Quite possibly the rudest club in the world?
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Last year, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers—known the world over simply as Muirfield—observed two great events: The club (1) celebrated its 275th anniversary and (2) invited women, 12 in all, to join for the first time as members. It hasn’t been announced yet, but clearing the second hurdle puts Muirfield back in the running for the 2025 Open Championship.
Hanging out with the author Peter Andrews was always a breathtaking experience. One moment he’d be complaining to European Ryder Cup captain Bernard Gallacher that the pace of play at The Belfry was “positively glacial,” and the next he’d be opining that the most overrated U.S. president was Woodrow Wilson in a walk—“Never has the peril of having a truly good man in the White House been more clearly demonstrated.” In the Golf Digest rental house at the Masters, Peter was the one wearing a red paisley, ink-stained silk robe with Chaucer’s* The Canterbury Tales *under his arm while whipping up a batch of spiked eggnog handed down by George Washington himself. Most readers thought there were actually two Peter Andrewses: the one who wrote uproarious stories for Golf Digest, and the serious historian who was a contributing editor to American Heritage. There was one and only one.
Sending Peter to play Muirfield seemed like a jolly good idea in 1992, as the Open was about to be played there. Both were larger than life, and the thought of Peter tangling with the club’s iconic secretary, Paddy Hanmer, would be the stuff of legend. Neither disappointed, but I should add that the headline “Quite Likely the Rudest Club in the World” caused a significant stir that required a changing of the guard to quell. Ten years later, when Mike O’Malley wrote one of Hanmer’s successors, Group Captain J.A. Prideaux, to inquire about an appropriate date when our photographer, Stephen Szurlej, could shoot the course for the 2002 Open preview, he received this reply:
“Mindful as I am of Golf Digest's headline for its preview of the 1992 Open at Muirfield, I am most surprised that you have the gall and temerity to seek the opportunity to photograph our golf course. ... Why in the world would you wish to return to such an organisation? However, mindful as I am that you may not have been the Executive Editor of Golf Digest in 1992, and that your headline was as inaccurate then as it is today, I would only be too pleased to welcome Mr. Szurlej.” Our shooter was welcomed as a prodigal son, and the photography was stunning.
It’s always good to see a historic club with a sense of humor. Peter’s story takes a leap back in time. One other footnote that might be of interest: The price of 18 holes back then was 40 pounds; 60 pounds for golf all day. In 2020, the first 18 is 270 pounds; 400 pounds for the day. —Jerry Tarde
This may be the oldest, longest joke in golf, so I will sweep through the narrative with seemly haste. A rather decent-looking sort of fellow appears, cap in hand, before the Club Secretary at Muirfield. The man is not a member but would like to play golf. Sheepishly, he hands over his curriculum vitae, at which the Secretary glances swiftly—Duke of Omnium. Church of England. Eaton and Caius College, Cambridge. Sandhurst. Coldstream Guards. Mentioned in dispatches, V.C., D.S.O., V.S.O.P. Related to the Queen Mother through his aunt, Marchioness of Orpington.
The Secretary’s brow unbeetles, and he allows, “You may play nine holes.” As the fellow, awash with gratitude, rushes to fetch his clubs, the Secretary adds, “The back nine, of course.”
You’ll notice that the principal character in this little passion play is not His Quaking Grace, but the Club Secretary. This is as it should be. You can always stroll along the Duke’s sculpted shrubbery by paying a small fee on visitors’ day. But nothing can get you memberless on Muirfield unless the Club Secretary says so.
The joke is exaggerated, as all jokes are. But not by much.
Every golfer who has ever traveled with clubs to Scotland has a story to tell about Muirfield, whether or not he was granted nine holes. Usually it is punctuated by an insult, a slammed telephone, or an imperious stare. American members tell tales of being “dressed down” in front of their guests. Visitors are accused of trying to abscond without paying for their pullcarts. Golfers routinely are made to wait an hour or more, even though the first tee is empty. The club, after all, has a reputation to live up to. Muirfield is known, among golf insiders, as the rudest club in the world.
Consider the following true stories about banishment from Muirfield, or stories that have been printed in the British press, at any rate. Being true and being published in the British press are not always precisely the same thing. But the stories will give you something of the flavor of Muirfield’s stern exclusivity.
—The Prince of Wales, more famous later at the Duke of Windsor, once tried to play at Muirfield and was denied.
—Newly crowned U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart, in Great Britain to prepare for playing in the British Open, was denied permission to play because the course was already too crowded with members. Stewart played the nearby No. 1 course in Gullane, and from the seventh tee, he could look down and see Muirfield. It was flat empty.
—Tom Watson, winner of the 1980 British Open at Muirfield, was thrown off the same grounds where he had secured the third of his five British Open victories a few hours earlier. The reason: Braced with a celebratory drink, he was flailing at a ball with an old wood-shafted club. Chucked along with Watson were Ben Crenshaw, Tom Weiskopf and their wives.
—The women of the American Curtis Cup team were denied use of the facilities at Muirfield and were told to use the bathroom at a nearby hotel.
—Years later, a woman was thrown out of the dining room at the same hotel because Muirfield was using it as a temporary clubhouse, and the Muirfield dining room is for men only.
—The Edinburgh Press Club had a small golf outing, but when a few of their members failed to appear for the dinner afterward, the group was told not to come back again.
As a little object lesson in how denials, explanations and acquittals never quite catch up with the charges, we’ll let those sit there for a moment. Some background is required. A great deal, in fact, for the Muirfield member is to golf what George Washington was to the presidency of the United States. Both were the first of their kind, establishing precedent with each step they took.
The Muirfield Course, hard by the Firth of Forth, is the home of and owned by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, founded in 1744, a decade before the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The original course was laid out in Leith, moved to Musselburgh in 1836, and then rebuilt at the present site in 1891.
Not surprising, the first Company leader was a lawyer, and the winner of the first competition was a doctor. Together the Company wrote down the first Rules of Golf, 13 in all, which were later copied by the R&A. And wonderful rules they are. No. 3 states, “You are not to change the ball you strike off the tee,” and No. 10 says, “If a ball be stopped by any person, horse, dog, or anything else, the ball so stopped must be played where it lies.” I have cleaned up some of the 18th-century spelling, but that is really all you need to know about the Rules of Golf. Everything else is extra.
It has been pointed out that it is in keeping with the natural perversity of the Scots that they were the first to perfect the game of golf and also the first to pass a law against playing it.
The Honourable Company went that concept one better. They were the first to gather some fellows to play golf. One 18th-century account explains: “The greatest and wisest of the land were to be seen … mingling freely with the humblest mechanics in pursuit of their common and beloved amusement. All distinctions of rank were leveled by the joyest spirit of the game.” Remember that sentiment. It gets important later on.
The Honourable Company was also the first to throw people off the golf course. The early competitions were open to all noblemen, gentlemen or “other golfers.” In 1764, however, persons “of bad fame or such as are no fit company for Gentlemen” started showing up. Henceforth, it was Honourables only. Walls were going up and doors were closing.
The history of the Honourable Company can and have filled volumes, but you get the idea. These are men who are carrying on a golf tradition of more than three centuries, and they do not take their responsibilities lightly. Perhaps they take those responsibilities with too heavy a hand, but to them the abiding sin is not overemphasis on history but neglect of it.
Today’s members are a mixed lot of professionals. There are very few Lords of the Manor around. The members tend to be successful at whatever their calling, be it the law or horse training. They don’t care much for “pots,” so there are few trophies about. If you win the Spring or Autumn medal, you get to hold it for a moment and then return it. Someone etches your name on it, and then the medal gets thrown back on a shelf. It has been said that if a member came into the smoking room and announced that he had just shot the course in under par, some other member would ask him, “Why?”
The members care even less about handicaps. One member told me he doubted if more than half of the Company’s 625 members had a Muirfield handicap at all. “Why count?” he said. Besides, handicaps don’t mean much when you play foursomes (two playing against two, with each side playing one ball in alternate shots), which is just about all they play at Muirfield. A typical Muirfield members’ day is a foursomes round, followed by a lengthy stay at the carving board for a buffet lunch and drinks, followed by afternoon foursomes. Muirfield is known at some clubs as the “2½, 2½, 2½ place,” where the members play golf for 2½ hours, have lunch for 2½ hours, and then play golf again for another 2½ hours. It makes for a grand day.
What Muirfield members do care passionately about is their club and their privacy. To protect them they hire a Club Secretary. Conceivably, they could have put a pair of mastiffs to guard the door, but mastiffs can’t write checks or set up afternoon matches the way the Club Secretary is expected to do, although they frequently display the same dogged determination. There have been eight secretaries at Muirfield since Major G.H. Holt first took on the job in 1933. While each man has been different, each has shared a number of characteristics. A military man, usually. Depending on his time period, he is the sort of officer who sits a horse well, knows his way about the deck of a ship, or is comfortable at the controls of a high-performance jet. He can be matey or imperious as the fancy takes him. The decision is entirely his, and at Muirfield, he has mostly opted for the latter.
The first great post-World War II Club Secretary was a former Cavalry Colonel, Brian Evans-Lombe, who served from 1945 to 1964. It was said Evans-Lombe surveyed the course with a telescope, and if he spotted anyone from a trespassing picnicker to a golfer improperly replacing a divot, Evans-Lombe climbed aboard his bicycle and pedaled furiously over fairways to administer a tongue-lashing to the miscreant.
The Colonel’s short temper was legendary and knew few bounds. Early one Sunday morning, in a rare moment of bonhomie, he went up to an unfamiliar figure sitting alone in the lounge and offered to make the stranger welcome by asking whose guest he was. When the gentleman told Evans-Lombe he had been a member of good standing for more than 20 years, the Colonel was plused for the barest moment. “In that event,” he said with some frost, “you should come here more often, then I would recognize you.”
Colonel George Esme, a Gordon Highlander and Club Secretary from 1964 to 1968, is remembered by one club historian for carrying out his duties “with efficiency and an aroma of Turkish tobacco,” but no serious incident.
Then came Navy Captain P.W.T. (Paddy) Hanmer, whose reign of almost 20 years had roughly the same effect on Muirfield as Peter the Great did on the Court of the Romanovs. He was an expansive and explosive personality. Most of the famous Muirfield stories are told about Hanmer. Some are genuine, and some were the kind of myths that were hung on him the way malapropisms were hung on Sam Goldwyn. It was Hanmer who dismissed Watson and the ladies “teetering about.” As they say in English novels, more of that later.
He once brought Dave Marr up short. Hanmer was instructing another American professional on his conduct at Muirfield while Marr stood directly behind him. Hanmer then turned to repeat his litany to Marr, who told him in his easygoing Texas manner, “I was listening when you told him.”
Hanmer gave Marr his best sea-dog look. “You will listen again,” he said.
Like Evans-Lombe, Paddy Hanmer was not in awe of the membership. He once shouted at a member who was playing too slowly for Paddy’s taste. “Are you waiting for inspiration or have you been suddenly taken ill?” Paddy shouted. Play speeded up.
Unlike Evans-Lombe, Paddy preferred binoculars to the telescope. But when visitors tried to come aboard, the effect could be deadly. And unlike Admiral Nelson, who professed to see nothing in his glass, Hanmer would sweep the course and discern swarms of members filling it to overflowing.
Peter Alliss recalls being in Paddy’s office one day when the Secretary fielded a call from a prominent American surgeon who had written in for permission to play three months hence. “No, we cannot accommodate you,” Paddy said brusquely and hung up. “We have members playing an eight-man round robin that afternoon,” he said. “More than enough play for one day.”
Although Paddy today admits that a few members still will not speak to him, for all his gruff and grum, he is frequently remembered with affection as a mildly eccentric but effective Club Secretary. “Paddy’s bark was worse than his bite,” says one member. “You could always make it right with Paddy over a glass of sherry.”
Not so with Major J.G. Vanreenen, formerly of the Royal Engineers, who was all bite. The mustachioed Major, according to one man who had a number of run-ins with him, “was frightened about doing his job properly and wound up backfiring on everybody.” He once accosted Paul Azinger, who was chatting with friends near the entrance to the clubhouse, “In deference to me, will you take your kaffe klatching elsewhere.” This is simple rudeness, and the sort of thing a person can do just because he can get away with it. Those few members who knew how to handle Vanreenen would chide him, “Ah, Major, I see you’ve been to charm school again.”
Vanreenen, who gave up his membership at Muirfield to serve as Club Secretary until a suitable replacement for Hanmer could be found, is now a member again. His secretaryship is remembered by most in and outside the club simply as “a nasty piece of business.”
The present Secretary, Group Captain J.A. Prideaux, who came aboard in 1990, is cut from a softer bolt of cloth. “My style is very different,” he says in a soft English voice. Although he makes it clear that if his style were the same, that would be perfectly all right with the membership. As it has always been, the Secretary’s first task is “to look after the members’ interest.”
A quiet flying officer, whose last assignment with the R.A.F. was to train navy pilots—“We’d get them started out right, and then they’d go to pieces”—doesn’t bustle about very much. In two years on the job, he recalls only once having to go on the course and warn a quartet of visitors about slow play, which put them one hole away from expulsion.
Captain Prideaux’s most public task is dealing with some 20,000 requests a year from outside visitors wanting to play. Unlike Hanmer, who loved to jaw with callers, Prideaux leaves most of that sort of thing to his secretary with the unlikely name of Mrs. Mustard, “as in salt and pepper,” she says. As one member described it, “It is a daily deluge from self-important golfers all over the world, each of whom thinks he has a special reason he should be allowed to play.” Muirfield gets a dozen of those every day. The advice to all is the same: “Write a letter demonstrating your club affiliation and a handicap of 18 or lower, and we will try to accommodate you.” It will not be an easy task. Muirfield accommodates approximately 6,000 visitors a year. This is no small consideration. Visitors’ fees generate about 300,000 pounds, or well over half a million dollars, making it possible for members of the Honourable Company to enjoy membership on one of the best golf courses in the world for under $1,000 a year. (Visitors generally have the option of playing in the morning, when four-ball is allowed, at a rate of 45 pounds; all-day play runs 60 pounds.)
Now, about those stories.
—No one at Muirfield remembers refusing the Prince of Wales, but it is well within character of the club to have done so. Muirfield is a two-class society: (1) Members and their guests, and (2) everyone else. Besides, Eddie was not considered a nice fellow to play golf with.
—The Payne Stewart business was an unfortunate mix-up. A third party had called and spoken to a switchboard operator who was reading from a list that showed no openings. If the club had known Stewart wanted to play, he probably would have been accommodated. If Stewart saw Muirfield empty, Prideaux explains, he must have been looking at it during lunchtime, when the members were refreshing themselves. Just a misunderstanding. However, misunderstandings, like marital disputes, rarely happen unless at least one side wants one.
—The Tom Watson story. Yes, Paddy did rag the champion, but he says he had gotten a call about possible vandalism on the course and came upon the Americans in the dark twilight not recognizing them at first. The whole thing, Paddy said, was smoothed over at the bar with a glass of gin.
—If the Curtis Cup women were directed to the adjacent hotel, it should be remembered that Greywalls, one of the finest hotels in Scotland, is contiguous to the Muirfield clubhouse. Muirfield is a men’s club with scant facilities for women. Prideaux points out that this year the women’s restrooms have been doubled, to two. Asking women to use Greywalls would be like directing them away from the public toilet at Grand Central Station to the Waldorf Astoria.
—The lady in the dining room at the Greywalls. This is the only story Prideaux gets hot about. “Greywalls was entirely closed for the winter and Muirfield, which was undergoing kitchen renovations, had taken over the dining room as a club facility entirely staffed by our own personnel. The Greywalls Hotel simply was not open,” he says.
—The Edinburgh Press Club. Who doesn’t want to keep the press off their golf course?
Muirfield does not mind having the reputation for being difficult. The Company rather enjoys it. But Hanmer thinks that its reputation for being snobbish is exactly wrong. Remembering the days when noblemen and mechanics played together, the question is not who you are but are you a good chap on the golf course? Handicap, wealth or social position alone do not ensure this.
For years under Hanmer there was an annual visitor foursome headed up by Bogel, the Butcher from Biggar, and three friends with solid single-digit handicaps.
“Money should not be the determining factor on getting to Muirfield,” Hanmer recalls. “I remember letting on a young lad with a shabby bag but a good swing. After the morning round, I saw him in the dining room having lunch with three former captains of the R&A.”
Even Hanmer with all his ferocity could be gotten around. In retirement, the rotund Hanmer now looks like the sort of man you would want to have play Father Christmas in the annual pageant. Today, he prefers jolly stories.
“There was a fellow from Idaho,” Hanmer recalls, “who came to me with no previous arrangements to play. I told him he couldn’t get on, but he hung around all morning to see if there were any cancellations. I told him no, and it wouldn’t matter if there were, he still couldn’t play. After lunch the fellow was still there and came round with a camera and said he wanted to take my picture. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to show the folks at home a picture of the man who kept him off Muirfield. I thought that was the best story I’d heard in all my time. I told him to get his kit and go out and play.”
The whole 19 holes. What the hell.