Old Tom Morris. Colt/Simpson, Martin Hawtree
Classic, fair, Open Championship links of highest standard. Traditional 2-ball course. Firm turf, unique club.
East edge of Gullane, East Lothian. Postcode EH31 2EG
Alistair Brown
01620 842123
Green Keeper
Colin Irvine
Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses,
Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses,
Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses, gullane hill
Access Policy:
visitors welcome on Tuesdays and Thursdays
Dog Policy:
member's dogs only
Open Meetings:
Fees in 1960s
Fees today
£195 - 2013


What other golf club has the audacity to call itself  ‘The Honourable Company of Golfers’?  Yet the respect this fine club has for the traditions and standing of the game is historically accurate and perpetuated to this day.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses, william st clair of roslin

William St Clair of Roslin 1771

Formed in 1744, The Company is descended from the ‘gentleman golfers’ who played on the Leith links moving to Musselburgh in 1836 and then Muirfield (abutting the Archerfield estate), in 1891.

It was the first golf club to write down the thirteen articles and these in turn formed the first rules of golf.

The club subsequently quite happily gave way in its importance to the organisation of the game to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews, (a club that the gentleman golfers helped found in 1754). While the R&A remains custodian of the modern rules of the game, the Gentleman Golfers would at least like to think that they still play their ball ‘honestly for the hole’.

This private club regards golf as primarily a social, and sociable, game with match-play held to be the true and proper expression of golf. At the same time the club believes it is its duty to preserve the course for the nation so that all the great Championships can be hosted over its links.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses,

The HCEG clubhouse

Muirfield, the Company’s course, is known as the home of the foursome, and Frank Pennink considered this largely the reason for the ever present feeling of friendliness within the precincts of the club.

If a player in a four-ball game, claims he plays twice as many shots as in a foursome, it is said that the Muirfield man would reply in the old days – “play 36 holes in four and a half hours (as we do) and you will get the same number of shots, twice the exercise, far more fun, and you won’t have to wait between shots. Furthermore you will learn to play golf better.”

Much as FineGolf  believes that quick play and (particularly scratch) foursomes golf is the pinnacle of the game, to put these timings in perspective, there was even a comment on the sad decline of the game in 1932 when a 36-hole final of the Amateur Championship took six and a half hours to complete, drastically longer than the mere 4 hours it took in 1909!

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses,

The par 3 seventh and Gullane hill

(Astonishingly, I believe the recent Ryder Cup singles took over six hours for 18 holes. Is it any wonder why some prospective golfers demur at taking up the game?)

Few medals (pen and card games) are played here apart from the spring and autumn meetings, but there are plenty of dinners when bets are placed on forthcoming foursomes matches.

The Open Championship was first hosted at Muirfield by the HCEG in 1892 (the first time the event was played over 72 holes) followed five years later by the Amateur Championship, and both have returned many times.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses, gullane hill

Muirfield from Gullane hill

There is no professional’s shop at Muirfield and most members combine membership with at least one other club. Golf merchandise can be acquired just down the road at Gullane (pronounced ‘Gillon’ by some as in ‘kill’) where the No1 course, that looks down from Gullane hill onto the Muirfield links, is sometimes described by those wishing to be controversial as the better course.

What we can be sure of is that the quality of the predominantly fescue grasses, giving firm greens, across the run of East Lothian courses from Luffness New, Gullane and Muirfield to The Renaissance  and on to North Berwick, are of the very highest order, enjoying normally a comparatively dry climate and some of the best greenkeeping in Britain and Ireland.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses, chris whittle

Muirfield’s Chris Whittle now at Royal Birkdale

It is as prestigious for one’s CV to have been an apprentice greenkeeper at Muirfield as at St Andrews and many other courses have benefited from Muirfield’s passed-on expertise in natural greenkeeping.

It was only as recent as in 2011 that an automatic sprinkler system was installed for tees and greens and let us hope Colin Irvine, the course manager, uses it sparingly and continues to leave the greens cut at 4.5mm for normal summer play. This gives a variable stimp speed between 9 and 12 feet, naturally depending on the amount of rainfall.

This is how fine courses should be maintained in contrast to the highly fertilised and chemically over-managed ‘conurbation’ courses that strive for a consistent pace irrespective of rainfall but incur high maintenance costs and produce a less than natural ecology as a consequence.

There is some weakness to be found somewhere at most other courses but at Muirfield it is the consistency of the challenge that puts it time and again as the No1 in countless GB&I rankings.

The general layout established by Old Tom Morris, with a clockwise outer first nine holes and a counter-clockwise inner second nine, remains to this day, with the wind angle changing continuously. A true Muirfield man has been known to complain that, on a calm day, he finds it difficult to maintain his balance ‘for lack of something to lean against’.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses,

Robert Maxwell

Though the course was extended and The Open Championship returned in 1896, 1901, 1906 and 1912, the club sensibly invited in 1925, Harry Colt and his partner Tom Simpson, (with advice from local member Robert Maxwell), to use all their brilliance in course architecture to bring the course up to scratch. The intention was to challenge all levels of golfer and to stretch the sinews of the gladiators in the championships. Today, members play off a 6728 yard course, par 71 SSS 73. The championship tees are at 7245 yards.

Colt was well known for his bunkers and 225 were created here but by 1970 had been reduced to 170. They are all deep with revetted faces and lie strategically in the land to naturally gather in, the not-quite perfectly hit shot.

The course has the ideal amount of undulation to provide interest, with very few blind shots across a gradual slope towards the north and the Firth of Forth. The predominantly flattish fairways have led most professionals to describe Muirfield as one of the ‘fairest’ tests on The Open rota, and while no single hole stands out as the iconic emblem, continued excellence in ball-striking off the firm turf is needed to give the player a chance of a birdie anywhere.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses,

Firth of Forth behind 6th Tee

I have read it described as a ‘hayfield’ and certainly the long rough is brutal most years, so this is a course where length maybe helpful but only when straight. There is nothing wrong in emulating Sir Henry Cotton when winning The Open here in 1948, when he hit fifty-three out of fifty-six fairways.

The course is substantially the same today as it was in the 1930s and the buying of the land to the north of the course during the captaincy of Jimmy Dalmeyer in the 1950s has helped protect the club’s territory, though his extension of the tenth green, which continues to this day to be the most troublesome green, agronomically speaking, has reverted to its original shape.

My first encounter with Muirfield was as a young teenager, when my famous rugby- playing uncle Ian ‘The Flying Scotsman’ Smith (who captained Scotland to the Triple Crown in 1933, no less) arranged that I play with his friend Jimmy Dalmeyer (whose son was in the same school ‘house’ as me) and it was a great privilege to be introduced to this great club and ‘running’ course.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses,

The smoking room

I doubtless imbibed the beauty of the place instinctively, the sociability of the locker-room, the grandness of the smoking room, the quality and attentiveness of the club servants and the scrumptiousness of the lunch, with its to-die-for view out and over the course and the distant Firth of Forth.

My two memories of the game are that my 5-iron was working well and that I received at least a shot a hole. I was informed later, when safely back at my uncle’s home overlooking the Tweed’s junction pool in Kelso, that I had won £10 for my uncle, a bet of which I had sensibly been given no prior knowledge. That evening may well have been also the first occasion that I sampled a tot of Scotland’s prime export!

It is fascinating to think that two of the greatest golf course architects, who had grown up devising inland courses, at the height of their powers, were allowed to radically modernise the honourable golfer’s hallowed turf.

Since the brilliant decision to invite Colt and Simpson to rearrange the course, there have been few complaints and even if Muirfield may lack the extraordinary and feel a bit ‘inlandy’, played as it is between two lines of rough, it is continually

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses

The blind drive at the eleventh

rated as the most honest championship course with a pleasing lack of undue complications. As Donald Steel says “It keeps nothing up its sleeve. There are no fearsome carries, no water hazards and only the odd blind shot”.

Apart from Tom Simpson re-modelling the 13th in 1935, the only notable changes since those days have been the provision of new tees to combat improvements in modern equipment. Martin Hawtree was invited to make a review recently and slight changes to fifteen holes have been made for the 2013 Open Championship that have attempted to maintain the tradition and uniqueness of the course and without creating the controversy that has surrounded his recent changes to The Old Course at St Andrews.

These include six new Championship tees at holes 4,9,14,15,17 and 18, new drive bunkers at 275 to 290 yards at holes 1,9,10,11 while changes that will affect the ordinary player include an extension of greens to the original Colt design at holes 1,2 and 6, the tightening of greenside bunkers to narrow the entrance and encourage accuracy off the tee at holes 2,5,6,8,12,14 and 15 and Hawtreesque shallow depressions or mounds added around the greens at holes 1,2,3,6 and 14.

The first drive, unlike that at The Old Course at St Andrews, which relies purely on the terror of the historical presence in one’s mind, at Muirfield there is a bunker on the left that acts like a magnet, almost as much as those on the right for the drive at the tenth hole.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses

Greenside bunkers at second hole

The second shot at the first hole is a bit of an optical illusion and if one succeeds in hitting the green that runs away from you with your long iron into the prevailing wind, then all that your game requires for the rest of the round is focus, in order to do well. If you miss, however, as at most holes here, you will be presented with a delicate bump-and-run shot from the tight turf on the run-offs, which can be just as much fun to successfully scramble out of.

The second hole requires exact positioning of the drive to give one’s ball any chance of staying on this green that slopes to the left,  with your relatively short approach. Those who bear in mind that the innocent enough looking green is actually devilish, will have more hope of avoiding the dreaded three-putt.

Three of the short holes are around 180 yards in length and if your clubbing-choice is not rewarded by staying on the green your ball will be gobbled up quickly by the numerous pot-bunkers. It should also be noted that it is oh so easy to over-borrow the putting-line on the sloping seventh green!

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses,

The par 3 thirteenth hole

The fourth of the par threes, the thirteenth hole (160 yards) is played across lower ground to a small green sitting like an armchair up high among the dunes. Ernie Els’ 2002 recovery from under the face of the left hand chasm was one of golf’s most amazing shots and helped him to The Open title eleven years ago.

It was bad luck on Johnny Miller that when he holed his second to the fifth hole for an outrageous albatross in the 1972 Open Championship, the shot everyone remembers from that year’s tournament is wise-cracking Lee Trevino’s chip into the 71st hole to devastate and ultimately beat Tony Jacklin.

Because of the firm, tight, indigenous bents and fescue turf, every hole possesses an approach challenge in merely making the green, let alone to be near the pin. Imagination, shot-making and creativity are all required, rather than just a correct calculation of the distance through the air (which is often all one requires on ‘target-style’ courses where there is a predominance of soggy annual meadow grass (Poa annua).

Since 1892 Muirfield has hosted forty-two national and international championships.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses,

Walter Hagen, 1929

The roll of the various Open winners; Harry Vardon (1896), Tom Watson (1980), Walter Hagen (1929), Lee Trevino (1972), Ernie Els (2002), Jack Nicklaus (1966), Sir Nick Faldo (1987 & 1992), James Braid (1901&1906), Gary Player (1959), Sir Henry Cotton (1948), Ted Ray (1912), and the amateur Harold Hilton (1892) is, apart from possibly Alf Perry (1935), an extraordinarily high quality field, each employing a precision in their shot-making, rather than relying on mere length, in order to win here.

Walter Hagen’s buccaneering flamboyance may not have fitted in here too well but his philosophical motto: “Never hurry; never worry; and always take time to smell the flowers on the way” could easily have been penned by a Muirfield man.

The ninth is occasionally cited as the iconic hole with ‘Simpson’s Folly’, the hidden central bunker located 40 yards shy of the green, and the hole’s hazards lying at an angle across the line of flight and an out-of-bounds stone wall down the left. All these distractions require correct decisions and strong shots to outwit them. Just beyond the same wall a Sir Edwin Lutyens house still adds lustre today.

Muirfield review, honourable company of Edinburgh golfers, finest golf courses, tom simpson

Simpson’sFolly on the nineth

One could wax lyrical about every hole but they have been lauded by so many better golf writers many times before that I prefer to finish by touching on the more difficult club issues, like when politicians call for The Open Championship not to be played here because it is a men-only, private, members’ club.

The club is fully compliant with the 2010 Equality Act and contrary to some opinions, ladies can in fact play at Muirfield either as guests or visitors, every day of the week and there is a ladies’ changing-room here. The Curtis Cup has been hosted in 1952 and 1984.

With regard to its supposed exclusivity, this may be more the result of well-worn anecdotes such as the famous joke that goes the rounds, of a Muirfield Secretary who, when asked by a visitor whether he could tee-off, took out his binoculars to check if he could espy a golfer of any sort on the links, before granting permission. The membership would prefer that the exclusivity here be seen as one stemming more from the high standards of service that are maintained than anything else.

Visitors are openly welcomed on Tuesdays and Thursdays and with play being available on firm greens all year round, the lower winter green-fee is an attractive proposition to visitors escaping the quagmire greens of so many inland courses where Poa annua predominates.

See ‘Muirfield and The Honourable Company‘ 1972 by George Pottinger.  Also: ‘Muirfield, home of the Honourable Company‘ 1994 by Norman Mair.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith  2013


Reader Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave us a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

FREE, every 2 months
The FineGolf Newsletter

It will keep you up to date with what new course reviews and articles have been published