LORAN SMITH COLUMN: As British grinds to finish, time to explore Gullane

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

GULLANE, Scotland — Early morning the weekend of the Open championship, there is relaxed time to sample the many alluring and singular characteristics of golf’s first championship. On the way to Gullane, the nearest village to Muirfield with a post office, you might stop off at Musselburgh Links, which Guinness historians say and locals proudly boast, is the world’s oldest golf course.

Prestwick is where the Open first began in 1860. It was played next at St. Andrews in 1873. Musselburgh hosted Open competition a year later in 1874 when Mungo Park was the winner.

An early morning drive out to Gullen from Edinburgh allows one to avoid traffic congestion. Once you get off the motorway, two-lane roads usher Open aficionados to the much-celebrated Muirfield, the links favorite of Jack Nicklaus. You marvel at how tournament officials manage traffic when you consider that the narrow roads and streets must accommodate roughly 40,000 golf fans who show up to celebrate the latest name to be etched on the Claret Jug.

Gullane has a population of 3,783 but not a single round-about. There is one traffic light. Gullen’s next-door neighbor, Aberlady, is home to 1,140 residents, including Rob and Joan Lyall, who have offered bed-and-breakfast accommodations to interested golf fans for various championships over the years. You couldn’t possibly find friendlier hosts. Joan’s cooked English breakfast ranks with the best I have ever experienced.

Making your way through fields of waving grain is a humbling experience. A backdrop of sea and shore segueing into fields and meadows brushing up against picturesque mountains — every mile offers a better view than the last. You collect them in your mind’s eye and conclude that as great as the competition is at one of the world’s most appreciated golfing venues, the fun at the Open begins with the journey to the golf course.

With the cut allowing the top 84 players to continue play, overcast skies brought a chill that had been missing, as Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, has experienced a heat wave. Temperatures, however, are in the eighties, Fahrenheit — which is more like a balmy day for a spring football game or a round of competition at the Masters. In other words, the Scots don’t exactly know about real heat—tobacco cropping, cotton picking, pre-season football heat.

The Open is truly international.

“It’s the World Open,” said Tom Watson early in the week. “Life is good.”

There are 23 countries represented if you list England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland separately, which the Royal & Ancient Golf Club does in its pairing sheets. Such diverse places as India, Korea, and Finland are represented. The nation with the most representation is the United States with 29. The United Kingdom had 17 players to begin the championship Thursday.

As the third round wore on, the wind picked up, and the course exacted more than its pound of flesh. Neither former UGA stars Harris English (75), nor Russell Henley (75), could gain ground. Bubba Watson was flummoxed by the conditions with a 7-over, while other Georgia residents Stewart Cink (76) and Matt Kuchar (72) of Georgia Tech experienced no significant movement on the scoreboard.

The wind off the North Sea reminded all players that the Open championship rewards those who are the most consistent. What advantages new technology giveth, the winds of Muirfield taketh away. You never saw so many competent golfers sigh with relief when par is achieved.

When it was all over and many had headed home for haggis and a single malt, there was one happy, yet uneasy, camper — Lee Westwood, who begins the final round today at 3-under par and a two-stroke lead over Hunter Mahan and Tiger Woods at 1-under. Westwood, a player of distinction, has never won a major. This Worksop, England, native could become the toast of Scotland late today. For that to happen, there can be no backsliding.