As the first round of the Open Championship at the Muirfield Golf Club in Gullane, Scotland proceeds, I thought I’d take a look at some of my experiences at the club. I first visited and played Muirfield in 1972, a few weeks before Lee Trevino would win the Open at this club about 45 minutes east of Edinburgh. This was during my initial visit to Scotland. I’ve been there some 25 times since.
I hadn’t made any arrangements to play the course. I was a young man on the hunt for the famous and not so famous links in Scotland. It was clear that golf was very much part of the larger culture there. One afternoon I’d had lunch in an Edinburgh restaurant and overhead two young women discussing where they hoped to get their first appointments as teachers. They were hoping they would get jobs near golf courses. I figured their chances were good; courses are everywhere in Scotland. Muirfield was my links of choice for the moment.
So it was that I took the train out from Waverley Station in Edinburgh and showed up at the club one morning. I had a full, scruffy beard and very long hair. Soon I asked for the legendary P.W. T “Paddy” Hanmer. The curmudgeonly club secretary was not amused. The Irish writer Dermot Gilleece tells the story of another fellow who showed up at Muirfield without having made prior arrangements. Gilleece referred to this as “effrontery on the order of a country fiddler asking to play with the London Philharmonic.”
Hanmer, retired from the Royal Navy where he was a Captain, wasn’t interested in my wish to play Muirfield. But I groveled. I begged. I told him I knew my way around a links, and that I had read up on the history of the club, known more formally as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. I was aware that the Open was soon coming to Muirfield, and told Hanmer that I would show the utmost respect for the course. I informed him that I was a low-handicap golfer.
Finally Hanmer told me that one member often shows up at the club around 10 AM, and that if he agreed to accompany me, then I could play. I waited and the gentleman did show up. He didn’t say much, but he did say I could come along as he played. Soon I was on the first tee, taking a few practice swings. I looked up, and who was there? Captain Hanmer. He wanted to be sure I could get the ball off the tee.
I made sure I took a few practice swings so that he would at least be aware that I knew one end of the club from the other and could swish a blade of grass and finish in balance. Then I hit my tee shot. Luckily for me, it was a good one. The ball bounded down the rock-hard first fairway. I’m pleased to see that Muirfield is firm for this week’s Open. Only a moment ago Rory McIlroy and Fred Couples hit what looked like good tee shots. But the balls ran and ran and scooted into deep bunkers. They’re called “collection” or “gathering” bunkers for a reason.
The gentleman with whom I played Muirfield could not have been more pleasant. We walked and talked and he pointed out the nuances of the links. I’d already fallen in love with golf on a links. The ground was more brown than green and the course demanded intuitive shotmaking. I shot 80 in my first round there, which, I thought, wasn’t too bad.
Soon I was in Muirfield’s elegant, understated clubhouse. I’d read and heard about its famous lunch, from which one often emerges with a belly so full that it’s difficult to swing a club. I was required to wear a sports jacket, but of course I didn’t have one with me. Hanmer found one that was a few sizes too small. I squeezed into it and I ate. And I ate.
The usual fare for a day’s golf at Muirfield is a game in the morning, followed by lunch, and then a game of foursomes, or alternate-shot, in the afternoon. I wanted the full Muirfield, so I asked Hanmer–who by then had warmed to and even enjoyed my youthful insouciance–if he might find me a member with whom I could play foursomes against another pair of members. He did so.
Before I went out, though, I asked the good Captain if I might purchase a copy of the club history. It had been published only that year, on January 1, 1972. Muirfield member George Pottinger, a senior civil servant, had written the book. It was called “Muirfield and the Honourable Company.” Hanmer found a copy and I bought it. I also asked him if he would sign my copy. Pottinger wasn’t available.
“Why would you want me to sign the book?” Hanmer asked. “You are the fellow who really runs this club,” I answered. “And the author isn’t around.”
Hanmer took the book from my hands and signed it. I didn’t have the cheek to look right then at what he had written. I set the book aside in the clubhouse to pick it up after my second round.
The foursomes match was over in a couple of hours–proper golf on Muirfield’s proper links is fast golf. I forget who won, but I enjoyed the format and only wish foursomes of the true kind had caught on more in Canada and the U.S.
Back in the clubhouse, I had a drink with my fellow golfers. Then I picked up the club history.
“Better luck this afternoon,” Hanmer had written above his signature. I had thought 80 was a decent score in my first round at Muirfield. Hanmer had the last word, of course. As for the author Pottinger, I later learned that he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to five years in jail, reduced to four years.
My first game at Muirfield was a long time ago, 41 years. Trevino won the Open a few weeks later. I started writing about golf three years later, and played Muirfield a few more times over the years. My first Open there was in 1992, when Nick Faldo won, and thanked the press, which had been hard on him, “from the bottom of my, from the bottom of my, from the heart of my bottom.” I can still hear him at the ceremony where he was presented with the claret jug emblematic of winning the Open and being declared the “champion golfer of the year.”
Ten years later, Ernie Els won the Open, which I also attended. I couldn’t make it to this week’s Open, but I’m getting up at 4 AM every morning to watch the telecast. And I’m rereading Pottinger’s club history and chuckling over Hanmer’s note to me before my afternoon round.
Ah, Muirfield memories.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein