Golf: Muirfield's majesty among the fairest of fairways: Tim Glover reports on the Open course that has delighted and aggravated the world's greatest golfers

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The Independent Online
AMERICANS, hopelessly lost on geography, are split on history. Some agree with Henry Ford and dismiss it as bunk. Others, like Arnold Palmer, the Sixties saviour of the Open Championship, are defenders of the faith and the traditions of the fairways. At least, Arnie was until he was dismissed by a bunker at Muirfield in 1987. At the age of 57, in the 116th Open, Palmer was going along quite nicely in the second round until he came to the 14th hole.

He landed in a bunker on the right- hand side of the green and was buried by the sands of time. 'I wouldn't say that God couldn't have got it out but he'd have had to have thrown it,' Palmer said. 'I'd have stayed in there all night if necessary.' He nearly did. He got it out of the trap at the fifth attempt. He took 10 on a par four.

Palmer will not be at Muirfield for the 121st Open which starts next Thursday. Nick Faldo, marching to the beat of history, will.

While Arnie's Army has laid down its arms, Faldo's Followers will be looking for an action replay of '87 when the Englishman, dressed to the nines in waterproofs, reeled off 18 pars in the last round to win his first major championship.

One hundred years ago Muirfield, the links of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, hosted its first Open. It was won by the Englishman Harold Hilton, which prompted Andrae Kirkaldy of St Andrews to dismiss the course as 'nothing but an auld watter meadie'. For the benefit of the Sassenachs, old water meadow. It has improved since then.

The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers may sound like a contradiction in terms but the course, hard by the Firth of Forth, has ancient mariners and their wives laying down the lore. The club was founded in 1744, a decade before the Royal and Ancient of St Andrews. They moved from Leith to Musselburgh (1836) to Muirfield (1891).

Very early on there were no holes barred: 'The greatest and wisest of the land were to be seen mingling freely with the humblest mechanics in pursuit of their common and beloved amusement. All distinctions of rank were levelled by the joyest spirit of the game.' Not for long. A few rotters, or persons of 'bad fame or such as are not fit for the company of gentlemen' started pitching up with their niblicks and the noblemen's noses were put out of joint. Thus it would be Honourables only.

The 1892 Open was due to be played at Musselburgh but the Honourables took it with them to Muirfield. Musselburgh, fishwives to the fore, arranged its own Open with pounds 100 in prize money compared to pounds 30 for the other one. The Honourables increased their purse to more than pounds 100 and Musselburgh brought forward their event by one week.

Muirfield, created by Old Tom Morris and improved by Harry Colt and Tom Simpson, is widely regarded as one of the fairest of the Open courses: a double circuit of nines, the first clockwise, the second anti-clockwise, a loop the loop designed to combat the vagaries of the wind and take out, as far as the weather is concerned, an element of luck. What happened, for example, in the final round of the US Open at Pebble Beach last month when some players who went out early had a comparatively easy time while others were blown away, is deemed virtually impossible at Muirfield. The longest run of holes in the same direction is from the third to the fifth.

If the course is regarded as fair, the club has a reputation for exclusivity bordering on eccentricity. It does not mind who it turns away, be it the Duke of Windsor, then the Prince of Wales, or Payne Stewart, then the US Open champion. Last summer Stewart and a few friends, prior to playing in the Open at Royal Birkdale, had a week's golfing holiday, enjoying Scotland's oldest and finest courses. Prestwick, Troon, Turnberry, Carnoustie, Gullane and Muirfield were on the itinerary. They played them all except Muirfield. 'They wouldn't let us on,' Stewart said. That day they played at Gullane instead, from where Muirfield is clearly visible. 'There wasn't a soul on it,' Stewart recalled. The secretary replied that he must have been looking at it at lunchtime when the members would have been taking refreshments in the clubhouse.

Tom Watson is another American who fell out with the Honourable Company. And he had just won the third of his five Opens at Muirfield. On the Sunday evening in 1980, Watson, who had enjoyed a celebratory drink or two, went back out on to the course, in the company of Tom Weiskopf and Ben Crenshaw, and was attempting to hit a ball with an old wooden shafted club. The then secretary Paddy Hanmer RN (the Muirfield secretary is invariably drawn from the services and we are not talking about the ranks) threw the new Open champion, his wife and his friends off the course.

Next week, Muirfield hosts the Open for the 14th time and Watson will be there. If players like Fuzzy Zoeller, Scott Simpson and Larry Nelson, who withdrew from the championship two days ago, are debunkers of history, others like Watson, and those who went before him, are honours graduates. James Braid, who won the Open at Muirfield in 1901, the first of five, named his son after the course. Harry Muirfield could have been Harry Musselburgh. Gary Player, the champion in 1959, named a house Muirfield (as did Faldo five years ago) and Jack Nicklaus, the winner in 1966, named his course in Columbus, Ohio, Muirfield Village. Perhaps he didn't realise that muir means village.

Palmer was not the only man to mention God in the company of Muirfield. When Lee Trevino won in 1972, he declared that 'God is a Mexican'. This was after holing out from off the green at the 17th in the final round, a stroke of fortune which effectively undermined the golf career of his playing partner, Tony Jacklin. In response to Trevino's chip, Jacklin, a likely lad then and now an unlikely laird with an estate near Edinburgh, took three putts and finished third. As for being a contender of major championships, he conceded later, he was a broken man. A hundred years ago, Andrae Kirkaldy probably felt the same. He wouldn't have named his dog after Muirfield.