player 1's shot to land so they are ready to hit when player 1 has teed off and so on. It makes for an incredibly fast round of golf and is great fun. I'm not sure I would want to play it every day but after a long Muirfield lunch (see below) it is a great format.
Firstly, the other Muirfield stuff. You do need to wear a jacket and tie if you are choosing to lunch but not otherwise. Mobile phones are not allowed for making calls but don't have any worries about asking the starter to take a picture or use it for GPS, you won't be drummed off of the property.
I would encourage you to spend the day at Muirfield rather than chasing for a second round. Instead do the lunch and then foursome in the afternoon. The dining room is a bit like a formal university dining room. Everyone wears a blazer and tie and is seated at long tables next to fellow guests and members. There is then a classic old school British three course lunch. Following a soup or cold plate starter there is an immense carvery awaiting, regardless of time of year. Lamb, beef and pork (all from Anderson's butchers in North Berwick) are carved for you with a roast potato and yorkshire pudding on the side. If you have room after that then there is a good stodgy pudding waiting. The beer is drawn into dimpled glasses and the wine is very reasonably priced. Do look at the memorabilia in the dining room - including a replica of Augusta clubhouse gifted by Augusta National - being retiring to the lounge for a coffee or Kummel and then heading out for a swift round of foursomes.
I should say that women are able to book a tee time just as any man can and from what I understand they are allowed the lunch as well so the treatment is now identical.
So, let's assume you have got a day planned at Muirfield - where else should you add to make the perfect trip? North Berwick has to be the first name down on the list - my review should make it clear how much I love it and you will probably leave North Berwick with a broader smile on your face than you will have at Muirfield. Next up I would say Gullane 1, host to the 2015 Scottish Open and a course which looks down on Muirfield with fantastic views over Edinburgh and across to Fife. Those three would be the ultimate anchor courses to a tour but they will take a little advance planning to co-ordindate in advance.
If you have time for some more you can choose to go to two of Scotland's very rare truly private clubs - the Renaissance or Archerfield where you will find 2 courses, the Fidra and Dirleton. Archerfield is more playable for sure and you need to be a long hitter at the top of your game to enjoy Renaissance. Both are very expensive to play though as they are more members clubs with 'one time playing' opportunities.
If you want to play more traditional East Lothian courses then Dunbar, Gullane 2 or 3, Luffness, Kilspindie and The Glen are all close by but will be nice additions to a tour.
In terms of where to stay you have many options. If you are going high end then a night or two in Greywalls would be nice. It overlooks Muirfield, has a wonderful Albert Roux restaurant and some great memorabilia on the walls. However, it is most definitely priced and feels high end, you are also a little way from any other nightlife or action. Muirfield is on the outskirts of Gullane but within walking distance. There are rooms at the Bonnie Badger (formerly the Golf Inn before top chef Tom Kitchen took it over) or the Mallard Hotel as well as several B&Bs. When it comes to eating I would say that the Main Course is your best bet - a great Italian with wonderful staff. The aforoementioned Bonnie Badger is a gastropub with London prices and a nice place to have a drink too. In the summer be sure to find the beer garden at the rear.
The Old Clubhouse pub and restaurant overlooks the children's course in the centre of the village and while the food isn’t quite up to the standard of the others, the view from the patio is great. and there are rooms at the Golf Inn or the Mallard Hotel as well as several B&Bs. While there's not much choice of restaurants in the village the Main Course is a nice Italian as well as the Golf Inn where you'll also get a good pint. The Old Clubhouse pub and restaurant overlooks the children's course in the centre of the village.
So there are several diversions in Gullane but you will have more choice of eating, drinking and sleeping if you take the 10 minute drive to North Berwick which has more of a seaside feel, sitting on a lovely beach and harbour.