“Wait, you haven’t been to Scotland?!” is an exasperated question I’ve had to answer many times over the last five years. There were a lot of factors that contributed to the long wait, most notably Covid shutdowns, the costs associated with such a trip for a gritty little startup, and a bad case of procrastination. This year, however, it was unavoidable. We had the 150th Open at the Old Course approaching and a sponsor wanting us to experience it. (Thank you, Zero Restriction.) So off I went.
As I mentioned before, I’m a terrible procrastinator. I struggle making dinner plans—ask Mrs. Fried Egg—let alone plotting out 13 days in a foreign country. Thankfully, David Jones, aka the UK Golf Guy, lent assistance with the logistics of the trip. Who knows what would have happened without him. Beyond helping arrange rounds at courses, David set us up with a variety of characters who added dashes of history, interest, and humor to our time abroad.
From left to right: David Jones, Brendan Porath, and Andy Johnson outside the gates at Muirfield. Photo: David Jones
On with the trip…
There are hundreds of wonderful courses within a few-hour driving radius of Edinburgh, so I figured we didn’t need to spend a ton of time in the car. Our trip had two focuses: covering the 150th Open Championship and seeing as much golf in the region as possible. We would need to spend at least a week in St. Andrews, so we would have a few days before and after the Open to play golf. Since the Fife area was a zoo, we settled on the East Lothian region as our golf hub.
It was quite a trek from San Francisco to Edinburgh. My flight connected in Washington, D.C., where I met up with Fried Egg counterpart and Shotgun Start co-host Brendan Porath.
As we waited for our flight, a stranger mistook Brendan for Rory McIlroy. No, seriously. He wished Brendan “good luck” and went back to notify his family that there was an international superstar in DC for some reason boarding a red eye United flight in Group 4. When the stranger’s child asked for a selfie, Brendan had no choice but to break it to them that the 6’4″ man they were speaking to was, in fact, not Rory McIlroy.
The Honourable Company
After a red-eye in economy, we weren’t exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the start of our Scottish sojourn. But combatting the lack of sleep and eight-hour time change was the adrenaline I felt for my introduction to links golf. Kicking off our trip was lunch and an afternoon tee time at Muirfield, host of this year’s AIG Women’s Open. Muirfield is one of the more exclusive clubs in Scotland, and it offers an elite championship test as well as a famous lunch. Another distinctive feature of the club is that members play two-ball formats exclusively, whether as foursomes (alternate-shot) or in groups of two.
On this Saturday, Muirfield was hosting its annual matches against Prestwick. These types of matches are common in Scotland, and they create camaraderie across the national golf landscape. In America, private clubs tend to be more insular, rarely mixing with other clubs. As a result, the sense of community within the sport is less strong here.
Our host for the day was a gentleman named Andy Crummey. He was sitting outside enjoying a light-colored drink from a mug, and he asked us what we’d like. “What are you having?” I said. “A Pimm’s,” he replied. I had no clue what that was, so naturally it’s what I ordered. I didn’t know whether it had alcohol. After I took a sip, I still wasn’t sure… which is never a good sign.
From left to right: David Jones, Andy Crummey, Brendan Porath, and Andy Johnson. Photo: David Jones
The famous lunch scene was intoxicating in other ways, too. The large, lunch-hall-like room was filled with symbols of the club’s immense history, from the original rules of golf to a Claret Jug and the Silver Club trophies. In the middle were a few long tables packed with golfers recounting their matches, laughing and eating and drinking. True camaraderie—people from different coasts and countries bonding over golf.
After a Pimm’s, wine, a huge lunch, and glass of kummel that I fortunately spilled later, three hours had passed and it was time for golf. Crummey paired with Brendan, and I paired with UK Golf Guy David. Crummey informed us that this wouldn’t be a normal match. We would play Muirfield rules, which included a “Dallmeyer,” a rule named after a former club captain. According to the Dallmeyer, any team that goes three-up has to give the other team a shot per hole until the deficit returns to one-up. This reminded me of the custom of playing bags (cornhole) to exactly 21; it prevents lesser players from getting the drubbings they deserve. As the trip went on and we played under this rule more, I learned to enjoy it. Few feelings top winning a hole despite a Dallmeyer shot in effect.
Our first hours in Scotland, spent at Muirfield, were an instant immersion into these quirks that have emerged from decades and centuries of golf culture, and few places have more history than Muirfield. Crummey and others were eager to jump in and pepper us with stories about captains, relics, and some of these traditions incorporated every day into play.
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation or the drinks at lunch or the fact that I hadn’t swung a club since before the U.S. Open or the persimmon driver I had decided to put in my bag, but I was pretty worried about my first tee shot. I stood over the ball, and I had such trouble getting comfortable with my swirling environment that I had to step off. When I took my stance again, I didn’t feel much better. I produced a chunk pop-up that went about 100 yards and is firmly in the conversation for worst shot of the trip. My one consolation was that I didn’t have to hit the next one. Foursomes is the best.
Playing genuine links golf for the first time, I was immediately struck by the firmness and speed of the turf. The closest thing to it I’ve seen in America is at Sand Valley and the Loop at Forest Dunes. The speed is jarring at first, and right away it shifts your ideas of yardage. In Scotland, the most important number isn’t to the pin; it’s to the front edge. And I think this is a key part of why this form of golf is so fun. Back pins are more attackable thanks to the availability of a run-up shot, and front pins require perfect touch and judgment in gauging how short you have to land your ball.
This turf makes the brilliant design of Muirfield and its wide array of hazards come alive. One of my favorite holes was the eighth, a big par-4 that plays into a corner of the property. A set of bunkers cross in front of the green, and on most days, you need to just barely carry them in order to be successful. If you play it just right, you’ll find your ball near the pin. If you play it safe, giving the bunkers a wide berth, your shot will likely trundle through a green that runs away from you. It’s a great example of how the speed of the turf allows the architecture to shine.
Speaking of the architecture, Muirfield is the most well-thought-out course of the eight we saw on this trip. That’s probably because it was redesigned by Harry Colt in 1923. Most well-known seaside Scottish courses evolved gradually as the game changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By contrast, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers—the formal name of Muirfield’s club—made more sudden, ambitious changes. It started at Leith Links, then relocated to Musselburgh, then to the current properly in Gullane, East Lothian. Old Tom Morris created the original layout in 1891, but in the early 20s, after purchasing new land, the club brought in Colt to build an almost entirely new course. By this point, the profession of golf architecture had advanced to a polished level, and today’s Muirfield is evidence of that. The features of every hole are coherent and intentional. There is less randomness, less blindness, and perhaps, compared to the other courses on our itinerary, less charm. But the more formal feel definitely fits the place.
One of the most famous and imitated aspects of Muirfield’s design is its routing. The front nine travels clockwise around the perimeter of the property, and the back nine goes counter-clockwise through the interior. This routing results in continual shifts in direction, so that the player faces a new wind on almost every hole. It also uses the subtly undulating property in a variety of ways, with each hole turning in different ways along the same landforms. If you’re attentive, you can get looks at hole locations on the back nine as you play the front.
High above Muirfield. Photo: Andy Johnson
Our match wasn’t much of a contest. Crummey and Brendan stood no chance, mainly because… um, one of them struggled off the tee. Which brings me to my one critique of Muirfield: the preponderance of thick fescue rough just off the fairways. We spent more time at the tedious task of looking for golf balls than we did during any other round in Scotland. What the rough at Muirfield does, in effect, is add water hazards down both sides of the fairway on every hole. While this certainly makes the course more difficult, it takes away from the chance to attempt low-percentage recovery shots—which, especially in match play, is one of the most exciting aspects of the game.
As we finished, the participants in the Muirfield-Prestwick match were getting ready for their black-tie dinner. We had to turn down the offer of a nightcap: we still needed to shoot the course in the evening and have dinner at David’s house with Geoff Shackelford and Ru Macdonald. The purpose of dinner was to keep us up as long as possible in order to fight the impending jet lag. The wine made determining the effectiveness of this strategy impossible.