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East Lothian Golf

I was so overwhelmed that I topped a drive into the cabbage, but Baird quickly located my ball and we were soon back on our way. Here and there a hare popped out of the marram grass, and at one point a family of deer bounded across one of the fairways. (Baird is also an accomplished naturalist; as we walked he identified every creature, flower, thorn and weed—even, at one point, munching a handful of mushrooms that he plucked.) The course itself is a classic seaside links—if you could picture such a links pushed up into the sky by a massive hill. Perilous pot bunkers guard dangerously sloped greens; the par threes in particular are memorable, starting out short and relatively straightforward and growing progressively more hilly and lengthy and difficult. I managed the front side in level par, but by the time we made the turn the wind had properly kicked up, and pretty soon I was plowing sand in the bunkers and a wee smile had appeared on Archie’s face.

But I was smiling too—as anyone would. How could I not, having stood on the seventh tee, the uppermost point in the area and a spot that the immortal golf writer Bernard Darwin called "one of the best views in golf"?"That’s Muirfield behind us," Baird said as we took in the vista, pointing to the far side of town, and indeed I could make out the famous circular routing on a hillside in the distance. "And in the other direction, on a perfectly clear day, you can practically see the spires of St. Andrews," he continued. This was not such a day, but we could see all the way across the bay to the shores of Fife. Off to the left, we could also see the seaward holes of Gullane No. 2, a championship course in its own right that plays at a slightly lower altitude than Gullane No. 1. Just beyond it is Gullane No. 3, whose devilishly tiny greens have been called by Tom Doak "the best designed in all of Scotland." And directly on the other side of that course is Luffness New, an Old Tom Morris and James Braid design (and Open qualifier) that crisscrosses the hill’s western slope.

It felt a sizable honor to stand there with Brodie and Baird, who, if he hasn’t earned the right to be called golf royalty on his own, has at least married into it: His wife, Sheila, is the great-granddaughter of Willie Park Sr., winner of the first Open Championship (1860). Her great-uncle, Willie Park Jr., laid out Gullane No. 2 and many other excellent courses in both the United Kingdom (the Old course at Sunningdale) and the United States (Maidstone in East Hampton, New York). The family hailed from the East Lothian town of Musselburgh, Baird explained, which is where the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers resided before decamping to Muirfield; today, the nine-hole Old course in Musselburgh is a living museum, where one can rent hickory clubs and experience the game much as the Parks did.

It was a kick to take in the view on the seventh tee and then smash a drive up, up, up off this precipice and watch it drift down, down, down toward the green far below us, beyond it fairway after fairway and then the glistening Firth of Forth. It’s probably the signature shot on Gullane Hill, and it’s reprised on seventeen as one tees off on the last ridge, although there it isn’t the water but the picturesque town itself that provides the arresting backdrop.

And soon enough Baird and I were at a barroom table in that town, flush from the wind and sun and armed with a couple of pints. It had been an unforgettable day, but I was ready for more.

"So, Archie," I ventured as he stood to refill our glasses. "What are you doing tomorrow?"

Laid out in 1878, the West Links at North Berwick is perhaps the purest rendering of links golf that I have ever seen. It is classic in the extreme: Nine holes out, nine holes in, starting directly from the center of a picturesque Scottish seaside town. Beach on your right heading out, on your left heading home, with some stupendous old estate homes overlooking the course. Wind, often biting, in play on every shot.

But more than that, North Berwick West has character in spades. It is all beauty and charm and personality. It is the Katharine Hepburn of links courses, alluring and vexing in equal measure, and I could play every round there for the rest of my life and be happy.


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