Golfers rally to save legendary Musselburgh Old Course
A centuries-old public golf course in Scotland, believed by some to be the oldest playing course in the world, faces partial destruction unless its supporters can convince a local governing body to save it.
For two centuries the legendary Musselburgh Old Course eight miles east of Edinburgh has coexisted peacefully with its neighbor, a rural horse-racing track. But now, plans are afoot to expand the racetrack - with dire consequences for the golf course which was home to six 19th-century British Opens.
Tees and greens will be dug up and moved if the expansion plan is passed by the East Lothian Council this month, as expected.
The plan calls for an extension of the racetrack, construction of an all-weather track, erection of 80-foot floodlights, removal of a belt of trees adjacent to the golf course, construction of stable blocks for racehorses and the use of golf-course land for racing staff parking.
Enraged local golfers and townspeople say they'll fight all the way to Parliament if necessary, and they've formed a committee to do battle.
"We will certainly be going to court," said Roger Knox, the chairman of Hands Off Our Links (HOOL). He said 1,100 locals are firmly behind the group and have contributed $8,000, primarily for legal fees.
Proponents of the racetrack expansion say it will boost economic development and bring jobs to the area. Opponents counter that it's just a way to boost bookmakers' earnings at the expense of golfers. Ripping up dear old Musselburgh is like desecrating a shrine, they argue.
However, historians disagree over the facts surrounding the Musselburgh Old Course. There are undocumented reports of Mary, Queen of Scots duffing on the links in 1567, four days after the mysterious murder of her bisexual husband, Lord Darnely. But documentary evidence of a golf course doesn't surface until 1672.
Historians do concur that Musselburgh hosted the world's first ladies' tournament, a putting contest for the town's fishwives in 1811. Some years later a local blacksmith invented the tool to dig golf holes and thus forever established the cup's diameter at four-and-a-quarter inches. (He's the one to blame when you lip out.)
The course was host to six Open tournaments - the last time in 1889 - and until Muirfield was built (and replaced Musselburgh in the rotation) it functioned as an Open qualifying course.
Despite the history, the fact that Musselburgh has only nine holes doesn't help it in the preservation fight, said Mark Hazelton of Pioneer Golf Inc., a company that offers U.K.
"It's a historic course, so most of our clients who want to play there are golf historians who want to play all the courses where the Open has been played," Hazelton said.
Hazelton said there was talk some years ago about adding nine more holes to the course, but because the racetrack is a prime local revenue producer, expanding it was viewed as a more practical plan.
Musselburgh has never been a rich man's course, and even now players from anywhere in the world can buy a season pass for less than 100 pounds. In that sense, the world does seem to have passed it by.
Knox is pessimistic about the East Lothian Council vote but hopes Parliament can be convinced to preserve the traditional layout of a legendary Scottish links.
"We're starting to get a little more hopeful. There have been some stories in the city newspapers," he said. "Unfortunately," he added, "they're by the writers who cover horse racing."
March 22, 2006