Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The 'vandals' playing around with Mary Queen of Scots' golfing legacy

It is, they say, the oldest golf course in the world. Mary Queen of Scots is said to have played a round of golf at Musselburgh. As did her son, James VI, days before he decamped to England. The East Lothian course hosted six Open championship in the 19th century, and the first ladies tournament in history.

But now – in the aftermath of Ryder Cup hysteria - Musselburgh Old Course is being “vandalised” by the local council, according to local sportsmen.

Across the expanse of rolling grassland, enclosed by the town’s horse racing circuit, dark brown scars cut into the grassy links, attest to works already underway, aimed at realigning the ancient links to a huge £4.5 million sports pavilion, on its northern fringe.

The building – an ungainly, four-square affair – opened in July and primarily services the race course, housing accommodation for horses and jockeys. Eventually it will make space for golfers’ changing rooms and an office for the golf club “Starter”, who for decades has been housed 400 yards away, in a hut close to the first tee.

The new facilities have prompted changes to the nine-hole course, carried out by the green-keeper, without the support of a golf course architect.

The first tee will be moved, so that it is visible from the pavilion, bunkers will be filled and the hole lengthened, from a short 146-yard par-3, to a much more challenging par-3 230 yards. The dog-leg on the approach to the par-4 ninth hole is also being adjusted and its tee position moved.

Alterations on this scale may seem minor to non-golfers, but send the game’s aficionados into apoplexy.

“It is an act of vandalism” said Brian Ramsay, 57, a member of the Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club. “Everyone knows the great history of the course, but the council seem hell-bent on developing the commercial side of the race track, and forgetting the course. The course shouldn’t be turned over just because of a new building. It’s madness.”

To understand this level of feeling, the uninitiated need only consult Golf World, the Bible of the modern game.

“Musselburgh is to golf what Mecca is to religion,” it concludes, listing it among the world’s Top 100 courses. “The very roots of the game are founded on this hallowed turf. As the oldest playing links course in the world, it captures a wonderful sense of nostalgia.”

Mr Ramsay and his supporters are quick to point out that East Lothian Council have an undistinguished record when it comes to safeguarded their golfing Mecca.

The course, like the race track, stands on common land, administered for the community by the local authority. Five years ago the council sanctioned the creation of an £11 million all-weather horse racing circuit complete with floodlights, a development that would have required shearing off sections of the old course.

Cue uproar. The development was called in by the Scottish Executive, and eventually thrown out to the delight of golfers all over the world.

This time around the council insist it consulted with the golf clubs that use the course, and had not faced objection. Moreover, a spokesman insisted that even the historic short first hole, had been altered over the years, so it was hardly breaking with tradition.

And it is true, acknowledge the council’s critics: most courses change over time, even, occasionally, the most venerable. St Andrews was lengthened for this year’s Open and nearby Muirfield bears little relation to the course first constructed on its site, east of Gullane.

But on Musselburgh links history hangs heavy on the air. The first recorded game was documented here, revealed in the account books of Sir John Foulis of Ravelston, who paid for three golf balls, and hired a horse to carry him to the burgh.

There are older traditions. Mary Queen of Scots is said to have been indicted for the murder of Lord Darnley while she was playing here. Soldiers slain at the Battle of Pinkie are reputed to be buried under the second hole – known to sportsmen as “The Graves”. Cromwell billeted his troops on the course.

This is heritage to the max. Underlying the sense of grievance among critics is a sense that the council, along with public bodies – notably VisitScotland – simply do not value a sporting destination that resonates all around the world. Yet, in the tiny Starter’s hut, the visitors book is crammed with signatures from all around the world – Americans, South Africans, Canadians and Germans joining the Scots and English visitors who have played the course in the last few days.

It is this global reach that is constantly overlooked, said Sir Charles Fraser, a keen golfer who lives locally and is well acquainted with the course’s history.

“This is a national treasure,” said Sir Charles. “It is a terrific place. When you walk on it, you walk on history. If this golf course was run by Americans, can you imagine the fuss that would be made over it? But nothing in life is frozen in aspic – people just have to find a way between minor change and damage to a national treasure.”

Mr Ramsay agrees, and proposes a simple solution. “Why don’t they just stop and think. If they simply convert ninth hole in the first, and the first into the ninth, there will no need to keeping digging the course up.”