Musselburgh and St. Andrews in Scotland: The Cradle of Golf vs. the Home of Golf, Old Tom vs. Willie rivalry
MUSSELBURGH, SCOTLAND – St. Andrews and Musselburgh in East Lothian are separated, as the crow flies, by little more than about 30 miles on Scotland’s eastern side. And both have their own very legitimate claims of “firsts” in golf. St. Andrews of course, lays claim to being the birthplace of “gawf” sometime dating back to the 1400s.
Musselburgh Links’ Old Course, on the other hand claims to be the world’s oldest playing course, dating back to 1672 and is recognized as such by Guinness.
The rivalry, as I learned today while visiting the Musselburgh Links, became intensified back in the early 1870s during a match between St. Andrews’ Old Tom Morris and Musselburgh’s Willie Park. As often was the case during these times, bets were placed amongst onlookers, and many had their money on hometown Willie.
Well in this match, Old Tommy was giving Park a bit of a spanking, and so the very biased gallery decided to take matters into their own hands, stepping on Old Tom’s ball, foot-wedging it into gorse, maybe even the occasional “Noonan!” in his backswing…they were playing dirty.
Finally, a fed up Old Tom walked off the course and into the Mrs. Forman’s pub just off the 4th green, where we can assume he spent the remainder of the day. Park finished out the match and tried to claim the prize money, but it was disputed by Tom and never settled. It led to some bad blood between the two golfing meccas in the years to come.
St. Andrews and Musselburgh, both Open Championship hosts, have carried out quite different fates since that match. The Old Course at St. Andrews is the most regular Open host and is a bucket list destination for any golfer with it’s collection of splendid links, bearing the “Home of golf” label.
Musselburgh, after being host to over 60 different golf clubs at one time, was barely operable by the 1950s.
Today, new members have helped revive the golf course and it’s now a splendid little 9-holer that is as unique as you’ll find, set inside a horse racing track (which dates back to the early 1800s itself). Surprisingly enough, some of the holes here are challenging even today, and the green complexes are outstanding (including what they claim to be the first ever two-tiered green). The “Cradle of golf” is what they prefer Musselburgh be labeled.
Here, it’s recommended you rent some old hickory clubs to play with, which I did and enjoyed immensely (a birdie with hickories is quite a thrill - just remember to swing easy). Just last fall, the club announced a new membership initiative aimed especially at international members. £85 gets you a yearly membership, plus a neat little souvenir box, plus some serious bragging rights back home. Check out the club’s website for details. For the members of the Old Musselburgh, the sky is the limit for their coveted golf course.
And even if you’re not after a membership, anyone is welcome to tee it up at Musselburgh with the old hickories and enjoy a whisky in their wonderful, 19th century Victorian-style clubhouse they’ve restored over the years. If your golf group is coming to Scotland in search of history, perhaps only St. Andrews can rival the charm of Musselburgh.
As for me, I’m back to my own “titanium cannons” tomorrow at North Berwick. Stay tuned for more on Musselburgh, East Lothian and I’ll even be headed to the ol’ rival up the coast, St. Andrews next week…
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Still don't envy you the links courses - it was windy enough for me on the hills of the south coast of England today, thank you. Just wish the weather in Scotland had been kinder to you -perhaps next week you'll get some sunshine.