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A hands-on history lesson: Golf in Scotland's East Lothian region

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GULLANE, Scotland -- Archie Baird unlocks the door to his Heritage of Golf Museum. The tiny room, almost invisible next to the Gullane Golf Club golf shop, doesn’t look like much. Old clubs and balls are scattered about, some broken and dusty. Golf paintings and pictures cover almost every inch of the walls. Odd golf trinkets line the shelves of a bookcase. It looks more like a cluttered man cave than a historical haven.

But inside, all the long lost secrets of the game are revealed. Baird debunks the myth that Scotland is the “Home of Golf.” The Dutch actually played the game on ice long before the Scots took over ownership somewhere between 1400 and 1500 A.D. for simple reasons.

“We made much better clubs than they did,” Baird said. “We had the right kind of wood, beech and ash. And we had lots of unemployed woodworkers.” 

Teeing it up in East Lothian isn’t just another golf getaway. Done right, visiting Scotland’s Golf Coast will provide a history lesson that both educates and delights. All it takes is a few tee times on the region’s oldest links and some time spent with Baird (available by appointment only) for a proper perspective on golf’s origins. No other sport clings to the past harder than golf. East Lothian celebrates this history better than almost anywhere else, while still remaining relevant to today’s game.

Muirfield, home to the oldest golf club in the world, The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, dating to 1744, serves as a prime example. The club still clings to its traditions – gentlemen must wear a jacket and tie at all times inside the clubhouse and women still aren’t allowed as members – even though its famous links was altered, by moving bunkers and adding tees, in advance of the 2013 Open Championship this July. This will be Muirfield’s 16th time hosting the world’s oldest major championship. Getting inside the gates isn’t easy, but well worth the effort and expense. Visitor play is welcome Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Muirfield isn’t the only East Lothian course to have hosted an Open, either. The Musselburgh Links, the Old Golf Course – the oldest course in the world still in existence - hosted the last of its five Opens in 1889. Like the Heritage of Golf Museum, this nine-holer will only be appreciated by true students of the game. The course is not in great condition in spots, nor is it long. The 2,954-yard par-34 loop feels forgotten tucked inside the Musselburgh Race Track.

Musselburgh

Golfers can get a throwback experience with hickories at Musselburgh's Old Course, site of five Open Championships.

Mary Queen of Scots is said to have played onsite prior to surrendering to the Confederate Lords in 1567. The first documented evidence of golf came later in 1672. Hickory clubs are available for rent to foster an authentic old-world experience. Musselburgh residents Rob MacLaren and Ian Wood played it with modern equipment instead.

“It’s a privilege to play here,” MacLaren said during a round in April. “I think about the people who came before me. I like to think this is how golf was played a hundred years ago.”

Many firsts happened on this hallowed ground. The wives of local fishermen played the first women’s competition in 1811. Robert Gay used the first hole cutting instrument in 1829. Blame him for cutting a 4 ½-inch hole instead of one larger.

Seven of the current nine holes were laid out in 1838, with two more added in 1870. Musselburgh hosted British Opens in 1874, 1877, 1883, 1886 and 1889. Willie Park Jr., whose legendary father was a pro at Musselburgh, won in a playoff in front of a large crowd in 1889.

Dunbar

Founded in 1856, Dunbar Golf Club is still one of East Lothian's most scenic courses. 

Several others among the world’s oldest courses call East Lothian home. The North Berwick West Links, founded in 1832, continues to be recognized as one of the game’s most cherished traditional links. Its original Redan hole (no. 15) has been copied throughout the globe. Its layout quirks, like playing over ancient stone walls and hitting to the wildest green in golf (at no. 16), remain endearing traits to most golf purists. Dunbar Golf Club, founded in 1856, also brings a stone wall into play on several holes. Much of Dunbar roams the shoreline of the scenic Firth of Forth, creating an epic round of wind and water. Gullane Golf Club, which features three links today, followed in 1882.

Playing golf and gazing out upon the rocky coastline, who knew a history lesson could be so fun and so beautiful?

View more tee times and travel information in Scotland