In 1891, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers—the world’s oldest golf organization, whose members created the game’s first written rules, in 1744—moved from Musselburgh to Muirfield, a short distance to the east, and hired Old Tom Morris to create a private course for them. Today, Muirfield Golf Club has a deserved reputation for being tough on Open competitors and an undeserved reputation for being hostile to visiting Americans. It’s true that outsiders 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 now make your reservations online. Once the Open crowd has cleared out (and the tournament rough has been harvested and fed to area livestock), you should go.
The modern Muirfield is mostly the work of Harry S. Colt, who reshaped and enlarged Morris’s layout in 1928, and Tom Simpson, who removed a hundred of Colt’s bunkers a few years later. (The first three holes follow the routing of Morris’s first four; the rest are different.) The course is every bit as good as people say it is, although the most appealing activity on the grounds may be not playing golf but hanging around the clubhouse. A few years ago, Alastair Brown, the secretary, described Muirfield to me (over lunch) as “a lunching club with a golf course attached to it,” and a playing partner at a course nearby described it to me as “a retirement place for men who like to get pissed and play golf.” An ideal day at Muirfield, Brown said, was once described as “two-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, two-and-a-half”: a brisk 18-hole foursomes match in the morning, followed by a two-and-a-half-hour lunch, followed by a brisk 18-hole foursomes match in the afternoon. George Pottinger, in a history of the club published in 1972, described one former captain as “a great post-lunch player”—a compliment that presumably had less to do with his skill as a golfer than with his ability to handle alcohol.
In the United States, foursomes is usually known as Scotch foursomes or alternate shot; it’s the signature game at Muirfield. Members play it fast: you walk up the fairway while your partner is hitting his drive, and you don’t wait for him or anyone else before playing the next shot. 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. (It’s also a favorite at Prestwick and Troon, two other Scottish clubs where foursomes is a cherished game.)
Muirfield has its own 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, in which serious drinking is virtually mandatory. (The rules of the competition, Pottinger wrote, are “as hilarious as possible.”) Brown told me, “The way the members play golf is the antithesis of championship golf.” The paradox, of course, is that championship golf is also a club specialty, and has been for more than a century.
You have to wear a jacket and tie in the Muirfield dining room, but the atmosphere in the entire club is seductively informal. The gate looks imposing, but there’s no bag drop and there are no guys standing around waiting to wipe off your clubs. You change your shoes in the locker room and get on with it, and even visitors are encouraged to linger. In the dining room, no table has fewer than six chairs, an arrangement that forces groups of golfers to mix, and the food is served cafeteria-style. And 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—which might be a good place to stop on your way back to your hotel, assuming you’re still in a condition to find it.