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East Lothian Golf

The coastal road from Edinburgh to East Lothian spins out like a ball of twine batted by a cat, twisting through town and field and offering sudden and sweeping views of the Firth of Forth and the Kingdom of Fife beyond. Most golfers traveling overnight from the States will pick the road up after daybreak in the town of Longniddry, at the end of the city bypass; from there it darts into the pretty little coastal village of Aberlady. One hard left past the chip shop, a quick right and there it is, looming into view on the outskirts of town: Gullane Hill, a vision in green and gold.

Then, before the hill’s dimensions really register, it disappears as the road dives back into a wood for a short stretch before emerging directly onto the hill by the white clubhouse of the Luffness New Golf Club. As the road heads sideways across the hill’s long western flank, the multitude of golf holes that climb its shoulders begin to take shape and seize the eye. When the morning sun breaks out and lights up those verdant pathways, the links lover’s blood begins to tingle at the thought of driving a ball up those narrow lanes. Gosh, how much fun does that look like, and where does the course go from there?

Gullane Hill, a two-hundred-foot-high seaside rise, is the centerpiece of golf in East Lothian. It is where, centuries ago, the fledgling game we love was nurtured to life. On and around the hill are four surpassingly fine courses (Gullane Nos. 1, 2 and 3 as well as Luffness New), and within a half-hour drive are at least twenty others, many if not most of them true links dating back one hundred years or more. Muirfield, Dunbar, the West Links at North Berwick—the names echo with the history and romance of Scottish golf. The area calls itself the Cradle of Golf (probably because St. Andrews had already taken the Home of Golf), but I prefer to think of it as the Heart of Golf, and I guarantee you, if you love authentic links golf, this is the mother lode.

"No other links in the world plays over a hill like this." So claimed Archie Baird as we looked up the fairway of Gullane No. 1, preparing to tee off on a fine and unusually windless Sunday morning. Baird is the bard of Gullane, the eighty-two-year-old resident eminence and proprietor of the Heritage of Golf Museum across the lane from the starter’s box. One reason to believe him is that he does not, like many Scots, dispute that the Dutch originated the game, and indeed his exhibition includes evidence that substantiates the continentals’ claim. Another is that despite his advanced age and diminutive stature, the former Royal Air Force fighter pilot and retired veterinarian has the stern, commanding presence of a university chair —it’s easy to imagine him clad in cap and gown, handing out diplomas on a stage—and, well, you feel as though you might get your ears boxed if you contradict him.

According to Baird, by 1700, when the game had died out in Holland, golf had taken root along the east coast of Scotland, from East Lothian to St. Andrews and all the way north to Dornoch, and was well established in the town of Gullane. "As far back as 1650," he writes in his excellent concise history, Golf on Gullane Hill, "the weavers of Dirleton played the weavers of Aberlady annually on Old Handsel Monday." This game was played on Gullane Hill, a massive basalt rock covered by sand blown off the beachfront at low tide for thousands of years. Inhabited by insatiable rabbits that kept any sizable plant life from taking hold, the linksland proved ideal for the young game; an 1840 sketch of the village shows a seven-hole routing, which by 1884 had been sculpted by Willie Park Sr. into what is now known as Gullane No. 1. (Gullane No. 2 was added in 1898; Gullane No. 3 in 1910.)

Baird and I teed off and headed down the fairway with Brodie, his happy Border terrier, tethered to the handle of his motorized trolley. Like many par fours here, the opener is a short hole requiring only a driver and a wedge—when the wind is down. An easy par at the first, however, is a mere backdrop to the imposing view of the second, the steepness of which begins to dawn the closer you get to the tee. The drive, into a narrow slot of fairway cut into the rising hill between two swaying fields of tall grass, has to be one of the most exacting anywhere. But however many hacks it may take to reach the green, that adventure is quickly repressed by the sweeping view that greets the golfer as he mounts the third tee. Here, for the first time, the full majesty of the linksland is revealed: The course spreads out to the Firth of Forth across the acres below, extending fulsomely from the soaring hilltop on the right to the headland on the left.

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