Is the Old Course Underrated?

I must say, when I first read the manuscript for our cover story, I was a bit surprised at the course Tom Doak chose to head his list of the most underrated: the Old Course at St. Andrews. It seemed tantamount to naming Shakespeare the most underestimated poet or Meryl Streep the least-valued actress. I figured that was just Tom being Tom: Even when he tries to show some love, he can’t help being contentious.

On reflection, however, he has a point. The Old Course, as much as I love it, tends to make a weak first impression. The flat, barren terrain and the seeming sameness of the holes, particularly in the opening stretch, can be underwhelming to the first-time player, as Rory McIlroy recalled in a recent interview.

“I thought it was the worst golf course I’d ever played,” the world number-one said. “I stood up on every tee and was like, ‘What is the fascination about this place?'” However, McIlroy, like so many before him, came to change his mind about the Old Lady. “The more you play it, the more you learn about the course and its nuances, the more you learn to appreciate it. Now it’s my favorite golf course in the world.” In that final assessment, he echoed the consensus of the three greatest champion golfers of all time—Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods.

Still, if the Old Course is indeed underrated, this is the year it should pick up some major respect, not just in July when it will host the Open Championship for a record 29th time, but during the other majors, as well. Never have the venues for those three events exhibited such unanimous homage to St. Andrews. The Augusta National of today may not look or play much like the Old Course, but that was part of the vision set forth more than 80 years ago by Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones. Several holes on the Masters course were patterned after holes on the Old—the par-three 4th after the 11th, the blind dogleg 5th after the 17th, the short 7th after the 18th. These days, any resemblance is diffcult to see, but the overall strategy is still there—in the double-width fairways, the judicious bunkering, and the oversized greens, many of them fronted by deep swales. The enduring challenge is the same as Henry Longhurst ascribed to St. Andrews: “On every shot, whether a short pitch or a full drive, you must step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, what exactly do I want to do here’.”

The most highly anticipated major venue in many years is Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Wash., a course that will break the mold of modern U.S. Open sites. Never has our national championship been contested on sand-capped soil sown in native fescue grass, the same turf as an authentic links. Never has it visited a more maritime site than this wind-blown 250 acres beside Puget Sound where Robert Trent Jones II took pains to create a course with, in his own words, “more options than the Chicago Futures Market.”

Enormous, sometimes 100-yard-wide fairways heave and wend toward huge open-entry greens, a few of which appear to have waves breaking beneath them. The course will play hard and fast, forcing even the pros to establish their ground games. However, the putting surfaces (due to their fescue composition, fierce undulation, and exposure to wind) will be comparatively slow. It should all bring to mind an Open at the Old Course, where the fairways sometimes Stimp faster than the greens.

Moreover, at Chambers Bay there is only one tree on the property, a train runs alongside the course, and the first and final fairways share the same broad swath of ground. No wonder the title of the book that chronicles the birth and development of this course is America’s St. Andrews.

Finally and fittingly, in August the PGA returns to the linksiest playground it has ever visited, Whistling Straits, owned by Herb Kohler, who also happens to own properties beside the 17th and 18th fairways of the Old Course.

Once again we have a wind-whipped site, this time beside Lake Michigan. The fairways are fescue, the greens average a whopping 7,500 square feet, and bunkers of all shapes and sizes pop up, sometimes in the least likely places. On top of this, it’s strictly a walking course, and during the summer months a herd of Scottish sheep wanders the course. All of which would have made Old Tom Morris proud.

Who will do well on these major championship venues? Those who can excel in the three P’s—power, putting, and patience. And a healthy respect for the Old Course wouldn’t hurt.