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Old Glory

To commemorate 150 years of the British Open, our man toured every venerable venue, past and present

July 2010

In the century and a half since it began, the British Open has been played on just 14 courses: seven in Scotland, six in England and one in Northern Ireland. That list seems so modest that an ambitious golfer might be tempted to try to play them all, like a birder crossing warblers off a life list. I know that's possible because last spring -- in anticipation of the Open's sesquicentennial, which will be celebrated at St. Andrews in July -- I tackled the lot, in a single, two-week trip.

My Open tour was infinitely easier to execute than any equivalent American pilgrimage would have been. The geographical area bounded by the British rota would fit inside Texas, and all 14 courses -- unlike most of the 51 that have hosted the U.S. Open -- are accessible to unaccompanied strangers. Still, the logistics were more than I thought I could handle on my own, so I got help from Joe Dwyer, of Celtic Golf, who planned my itinerary. I wouldn't recommend my Open tour as a model for leisurely golf travel, because I put more than a thousand miles on three rental cars, lugged my clubs back and forth across the Irish Sea and stayed in eight hotels. But I had an unforgettable trip, and I even managed to squeeze in a few bonus rounds, off the books.

My tour began at Musselburgh's Old Course, less than 20 miles from Edinburgh Airport. Musselburgh has just nine holes, and the Open hasn't been played there since 1889, and most of the course is contained within an active horse racetrack (which dates to the early 1800s). But there are excellent reasons to visit, among them the fact that last year Guinness World Records named Musselburgh the oldest continuously played golf course in the world. The Guinness citation is based on a written record kept by an Edinburgh lawyer named Sir John Foulis, who played on March 2, 1672, and lost three pounds, five shillings -- a significant sum at the time, even for a lawyer -- in a match with several "golfe" buddies. (No one doubts that the game is centuries older than that, but Foulis' ledger page is the oldest known document that places a specific player at a specific time on a course that still exists.) I played with Allan Minto, who is the golf development officer of the East Lothian Council, and a young mom named Ruth Carroll. Minto held the course record, 64 -- a remarkable score, made more remarkable by the fact that he shot it with hickory-shafted clubs. I borrowed a hickory set from the secretary-manager and did not threaten Minto's record. My favorite hole was the fourth (originally the third), a long par 4 called Mrs. Forman's. It plays alongside and across the racetrack, and it was named for a pub that stands just beyond the green. There used to be a window through which a golfer could order a pint before teeing off on the following hole, a par 3; now you have go around to the front door. Old Tom Morris once angrily disappeared into the bar during a match with Willie Park Sr. -- who won the first Open, in 1860, with a 36-hole score of 174, in a field that consisted of just eight competitors -- after becoming fed up with the spectators, who were vocal Park partisans. Golf was so popular in Musselburgh in those days that townspeople sometimes teed off 12 at a time.

Between 1836 and 1891, Musselburgh was the headquarters of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the world's oldest golf organization. (Its members created the game's first written rules, in 1744, when the group was based in Leith.) In 1891, the Honourable Company moved from Musselburgh to Muirfield, a dozen miles to the east, and hired Old Tom Morris to create a private course. Today, Muirfield has an undeserved reputation for hostility to outsiders. It's true that visitors are limited to specific tee times on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the club welcomes thousands of unaccompanied nonmembers every year, and you can make your reservations online, at muirfield.org.uk.

The golf course -- which is mostly the work of Harry S. Colt, who reshaped and enlarged Morris' original layout in 1928, and Tom Simpson, who removed a hundred of Colt's bunkers a few years later -- is every bit as good as people say it is, although the most appealing activity on the grounds might be hanging around the clubhouse. Alastair Brown, the secretary, described Muirfield to me (over lunch) as "a lunching club with a golf course attached to it." An ideal day at Muirfield, he said, was once described as "two-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, two-and-a-half": a brisk 18-hole foursomes match in the morning, followed by a 2-hour lunch, followed by a brisk 18-hole foursomes match in the afternoon. In the United States, foursomes is usually known as Scotch foursomes or alternate shot; it's the No. 1 game at Muirfield. The club has its own handicapping system, named after C.J.Y. Dallmeyer, a club captain in the 1950s, who invented it: If you go 3 up in a match, you give strokes to your opponents until you're back to 1 up.

You have to wear a jacket and tie in the Muirfield dining room, but the atmosphere is seductively informal, and even visitors are encouraged to linger. No table has fewer than six chairs, an arrangement that forces groups of golfers to mix, and the food is served cafeteria-style. Diners who don't live in fear of their cardiologists sometimes bypass lunch and move straight from the bar to the dessert table, where the specialties include rhubarb crumble, sticky toffee pudding, and ice cream from S. Luca of Musselburgh, a locally famous dairy. Muirfield's locker room has modern, car-wash-caliber showers, like the ones at Merion and Pine Valley, but the other amenities are distinctly old school, among them a pair of wood dressing tables, each furnished with a shaving mirror, a nail file on a chain, and a single hairbrush and comb (but no beaker of blue Barbicide).

In the mid-19th century, the only major Scottish golf organization that wasn't based in Musselburgh was the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The R&A is less ancient than the Honourable Company, but it now rules the game everywhere in the world except the United States and Mexico. It's the outfit that puts on the Open, and its clubhouse is the bank-shaped hunk of stone and glass that looms above the first tee of the Old Course -- which I played the next day. My group included an American university student from St. Louis, whose name was Walker. He had transferred to St. Andrews from Duke -- with the enthusiastic approval of his father, a member at Bellerive -- and had been pursuing an unofficial year-long elective in the Old Course, as a supplement to his thesis research on David Hume. At the beginning of the school year, he said, he had paid 170 for a student golf ticket, which allowed him to play any Links Trust course whenever he felt like it, ho-hum. As we stood on the first tee, the wind was blowing so hard from the left that the starter advised a petite woman in the group ahead of ours to aim her tee shot well into the 18th fairway, so that the gale and her presumed slice would bring her ball safely back into play; she aimed where he pointed, then power-hooked her drive very nearly onto Old Station Road.

The next day, in spectacular weather, I played Carnoustie, on the other side of the Firth of Tay, an hour's drive from St. Andrews. I joined two other Americans: Robert, who was about 50, and David, who was 20 years older and had been Robert's high school principal. Both had lost their wives a couple of years before and had consoled each other partly by taking golf trips together. The three of us had met (we realized) in the dining room at Muirfield two days before, so we shared an interest in sticky toffee pudding.

Carnoustie is probably associated most closely with Ben Hogan, who won by four strokes there in 1953, in the only Open he ever entered. In that era, the Open was a three-day tournament, with a 36-hole finish. Hogan birdied the sixth hole, a par 5, twice on the final day, after taking an aggressive line between a pair of fairway bunkers and a boundary fence -- a route that has been known ever since as Hogan's Alley. I first played Carnoustie in 1992 -- at which point it hadn't hosted an Open for 17 years, primarily because the course and the town were unequipped to handle modern tournament crowds. The course got the Open again in 1999 after the construction of the phenomenally unattractive Carnoustie Golf Hotel, which stands like the Hoover Dam directly behind the 18th green. The food in the hotel is worse than the service, and vice versa, but the course is one of the world's greatest, and returning it to the rota was one of the best decisions ever made by the R&A. On the day we played, the gorse bushes were covered with electric-yellow blossoms, and the clouds looked as though they had been brought over for the afternoon from Paris, and nobody cared what anybody shot.

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