Less than 20 minutes driving west on the coast road from Crail brings us to the seaside town of Elie and to the Golf House Club, Elie. You may wonder about the origin of this unusual name.
The original golf club in these parts, and the one that first used this linksland, was the Elie & Earlsferry Golf Club, founded in 1832 (Elie and Earlsferry were adjacent villages). The club did not own the links; it just had the right to play there. Nor did the club have a clubhouse. It used the Golfers’ Tavern for most meetings.
In 1875 two other clubs were formed, also with the right to use this same links. The membership of one of the new clubs may have been a shade tonier than that of Elie & Earlsferry and of the other new club, the Thistle. In any event, this second club, at its inaugural meeting, vowed to erect a clubhouse. This decision gave the club its peculiar name—which is to say, the club that had a golf house, as distinguished from the two clubs that did not.
The clubhouse has a lightness about it, and a fanciful nature, a sunny holiday spirit. The clubhouse is one thing, the starter’s hut quite another. This shack is one of golf’s great curios. Mounted within it and jutting boldly up out of it through the roof is a submarine periscope. Dubbed Excalibur (it was salvaged from the HMS Excalibur), it was presented to the club 40 years ago. It enables the starter to see over the hill that rises precipitously in front of the 1st tee, in this way making certain that the players who have disappeared beyond the crest are now out of range.
From time to time over the years, the starter has had considerable authority with respect to the order of play. So if one wished to tee off at 9 a.m., it was well to be in the starter’s good graces. According to a favorite club story, a visitor arriving for a week’s holiday slipped the starter a bank-note to assure a favorable tee time throughout his stay. For several days he got just what he wanted. Then, abruptly, he found himself with an 11 o’clock starting time. When he asked the starter for an explanation, what he got was a laconic, “Yer money’s run oot!”
The course was laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1895 (the same year he laid out the first nine at Crail). James Braid, who would win the Open Championship five times, was born and raised in Elie and learned to play the game here.
The course measures 6,273 yards against a par of 70. There are no par 5s and only two par 3s. On the face of it, Elie ought to be a bore. It emphatically is not. Its two-shotters range from 252 to 466 yards, running to every point of the compass. The wind is frustratingly fickle, and blind shots pop up with bewildering frequency. What’s more, the greens are full of fun, the bunkers are full of woe, and the topography overall is remarkably varied.
Elie’s opener is a bear: 420 yards long, a blind drive, a low stone boundary wall along the right, and bunkers on both sides of the green. If No. 1 is a likely bogey, the uphill 2nd, only 284 yards, is a possible birdie. The green here affords one of golf’s memorably lovely moments. It is the highest point on the links, and from it we look out onto the Firth of Forth itself: The Isle of May, Berwick Law and Bass Rock all vie for our attention in the distance. The coast of East Lothian—Muirfield, Gullane, North Berwick—stands out in bold relief across the water.
On the level 131-yard 11th, Sea Hole, where the sea wall is scant steps from the green’s left edge, only the flag is visible. In days long gone, caddies stationed in the rocks beside the green would fabricate a hole-in-one here in the hope of pocketing a bigger tip. When a shot would finish quite close to the cup but out of the player’s sight, three of the four boys would leap up, cheering, while the smallest one would steal onto the green and pop the ball into the hole.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the final five holes are all par 4s, three of them well over 400 yards. Chances of making up strokes as we head for the “golf house” are not good unless we can birdie the 359-yard 18th.
Elie seems never to be short on anecdotes. Perhaps the goings-on that I witnessed in 2003 might be added to the stock. My elder son, a mutual friend and I were waiting our turn to begin the round. Immediately ahead of us was a couple in their early 50s who sounded Swedish. He sent his drive over the blockading hill.
She did not follow suit. Demonstrating one of the most unconventional swings I’ve ever seen, she lurched back on the takeaway so far off the ball that for an instant I thought I was in danger of being brained, then lunged violently forward to stab the turf with the driver head and bounce it neatly over the ball, which stayed steadfast on the wooden peg.
She repeated the swing, this time, however, cleanly missing the ball without touching the ground. On her third attempt she fanned once more. Her fourth swing propelled the ball vigorously along the ground and markedly to the right, skipping between the starter’s hut and the clubhouse.
Trolley now in tow, she briskly set out after her version of a successful drive. Seconds later the starter emerged from his headquarters and approached us, displaying a trace of a smile. He summarized her performance as “one divot, two fresh airs, and a lucky hit,” adding, “That woman will bear keeping an eye on.” He promptly retreated to his hut and glued his eye to the periscope.