I'm freshly awoken from a delightful 11-hour sleep following my return home from the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in the Highlands of Scotland. The whole past week seemed to be a positive press gush-fest; an extension announcement was made by Aberdeen Asset Management to keep the event running thru 2017, the weather was fantastic and Phil Mickelson finally won the event he's been coming to for years.
Now, the Open Championship in East Lothian takes center stage. It appears that a lot of talk this week, at least until the first peg is put in the ground Thursday, is that Muirfield and the Company of Honourable Edinburgh Golfers have taken Augusta National's spot in the world of golf as the Old Boys Club everyone loves to hate.
What makes me a little nervous about this negativity is that it could potentially steer traveling golf groups (particularly those groups bringing the ladies with them) away from going to one of Scotland's most delightful places to visit. I spent a week in the area in 2009 and my itinerary didn't include Muirfield, who aren't always so media-friendly when there's no Open on the schedule (actually, I met a member during a lunch one day who told me, 'I could probably get you a tee time there tomorrow, we just don't want you writing anything about it.').
The general public can play Muirfield, but only twice a week during limited windows. Usually, you need to book these times well in advance to get on the sheet, especially if your group is rolling deep. But those who play it almost certainly always rave about it. Golf Digest rates it the third best course outside the U.S. behind just Royal County Down and the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Sure, any golfer would love a round here, regardless of the club's member policy. But don't hold Muirfield above East Lothian as a whole, which can hold its own whether or not you've got the links on your itinerary. A collection of gorgeous seaside towns are strung along the Firth of Forth overlooking the Bass Rock and within an easy ride of Edinburgh for Scotland's best nightlife.
Not surprising to me, North Berwick, just east of Muirfield, seems to have won the hearts of many golfers this week, like Bubba Watson. and Mickelson has been plugging it in various interviews as well. To date, I've played 38 golf courses in Scotland, and North Berwick is in my personal 'Top 3,' jostling for position with the Old Course at St. Andrews and Royal Dornoch. It's just too fun and interesting, representing just how creative you can be with golf course design without going off the deep end. Actually, the 16th green is pretty nuts:
On the other side of Muirfield is Gullane No. 1, another standout that boasts both championship links challenge and gorgeous scenery. It's a unique round in that it has a volcanic hill golfers must play over twice (the 2nd hole is a brute). But there are elevated points, like the 7th tee, that make for some of the area's best vantage points (this view may be the closest you get to seeing Muirfield, which can be seen in the distance).
It seems like The Renaissance Club, a private club with a Tom Doak-designed course, has the inside track on being awarded a future Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in coming years, but why not look at Gullane, too? (For the record, Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond is adamant the event will be staged at a venue where women members are welcomed).
There are other charming plays. Historic Dunbar Golf Club is a postcard setting on every hole. Kilspindie is a lovely little 5,500-yard, mellow links that is a wonderful seaside links ideal for a quick afternoon game after you've played a medal links. And I'd be remised if I didn't mention the full little 9-holer set within a race track, the Old Course at Musselburgh, which is played best with a set of hickories.