I’ve played the Old Course at St. Andrews five or six times. I wouldn’t remotely say I understand it, but I’ve now played it often enough to see that it is possible to understand it.
It’s like no other golf course on earth. I’ve heard people say they don’t like it, and I’m always puzzled by that. It’s not up to me to like it or not; golf was played there for hundreds of years before I showed up, and it’ll be there for hundreds more after me. It is golf; it judges me, not the other way around.
The first time I played it, the green fee was sixteen pounds. (Today, in high season, it’s a more sporty one hundred thirty. Pounds.) I was a single with no clubs and no reservation. The starter told me where I could arrange my club rental, and then it was up to me to wait for an incomplete foursome and ask if I could join them. A few threesomes of Americans came by; one group from Texas didn’t even acknowledge my presence when I walked up to them on the tee.
At last, after about an hour, three Germans who’d booked their tee time six months earlier welcomed me into their game. So there I stood, facing the most intimidating easy tee shot in the world: in front of the R&A clubhouse, with a 110-yard-wide fairway stretching out to the left before me, joining three strangers who spoke just a little more of my language than I did of theirs.
I think I bounced my drive along the short grass. I don’t remember a lot about that long-ago round. My companions were gracious, the greens were insanely large, the bunkering seemed completely random. I didn’t see half my drives land. I made two pars at the turn. I took a 10 on the 14th, thanks to the aptly named Hell Bunker. And as I walked off the course, I thought to myself, I’ll never get to serve on Centre Court or play baseball at Fenway, but I’ve just played the Old Course. And that was pretty great.
I was only an occasional golfer in those days, but I was within a hundred miles of St. Andrews and knew I had to go there. The land was shaped by wind and water, sheep and rabbits, not bulldozers and other machines. The holes were laid out in their present form in the 19th century, but golf was played here for untold hundreds of years before that. And if you meet the modest handicap requirements – 24 for men, 36 for women – you can join the line of golfers who’ve crossed the Swilcan Bridge, stared down the Principal’s Nose, and negotiated the Valley of Sin.
The beauty of the home of golf is that it belongs to the people. The Royal & Ancient may have a magnificent building by the first tee, but the course is on common land, where tourists and townspeople alike can stroll on Sundays, as they’ve done for centuries. There’s no golf on Sundays on the Old Course, except in weeks like this one, when the Open Championship is played there.
“I feel like I’m back visiting an old grandmother,” said Tony Lema, who won the Open there. “She’s crotchety and eccentric but also elegant. Anyone who doesn’t fall in love with her has no imagination.”
Sam Snead had a different opinion when he first laid eyes on her: “Say! That looks like an old abandoned golf course. What did they call it?”
True, it’s not much to look at if you’re used to rolling lush green hills and well-defined features. On hole after hole, especially on the outward nine, you pick a spot in the distance and launch your drive over scrubby gorse bushes towards unseen fairways and unseeable hazards. (The term “outward nine” is rarely as literal as it is here: at the start you turn your back on the charming university town, and after nine holes you start working your way back towards it.) The greens are like nothing you’ll see anywhere else; most serve two holes, one going out and one coming in, and I’ve seen a player faced with a putt of fully ninety-seven paces – two hundred and ninety-one feet. He two-putted, I believe.
Unless things are abnormally wet – and they may be for some of the Open – the ball will not stop on landing, and you must account for this as you ponder your options. Often, the best play is to bounce the ball along the ground, using all those humps and hummocks to feed the ball to the hole. Much of the Old Course can be played with nothing but a putter if you’re so inclined; in that regard, golf on the links is a very forgiving game. (Beginners who struggle to get the ball in the air have no way to play most American courses. I’m convinced that if the Scots had played on the kind of courses we’re used to, they’d have abandoned the game by the 16th century.)
In my first time around the Old Course, I wound up facing the opposite challenge. I was on the front left portion of the green on the Road Hole, with the hole at the back left. Any effort to roll the ball towards the hole ran the risk of being sucked into the vortex of the Road Bunker like Tommy Nakajima, a Japanese pro at the 1978 Open who then took four blows to get back to the green. So I took a sand wedge, prayed to the golfing gods I would take no divot, and crisply pitched the ball to the back of the putting surface. It was as nerve-wracking and memorable a shot as I’ve ever hit.
That’s what happens at the Old Course. You face problems you face nowhere else, and find solutions that only occur to you on the spot. The winner of the Open Championship this week will be someone who has played well, thoughtfully, and creatively. Like millions around the world, I’ll be watching, and remembering.