Musselburgh Old Links: Coming full circle at the world’s oldest golf course

Musselburgh Old Links: Coming full circle at the world’s oldest golf course

Horse Play -- The Musselburgh Race Course encircles the Musselburgh Links. I guess this is Scotland's idea of multi-tasking.

Horse Play -- The Musselburgh Race Course encircles the Musselburgh Links. I guess this is Scotland's idea of multi-tasking.

So, the Tommy’s Honor tour continues.

As previously noted, I kick-started this two-month stay in Scotland by reading Kevin Cook’s wonderful dual-biography of Old Tom Morris and his son Tommy, set against the backdrop of the Open Championship’s origins at Prestwick, Musselburgh and St. Andrews—with an assist from North Berwick. Thus inspired, I returned to the latter after a 17-year absence. Then, for the first time, I paid Old Prestwick a visit after a fabulous day at Turnberry along the Ayr coast. The Old Course still looms in the distance. Stay tuned for that one.

But, in between, I can now say that I’ve played the world’s oldest golf course. At least that’s the claim to fame made by the current caretakers of the Old Links at Musselburgh. Surrounded by a racecourse east of Edinburgh, golf on this ancient ground purportedly dates back to 1567, when Mary, Queen of Scots was allegedly among the game’s earliest adherents. Documentation confirms definitively that golf has been played here since at least 1672.  Originally seven holes, it was stretched to its current nine in 1870. And it’s remained essentially unchanged ever since, with the exception of some highly controversial bunker removal. Read the relevant photo caption for more on that.

In 2014, I found my way to the course’s car park and, in turn, the pro shop (that’s not in the private members’ clubhouse, by the way) on a quiet Monday morning that emerged calm and bright after a decidedly foggy start. As such, I paid my £13.50 and, without delay, proceeded directly to the first tee—albeit a temporary one due to maintenance work in progress on the real one. At the risk of clashing old and new, I used my laser rangefinder to measure the makeshift par 3, pulled a 6-iron and faced my first major decision of the day: How should I go about swinging this thing?

Old Willie's Ghost? -- Willie Park, who hailed from Musselburgh, holds the distinction of having captured the very first Open Championship, such as it was in 1860. Musselburgh hosted the event six times between 1874 and 1889.

Old Willie's Ghost? -- Willie Park, who hailed from Musselburgh, holds the distinction of having captured the very first Open Championship, such as it was in 1860. Musselburgh hosted the event six times between 1874 and 1889.

That might seem like a rather odd question for someone who’s played golf in some shape or form for more than 40 years. But if you’ve spent any time with the game, you’ll know that golf is less about figuring it out than it is about remembering what once worked. Continue to flail away and, inevitably, you’ll find yourself circling back to where you once stood—hopefully having gained some useful insight for having made the loopy journey.

So it was perhaps fitting that, as I prepared to follow in Queen Mary’s footsteps, I should be in a mood to press the replay button. Allow me to set the stage.

Hands-Free Golf

Back in the States, about two months before this trip, my game had hit the wall. Very hard. Every club in my bag, though custom fit to my swing, felt like an alien object. Worse yet, there was no discernable pattern to the results. If there was one consistent miss—such as, say, a pull hook—I could at least try to adjust accordingly. But my shots seemed to scatter as if fired out of a shotgun. I couldn’t say with even a shred of confidence what would happen next.

Simply put, I had lost the feel for the game in my hands. And when a golfer can’t trust his hands, he’s toast. Game over.

The Graves -- That's the 2nd hole's given name as viewed here from the green looking back on its 348 yards. It's framed by the Musselburgh Racecourse grandstand in the background.

The Graves -- That's the 2nd hole's given name as viewed here from the green looking back on its 348 yards. It's framed by the Musselburgh Racecourse grandstand in the background.

With Scotland looming, the pressure was on to manufacture a solution. If I couldn’t rely on my hands to control the swing, then maybe I should cede that responsibility to my body. Focus on a full turn away from the ball. Shift my weight to the left side to initiate the downswing. Let my hands go along for the ride, my wrists hinging and unhinging in response to the centrifugal force generated by the weight of the moving clubhead. After just two rounds, I got the hang of it.

And it worked. Miraculously so. I hit some of the most exquisite golf shots with this jury-rigged motion, yet it didn’t feel like I was doing anything. As many golf instructors advise, I let the club do the work. Full swings at first. Then I tried it with half swings. Yep, that works, too. Soon I had applied the same principle to chips, greenside bunkers, even putts. The game was effortless. Nothing to it really.

Fortunately, the laws of physics apply in Scotland just as they do in America, so I enjoyed this hands-free golf during the first half of the trip. But about a month into it, the magic—as is always the case with swing thoughts—began to fade. Then, my last time out prior to Musselburgh—at the top-drawer links of Western Gailes with close friends (including one who is a member and was our gracious host)—it disappeared entirely. Once again, I found myself in no-golfer’s land without a clue where my ball would scurry off to next. The putter, in particular, went completely south. More often than not, I needed three attempts on the dance floor to find my way to the hole. Shattering.

So, now what?

Back to the Beginning

As I waggled my 6-iron and prepared to whack a fresh new Bridgestone off the temporary tee’s mat at Musselburgh, a little voice in my head said: “Trust your hands. That’s how you learned the game. That’s how you were meant to play it. And when it’s all said and done, that's how you'll play it again.”

OK, I’ll buy that. Circle back to the comfort zone. Keep it simple. Just hit the freaking thing.

Bunker Mentality -- Here are two of at least a dozen bunkers being removed by order of the East Lothian Council, the Musselburgh governing body that oversees the publicly-owned property. The alteration of the world's oldest golf course, apparently in an effort to save money, has engendered something less than unanimous approval among the historically minded.

Bunker Mentality -- Here are two of at least a dozen bunkers being removed by order of the East Lothian Council, the Musselburgh governing body that oversees the publicly-owned property. The alteration of the world's oldest golf course, apparently in an effort to save money, has engendered something less than unanimous approval among the historically minded.

And so I did. My ball flew straight and true, bouncing into front upslope of the raised green and coming to rest just on the putting surface, 20 feet short of the hole. Interesting. The first putt skimmed the edge of the cup, leaving a tap-in par. Hmmm…really could have used that at Western Gailes, I thought to myself.

And so I proceeded, swinging the club with my hands, making sweet contact and watching the ball go exactly where I intended. That included, most dramatically, using my putter from off the green to roll in a 66-footer for birdie at the 3rd hole. After missing three-footers the previous round, I simply couldn’t resist pulling out my range finder to measure the distance. Stunning!

The game was easy and fun again. And on the 5th tee, I gained a playing partner to bear witness to the display. That’s where, on the 183-yard par 3, I caught up with a four-ball in front of me and was overtaken by a single behind—a middle-aged woman resplendent in a pink jumper (aka sweater). We exchanged names and a handshake. Based on her English accent, I assumed Liz was not from around these parts. But she assured me she was Musselburgh born and raised, though her parents were not—explaining the audible disconnect. “I’m a 36-handicapper,” she confessed. But there was no need for a disclaimer. Liz made steady and quick progress on the long shots and displayed a deft touch on the short ones.

Closed Door Policy -- Musselburgh has a clubhouse. But unlike most golf clubs in Scotland, it's off limits to non-members.

Closed Door Policy -- Musselburgh has a clubhouse. But unlike most golf clubs in Scotland, it's off limits to non-members.

Meanwhile, I remained solidly in cruise control. I holed a 10-footer for par at the 479-yard 7th, Musselburgh’s lone par 5. Then I carded a 3 after crushing a driver into a soft breeze at the 8th hole, a stout 240-yard one-shotter. I made the mistake of mentally tallying my score as I walked to the 9th hole's tee, which likely led to a sloppy bogey at the last. But that still left me with a 36 on the par-34 layout. Crikey!

After the round, I loaded up the Fiat and drove the short distance to the original stone clubhouse. It was locked and vacant. A sign made it clear only members were welcome. Nae bother, I thought to myself. The heart of the game doesn’t lie behind its bright blue door. It resides out on the Old Links.

And, once again, I am grasping it softly in the palms of my hands.

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