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August 13, 2008

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Where's Desmond?                                          Going to Gullane


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Going to Gullane: A golfer's pilgrimage
Scotland's many golf courses provide the perfect playground for golf lovers.
By Desmond J. Hussey

There's a bend in the road at Longniddry, when you come out to the sea and turn right. It opens a view that ties together the elements that bring a thrill of anticipation to anyone who has ever played Scotland's game.

On the left is the sea, actually the Firth of Forth, which slowly narrows to the west and comes nearly together at Edinburgh, Scotland's capital and one of Europe's most beautiful cities. Across the water is the Kingdom of Fife, rolling away to the east where it comes to a dramatic and jutting end at the North Sea and at St. Andrew's, the acknowledged home of golf. Sea to your left, now, and wind on the right: wind in the form of the gnarled and sculpted vegetation which slopes up from the long, high and very ancient stone wall that guards the home and grounds of the Earl of Wemys. The stunted oak, beech and buckthorn angle back, a giant wedge, from the top edge of the wall, evidence of many centuries of storms and wind whipping in from the Firth.

Sea and wind: the two critical elements of links golf in Scotland, and here, on this stretch of East Lothian coastline, they frame perfectly a view that has been the delight of golfers for 200 years and more. For straight ahead, rising improbably to a gently sloped 400 feet, is Gullane Hill, one of golf's great natural cathedrals and a sight to truly stir anticipation inside the traveler who has decided to take in all the joys of Gullane and its surrounding golf courses. Gullane is an intensely civilized little town, with a glorious town green, long sandy beaches, lovely quaint shops and even a new fish and chips shop. It enjoys one of the finest microclimates in Great Britain, with ample sunshine year round. But in Gullane you are never far removed from golf, neither in spirit nor in fact, and if golf is the apex of civilization in sports, then Gullane, along with St. Andrew's, occupies the high ground in this regard.

Gullane Golf Club has three 18-hole courses, which go by the quaint names of Number 1, Number 2 and Number 3.

Number 3 is a short course, perfect for kids, novices, or just to get your swing sorted out. It gives you the whole Gullane experience -- playing up the hill, magnificent views, proper links golf -- without the more grueling aspects of Number 1 and Number 2.

Number 2 has been upgraded in recent years to a superb test of golf. The par threes are very challenging and long. The par fours have been stretched through the addition of some back tees, so that the shorter holes now pack a punch. And there are some simply magnificent holes, like the 12th, which stretches out into the barren linksland near Aberlady Bay, and is crossed by a walking trail for birdwatchers. A waterfowl sanctuary surrounds the hole, and indeed, surrounds all of Gullane Hill. When you are out on the 12th green, you feel as remote from the world as is possible on a golf hole. The remoteness of the hole can be noticed from all over the hill, and if we have not yet played it and enjoyed its charms, we find ourselves saying: "What's that lovely hole stretching out into nowhere down there?" Having gotten out into nowhere, we must turn back, and the 13th is among the best holes anywhere on the hill. The drive must be short of the two massive bunkers on the right, but hitting it too far left stretches out the hole to longer than its 410 yards. The green is cut into the side of the hill, fifty feet higher up, and is divided into two very separate tiers. If you are long with your approach, your pride will quickly be replaced by angst, as you contemplate stopping your chip or putt on the radically sloped green. Great views, great turf, great greens, and some very memorable holes will leave you wondering how this could possibly called Number 2.

You'll know when you reach the second tee of Number 1. The fabled 2nd climbs Gullane Hill through a valley of the deepest rough you never want to set foot in and ends in a long green with the wind whipping in from the Firth. There have been naughty verses written about the hole, which tests a golfer's ability to be straight and long into the wind and up a hill.

On the third tee, you see it all begin to spread out beneath you, and you know you are playing a true championship course. Gullane Number 1 is big, beautiful, tough, fair and dramatic. In clear weather, with a good breeze, it is as great a place to play as any in the world. For beauty, it has long enjoyed a special reputation. Bernard Darwin, the greatest of golf writers, deemed the view from the 7th tee "the best in golf," and it's not hard to see why. The 360-degree panorama takes in all the great views of East Lothian, from Muirfield to the Islands, across the sea to Fife, Edinburgh, with the castle clearly visible on even a moderately clear day, the four courses on the hill and the red-roofed houses of the picturesque town.

While there are tougher courses, Gullane is a course that rewards most good shots fairly. There are no hidden bunkers, very few blind shots and no tricked out greens. It is not hugely long, at 6,500 yards, but the 10th and 11th are long par fours of 466 and 471 yards, and if you can get through these in level par, you will have had to hit a very long and very accurate ball. In fact, the stretch from the dramatic par three 9th through to the windswept hilltop 16th has nothing but truly excellent holes. The trek down the steep 17th fairway is like no other in golf and promises a beer and a meal in one of the excellent eateries in the village.

Overall the experience at Gullane is a warm and welcoming one. The Visitors' Clubhouse makes for a welcome haven for anyone coming to Gullane, and the presence of three courses means there's almost always somewhere to play. The greens are always superb, and the bunkers can be exceedingly punitive. Perhaps the most notable feature of golf in the area is the presence of some of the toughest rough you will ever wade through. It gets less severe going from Number 1 to Number 2 and Number 3, but there are places where the rough simply swallows errant shots, never to give them up again. Straight driving is a prerequisite at Gullane or the penalty strokes will mount up fast. Gullane Golf Club, West Links Road, Gullane, East Lothian, EH31 2BB. Tel: 44 (0) 1620 842 255.

LUFFNESS NEW GOLF CLUB The wild rough and excellent greens are also key features at Luffness, adjacent to the Gullane courses. Luffness is a more private place than its neighbor. The lovely old clubhouse rarely has more than a few expensive cars in the car park and visitor's tee times are not as easy to come by as at other area courses. The Luffness course is very playable (if you stay out of the rough), and has some very dramatic holes climbing the hill. But it occupies the most westerly part of the hill and lacks the views you get at the Gullane courses. Big, visible bunkers it has to spare, however, and drives frequently have to skirt some real dungeons, or need to be played short of the trouble.

Luffness, like Gullane Number 1, is an Open qualifier and is well worth the visit. Luffness New Golf Club, Aberlady, EH32 0QA.

Driving just beyond the village headed east, we come to one of the indisputably great places in all of golf. For here, on the left, is the entrance to the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and their course, Muirfield. Little needs to be said in support of Muirfield's place among the world's great courses. It appears in almost any top ten list, it has hosted fifteen Open Championships and it is the favorite of many great golfers. In fact, 1966 Open winner at Muirfield, Jack Nicklaus named his great Ohio course after it.

Muirfield is on every golfer's destination list, and is among the hardest places to secure a tee time in the United Kingdom if you don't know a member. Luckily, I have a few acquaintances who are members and I have had the privilege of playing the course on many occasions over the years. What I have learned is that no other club in the world has what Muirfield has. No other clubhouse has such a combination of glorious views of the course and an effortlessly opulent interior. No other club shuns four-ball for alternate stroke foursomes as a regular thing. No other club has such a ritual of golf, dining and drinking. And no other club comes close when it comes to lunch.

Guests arrive in the morning (coat and tie, please), and change into golfing togs in the very clubby locker room. The foursomes format takes some getting used to, but once you have tried it, you'll look forward to playing it again. Essentially, you are teammates with your partner and drive off of every other hole. Your partner waits in the fairway for the ball to arrive and hits it to the green, usually before you reach him. In this manner, you leapfrog over each other, occasionally meeting on the green when both players might be needed to hole out. It moves very fast, meaning two rounds is the usual at Muirfield.

As far as the course is concerned, there are no bad holes and most are outstanding. It is routed like an American course, with the ninth coming into the clubhouse and it is never very close to the sea. But it is pure links golf, with deep, punishing rough, famously magnetic bunkers, and turf that is always in perfect condition. There are so many great holes, but the sixth through the ninth stand out as a fascinating stretch, with fairway undulations, bunkers everywhere and the very enjoyable ninth, with its perfect bunkering, perfectly placed wall on the left, and 475 yards of big-time par-four muscle. Then there's the seventeenth, the par-5 where so many Opens have been won and lost; and the eighteenth, with its distinctive bunker and the glorious clubhouse behind the green. The march up the eighteenth to the clubhouse brings with it the anticipation of the other half of Muirfield's attraction: the indoor preparation for the afternoon round.

It starts with gin and tonics, under the gaze of the massive portrait of Lord Something or Other in the smoking room. The huge front window looks out over the course and creates the perfect environment for recounting the morning's hits and misses. From here we decamp into the dining room, where the fabled Muirfield lunch is in full swing. There are long tables, where one party is seated next to another, the wine goes round, and along the sideboard are the items making up a five-course meal. Various salads, various soups, great joints of meat, casseroles, fish, are all there to be piled up on our plates, buffet style. At the end of all that, it is perhaps the desserts that steal the show: sticky toffee pudding, spotted dick, trifle, strawberries, ice cream, all waiting to be slathered by custard poured out of heated jugs. It's all very bad for you, and all very good.

Barely able to move, the next stop is back to the front room, where the finishing touches of the lunch are applied, in the form of kummel, a caraway-flavored liqueur that is served ice cold, and coffee, in a vain attempt to counter the effects of the gin, wine, and kummels. It's a ritual to stumble back to the first tee, scarcely able to remember your own handicap and get on with the afternoon's round. Since all parties are in the same state of disrepair, it's a perfectly fair competition, although the ordered leapfrogging of the foursomes is likely to take a few holes to reappear. Muirfield, Duncur Road Muirfield, Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland, EH31 2EG, Tel: +44 (0)1620 842123.

The courses and clubhouse at Archerfield, just up the road from Muirfield, are new, but the area has seen golf played for more than a century. The club boasts two terrific 18-hole courses with slightly different feels. The Fidra course is a bit more exposed, lying closer to the sea (and the Isle of Fidra just offshore), while the Dirleton track is a bit more sheltered. These courses have more of an American feel to them than the others in the area, with newly built homes adjacent to some of the holes and an American-style clubhouse with all the modern conveniences. But the golf is definitely links-style and the shot values can be superb on some of the holes. Archerfield bills itself as an exclusive club and requires an introduction from a member to play. It's well worth it if you can find someone to sign you in.

The Renaissance is newly opened and I have yet to play the courses. By reputation they are very good, with a feel that is even more "American Corporate" than Archerfield.

We have not yet left the Parish of Dirleton and have already found nine 18-hole courses to play. But without driving five miles, there are also Longniddry, Craigielaw, Kilspindie, and two courses at North Berwick. The West Links at North Berwick deserves a trip, as it is one of the truly memorable golfing places in the United Kingdom. Famous as the originator of the "Redan" par three hole, it is also the site of ancient Roman walls that cross the course in a number of places and serve as exceedingly unusual hazards. North Berwick is a truly distinctive setting for golf, much closer to the sea than the other courses in the area; indeed there are ladders down to the beach to help golfers retrieve sliced shots at the second. Here the wind and the walls can play havoc on any shot. But as we are admonished in the scorecard, the walls were here before we were, so there's no use arguing with them.

The entire area was here before we were and that unspoiled charm, that graceful age, that harkening back to another era when all things, and certainly golf, were simpler, has a special allure for the purist. No golf carts, no slow play, no target golf -- we get to play courses that have seen the niblick and the baffing spoon, the featherie and the gutty ball, and have tested the mettle of golfers great and ordinary over many years.

Making the pilgrimage to Scotland should be on any golfer's to-do list and when you do, get yourself to Gullane. You'll never want to leave.

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