Not only has it staged The Open Championship on 15 occasions but it is also home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
The HCEG, from its first beginnings at Leith in 1744 followed by its move to Musselburgh in 1836 before finally settling at Muirfield in 1891, is one of the oldest and most influential clubs in golf.
It also drew up the original 13 rules of the game before passing them over to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews as future custodians in the late 19th century.
Originally constructed by Old Tom Morris, with the exception of some subtle revisions in 2010 and 2011, the course has changed little since the 1920’s when Harry Colt made some significant alterations thanks to new land purchased to the north of the property.
The addition of new tee boxes for championship play has also helped keep Muirfield ahead of the game when it comes to modern technology in the hands of professionals. None more evident than at the grandioso par-five ninth where new land was effectively swapped with the adjacent Renaissance Club to stretch this narrow hole, played against the prevailing wind, to 558 yards.
Today Muirfield remains a challenge to the world's great golfers and is often regarded as the fairest test of all Open Championship venues. Indeed it has produced some notable and worthy champions in the post-war era including Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo (twice), Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson.
A round of golf over this cherished links is therefore to be treasured. The Club provide two visitor days each week and these get booked up at least a year in advance. However, those electing to reserve a fourball on either a Tuesday or Thursday must part with the princely sum of £1,240 for their tee-time. At over £310 per head this rules out many golfers from enjoying a round here (myself included) but that’s not to say it doesn’t provide tremendous value because a game here is a very special experience.
And I found that out back in 2014 when I was fortunate enough to be asked by a friend to join him and a member of the Honourable Company for a round. (I have subsequently visited again in 2022 as a panellist for National Club Golfer's Top 100 in Scotland project.)
One must remember that the ethos of golf at Muirfield is two-ball match play, either singles or foursomes, other forms being discouraged but permitted on occasion; read Tuesdays and Thursdays. Therefore the proviso was that back in 2014 our group, on a members’ day, would play foursomes. No big deal. But as somebody who has been brought up on 36 hole scratch opens and prefers the ‘card and pencil’ format of the game I must admit to feeling ever so slightly tinged with regret that I’d only to get to ‘play’ half the course. Apparently a request to play a fourball had been politely declined.
As we sat in the magnificent clubhouse drinking morning coffee, and because it was a long time since I had played the alternate shot format, I was actually looking forward to a game of foursomes. However, imagine my delight when our guest, a staunch supporter of foursomes golf, calmly stated that he’d had another word with the powers that be and had been granted permission that we may play our own ball. The next 30 minutes or so were a bit of a blur and it wasn’t until I clean topped my opening drive that I started to come back down to earth.
That first tee shot was actually off the tenth (where we started our round), therefore, on the back-nine we initially worked our way around the course in a counter-clockwise direction, inside the front nine, before playing holes one to nine that run clockwise and effectively form the perimeter of the course. I mention the unusual, arguably ground-breaking, two-loop routing for a couple of reasons; the first is that most traditional links courses laid out at a similar time ran ‘out and back’ and secondly the layout means that the wind direction is always coming at you from a slightly different angle which makes club selection and ball control more difficult than normal. A gentle two-club wind greeted us that day so we experienced this first hand.
It’s no surprise that every hole at Muirfield is a strong one, each relentlessly demanding but all accepting of good and well-thought-out shots. The position of the bunkers, on both drive and approach, is truly exceptional. I lost count of the number of times I stood on a tee and there was a hazard, or group of hazards, exactly where I wanted to drive my ball for the optimum line into the green. Add to that the wispy rough that flanks most of the holes and there is a real premium on accurate driving.
The course was slightly different to my expectations in that it wasn’t quite as flat as I had imagined and there were a few more blind and semi-blind shots than I thought there would be. I liked this aspect a lot as it gave the course some real character; a splendid mix of charm and challenge.
The charm is apparent on holes such as the second, third, sixth and 11th where respectively an interesting green complex, a funnel of duneland, an ancient stone wall and a stunning backdrop add to the charisma of the course.
The challenge is omnipresent at Muirfield but nothing is hidden, all the cards are on the table and it’s as honest a course as you will play.
I truly enjoyed every hole at Muirfield. I personally thought the first, fourth, fifth, tenth, 13th, 17th and 18th were all sensational. The others were merely outstanding.
But on one starry-eyed visit alone it’s impossible to judge a course such as Muirfield. It takes multiple plays of a course of this nature to even begin to understand all its subtleties and nuances. And my return in April of 2022 when the rough was pleasingly down just confirmed my suspicion that this is a course that will only get better and better with repeated plays.
Your first round at Muirfield is more than a game of golf; it’s an unforgettable experience. It’s a memory for a lifetime on what is unquestionably a world class golf course.
If you are lucky enough to be able to play it more than once then you must grasp that opportunity with both hands.
There is something about Elie that puts you under a spell. It is a truly magical links that, after just one round, has won a place in my heart and mind forever.
There’s very little that hasn’t been written about the golfing mecca that is St. Andrews.