THE GOLF CLUB IS NOT MUIRFIELD. The golf club is the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which was founded in 1744," says Major J.G. Vanreenen, Royal Engineers (Ret.), the very model of a golf club secretary. "You will appreciate that this is a gentlemen's club. Ladies are perfectly welcome as long as they meet our requirements: a handicap of 24 or better from a recognized golf club and that they play in company with a gentleman." The Secretary presses the fingertips of his right hand against the fingertips of his left hand and continues. "In other respects this is an entirely male-orientated golf club. It is also a very private golf club. Visitors are allowed to play the course Tuesdays, Thursdays and mornings of Fridays."
A certain breed of golfer collects golf courses as he might butterflies, traveling the world in pursuit of the rarer species and cataloging his conquests for the bedazzlement of fellow collectors. Some collectors specialize in the rare and the inaccessible—golf courses that straddle the equator or cling to glaciers, that sort of thing. But for most golfers, collecting is a search for roots, the roots of the game and the roots of obsession. This sort of collecting leads to Scotland and, once there, inevitably to Muirfield, where the British Open will be played next week for the 13th time. St. Andrews is older, Dornoch is harder, Turn-berry is prettier, but Muirfield is, well, admirable.
The roster of Open champions at Muirfield reads like a 20th-century golfing Hall of Fame: Harold Hilton, Harry Vardon, James Braid, Ted Ray, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson. Only one winner, Alf Perry, a club pro from Surrey, England, who rose to the occasion in 1935, would not merit a chapter of his own in a respectable history of the modern game. The great Bobby Jones is missing, but one would like to think, if only for the sake of symmetry, that is merely because Jones never happened to play an Open at Muirfield. (He did, however, play a British Amateur there in 1926 and lost in the sixth round.)
The Muirfield course opened for play in 1891, which makes it about the same vintage as many of the grand old courses in England, Ireland and North America. It was built in the era in which the game that had been exclusively Scottish began to spread like a brushfire to wherever Scots had emigrated or the English had set up colonial shop.
But Muirfield's roots go deeper than that. The course is just the latest home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, a club that can document its continuous existence back to 1744. That makes it, as far as its members are concerned, the oldest golf club in the world. At least one other Scottish club, the Royal Burgess Golfing Society, claims to be older—but it doesn't have papers to prove it. The Honourable Company does, and facsimiles of them are on display in glass cases inside the rambling quasi-Tudor clubhouse at the edge of the village of Gullane (pronounced Gill'n), 18 miles east of Edinburgh.
The Secretary's opening remarks notwithstanding, Muirfield is a hospitable place, as "very private" clubs go. Every year, between 6,000 and 7,000 visitors play the course, some of them women. Once a visitor has passed muster he is encouraged to play golf as the Honourable Company does: that is, a round of "foursomes" in the morning, another in the afternoon, with the celebrated Muirfield lunch in between. Now, foursomes is a companionable game—one ball, two players, alternate drives and shots. And the golf course justifies applause—Nicklaus likes it so much he named his Columbus, Ohio, course Muirfield Village, which, were it anybody but Nicklaus, might have been presumptuous. But it is lunch that makes a Muirfield outing unique. The members are proud of their course, but they are almost equally proud of the table they set.
"A very high standard of feeding," says the Secretary. "Smoked-haddock pie and a choice of two soups to start, three roasts, beef, lamb and pork, steak-and-kidney pie, and mince, a minimum of six vegetables and two potatoes, a choice of 15 puddings—sweets, as you call them—and a choice of a dozen different cheeses."
And how does anyone play 18 holes after such a meal? "Very competently," says the Secretary. A local golfer, Rory Hamilton, says, "It is an easy matter to sort out members from guests. Members wear tweeds with leather-patched jackets and have small helpings."
After lunch, tradition dictates coffee and kümmel or port in the cavernous Smoking Room, where towering windows overlook the 18th green. From those windows, it is said, the members frequently wager on their colleagues "toiling thirstily up the 18th fairway."
Next door to the Muirfield clubhouse is a small, comfortable hotel called, simply, Greywalls. Greywalls is as much a part of the total Muirfield experience as foursomes. During the summer months about 70% of the hotel's 23 guest rooms are occupied by Americans, most of them golfers. During the Open, the Royal & Ancient, which administers the championship, allocates the rooms. "The secretary of the R & A goes to the Masters in April," says Henrietta Fergusson, the hotel's manager. "He nobbles the golfers and says, 'Do you want a room at Greywalls?' He starts at the top and works down the list. He uses up all 20 rooms, which is what they think we have. We like to set aside a few."