Love For the Old: The A Position’s Top Journalists Show their Affection for The Old Course at St. Andrews

The Open Championship returns to the world’s most esteemed golf venue, The Old Course at St. Andrews, for the 28th time this month, on the 150th anniversary of the tournament. In honor of the occasion, the writers at The A share their thoughts and anecdotes of the town and the course.

As the golf world turns once again toward St. Andrews, the writers of The A— experienced golf journalists who’ve traveled and played the world over— reflect on and reminisce about this golf pilgrimage site in July’s “A List.”  These writers have waited at dawn at the starter’s booth for a tee time, powered up at the local bakery, and powered down at Dunvegan’s, the Jigger Inn, and The Old Course Hotel.  They’ve experienced the world’s hottest curry at Balaka and actually cried liked babies on the golf links.  They’ve walked the course with dogs and sometimes played like them.  Here, they offer unique perspectives on what makes the golf course and the town elicit love, respect, fear, rage, mystery, and the vagaries of other powerful emotions.

This year’s Open Championship is not just a golf tournament.  It’s a homecoming, a convocation, and a reunion with all the history and tradition and humor that make golf great.

The Old Course, #2, ©

St. Andrews can be serendipitous. I played my favorite round on the Old Course a few years ago without recourse to tour packager, lottery, or bribery. I had been in Scotland to see other courses and had a free day before my flight home. I just showed up. Showed up at 6 a.m., to be more precise. The sun was already well up. I went to the starter’s booth and put my name on the list of hopefuls. I was No. 18. There were no guarantees, I was told, but it was quite likely I’d get out. It was a very pleasant place to while away some time. I went to Rusack’s and had a scone for breakfast. I bought a Charles Darwin anthology at a bookshop near the Royal and Ancient clubhouse and spent an hour reading. I toured the British Golf Museum, a few steps from the first tee. Just before noon, the starter called my name. I went off with the 11:50 game, which consisted of two American servicemen, an Aussie, and me. It was a clear, bright day with just enough breeze to keep the midges off. I parred the 18th and a couple of people standing by the clubhouse applauded. Serendipity.

—Bob Cullen,

Without sounding too new agey, the thing I have always loved about St. Andrews is how the town literally breathes the spirit of golf. And by the spirit of golf I mean the original democratic notion of the game: neither the Old Course nor any of the other six operated by the Links Trust have any members or affiliated hotels—not the R&A, not the Old Course Hotel, not tour operators. They are public in the truest sense of the word. I love everything about the town, from pints at the Jigger Inn to the whisky library at the Road Hole bar, to all the golf courses in and around town, but my very favorite experience is walking the Old Course on any given Sunday, when it is closed to golf. To see the families out picnicking, the people playing Frisbee with their dogs, all on golf’s most hallowed ground, will remind you that the golf course is a park and part of the community, and remind you why our attempts to ascribe “history” to the game at places like Augusta National are misguided. I recommend going to Oddbin’s liquor store, buying a first class bottle of Scotch whisky, like The Macallan, and walking the course, stopping for a sip on every tee or every green (or both). That’s what I did the very first time I “played” the Old Course, and I didn’t lose a single ball!

—Larry Olmsted,

St. Andrews isn’t just the Home of Golf. It’s home to The University of St. Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland and the third oldest in the English-speaking world. Few of the UK’s golfing hotbeds boast this particular synergy of peerless golfing and partying amenities. To wit, think about the number of pubs you’d expect to find in a typical British town of 15,000 souls. Triple it, add the vivacity and eye candy you’d expect from any burg sporting 8,500 students, and you begin to get the idea. Did we mention the entire downtown can be traversed by foot in about 10 minutes? There are some lovely hotels in St. Andrews. Come nightfall, just don’t coop yourself up in one.

—Hal Phillips,

Like many pilgrims, I was singularly unimpressed when I first saw St. Andrews in 1978. Maybe the Slammer was right: “Down home we wouldn’t plant cow beets on land like that,” Snead said when his train rolled past the raggedy land. Full of myself at age 27, I attacked the ancient crumpled links—a stout gal with thick ankles—and lost the battle, slicing into every gorse bush on the course. “Golf is a funny game,” I confided to my stone-faced caddie as I peeled off my glove in disgust at round’s end. “Aye, but was nae meant to be,” came his rueful reply. I quit golf for a year. A decade later, I made a second trip to St. Andrews, played better (or at least smarter), and also walked the Old Course backwards one Sunday, the day it is closed for play. The links is reversible and appears less awkward when approached from the opposite direction.

—Brian McCallen,

Old Course Hotel and #18, ©

Twenty years ago I spent a couple of weeks in St Andrews, doing research in the Royal & Ancient Clubhouse on the history of golf course architecture. Sitting in the club’s board room under the watchful eyes of past captains, I read through members’ suggestion books dating back more than 150 years and realized that the Old Course has always been a work in progress, organic and evolving. Considerable harrumphing was also devoted to some college men’s attempt to invent night golf. The experiment ended badly when the balls they’d painted with phosphorous ignited, scorching a few fingers. The Old Course was a place for fun and not a venerated cathedral of golf that demanded worship from its devotees. On my last day in St Andrews I played the Old Course with the esteemed Scottish photographer, Brian Morgan, and the Links’ greenkeeper at the time, Walter Woods. Playing off a 13 handicap, I enjoyed a miraculous round, starting when my feeble slice on the first tee rebounded from the Swilcan Burn back onto the fairway, an event my caddy watched in wonder and declared unprecedented. It was an omen. When I made a putt from above the hole for par on 18, breaking 80, Walter shook my hand and uttered words I will always cherish: “ a thirteen you say—more like bloody three.”

—John Strawn,

A recent article in the New York Times reported that two-thirds of all Scots are overweight, two-thirds are physically inactive, and more than half have a bad diet. Part of the blame for this national health crisis must go to Fisher and Donaldson, a delicious bakery on Church Street in the middle of St. Andrews (there’s also a branch in nearby Cupar). Whenever I’m in the home of golf I make F&D my kitchen, stopping in for some sinfully glazed crullers called “yum-yums.” Two or three, plus a coffee or tea, has powered me through numerous rounds around the Old Course. I’m not recommending a steady diet of these treats, but when in the “Auld Grey Toon,” find out just why so many of our Scottish cousins look rather auld and grey themselves.

—James A. Frank,

Golf is reputed to have been played on the Old Course in St. Andrews since the fifteenth century. In 1457, James II of Scotland banned the game because it distracted his subjects from archery practice. The first greens keepers were rabbits and sheep. James lifted his ban in 1502 after succumbing to the game himself. No other course in the Kingdom of Golf holds a candle to the Old because no other starts and finishes before the front terrace of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse where members, ensconced in leather armchairs, sip their single malts and survey the scene on the first tee. Playing the Old is your chance to tread in the footsteps of Hagen, Jones, Nicklaus, and so many more legends, contemplate the Road Hole bunker, and pose for posterity on the Swilcan Bridge. It’s enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. After your game, head to snug Jigger Inn (circa 1850) for a wee dram, then cap off your St. Andrews experience with dinner at the Road Hole Grill in the adjoining Old Course Hotel where floor-to-ceiling windows afford panoramic views of golf Mecca and the beach where the movie Chariots of Fire was filmed. Trust me, this is pure unadulterated golf as it was meant to be played. Warning: it may become habit forming.

—Anita Draycott,

Years ago, a buddy came back from St. Andrews thinking he would describe to me his entire round on the Old Course. The prospect of hearing it all the way through shook me, so I bent my brain toward mounting a counterattack. My friend had begun by driving poorly into a gorse bush, then hit out, dumped one into the burn, took relief, flew the green into some rough, chopped twice vainly, then picked up. “So, yeah, an X on the first,” he confessed. “Most appropriate,” I said, “your score took the iconic shape of a St. Andrews Cross.” And then I was off on a gallop myself—skipping over the golf-pilgrim talk to chatter about the stuff of medieval pilgrimages. How St. Andrew, brother of Simon Peter and one of the 12 apostles, had been martyred in Greece by hanging on a wooden cross built in the form of an X. How he ended up as the patron saint of Scotland, which is why the Scottish flag is a white X on a blue field. Further still, how his relics had made their way to what is now the Auld Grey Toon’s cathedral, only to be removed during the Reformation. So that even though the Canterbury Tale-type pilgrimages back in the day were all about seeing the saints’ human remains, you eventually couldn’t do that in St. Andrews, which in part explains the need for golf pilgrimages. He nodded along, I finished and moved away. Someone else must have heard about the other 17 holes.

–David Gould,

Back to the town on #18, ©

My golfing friends have told me that I am, ahem, not a speedy player. So when I went to Scotland for the first time in 1989, I was warned that not only was golf in that country played at a much faster pace than in America but that the Scots had no tolerance for those who couldn’t keep up that pace. At St. Andrews, I witnessed this first hand. I played the Old Course with a Golf Magazine colleague (a very fast player), and two singles who completed the foursome. Over the first few holes, we found ourselves falling behind. I was doing my best to make sure we didn’t fall further back—a good thing, as it turned out. After we holed out on the fifth hole, our group was approached by a ranger and told we were out of position. The ranger consulted with the caddies, and jointly they decided that one of the singles was the culprit. He was summarily told that his round was over, and he had to take his pull cart and walk back to the clubhouse—a long, lonely walk for a man playing his dream round on the Old Course.

–David Barrett,

Part of the allure of St. Andrews’ seven golf courses is the playing experience, part is the blabbing about the rota’s relative merits. My vote goes to the New Course, thanks to a round there that formed the quintessential Scottish golf tableau. A golf-writer friend and his former soccer coach had already joined me for a morning round on Jubilee, but the late-spring atmospherics were—in shadings that occur only in the British Isles—enough to make you cry. We decided to try to race around the New Course, warned as we were by the pro shop that we weren’t likely to make it. But we played briskly enough, in about three hours, to finish in adequate daylight, while also hitting the ball better the faster we played. This must have been what the Royal Company had in mind, we posited over a scotch and an ale at the nearby Jigger Inn, the perfect day at St. Andrews sublimely complete.

–Tom Harack,

Most are fully aware that C.B. Macdonald built the National Golf Links on Long Island. Anyone who has played there knows what an intellectual joy it is to play the National. Most golfers also know that Charlie Macdonald built holes that replicated the greatest holes of the British Isles. What most golfers do not realize is why he did so. He did so because at the time, America had very few golf courses. The only thing Macdonald had to go by was what he saw while he was receiving his higher education. Charlie attended St. Andrews University for two years, but he received his education about golf in the shop at St. Andrews at the knee of Old Tom Morris. So when you play a C.B. Macdonald course in the United States, understand that you are experiencing a game built on the history of The Old Course. Cherish it!

–Casey Alexander,

“No Dogs. No Women.” An old sign, no doubt, but not in theory nor in the minds of R&A members who banned women from their clubhouse long before the Little Rascals of American television fame founded the He-Man-Woman-Haters-Club. When the club opened its doors for one week to host the 2007 Ladies British Open, the gesture was lauded as the greatest opportunity in women’s golf. I’d consider the far greater statement would have been for the women to let the lads keep their castle and set up shop in tents and shanties, with loos outside, business-as-usual. As European golf icon Laura Davies quipped, “I’m changing shoes in the car park. I’m not interested in seeing the inside of the R&A clubhouse. It’s the course I want to see.” The Old Course, created by God, Mother Nature, and human artistry, deserves respect. The inequitable policies of the R&A? Not so much.

–Janina Parrott Jacobs,

Sunday is a great day to visit the Old Course. You can’t bring a golf club, and that’s the advantage. Unencumbered by the game, you can luxuriate in arguably the greatest golf park in the world. On Sundays, the course is open to the public. You can amble around unhurriedly and investigate its lovely nooks, although you may have to make way for strollers and kids playing tag. My only visit to St. Andrews was on a Sunday. Like boys on a summer afternoon, we explored the Road Hole Bunker, recalled Costantino Rocca’s 60-foot birdie putt from the Valley of Sin, and, of course, we all gave our best Nicklausian royal wave for a picture on the Swilcan Bridge. We savored the Old Course slowly and playfully, but we also honored and respected her. Because of that Sunday visit, I’ll appreciate the Old Course that much more when I do play her.

–Tim O’Connor,

My own first round at the Old Course was the perfect cure to my early morning misanthropy for having to wait for hours at the starter’s shack to get a tee time. Standing on the eighth green after snaking in a long putt to save par, I realized that I was two over, and something opened up in me like a sky suddenly pouring rain, and I started to cry. Cry! I couldn’t stand still. My hands numbed with cold, and as I went and peed in the gorse while we waited for the group ahead of us to move out of range on the ninth hole, I recognized that I was having a career round, that I’d parred six out of the first eight holes and nearly parred the other two. Chilly tears broke sharply over the upper tier of my cheekbones. I cried– with joy for what had just happened, with fear, and with detachment from fear, all the while realizing that I would not get what I wanted most: to break eighty for the first time on this quirky, beautiful course. Not yet. Not today. I let go in a way that I cannot explain, accepting something that on this day ruined my excellent chance to set a new personal best because it was too precious to hold onto. I celebrated the magic of St. Andrews with a good cry and tossed anger and control into the October wind like blades of grass. I came back in 49 strokes after going out in 39, but I just didn’t care.

— Jeff Wallach,

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The Castle, (C)

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