Musselburgh Links – A Simple Looking Nine-Holer Bulging With Muscle

Lying just a short distane to the east of Edinburgh is Musselburgh Links Golf Club.

It’s a rather simple looking nine-hole golf course laid out in the middle of a horserace track.

But as www.golfbytourmiss.com’s Bernie McGuire reveals here is a golf course that is furlongs ahead of the likes of St. Andrews, Muirfield and other golf gems when it comes to history and achievement.

Musselburgh's opening hole with the starter's hut in background.

There is no golf club in the world that can boast a record of achievement as this  simple looking nine-hole golf course laid-out inside a horserace track just to the east of Edinburgh.

Musselburgh Links Golf Club is located in the quaint Scottish town of Musselburgh.

But when stepping onto to the first tee of the Musselburgh Links course it is akin in some ways to stepping onto the opening tee of the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Why?  Because you’re left wondering what all the fuss is about!

Sure Musselburgh Links Golf Club is not the Home of Golf but Musselburgh can lay claim to two records the revered St. Andrews will never touch.

Firstly, Musselburgh Links Golf Club is officially recognised as the world’s oldest golf course.

Musselburgh's second hole - The Graves

And secondly, and no other golf club including the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews, nor nearby Muirfield or Prestwick or for that matter Royal Troon, Carnoustie or any golf course in the States, can lay claim to having produced so many Major Championship winners.

There’s also a third item of note and that is the metal plate on the bottom of the famed ‘brassie’ club was invented at Musselburgh.

Musselburgh Links hosted six Open Championships and in the history of golf’s oldest Major, Musselburgh remarkably can lay claim to five Open champions who between them claimed 11 Open’s.

What a distinction for a nine-hole golf course!

Musselburgh's third hole - Barracks Entry

After Prestwick hosted the first dozen Open’s from 1860 to 1872, Musselburgh played host to its first of only six championships in 1874.

Legendary Musselburgh golfer Willie Park Senior had won the first-ever British Open in October 1860 at Prestwick.

Park produced a 36-hole score of 174 with his prize being a leather belt.  He then went onto win The Open a further three times in 1863, 1866 and 1875.

Willie Park Senior, who lived to 70 years of age, got into golf as a young boy as a caddy.  The caddies would then play together during the long summer evenings and Willie soon established himself as a leading player, who went on to challenge the great golfers of the time, Alan Robertson, Willie Dunn and Old Tom Morris.

Musselburgh’s second Major Champion was Mungo Park who was a brother to Willie Park Senior.

Musselburgh's famous fourth hole - Mrs Formans.

Born in Musselburgh in 1835, Mungo Park and Willie Park Senior were among five sons.
Just like his brother, Mungo learned golf at an early age but for Mungo the game took a back seat for some 20 years when he worked as a seaman.

Mungo Park returned to Musselburgh in the early 1870s and discovered his golfing skills had not been affected from such a long break from the game.

When Musselburgh played host to The Open for a first occasion in 1874, Mungo reigned supreme with a 36-hole score of 159 in defeating Young Tom Morris by two strokes.

Mungo continued to contest The Open before spending the rest of his life serving as a club-maker and teacher at various British Clubs.  He also designed a number of courses including Alnmouth where he was appointed as the club’s first professional.

Mungo died aged 69 in 1904 and the gold medal he was presented with in winning the 1874 British Open to this day is played for the scratch prize at Grimsdyke Golf Club.

Musselburgh fifth hole - The Sea Hole

Bob Ferguson used his knowledge of Musselburgh to win the 1880 Open and on the occasion of Musselburgh’s third hosting of the event.

Ferguson was a caddie for much of his life and for defeating Peter Paxton by five shots, the then 32-year old was presented with a prize of £7.

Ferguson was denied a fourth straight Open Championship after losing in a play-off at Musselburgh in 1883 to Willie Fernie.

Some 20 years earlier in his career, Ferguson won a tournament at Leith Links using borrowed clubs, against a strong field.  He was a superb putter as Old Tom Morris, who was on the opposite end of six challenge match loses, could attest.

Ferguson was so gifted using the putter it became known as the ‘Musselburgh Iron’.

Musselburgh sixth hole - The Table (Musselburgh Race Club grandstand in background).

Unfortunately, Ferguson never got rich from winning three straight Open’s but he treasured his three gold medals, along with an extra medal presented to him in winning the British Open three times in succession.

Unfortunately a bout of typhoid cut short Ferguson’s career before being appointed custodian of the Musselburgh Links.  He died in 1915 from chronic bronchitis aged 67.  The 18th hole at Monktonhall in the U.K. is named after Bob while a marble water fountain was erected in front of the clubhouse in his memory.

David or ‘Deacon’ Brown became the fourth Musselburgh clubman to taste Major success when he sealed the 1886 British Open at his home club of Musselburgh.

There’s a story that Brown, who was a slater by trade, was listed as a reserve for the championship but on the opening day he was up on a roof somewhere in Musselburgh going about his daily trade.

Musselburgh seventh hole - The Bathing Coach

When officials advised Brown he was to be competing he arrived at the clubhouse as ‘black as chimney sweep’.  But after bath and dressed now in striped trousers, a frock coat and lum hat, he defeated all and sundry with a 157 two round tally to win by two strokes.

Brown later went to America and in 1903 he tied for first place in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol  with fellow Scot Willie Anderson before losing a play-off, and with Anderson then going on to win three straight U.S. Open titles.

Willie Park Senior’s son, Willie Park Junior became Musselburgh’s sixth Major Champion in capturing The Open in 1887 when he defeated fellow Musselburgh player and 1878 winner, Bob Martin at Prestwick.

Willie Park Junior also won the 1889 Open in defeating Andrew Kirkcaldy in a play-off when Musselburgh hosted its last Open Championship.

Musselburgh eighth hole - Hole Across

Willie Park Jnr had served as an assistant pro/greenkeeper under his uncle Mungo Park at the Rhyton club in England and eventually returned to Musselburgh where he joined his father in the club and ball-making firm of W. Park and Son.

He designed links and other courses with his father and uncle, and later on his own with construction assistance from his brother Mungo and Jack Park.  Two of Willie’s courses, Sunningdale and Huntercombe, became landmarks in the history of golf course architecture.

Willie lived in the States from 1895 to 1898 where he promoted golf and also designed courses, and when he returned to the U.S. in 1916 he became inundated with requests to design and redesign courses so much so his name is on over 70 courses in America.

While Musselburgh club players continued to contest golf’s oldest Major, 1889 marked the final time Musselburgh found itself on The Open Championship rota.

Musselburgh ninth hole - The Gas

Then in 1892 The Open held that year at Muirfield went to 72 holes for a first occasion to effectively sound the death knell on any return to a nine-hole venue.

Musselburgh’s claim as ‘the world’s oldest golf club’ is based on documentary evidence dating back to 2nd March, 1672.  That’s nearly 100 years before Captain James Cook discovered the east coast of Australia.

There is definite evidence that Sir John Foulis, an Edinburgh lawyer who kept copious records of his golf on Leith Links, playing at Musselburgh in 1672 and noting in his record that he lost a match with his friends Gosford and Lyon.

More than a century earlier, Mary, Queen of Scots was accused by the Earl of Morey in a charge put before the Westminster Commission in the ‘articles’ in 1568 of playing golf at Seton House only a few days after the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, in which he claimed she was implicated.

The original Seton House was located just four miles to the east of Edinburgh.

And Mary’s son James V1 also reputedly played golf at Musselburgh, prior to journeying south to become James 1 of England in 1603.

It’s for these reasons Musselburgh Links is in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest golf club in the world.

MUSSELBURGH’S OPEN CHAMPIONS

Willie Park Senior (1833 – 1903)   – Open Champion 1860, 1863, 1866 and 1875.

Willie Park Junior (1864 – 1925) – Open Champion 1887 and 1889.

David Brown – Open Champion 1886.

Mungo Park (1835 – 1904) – Open Champion 1874.

Bob Ferguson (1848 – 1915) –  Open Champion 1880, 1881 and 1882. 

THE COURSE

Musselburgh began as a seven-hole course and it wasn’t till 1838 that an eighth was added before it became nine holes in 1870.

Initially, the first three holes stretched eastwards away from the racecourse grandstand that is built on the western side, and where the former clubhouse of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers was housed.

Today, the par three first hole, named Short Hole, is located in the north-east corner and to get started you have to play a shot over the racecourse railings.

At 146-yards from the white tees, as the name implies it is the shortest hole on the course.

The Graves is the name for the 348-yard par four, second and the club believes it may have been the burial ground for soldiers who were killed at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547.  They were buried on the links to discourage golfers from playing there as golf was frowned at the time.

You’ll feel as though you’ve ended up in the grave if you end up in either of the two hidden bunkers around the 260-yard mark.

The shorter 357-yard par four third hole named Barracks Entry is one of the more trickier holes at Musselburgh Links with gorse most of the way down the left and the racetrack to the right.

It gets its name as the army barracks used to be located on Pinkie Road just opposite the course.

The main thoroughfare through Musselburgh used to be the curse of players, especially those who’d slice their shots onto the road.  The members responded in 1885 by affixing a metal plate on the ‘brassie’ wooden club to deal with such shots.

But there was no cursing when the member’s found their way to the fourth – named Mrs. Forman’s where Mrs. Forman’s Inn stands today at the very back of the green. 

There’s a window there today where there used to be a hatch and golfers could order a ‘heart starter’ or ‘relaxer’ whatever the mood of the player.

With your back to Mrs. Forman’s Inn, the remainder of the course headed north and following the Firth of Forth coastline before making its way back to the starter’s box.

When you come to the fifth hole, named Sea Hole, you’ll probably feel as though you’ve played the hole before.

That’s because this is one hole that has been copied and incorporated into most golf courses around the globe.  It’s a rather flat lying par three of 183-yards where you hit into a green protected by bunkers.  It’s not that difficult, rated 11 for the men and 17 for the ladies, but here’s a hole that continues to stand the test of time without the need for lengthening or tricking-up.

The sixth boasts the name Pandy, a euphemism for pandemonium bunker, and a hole Willie Park Junior used to enjoy playing as he usually could carry the bunker with his drive.

The seventh named ‘The Bathing Coach, at 479-yards from the white tees is the longest hole at Musselburgh Links.

It gets its name as a bathing coach stood close to the green for many years.

The eighth, strangely named Hole Access  they say is the one of the hardest on the course, a par three measuring 240-yards off the back tees to an uphill green and then you get to the last, a par four of 364-yards and boasting nine bunkers.

The ninth is named Gas as the Musselburgh Gas Works used to be situated behind the green.

MUSSELBURGH MORSELS

Who turned out the lights?

In the 1889 Open Championship at Musselburgh in November that year many players had to complete their rounds with the aid of the adjacent street lamps given the shorter hours of daylight.

It meant checking score cards with lighted candles.  However several players, who had no chance of winning the championship, were paid small sums to withdraw in order to permit others who had a chance of victory to finish their rounds in daylight. This was the last time the Open Championship was held at Musselburgh.

Lost ball

Mr Robert Clark, an Edinburgh printer and author of one of the standard works on golf, was playing golf at Musselburgh in 1870 in a foursome.  It was almost dark when nearing the end of the round he lost his golf ball. 

He and his fellow players looked everywhere with the match all hinging on the final hole – then a par three.

Regrettably, Clark and his partner had to concede victory giving the ball up as lost.  No sooner had he done this and the ball was located in the hole

This is the only time on record, and probably will ever be, when a match was lost because the loser accomplished what in its way is the greatest feat in golf.

Gutta percha

A Musselburgh named William Smith revealed in an interview with Golf Illustrated magazine in 1901 that he was the first person to make a golf balls from sheet gutta percha in 1846.  Smith used wooden moulds, and he and his friends used them on the links.  
 
Trick shot

On Monday 2nd April 1894, a three- ball match was played over Musselburgh course between Messrs Grant, Bowden, and Waggott, the club maker.  

The latter teeing on the face of a watch at each tee.  He finished the round in 41, although the flags were not in the holes.  The watch was unscratched or damaged in any way.
 
Caddie rates

The minutes from the Musselburgh club of 23rd September, 1834 disclose it was resolved that boys employed as Caddies should be paid.

It was agreed they be paid three pence a round; and for two or more Two pence each round. 

While they were not to be paid more than one shilling a day. 
 
Boxing match

In the 1880s a boxing match took place on the Musselburgh Links Golf Course.

Andrew Kirkaldy from St Andrews and Ben Sayers from North Berwick, who was his golf partner on the day, witnessed the match.

According to Kirkaldy:  “Ben Sayers and I were playing in a foursome with two gentleman. One of them was a heavy-weight amateur boxer, though I did not know this till I saw him use his fists. 

On reaching the Foreman`s Hole, five coal-miners were coming up from the pits. The amateur boxer was about to tee off, and seeing the miners in the line of fire he shouted “Fore” several times. 

The miners took no notice, but still came on straight for the tee. Golf was played on a public common at Musselburgh.

The golfer drove off, telling the miners under his breath to look out for themselves and take their chance.

The gutta ball flew off like a bullet and hit one of the miners a crack on the chest.

This brought all the lot of them up vowing vengeance, swearing and shaking their fists.

“Why the hell did ye hit me with that ball!” asked the man who had the best right to be in a bad temper.

“Answer me that, sir. ” 

“My dear fellow, I shouted ‘Fore,’ said the golfer, “to give you the warning”

“Was that a ‘ the warning ‘ you could give me?” said the miner. “Then , Five! and take that,” landing a blow on the golfer’s neck and blackening his white collar.

Before you could say “Jimmy Johnstone ,” the miner was on his back and his other four mates sprawling beside him, floored as they came on.   “I was dumbfounded and never realised till that day the great difference between scientific and brute force fighting .The miners hadn’t a ghost of a chance.” 

They got up growling but left us to go on with the game. I could hardly play for laughing.”

Green fees, please.

In the 1980s, it was common to see the greenkeeper riding around on his bicycle to collect green fees given he also had to tend to the course.

FOOTNOTE

In 2009, Musselburgh Links and four other courses played host to the World Hickory Open and won by Australia’s Perry Somers.

Somers defeated local professional Alastair Good in an exciting contest at nearby Gullane that hosted the final round.

Somers is originally from Queensland but now lives in Germany where he is a teaching professional.  He succeeded in posting an eight-over par 76 on Gullane’s No. 3 course.

‘Fly’ over the course…

 
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