EDINBURGH, Scotland – This is not exactly what comes to mind when most golfers say the word “links.”
It’s in a park in the middle of a city, an hour or more from places like Muirfield, North Berwick, St. Andrews and other grounds associated with one of golf’s sacred words.
And yet with its firm turf, natural contours and centuries-old association with golf, Bruntsfield Links is every bit as ancient, if not more so, than those more famous places – every bit as tied in with the origins of the game that stretch back closer in time to the 1066 Norman Conquest than the present day.
Perhaps it's the location several miles from the dunes and sea of “proper” linksland, in the middle of a city full of other attractions, that makes it so consistently overlooked. Maybe it’s because rather than a groomed, rollicking par-72 championship test that costs a couple days’ wages to play, it’s now a scruffy free pitch-and-putt that, with optional membership to the associated club costing the princely sum of £20 per annum. Perhaps some of it is name confusion with the golf course of the Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society located a couple miles northeast (more on that in a minute).
But it is widely agreed that golf has been played there since the mid-1400s, its documented history including disagreements between golfers and quarry workers in 1695. Nowadays, to wander the tilted, lumpy inland links with a wedge, putter and golf ball for an hour in this center-city park is to engage every bit as much with the soul of the game as queueing up in the dark and then paying full freight for a tee time at The Old Course.
The treasure now known as Bruntsfield Short Hole Golf Club, or simply the “Short Hole Club,” is as authentic, honest and simple a golf experience as exists in the world. With 36 holes ranging from 45 to 90 yards, it only requires a couple clubs and a ball, and can be played in two hours or less. Locals and visitors have enjoyed this routing since it came into play in 1890.
As with the more formal links, the weather determines the play. It was a little lush and damp during my end-of-season visit last September (the 36-hole course is in play roughly from April through September, and then switches to a 9-hole Winter Course the other months), but some locals, playing a match with their dogs in tow, assured me that during the summer the turf tightens and quickens, turning it into an all-out bump-and-run examination. Despite the modest length of the holes, each one has a strategy that requires using the available contours.
The Short Hole Club is part of the very fabric of the city. The paved pathways that separate the course into discrete sections are common routes for students of the nearby University of Edinburgh and regular citizens out to enjoy the day. More than a few times I noticed them stopping to watch me or others hit a shot. The mingling of golf with everyday life here is something that simply does not exist in the United States. After you’ve had a hit around the links, pop in for a pint of Tennant's or a scotch at the historic Golf Tavern, especially if beloved Edinburgh football club Hibernian is playing.
As much as it is a paragon of golf for the people, Bruntsfield Links also gave rise to two of the longest-running golf clubs in the world: The Royal Burgess (1735) and the Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society (1761). These two clubs sit adjacent just a short drive from the links where they began a quarter-millennium ago. Like most other United Kingdom clubs with robust memberships, they are open to visitor play, too.
The Royal Burgess’ current site dates to 1896, with a course originally by Old Tom Morris and updated in 1925 and 1947 by great Scottish architect James Braid. The gently undulating parkland setting and intimate routing provide a fairly moderate test. The diversity and care of the tree plantings over the years give the place almost an arboretum feel.
A few minutes’ tour of the clubhouse, one of my favorites in golf, is a must. Historical documents relating to the club’s history are everywhere, and several 18th- and 19th-century hickory golf clubs are on display in one particularly impressive case. One wall is dedicated to the club’s captains dating back to the 1930s, their official portraits all showing them in distinctive red coats. The club just welcomed its first female members on July 1 of this year.
Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society’s course, which abuts Royal Burgess’ own, was designed by James Braid and opened in 1898, but Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert performed a comprehensive renovation in 2018 and 2019 that included a couple new holes and some other rerouting. The muscular bunkering is attractive and best appreciated from a distance. The duo did a nice job integrating their new golf holes with the existing ones, such that everything flows quite nicely. The only outlier is the par-3 16th, whose rock wall-rimmed pond guarding the green outs it as a modern creation. A highlight comes at the par-3 10th, which heads downhill from the clubhouse, aiming straight at the Firth of Forth beyond.
Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society is just as storied a club as Royal Burgess, with its own worthwhile collections of memorabilia including a sketch by the artist J.M.W. Turner in its own impressive clubhouse. A trophy room underscores the importance of competition here, both within the club and with their neighbors and good-natured rivals. Every five years, the two clubs play a “grand match,” with a fence gate separating the two layouts being opened in order to concoct a routing incorporating nine holes from each course.
The prospect of inland golf in Scotland may be a tough sell for some visitors. That’s understandable – Scotland is so tied in with links golf that the thought of spending one round away from the sea would seem to defeat the purpose of the trip. But since most golfers visiting Fife or East Lothian use Edinburgh as a point of entry, Royal Burgess or Bruntsfield Links would be excellent choices for a first or last-round in-country. The historic importance of both clubs alone make them worthy of consideration. But in my opinion, the ancient Short Hole Club at Bruntsfield Links is a must.