AN EDINBURGH-BASED company is hoping to tee off with a £10 million plan to restore Musselburgh Old Course, a six-time Open Championship venue, to its “former glory”.
Regarded as the world’s oldest golf course and the oldest on which play has been continuous, Musselburgh Links, The Old Course is on Common Good land, surrounded by Musselburgh Racecourse, and is managed by enjoyleisure on behalf of East Lothian Council.
Blue Thistle Ltd, the Courier has learned, has approached council members to discuss “a bold and exciting proposition” which would see the nine-hole, par-34 course “regenerated, restored and recreated to the style and reputation of its former glory”.
East Lothian Council says it is “aware of a commercial desire” to “take over” the course.
A Blue Thistle Ltd spokesman said it hoped to capture the heritage of the course and “broadcast” it to a global audience. It wants to return the course to its 1896 set-up, with lost features recreated and placed in new positions.
He said: “This will challenge the modern golfer as well as the traditionalist who likes to play with hickory-shafted clubs. Some new tees and greens will be built. A course with the quality of an Open Championship venue is the goal.”
Blue Thistle Ltd, which involves German shareholders, was set up for the project and its directors are Robin McGregor, a former club secretary at Musselburgh Old Course, and Dominique Von Prodzynski.
The spokesman stressed that discussions were at an early stage.
He added: “The proposals would see £10 million spent over the next seven years on the course and surrounding facilities to bring them up to the necessary international standards. This includes more than £3 million on marketing the golf course and area. Locally, we expect to create 40 new jobs, ranging from administration to hospitality.
“Blue Thistle, through binding shareholders agreements, has secured the necessary funding to launch this project. The shareholders are satisfied the business plan would make a reasonable return on investment over the medium to long term.
“By working in partnership with the stakeholders, East Lothian Council, local and national tourist organisations, local town development groups and local business, we believe these proposals offer exciting and new opportunities which benefit more than just golfers.”
The company would look to obtain a long-term occupancy or management agreement with the council. The Stables Pavilion would be refurbished with a new restaurant and lounge which would be open to the public. The locker rooms and WC facilities would be upgraded. An information centre and shop selling customised merchandise would be provided.
New practice facilities would be created, a PGA professional and general manager employed, and juniors encouraged to take up the game.
The spokesman said: “We would introduce a local resident scheme where locals can access the facilities at costs similar to what they pay just now. If an agreement in principle can be reached with the council, we would then discuss with the existing clubs and stakeholders what their needs were and how we could work with them to improve their members’ experience.”
Musselburgh Old Course was the venue for six Open Championships between 1874 and 1889. Documents prove that golf was played on Musselburgh Links as early as 1672, although Mary Queen of Scots reputedly played there in 1567.
The course is open to the public all-year-round, has its own golf club, Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club, and old-style hickory clubs can even be hired to play the nine holes.
A spokesperson for East Lothian Council said: “Musselburgh Old Course is Common Good land and as such is protected for the greater common good. East Lothian Council is aware of a commercial desire to take over the Old Course but the council and local members are duly bound to protect the common good.”
Ward councillor John Caldwell was “vigorously” opposed to the plan.
He said: “I totally disagree with this project. It states they will work with the council; I have discussed it with some council officers who have not shown any support or agreement. I have also spoken to a number of golfers and the clubs who are also not supportive.
“Musselburgh Links is the oldest playing course in the world and is known in East Lothian as their ‘jewel in the crown’.
“There are two clubs that use the course, hundreds of casual members and the many overseas visitors that make a point of playing here, many hiring the hickory clubs.
“Everyone who plays this course will agree with me that the course has never been in such good condition. There are thousands of rounds played on this course annually and I would say it is not far off reaching its capacity. Increasing the number of rounds played will put strain on the course in maintaining its high standard.
“The course itself is currently known as an international golf attraction, providing golf to our welcome visitors at a reasonable cost. This course does not require millions of pounds of investment to make it great – it is a fantastic course.
“The important factor here is that it is a valuable historic asset of the Musselburgh Common Good and cannot be taken over by a commercial company without proper consultation and legal agreements, which will never happen.
“The large financial investment proposed would change the character of this prestigious course completely.
“This golf course is not a commodity for someone to come along and make it a financial investment.”
Mr Caldwell was concerned players’ fees could rise, “taking away the opportunity” of local people, including many junior players.
Jackie Brown, treasurer of the Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club, said: “The whole club is against it.”
He said a Parliamentary act stated that no one could make a profit out of the land, and the Old Course at St Andrews was also common land, adding: “It should stay as common land for the people of Musselburgh.”
Cathie Grandison, treasurer of Musselburgh Links Ladies Golf Club, added: “On paper it looks like a wonderful idea, but is it feasible?
“I don’t know what the benefits to the people of Musselburgh would be. We all work well together: the clubs, enjoyleisure, Musselburgh Racecourse and the groundcare staff. I feel this plan could cause more problems than it’s worth.
“If it failed as a venture, what would happen then? It is not worth the risk.”