British Open

The Real Home Of Golf

The Open Championship at Muirfield is another reminder: visit East Lothian for great golf at a more relaxed pace

July 2013

It's a decidedly First-World tale of woe: diehard golfer returns from long-anticipated pilgrimage to Scotland, only to be unimaginably exhausted. Sure, a good time was had by all touring some of the world's great links. But 36 holes a day while navigating unfamiliar roads from the dreaded left side, followed by evenings imbibing barbecue-starter-strength scotch, generally defeats the purpose of an enlightened golf vacation.

Packing as many golf courses into a trip is understandable. After all, you never know when you'll get back. And golf addicts labor under the delusion that everyone back home wants them to reel off a who's-who list of courses. Therefore, the pilgrimage component--visiting the historic places where Scots first got hooked on this zany game, and absorbing the soul of this religion--is usually relegated to walking the streets of St. Andrews and posing Arnie-style on the Swilcan Bridge.

Enough already!

The dream golf trip to Scotland can be accomplished with far less labor and much more satisfaction by setting up in one easy-to-reach region that also happens to be one of the world's most beautiful meetings of urbanity and nature. You can knock back a pint at the oldest golf clubhouse on the planet, walk sacred grounds where the rules were created, see where the first big-money matches and tournaments were played, and even whack it around the oldest-played course in the world. For good measure, this genuine home of golf will also supply you with a world-class links, a misunderstood masterpiece, and some off-the-beaten-track beauties, all while traveling at a more relaxed pace that allows for soaking up the history, ambiance and singularity that is life in Scotland. This place is not St. Andrews.

If golf is your religion, then the only proper pilgrimage to make is to the place where the first documented rounds of golf were played, and where the world's best will once again descend for the 2013 Open Championship. Your expedition destination can be found in the real home of golf: Edinburgh and its suburban brother, East Lothian. Or, as new road signs brand East Lothian, "Scotland's Golf Coast," an apt description for the scenic terrain 30 or so minutes east of the British Isles' second-most-visited city.

No, East Lothian doesn't sing like St. Andrews, sounding more like a faux resort destination P.G. Wodehouse might have cooked up for a Drones Club weekend. Yet I implore you to find a more geographically convenient and history-rich clan of links golf.

Now, the essential pilgrimage does not have to be in the proposed order, though a wise traveler and veteran of links-golf trips will understand the rationale of opening with a couple of relaxed days before building to a conclusion. So find your way to Edinburgh first, arriving at its convenient airport just outside the city center--or even better, via the handy Waverley train station. Both locations offer car rentals. So whether you rent or take a train into the city, pick-up and drop-offs at different locations are not an issue with the rental companies as long as you don't mind the fee. Either way, you must cleanse yourself of the inevitable travel stress by dropping off your bags and heading to a central Edinburgh city park named Leith Links.

You won't need your clubs, because they haven't played golf at Leith in more than 100 years, except for one day in 1994 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. A series of plaques on the western side of today's city park commemorate the Honourable Company's original home.

It later moved up High Street to Musselburgh. Once that links got busy, the Company headed to East Lothian and stately Muirfield, host of this year's Open. Leith Links, however, was the documented location of Scotland "gouf" as far back as 1496, when the burgeoning sport was banned for interfering with the more esteemed practice of archery. But the lure of gouf was too strong, and several iterations of the Leith Links developed over the next few centuries, first from five 400-yard holes before a more playable 18-hole standard was routed. The original 13 rules of golf were developed here around 1744 and became the basis for the rules adopted and revised by the Royal & Ancient in 1754. Even the term "fore" seems to have originated at Leith, a byproduct of the park's location for cannons during and after the Siege of Leith.

Leith also hosted golf's first word-of-mouth grudge match, in 1680. An early precursor to the more notorious Bushwood showdown of Czervik-Webb versus Smails-Beeper, when caddie Danny Noonan was called on as a mid-round ringer, this one involved the Duke of York--later to become James VII of Scotland and James II of England. The future king challenged two English dukes in a dispute over which country created the sport. (England versus Scotland, of course.) Instead of enlisting a fellow aristocrat, James called on his people to locate a ringer. The Noonan to the duke's Czervik was John Paterson, a shoemaker who also made featheries and was known to gouf his ball around Leith Links as well as anyone.

Naturally, as with the infamous "Caddyshack" four-ball, the rich guy and his commoner partner won. The duke gave the winning proceeds to Paterson, who built the tenement "Golfer's Land" on the Royal Mile. That historic street remains a must-walk today, though Paterson's building is now a pub, and a large plaque commemorates the match. On the front of the fantastic Kilderkin pub sits a heraldic design piece commissioned by the duke, inscribed with the golfers' motto "Far and Sure."

Next in Edinburgh is a spin around the Bruntsfield Links, a free pitch-and-putt in the city center. With only an unmanned starter's shack, this sacred ground was once home to the Royal Burgess Golfing Society, self-declared as the world's "oldest properly constituted golf club," with origins to 1735.

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