Avoid Edinburgh by using the Beltway (A720) and follow the signs to Musselburgh. Here you will find a flat, scruffy, somewhat weedy and largely featureless nine-hole course inside a racetrack. Nonetheless, the Old Golf Course at Musselburgh Links (greens fee: $17) is truly sacred ground. Six Open Championships were contested here, between 1874 and 1889, and the links lays claim to being the oldest continuously played and basically unchanged course in the world. But its future is imperiled by plans for night horse racing. Floodlights on giant concrete bases are called for, along with new stables and an irrigation pond. This could be your last chance to see—and play—the real thing, with rented hickory-shaft clubs to complete this unique experience.
Twenty minutes down the road is the village of Gullane, home to five eighteen-hole courses and a six-hole children's short course (adults allowed only with kids). You might choose to spend the next two nights here—again, consult the Trip Planner (page 96) for details.
At Gullane Golf Club, the No. 1 course (greens fee: $160) is frequently used for final qualifying when the Open is held at Muirfield. Playing up, down, over and around Gullane Hill, the test, at 6,466 yards against a par of seventy-one, is real but not overpowering. The greens are swift and silken and the shot values are of a high order. If the fifth—450 yards, swinging left around a cluster of deep sand pits then climbing vigorously to a vast, sloping green carved out of the hillside—is the course's premier hole, it is the pinnacle tee of the par-four seventh that provides the most unforgettable moment. Spread out far below are the virtually limitless golfing grounds of Gullane Golf Club's three eighteens, of Luffness New and Muirfield, not to mention Bass Rock, the summits of Berwick Law and Arthur's Seat, even glimpses of fair Edinburgh. With the sharp sea breeze rushing into your lungs, you may be momentarily overcome by this enthralling combination of setting and sport.
The No. 2 and No. 3 courses at Gullane, while fun, have rather too many prosaic holes. In any event, don't miss the one-room Heritage of Golf Museum, next to the pro shop. The owner, curator and conductor of the forty-minute tour is a former Gullane club captain, Archie Baird. Through an utterly absorbing collection of old paintings, prints, postcards and photographs, of old balls and clubs and bags and costumes, and of so much more, Baird presents the evolution of golf from its origins nearly six centuries ago down to the present. Visits—there is no charge—are by appointment only. Simply call the maestro (011-44/1875-870-277) to unlock this treasure chest. But be prepared to come away believing that golf was not born in Scotland.
The pairing today begins with North Berwick's West Links. The West Links (greens fee: $113) presents an all but matchless combination of authentic links golf, great holes and smashing views over the Firth of Forth. For more than a hundred years, the best holes have been so little changed that what we have here is another museum of the game, this one interactive. Measuring 6,420 yards from the tips (par seventy-one), the course is laid out on undulating linksland where dunes, the beach, burns, throttling rough, deep bunkers, blind shots and stone walls all take turns bedeviling the player. Every hole has character (the one indispensable ingredient), and three in a row coming home are unforgettable, including the 192-yard fifteenth—the original Redan, copied all over the world. The flag can be seen but not the putting surface, which is angled away from its high front right corner to its lower rear left. Oh, and the bunker beneath the left front flank of the green?Lethal.
Some twenty minutes east along the coast road lies the Dunbar Golf Club (greens fee: $85), a 6,404 yard par-seventy-one designed by (who else?) Old Tom Morris. Fourteen holes are laid out—sometimes squeezed in—between a high fieldstone wall and the sea. This is no place for the slicer, as the boundary wall nags much of the way out on the right and the rocky beach threatens most of the way in, also on the right. Of the four long two-shotters coming home, all play into the prevailing wind and three feature greens perched in lonely splendor above the strand. On a pretty day, the sight of the fishing smacks slowly plying the waters not a mile offshore and the chatter of the oystercatchers as they hop, stiff-legged, from rock to rock, delight the senses.
The game is at the headquarters of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield, where visitors unaccompanied by members are permitted to play only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can request a tee time online (muirfield.org.uk) up to fifteen months prior to the date of play. The 2006 greens fee is $254.
This noble and tranquil links sits high above the Firth of Forth and at a bit of a remove from it. Old Tom Morris provided the original design; the holes we play today, however, must be largely attributed to Harry Colt, who in 1925 extensively revised eleven of the Morris holes and fashioned seven new ones.
Unfailingly ranked among the world's ten best courses, Muirfield is particularly loved by Americans. Less foreign in feeling than other links, it puts little priority on local knowledge. There is a fundamental rightness about it—in its demanding length, 6,673 yards from the regular tees against a par of just seventy; in its 148 adroitly spotted bunkers; in its wickedly high rough that inhales the wayward drive; and in the essential worthiness of every hole, from the 446-yard opener to the 445-yard finisher, a pair of stern and strong and straightaway two-shotters that yield pars only to the soundest of strokes (or to a lucky putt). There are no hills, no trees, no water hazards, no "death or glory" shots, yet never would you find yourself wishing for a more adventurous layout.