Urgent Care Needed For Golf’s Sacred Sites

The R&A and Honourable Company should help the places where golf began.

Geoff Shackelford

Sep 27, 2022

Bruntsfield Links and the Edinburgh Castle in the distance

In catching up on stuff set aside during a fantastic summer of major championship golf, I have personally handpicked the worst possible week to ask the R&A and members of Muirfield to chip in some of their weakened pounds.

But hey, it’s a swell time for Americans to pre-pay for a U.K. golf trip!

As the British pound crashed 5% to a record low on Monday and nears parity with the dollar, some might say this would be an inopportune time to ask two leading clubs for help fix up some centuries-old links. Bollocks!

The three locations most consequential to the birth and early growth of golf could use just an assistance via the expertise, spending and prestige those mightier organizations could deliver. Edinburgh’s historic links at Leith, Bruntsfield and Musselburgh have seen better days. But in two cases, it would not take much to improve and solidify those sacred grounds. And any R&A assistance would fall dreamily in line with efforts to encourage alternative facilities and new ways of entry into golf.

One of the R&A projects at Lethamhill in Glasgow “aims to be a destination for golf that is welcoming and attractive to all members of the family” according to R&A Chief Martin Slumbers. By all early accounts into the transformation set to reopen next summer, the facility has great promise to demonstrate ways to repurpose a tired facility into something inviting, fun and affordable.

But over in Edinburgh, Bruntsfield and Musselburgh carry on as similar destinations capable of serving as incredible advertisements for golf and lifelong sources of golfing joy. While their original clubs moved on to other locations, these urban settings allow a form of public golf to be played by people of all ages, shapes and abilities. They’ve been whapping a ball around at these spots for hundreds of years and, frankly, it’s a marvel they still exist given occasional efforts to kill them off. So a little validation from the elites would go a long way to making these better and stable places for years to come.

Granted, it’s not having the Chainsmokers on hand to play during a $20 million championship, but it’s a start.

After visiting all three historic spots this summer and playing Bruntsfield and Musselburgh, I’ve been digging into the history of these “grow the game” places for a book that’s almost done. And it’s remarkable what these places meant to making golf happen and shaping the sport in spite of crude implements, vile weather and funky bounces. As I’ll be arguing in a forthcoming book, an often-cited Royal blessing was not the secret to golf taking off in Scotland. Instead, the joy these unusual places in and around Edinburgh convinced early pioneers to slap crude balls around linksland. And while St Andrews ultimately gave the game its greatest guidance and soul, what went on at Leith, Bruntsfield and Musselburgh started it all. And golf carries on today despite any sign the sport cares about these divine heritage sites.

Here’s a recap of the three and what they need:

Leith Links

The place where it all began is now a public park with very little sense of its importance to the lives of golfers, the betterment of society and trillions of economic impact Leith inspired in the centuries since. Trillions! Two stone plaques and a recently erected statue of John Rattray is apparently there (though I couldn’t find the statue of the first Rules of Golf signer during a visit this summer.) Restoring the lost military embankments and other golf features won’t happen at Leith. But it’s appalling that the original home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (now at Muirfield) does not feel like a place every golfer should pay their respects to before enjoying time in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.


In the heart of the city with views of the Edinburgh Castle, this 36-hole Short Hole Golf Course is such a treat. It’s also the perfect opportunity to expose people to the game in a city of over 500,000. This was a multi-hole course for a few hundred years before the club moved out of the city. This incredible parcel with Castle and Arthur’s Seat views became a glorified Himalayas, with the operation and maintenance a combination of city efforts with little regard for the needs of golf. Local volunteers hold the greenkeeping together and still contest a robust schedule of competitions as part of the Bruntsfield Short Hole Golf Club. But the conditions have deteriorated in my short time visiting there and without much backing from the Council, it could easily be seen as an unnecessary evil. Just a few funds to tell Bruntsfield’s story and attract more golfers would be a start. Assistance from nearby club greenkeepers would do wonders for the place, as would bold statements of support from the R&A and HCEG. If nothing else, this would let the Council know how much Bruntsfield means to golf. People have been hitting balls on this land for at least 500 years and the first clubhouse in golf still operates as a tavern overlooking the links. So this prime real estate should project a grander image and present a better experience to ensure its future. And it would not take much.

17th Century view from the Burgess Chronicle and the Golf Tavern today (Geoff Shackelford)
Bruntsfield in the 1700’s and today (below) with the Castle in the distance


The Honourable Company moved to here after they tired of overcrowding at Leith. Six Opens were played at Musselburgh along with countless epic challenge matches sparking interest in the sport. The links is still a blast to play, especially when hickories are incorporated to maintain the challenge. If not for the racetrack’s prosperity, it’s easy to imagine various efforts at closing or re-imagining the golf might have succeeded. We’ve already lost its starter hut and more recently, Mrs. Forman’s, golf’s first snack bar and an important stop-in spot to Old Tom and Bobby Jones. Thanks to the efforts of architect Mungo Park, a descendant of the great golf clan that made this area their home, at least Mrs. Forman’s facade remains. But Musselburgh is a multi-purpose facility that should be seen as a fantastic community centrepiece and model multi-purpose facility. Conditioning has improved of late thanks to a passionate greenkeeper. But he could use just a little help from the outside. There is little sense of Musselburgh’s importance to the sport to visitors. A narrative that the course is an antiquated annoyance is alarming, to say the least. Yet even a private school across the street sends its young golf team out to Craigielaw a half hour away instead of using one of the most important places in golf history.

Musselburgh racecourse clubhouse and the par-3 first hole (Geoff Shackelford)

I get that the R&A and Honourable Company have long had an odd relationship over weighty territorial matters that concern no one outside of eastern Scotland. Perhaps when they sit down to iron out the next Open contract for Muirfield, these two historic and now forward-thinking organizations can agree to do just a little that would go a long way. It’s time to secure and improve the original and divine grounds of golf that are still capable of serving the game after all these centuries.