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Old Course Lessons

After a memorable birdie on the final hole, the author found that a round at St. Andrews doesn't end on the 18th green

By: Micheal P. Castine

Gene Sarazen once said, “I wish that every man who plays golf could play St. Andrews once.”
On a sunny but brisk October day several years ago, I finally got a chance to play the Old Course, the birthplace of golf, where Tom Morris, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have made their mark.

On the practice green with the famous Royal and Ancient clubhouse hovering in the background, I felt that mixture of excitement and apprehension that accompanies a once-in-a-lifetime round.

I have played a lot of great courses, from Carnoustie to Ballybunion to Shinnecock Hills, but none of those experiences felt quite like preparing to play the Old Course.

Picking up my ball on the practice green, I could feel an energy being directed toward me. I turned and noticed a white-haired gentleman of about 60 gazing at me. He tipped his hat and walked toward me with his right hand extended.

“Laddie, I have been watching you,” he said in a classic Scottish brogue. “I am Alistair, your caddie.” 

The brief introduction was all I needed to feel relaxed. From the 1st tee, Alistair was my friend, coach and confidant, clubbing me around the course. “Keep it left,” he cautioned repeatedly, keeping me out of all the unseen pot bunkers that dot the Old Course.

While every caddie wants his player to perform at his best, Alistair seemed to take this concept a bit too seriously. Little did I know at the time he had a financial stake in my play.
On the 18th tee, he once again said, “Keep it left.” It was a good drive, leaving me with about 100 yards to the hole.

“I assume you want me to run it up?”

“No, laddie,” he replied, handing me a wedge. “I think you should play your shot like you would at home. Take your time and hit right at it.”

While the most nervewracking shot at most courses is the drive on the 1st hole, at the Old Course it is the approach to the 18th green, which is tucked into a corner of the course and is bordered by walkways, along which many onlookers stand to watch players finish.

Despite my nerves, I made a smooth swing. “Looks good, laddie,” Alistair commented.
The ball landed just short of the pin and rolled over the hole, stopping six inches from the cup. The gallery of 40 or so erupted in applause and to me, it sounded like a cheer for a Sunday final pairing at the British Open.

When I tapped in for birdie, the crowd applauded again. 

So did Alistair, and as we walked off the green, he turned to the other caddies and said, “Well, boys, it looks like I picked the right horse.” After the caddies set our bags down next to the green, we all had our wallets out. The golfers were paying the caddies, and the caddies were paying Alistair.

For the first time in four hours, I wasn’t sure of what to do next. To play the Old Course and make a birdie on the last hole was such a great feeling that I didn’t want the day to end.

Thankfully, Alistair helped me out again, by inviting us to join him for a beer at the Dunvegan. There, he told us about how St. Andrews caddies make the loop more interesting by picking players in the group and wagering against the rest of the foursome.

I took out my wallet again as I gladly paid for the drinks. It was well worth the price to listen to Alistair, as I felt like I was getting an education about the game. I shall return and hopefully Alistair will meet me at the 1st tee for a refresher course.   

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