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Devil Ball Golf

At Muirfield, golf is played differently

Devil Ball Golf

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Rory McIlroy hits an approach on 18 at Muirfield. (Getty Images)

GULLANE, Scotland – "If you become a member [of Muirfield] and you don't know the rules," Alastair Brown says, "you probably joined the wrong club."

More precisely, if you're a golfer who likes to play his own ball, keep your own score and enjoy moseying around an 18-hole track in the five-hour range, Muirifled isn't for you.

Like the last golf course to host a major championship, Muirfield, site of the 142nd British Open, has its own little quirk, only this one has a bit more of an impact on the game than a wicker basket. Here, golf is played in "foursomes," which sounds typical except that it isn't. In foursomes, instead of hitting your own ball over 18 holes, you and a partner take turns. As one golfer lines up to hit, the other is already walking ahead in what amounts to a giant game of leapfrog on the links.

These are the rules of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, who make up the membership at Muirfield. Tucked about 18 miles northeast of Edinburgh, Muirfield is to Scotland what Augusta National is to America. The Honourable Company has been around since 1744 and claims to be the oldest golf club in the world. Unlike Augusta, it still doesn't allow female members, which at least one journalist tried to make an issue Tuesday in a Q&A session with Tiger Woods.

Do you feel morally there's a difference between a golf club that excludes people on the basis of their sex from a golf club that excludes people on the basis of their race?

"I don't make the policies here," Woods replied. "I'm not a member, so I'm not going to speak for the club."

The club is all about golf. Well, and lunch, too.

The quick-nature of foursomes means players can squeeze in 18 holes in the morning – a round can easily be played in 2 ½ hours, according to one of the starters – sit for a nice relaxing 2 ½-hour lunch, after changing into a coat and tie of course, then back to the links for another nine or 18.

Brown, the club's secretary, says members don't have regular playing partners, aren't interested in playing for their own score and "four-ball" can only be played if granted permission.

"From our point of view, it is the formal game that this club plays," Brown explained.

Like the whicker baskets at Merion, no one is quite sure when or why foursomes developed, but they did, though they are a dying breed. Only a handful of clubs in Great Britian utilize the system – four that Brown knows of – and only one, Muirfield, in Scotland.

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