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The Old Course at St. Andrews

More than six centuries after her birth, the grand "Old Lady" remains the definition of a golf course

By: Nick Edmund

Appeared in July/August 2000 LINKS

At St. Andrews, new arrivals are obvious: They tend to wander all 18 holes in a semi-trance. Perhaps these pilgrims are reflecting on the fact that golf was played on the Old Course as long as 600 years ago—two centuries before Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.”

Historical records reveal an element of mischief in golf’s early days. In the mid-1400s, the game was sufficiently prevalent for authorities to question whether it was contributing to the nation’s poor performances on the battlefields. Apparently the youth of Scotland had taken to golf and football at the expense of honing their archery skills. In 1457 King James II passed an act decreeing that “fute-ball and golf be utterly cryit down and nocht usit.”

His subjects evidently didn’t take much notice, nor, apparently, did his successors. It is known that in 1504 King James IV sneakily placed an order with his bow-maker in Perth for a new set of clubs and balls.

By the middle of the 16th century, golf was no longer outlawed and the right to play on the links at St. Andrews was confirmed in a license that permitted the public “to play at golf, fute-ball, schueting, at all gamis with all uther, as ever they pleis and in ony time.” The sport clearly flourished, for in 1691 the town was described as “a Metropolis of golfing.”

Today St. Andrews is universally acknowledged as the home of golf. Historically, spiritually and architecturally, every golf course in the world owes something—if not everything—to the Old Course at St. Andrews. Yet for all its significance, on first viewing the Old Course has the capacity to disappoint as well as enthrall. The Old Course invariably wins people over, but a taste for its subtleties must be acquired.

Bobby Jones’ fabled relationship with St. Andrews provides the ultimate example. His first round on the Old Course in 1921 came to an abrupt end at the 11th green, where, “confounded and confused,” he tore up his card and stormed off the links (an action he would bitterly regret). In 1927, Jones returned to win the Open by six strokes, and three years later, he captured the British Amateur at St. Andrews during his Grand Slam march. “The more I studied the Old Course,” Jones later said, “the more I loved it, and the more I loved it, the more I studied it, so that I came to feel that it was for me the most favorable meeting ground possible for an important contest.”           

Aura aside, the “Old Lady” is no ravishing beauty. Her surroundings are impressive, but at first glance the links itself appears devoid of any elevation changes and somewhat squashed into a narrow strip of land. There seems little definition to the holes, and the essentially “out and back” routing neither inspires the eye nor suggests variety. The rippling character of the fairways can both frustrate and perplex, while the sheer scale of the course’s renowned double greens—seven in all, some of them measuring more than an acre—occasionally demoralize.

With shared fairways as well as greens, the Old Course resembles no other links. But it is different for the very best of reasons. Pat Ward-Thomas stated its uniqueness perfectly: “In the beginning knew no architect but nature, it came into being by evolution rather than design and on no other course is the hand of man less evident.”

It’s only on close examination that the Old Course’s true qualities are revealed. Far from lacking definition and interest, each hole presents the golfer—whatever his standard of play—with a range of alternative strategies and options. And it is only after you have gained a greater appreciation of the hazards (especially the positioning of the bunkers) and when you are familiar with the subtle undulations and natural contours that so brilliantly conspire to defend the greens that you can make informed decisions and determine your strategy. The other essential ingredient, of course, is the wind. On a good day, with a moderately testing wind, the Old Course at St. Andrews is the most strategically complex golf course in the world.

The round starts with a hole that is extraordinary even by St. Andrews standards. Sharing a fairway with the 18th, the 1st has probably the flattest and widest fairway in golf. There is out-of-bounds to the right, but a drive aimed 75 yards left of center will not meet any trouble. The key shot is the ensuing pitch, played over the Swilcan Burn. If the approach is hit a little too firmly, an awkward downhill putt will result.

The par-4 2nd is much more typical of the Old Course. With thick gorse bordering the right edge of the fairway, there is an obvious temptation to play to the left again, where there is plenty of room. A brave drive to the right side, however, will be rewarded with a much easier second.

The Old Course routing is not strictly out and back. Often described as resembling a shepherd’s crook, the layout includes a loop of holes between 7th and 12th. The 7th is perhaps the closest St. Andrews comes to a dogleg hole. The fairway curves from left to right and the approach has to be deftly struck to find a raised, shallow green. Good scores at St. Andrews are usually fashioned over the next five holes, which comprise two par 3s and three short par 4s. The par 3s are the 8th and 11th, the latter being a much admired and a much feared hole. The green of the 11th, which is shared with the 7th, has very little depth, tilts from back to front and is defended by two horrendously deep bunkers, Hill to the left and Strath to the right.

The 13th is one of the strongest par 4s, with another large, raised and well-contoured green. In addition to the enormous Hell bunker, the par-5 14th requires a player to navigate the cavernous Beardies, Benty, Kitchen and Grave bunkers. Out-of-bounds also threaten the tee shot. There’s only one safe place on this hole—the Elysian Fields, a haven of fairway midway between The Beardies and Hell.

The 15th and 16th tumble along classic links terrain; Sutherland bunker at the 15th and the centrally located Principal’s Nose at the 16th are the major obstacles to avoid. Then comes the fabled Road Hole, golf’s most fascinating and destructive par 4. One’s drive at the 17th over the railway sheds is difficult enough—it must be steered close to the Old Course Hotel, risking the out-of-bounds to the right if the green is to be brought within range of the second shot—and the approach can be terrifying. The narrow, plateaued green is guarded by the gaping, sheer-faced Road bunker at the front, and by a road and stone wall at the back.

On any course other than St. Andrews, the 18th might be considered a modest finishing hole. It is a short par 4, potentially driveable with a strong helping wind, and the wide fairway resembles a town park. But framed by the famous St. Andrews buildings, the vast green is a wonderful stage. To land safely upon it you must pass through—or pitch over—the Valley of Sin.

For good measure, Ballesteros birdied the 18th in the final round in 1984, calling it “the happiest moment in golfing life.” Besides Ballesteros, the list of Open champions crowned at St. Andrews includes such greats as Sam Snead (1946), Peter Thomson (1955), Jack Nicklaus (1970, ’78), Nick Faldo (1990) and Tiger Woods (2000, ’05). Ancient and timeless though she may be, the Old Lady has always known how to pick her champions. 

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