One story regarding the birth of golf goes something like this: a group of shepherds watching over their flocks along the eastern coast of Scotland in the late 1400s or early 1500s became bored. Armed with the tools of their trade – namely crooks – and acting on the natural male instinct to hit things – in this case, pebbles (or, as some have suggested, dried sheep dung) – the first informal match was played. The relatively barren, rugged turf of the coast proved well-suited for the pursuit of a pastime where controlling the direction of a small projectile could be challenging. It’s believed that a favorite gathering place of these very early linksters was the turf that would one day become the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Now, some 500 years later, nearly every soul who’s picked up a club and been smitten by the game dreams of one day making The Pilgrimage to have his or her picture snapped upon on the Swilcan Bridge, with the venerable Royal & Ancient clubhouse looming in the background. “Most things that are five hundred years old are resting under glass in a museum,” writer John Barton has posited. “This course is still alive, and you walk in the footsteps of five centuries of players.” Despite its absolute and indelible association with the game of golf, the Old Course is something of a surprise for some Americans. First of all, it’s smack in the middle of the charming university town of the same name – a town that would be appealing even if it weren’t the home of golf. Secondly, the Old Course – and for that matter, the other five municipal courses owned by the town – don’t look much like an American’s vision of a course, much less a vision of one of the greatest courses in the world. There are no trees, and the topography, viewed from afar seems mundanely flat; in the 1820s, the course narrowly escaped becoming a rabbit farm. Sam Snead, in passing the Old Course by train en route to the British Open in 1946, remarked,“That looks like an old abandoned golf course.” This slight aside, Snead went on to win the championship, which has been held here 27 times, most recently June of 2005.
“It’s a little shaggy out there,” Kevin Cook said, recalling his first round on the Old Course. “There aren’t any fountains, and it’s not as closely manicured as many players have come to expect. On a course that’s hosted so many championships, you expect the greens to be lightning fast. Here, the greens are a little slower. But the subtle character of the course and the very tangible sense of history you feel on the course are wonderful.”
The Old Course was not designed so much as it evolved, shaped by the whims of the wind off the North Sea and the suggestions of those who played and loved it; the latter group included Daw Anderson, Old Tom Morris and Dr Alister Mackenzie. Originally, it consisted of 22 holes, eleven out and 11 back. In 1764, some holes were combined, reducing the track to a total of 18, which of course, would later become the game’s standard, and thankfully, give birth to the concept of the 19th hole. St. Andrews also set the standard for a true links layout – nine holes, one after another, heading in one direction (in this case, north); then nine holes coming back to the clubhouse. Pack a few power bars if you’re setting out on the Old Course, as there is very little in the way of a refreshment stand between the 9th and 10th hole.
Another interesting facet of the Old Course is the presence of double greens; 14 holes share seven greens. After the course had been reduced to 18 holes, golfers played to the same holes going out and coming back. As the game grew in popularity, second holes were added to many of the existing greens to expedite play; holes for the front nine were equipped with white flags, those for the second nine with red flags. It’s not uncommon for first-timers to aim for the wrong pin, and find themselves with a dainty 83 yard putt for par!
No one would separate the joy of playing the Old Course from the wondrous history of the links. Every bunker, every swale of sod seems to have a name and a story. History aside, the Old Course is still an amazing layout. The fuzzy fairways have multitudes of undulations, making every lie an interesting one. Should you go astray off the tee, you’ll encounter thick stands of gorse and heather – “If you just go in and hack it out, the Scots will applaud you,” Kevin said. Even shots square in the fairway are vulnerable to dismay, as bunkers are peppered somewhat randomly around the course. The most memorable sand pit is unquestionably the Hell Bunker on the “Long” hole, number 14; you’ll spot this one, as it’s quite large. “If you go in and are playing with locals, they’ll give you a benediction, for you may not come out,” Kevin added. Many greens are obscured by dunes or mounds, making semi-blind approach shots common. And you’ll do well to make your approach by land with the bump and run method, as the hard greens can be difficult to hold with lobbed shots.
Kevin offered a few more reflections on St. Andrews that might serve pilgrims well. “If possible, try to get out there early. If you go out at dawn, you’ll get to play with Scotsmen who know the course, and will help you with the lay of the land. The Scots play fast, and you should too. They think Americans play as if we’re all on TV. Playing with the Scots adds a multicultural element to the game too. For instance, they call a grounder off the tee a scalded cat. I told my partners that we call it a worm burner in America, and it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.
“The wind and weather can make a huge difference out there, Kevin continued. “You could begin in warmish sunshine and end in sleet. Dress in layers, and consider getting a caddy to help you with distances. Caddies can also help guide you away from the random bunkers. Be conscious of which flag you’re aiming at on the double green holes. In the passion of the moment, the double greens can be confusing.”
Walking up the 18th fairway after crossing the Swilcan Bridge, it’s not difficult to imagine yourself in the final round of British Open. Indeed, as the course is near the center of town, you’ll often have a wee gallery as you make your approach. “On the 18th, I busted a drive,” Kevin recalled. “My Scots partners called it ‘a big American drive.’ A number of people who were waiting to go out and play – and probably a few others – were gathered around the green. I was only a sand wedge away…and of course, I completely sculled it. I guess there’s something to the bump and run strategy, as the ball rolled through the Valley of Sin (an undulation in front of the green) and ended two feet from the cup. With everyone looking on, I lipped the putt.”
Kevin Cook is an award-winning journalist, and the author of Tommy’s Honor (Gotham Books, 2007) and Driven (Penguin, 2008). He has worked as a senior editor at Sports Illustrated, executive editor of Travel & Leisure Golf, editor-in-chief at GOLF Magazine, and a guest commentator on CNN and ESPN. Kevin’s golf fiction has been widely anthologized; one of his stories appears in “Golf’s Best Short Stories” (Chicago Review Press, 1997), and a Golf Digest piece on Mac O’Grady that won an award from the Golf Writers’ Association of America in 1998. A graduate of Butler University in Indianapolis, with a B.A. in English, Kevin lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.
(Recommended by Kevin Cook)
If You Go…
Getting There: Many visitors to St. Andrews fly into Edinburgh, the nearest international airport. From Edinburgh, it’s approximately one hour by car or train. Note that if you’re taking the train, there is no St. Andrews station, but the station stop at Leuchars is only 10 minutes from town. Kevin pointed out that more and more courses are being built around St. Andrews, and expressed concern that the region could experience a level of “Scottsdalization.” His advice: “GO BEFORE THIS HAPPENS!”
Course Information: The Old Course measures 6,721 yards from the back tees, and has a slope rating of 128. During the high season (April 18 – October 16), Old Course greens fees are £130; during the low season (November 1-February), rates are £64 pounds. During low season, mats must be used from the fairway. Golfers hoping to secure a tee-time on the Old Course can apply from September onwards in the year before they wish to play and will know within four weeks whether or not they have a confirmed tee-time. Apply via email at email@example.com. Roughly 50% of all starting times over the year are put into the daily ballot (lottery) which is drawn every day for next day’s play except Sunday – the Saturday draw is for Monday play. Players should telephone +44 (0)1334 466666 or apply in person before 2pm on the day before play. Sundays, the course is closed, and the people of St. Andrews use the links land as a park. Imagine that happening on Augusta National! Visiting golfers should not limit their experience to the Old Course. There are five other courses in the St. Andrews network, all quite good. (Some consider the Jubilee Course to be the toughest of the lot.) Before leaving St. Andrews, be sure to pay your respects at the grave of Young Tom Morris in the courtyard cemetery.
(Photo courtesy of the Old Course Experience)