Musselburgh: restoration or desecration?


Sean Dudley
By Tom Mackenzie

For those with a flair for the melodramatic, the story might read: "The green that may have seen the final putts of some of the first Open Championships is to be destroyed to make way for an expansion of a horse racing track. The old links at Musselburgh, probably the oldest course in continuous use in the world, is to be blighted by floodlights and an artificial track." It all sounds terrible when it is presented in that way, and that message went out to many in the world of golf. The response was one of horror, but much came from those who had not been to Musselburgh.

The facts are true, and it would be unthinkable for this to happen were the links in any way untouched. The reality is quite different, as the tale of Musselburgh is one of being overtaken, left behind and neglected. The next stage in its evolution may be brighter, but it will come at the cost of the loss of the green mentioned above.

The links at Musselburgh dates back many centuries, but it was from 1830 to 1874 that its popularity began to grow.

Some of the world's oldest clubs played there, including the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, The Royal Burgess Golfing Society, Royal Musselburgh, and The Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society.

There were only eight holes until 1870.

From 1874-1889 the links hosted the fledgling Open Championship six times.

Winners included Willie Park Jr, Mungo Park, Bob Ferguson and David Brown.

It was not long before the success of the links caused the start of its own downfall.

The Honourable Company, Royal Burgess and Bruntsfield were concerned about overcrowding on the nine hole links and within three years from 1894 all moved away to their own 18 hole courses. It was easy to see why, as these four clubs had in excess of 700 members, and at one point there were nearly sixty clubs on the links.

Royal Musselburgh moved away in 1925, but the period after the Second World War was the most damaging.

Up to that point, Musselburgh had been a genuine seaside links, with the sea lapping alongside the course. Such was the lack of respect which the course commanded that approval was given for a new power station along the coast to pump pulverised fuel ash from its furnaces into lagoons alongside the course. These have built up into mountains and the course is now isolated from the sea. This was the crime that ended any hopes of the course being preserved in anything like its original Open form – and it happened without a murmur from the golf world.

By the end of the 1970s, under the stewardship of the local authority, the course had deteriorated alarmingly, with virtually every bunker filled in or grown over and even the basics like mowing of greens neglected. Things started to improve in the 1980s with the founding of Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club, when a group of locals re-established a club to play on the links. By a mixture of lobbying the council and the efforts of volunteers, conditions started to improve and the course regained some popularity. Enthusiasts also started the World Hickory Championships to allow the links to be played in something like its original form.

Horse racing has taken place on the links since the early 1800s, and so golf and racing have evolved there together. It has not always been a happy co-existence, particularly because the racing has generally been more financially viable than the golf and a series of improvements to the racing has resulted in significant damage to the historic links. In 1986 and 1996, development prompted changes to the links. The current proposals are every bit as important for the future of racing.

In 2002, Donald Steel & Company was approached by Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club to advise on the impact of proposals from the racecourse. Donald and I worked on the project together, before Mackenzie & Ebert took it over. The plan was to extend the track, softening the sharp curves and to establish a sand based allweather surface. This work would involve the loss of the first green, which is in roughly the same position as the final green in the days of the Open, widening the width of the track, and moving the far straight about 100m north, creating more golfing room within the track.

From our point of view, the obvious concerns were the loss of the green, the widened crossings of the racetrack and the introduction of floodlights. It soon became apparent, however, that the racecourse was prepared to fund an ambitious restoration of the links. This would improve the overall experience of playing the course both in today's game and for those interested in learning about its rich history, even allowing play of the course with hickory clubs. The racecourse is also being accommodating to the golfing concerns as long as its requirements can be met.

Floodlights will be relocated away from the golf, with all but those along the north straight retractable between meetings.

Greens that were obviously new additions will be rebuilt in a style more appropriate to the origins of the links and the ninth hole, a modern addition, will be realigned.

New tees will improve holes and reduce carries across the racecourse, and tees will be established for hickory clubs. A new irrigation system, practice ground and junior course will be added. Interpretation boards will teach visitors about the importance of the links.

Nobody involved will say that the loss of the first green is good. However, the course is in desperate need of renovation and, unless there is a seismic change of policy at council level, there is no reason to believe investment will be found anywhere else.

The planning process has been full of controversy and rancour, and the Scottish Executive has completed a public inquiry on the overall planning application. The result is unknown at the time of writing.

Emotions have run high with contrasting opinions on what is best. One thing is for certain, and it is that those on both sides are genuinely passionate about the place, which must bode well for the future.

On a personal level, I hope that the management of the links can be changed to form a Links Trust along the lines of St Andrews. The course could be run for the good of the golfers with money raised put back in and the possibility of external funding. The future of the course would be more assured.

Musselburgh deserves nothing less.