And then there’s Muirfield, queen of the coast, host of fifteen Open Championships—the most recent, in 2002, won by Ernie Els. Extremely private, it is renowned for its massive bunkers and ingenious spiral routing—one nine goes clockwise, the other counterclockwise, one inside the other—that maintains the wind as an ever-changing threat. As great as the course is, though, the experience may be better: If you’re lucky enough to secure a tee time, set aside the whole day. Arrive early for the morning round, settle in for the famous lunch and head back out for the afternoon foursomes (alternate shot) match. It may be the ultimate day in golf.
Yet the magic of East Lothian is hardly confined to its famous courses. It’s found in the friendly Old Clubhouse pub in Gullane, where locals and visitors sit elbow to elbow for a pint and a fish pie and a chat with a barmaid after a round. It’s at the Golf Inn around the corner, where John and Anne Burns put on the kind of scrumptious feeds that prove that fine dining is now available everywhere (and I mean everywhere) in Scotland. It’s at Green Craig in Aberlady, where Fleur Nisbet and her crew of nimble Scottish ladies make all their houseguests—including my wife and me—feel like long-lost friends. And it’s in the gardens at Greywalls, the exquisite country hotel in Gullane that borders the links of Muirfield. ("That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen," my wife uttered as we drove onto the Greywalls grounds.)
Yes, change is coming to the area, and it’s largely due to golf. A number of new courses have been built here lately, all of exceedingly high quality. Between Gullane and North Berwick, the Archerfield estate house has been restored as a club and resort and outfitted with two David J. Russell courses, the Fidra and Dirleton. Soon to debut off the same entry road will be the Renaissance Club, designed by Tom Doak; on land directly adjacent to Muirfield, it’s easy to see why America’s premier architect was drawn to this project. Then there’s Craigielaw in Aberlady, laid out by Donald Steel directly next to Kilspindie Golf Club (which is itself a short, enchanting links that’s only the thirty-fifth oldest in the world). Except for the par-three tenth, which plays between two rows of new houses, Craigielaw, although it only opened in 2001, looks like it might have been around as long as its well-settled neighbor. There’s even talk of a second course at Muirfield.
I brooded a little about this on my last night in East Lothian. My wife had left the day before, so I had Green Craig and the drizzly Scottish weather all to myself. The sun was setting and I should have been preparing for my departure, but I couldn’t let go just yet. Tugging on a wool hat, I poured myself a whisky, opened an umbrella and pulled a wicker chair out to the waterfront patio to watch the descending darkness envelop Gosford Bay. A rabbit hopped out of the underbrush, nibbled on some clover and then disappeared back into the dusk. Soon all was shades of grey and black, but the whisky tasted sweet and sharp and cut the chill in the air.
Will this golf paradise retain its spell as more and more visitors are drawn here?Would I contribute to its demise if I wrote about its charms?Well, I decided at length, Archie played golf with me for a reason, and it wasn’t because he needed company. And I don’t want my ears boxed when I return.
I swallowed the last of the whisky and went inside to pack.