Open Countdown: Troon, Foursomes, Kümmel, and the Queen

Foursomes is a game in which two golfers take turns playing the same ball. In the United States, it’s usually called Scotch foursomes or alternate shot, and it’s often a prelude to divorce. (The great British golf correspondent Henry Longhurst once recounted, with disapproval, an old joke about a male golfer who was “alternately playing and kicking his ball” because he was “practicing for the mixed foursomes.”) Foursomes moves fast, and hitting just half the shots ensures that someone in the group always has a hand free to hold the kümmel, a clear, anise-and-fennel-flavored alcoholic beverage, which is sometimes called the golfer’s liqueur:

kummel

Kümmel is a popular drink at Troon. Every year, its members play a cross-country foursomes match with members of Prestwick, which is right next door. 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. Two Troon members I played a non-foursomes round with in 2009 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.

  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Competitors who start at Prestwick get to eat lunch in the dining room at Troon. Hanging on the wall at one end is a portrait of one of the club’s founders:

troon dining room founder.jpg

Hanging on the wall at the other end is a portrait of the Queen:

troon dining room queen.jpg

A member told me that pictures of the Queen are always supposed to be hung so that her eyes are higher than the eyes of any person in any other picture in the same room. Doing that at Troon would have meant pushing her almost all the way up to the ceiling. So they didn’t.

How to Get Properly Inebriated at the British Open

Muirfield Golf Club. Lunch, anyone?

Muirfield Golf Club. Lunch, anyone?

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.

OTM layout

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.

muirfield clubhouse

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.)

The golfer's liqueur.

The golfer’s liqueur.

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.

muirfield open

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.

S. Luca's original location.

S. Luca’s original location.

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.