More About Foursomes: Muirfield, Troon, Prestwick, and Kümmel

The golfer's liqueur.

In 2009, I played a round at Muirfield, in eastern Scotland, where the Open Championship will be held in 2013. Alastair Brown, the secretary, described it to me (over lunch) as “a lunching club with a golf course attached to it.” A member, he said, once described an ideal day at Muirfield as “two-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, two-and-a-half”: a two-and-a-half-hour 18-hole foursomes match in the morning, followed by a two-and-a-half-hour lunch, followed by a two-and-a-half-hour 18-hole foursomes match in the afternoon.

In the United States, foursomes is usually known as Scotch foursomes or alternate shot, and it’s often a prelude to divorce; at Muirfield, it’s the signature game. Hitting just half the shots gets the non-lunch portions of the day over faster, and ensures that someone always has a hand free to hold the kümmel, a clear, anise-and-fennel-flavored beverage, which is sometimes called the golfer’s liqueur. “The way the club’s members play golf is the antithesis of championship golf,” Brown told me—and he meant that as praise. Muirfield has its own foursomes handicapping system, named after C. J. Y. Dallmeyer, a club captain in the 1950s, who invented it: if you go three-up in a match, you give strokes to your opponents until you’re back to one-up. Dallmeyer also initiated a heavily lunch-oriented New Year’s Day tournament, called the Captain’s Frolic.

Foursomes is also a historically significant game at Royal Troon and Prestwick, two other courses on the Open Rota, on Scotland’s west coast. Every year, members of the two clubs play a cross-country foursomes match over both courses, which abut each other. Half the field starts on the first tee at Prestwick, and half starts on the first tee at Troon. Everyone plays to the eighteenth green on the other course, breaks for lunch, and then plays all the way back. The two members I played with at Troon told me that, usually, a team scores better if it starts at Prestwick, because a typical Prestwick lunch includes so much alcohol that golfers who make the turn there sometimes have trouble finding their way home.

Before lunch, Royal Troon, May, 2009. I'm standing on the tee of the famous Postage Stamp. That's the green by my right arm.

Muirfield has an undeserved reputation for hostility to outsiders. It’s true that visitors are limited to specific tee times on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the club actually welcomes thousands of unaccompanied non-members every year, and you can make reservations online. You have to wear a jacket and tie in the dining room, but the atmosphere is seductively informal, and even visitors are encouraged to linger. No table has fewer than six chairs, an arrangement that forces groups of golfers to mix, and the food is served cafeteria-style. Diners who don’t live in fear of their cardiologists sometimes bypass lunch itself and move straight from the bar to the dessert table, where the specialties include rhubarb crumble, sticky toffee pudding, and ice cream from S. Luca of Musselburgh, a locally famous dairy.

Muirfield’s locker room has modern, car-wash-caliber showers, like the ones at Merion and Pine Valley, but the other amenities are distinctly old-school, among them a pair of wooden dressing tables, each furnished with a shaving mirror, a nail file on a chain, and a single hairbrush and comb (and no beaker of blue Barbicide). And the members’ locker room at Prestwick is even cooler. Ninety of the lockers there date back to 1877. They look like Queequeg’s coffin.

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