The obstacles to playing Muirfield are daunting.
Start with a flight to Scotland and finish with the club's notorious exclusivity. Visitor times are available on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but they're quite limited. You'll likely have to book a year out, and you may have to play foursomes as well, an alternate-shot format that's seen in the Ryder Cup, but not much at U.S. courses.
For those seeking a more feasible taste of Muirfield, two courses will satisfy, Royal Links (royallinksgolfclub.com) and The Tribute. Dozens of replica, homage and faux-links courses are scattered across the U.S., but by my count, only these two deliver Muirfield holes.
Royal Links, a Walters Golf facility in Las Vegas, is a favorite of mine. Sure, you can roll your eyes about the entire concept of "Scotland in the Desert," but at many times of year, it works perfectly. Just ask David Feherty, who once told me, "Royal Links -- you go out there and if you close your eyes and forget that you really came here for the slot machines -- you can really believe that on a cool day, maybe that you're floating around in Scotland. I mean, hell, they've got pirates, they've got the Eiffel Tower, they've got the pyramids. Why the hell shouldn't you be in Scotland, and if you're in Scotland, you should be on a golf course."
True, the softer, more lush conditions and the high heat that defines summer in Sin City make the experience slightly less authentic, and the pine trees are more Rocky Mountains than Scottish links, but so what. The Royal Links experience is superb -- great fun in every way -- especially when you start with the only-in-Vegas, castle-like clubhouse. They pour Guinness and Newcastle at Stymie's Pub, to accompany the fish and chips, bangers and other across-the-pond favorites (though truth be told, they feature the best hot dog in the business, with awesome home-made chips -- crisps for those of you from the U.K.).
Still, you came to experience Muirfield and that's what you'll do at No. 9. Inspired by the par-5 5th at Muirfield, Royal Links' 9th is beautifully rendered. The back tee distance of 567 yards is nearly identical to Muirfield's 559, and the bunker strategies, shapes and placement compare favorably. Humps and hollows check out, as does the two-tier green.
My most recent Royal Links visit was in late March, on a cool, breezy, overcast day with a hint of raindrops. The ninth hole couldn't have looked any more Scottish. Muirfield's 5th is actually the least celebrated of its three par 5s, so it was an interesting pick for owner Bill Walters and designer Perry Dye, but it's a spirited risk/reward hole -- on both sides of the pond.
The second U.S. public course that serves up a plate full of Muirfield is The Tribute (thetributegc.com), a Tripp Davis design in the northern suburbs of Dallas. As with Las Vegas, the wind is a frequent, if nearly constant factor here, so it's easy to envision playing links-style golf if ground conditions permit it. For the most part, The Tribute lives up to its billing.
The first hole mirrors the opener at St. Andrews' Old Course and does a great job as impressions go. So do a slew of other holes. As with Vegas, The Tribute can lack Old World authenticity when it's too hot and soft, but overall, especially with the vast and very visible Lake Lewisville factoring in, this is faux-links fun at its finest.
The Tribute dishes out a double dose of Muirfield. Its 9th hole mirrors Muirfield's 9th, both outstanding par 5s, replete with a long, low stone wall down the fairway's left side, exquisitely placed bunkers and native fescue grasses awaiting the errant shot. One difference: Muirfield built a new back tee for 2013, so the hole now plays 554 yards. The Tribute's is 505.
Hole No. 14 at The Tribute mimics one of the world's great par 3s, Muirfield's 13th. Yardage is similar, 201 yards, to Muirfield's 190, and so is the long, narrow green. Most impactful are the gaping bunkers that frame either side of the green.
If a round at Muirfield isn't in the cards anytime soon, don't despair. Royal Links and The Tribute are worthy alternatives.