The Golfer’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Golfer’s Tale

by Alan Chainey

Walking along the Lothian coast, in some 20 minutes you go close to 18 of the county’s 21 golf courses. Most were established during the period 1830-1910 with the Old Course at Musselburgh and that at North Berwick perhaps being the most historic.

For much of the first hundred years, golf in East Lothian was for the wealthy and leisured males. With the manufacture of less expensive clubs and balls, the proliferation of courses, the coming of the railway and the growth of middle class wealth, the game expanded significantly with municipal courses appearing at Winterfield, the Glen in North Berwick, and at Haddington. The majority remain private members’ clubs but almost without exception open their doors to paying visitors, nowadays a significant part of tourism across the county. Many come to play the famous challenging courses along these shores.

From the late 19th century the input of the professional golfers has been significant, helping to grow the game, raise standards of play and for a long time contributing to the production of clubs and balls and other equipment which generated sales not just locally but far and wide. Children’s courses in North Berwick, originally the Ladies’ course, and also at Gullane helped fuel the growth of the game, introducing many young people and novices to the sport as they do to this day.

The game has extended with new courses at Whitekirk, Archerfield and Renaissance and also inland at Gifford. These are more commercially driven than the mainstream of private member clubs, the traditional model of golf in Scotland and the UK. Nowadays it’s a sport played by a wide cross-section of the community, from young to old, and the coming of the private car has caused major changes. In an increasingly affluent society with more leisure time and an ever-growing proportion of the retired, the game continues to change. East Lothian is a vibrant golfing community, hosting not only an Open every few years, but many other major professional and amateur events.

North Berwick Golf Club, where I have been a member since 1983 and captain from 2002-2004, was founded in June 1832, with originally nine founding members playing over a 6-hole course on the famous West Links. Much of the land close to the town was shared with feuars (or tenants) grazing their cattle and with womenfolk who used the land for bleaching and drying. There was no clubhouse and as the meetings of the club (essentially April-October) developed, the attendant dining was held in a marquee specifically erected for the purpose. The playing membership remained modest (less than 50) for several decades. A seventh hole was added in the late 1840s and the course lay on the edge of the town with a traditional out-and-back configuration. This has been retained to the present day although the course was extended and remodelled in stages through to 1895 when it expanded to its modern-day 18-hole form. Today the club has 300 male and 200 lady members, plus 70 junior boys and 40 junior girls. The ladies’ golf club was formed in 1880 and having demonstrated their abilities and enthusiasm for the game they transferred their playing from the now-children’s course to the main course before 1900. Today’s course over the West Links is managed by the North Berwick Golf Club, but is shared with the all-male Tantallon Golf Club and also with the Bass Rock Golf Club.

This world-famous course, currently ranked within the world’s top 100, attracts in excess of 11,000 visitor rounds per year out of a total played of 42,000. Their income is a major contributor to the operational budget of the Golf Club and the West Links and enables the course to be maintained and presented to a very high standard.

In recent years it has hosted the British Ladies’ amateur championship, qualifying rounds for the British Amateur championship and also final local qualifying rounds for the Open when this is held at Muirfield. It’s not just the golf club which benefits from the year-round flow of golfing visitors; many local businesses are also enriched.

Golf is clearly a vital ingredient of the local economy and in recent years the Club Golf Initiative (launched in 2005) seeks to introduce every primary school child to the game in year 5, with local clubs offering structured programmes of teaching from that age. Golf can be played all year round on links courses and this is a major factor in ensuring the vitality and financial well-being of courses and clubs in the county at a time when a considerable number of inland courses across the UK are experiencing difficulty and declining memberships.

There are many good golfing tales relating to North Berwick but I witnessed a strange occurrence some 15 years ago, when an elderly lady member ‘drove’ onto the 18th green. Sadly she had not played a tee shot from the 18th tee (245 yards for the ladies). Rather she had driven her car, which had been parked alongside the green on the roadway, through the wooden railings and up onto the 18th green, having put the car into forward gear when intending to reverse and drive away! Fortunately there was no significant damage to the green.

While John Muir was not himself a golfer, he was a man of the outdoors who made impact worldwide and particularly in North America. It is fitting that the coastal way which carries his name follows a string of fine golf courses along an outstanding section of coastline.

Alan Chainey
Alan Chainey

Alan Chainey was Director of Physical Education at the University of Edinburgh for twenty years from 1982 to 2002. Although he is now officially retired, he is still heavily involved in University sports administration with special interests in football and golfing.