Some memories can be fickle and fluid, changing as the echo travels farther away from the source. Others are utterly seared, frozen in time like a perfect Kodachrome slide. The moment I fell in love with the Old Course at St. Andrews is unequivocally in the latter category. I can project it on the back of my forehead in razor sharp focus.
Walking off the fifth hole during my first round, the wind blew off my hat (perhaps a cheeky sign from Zephyrus), and I turned to see the early morning light gilding the town of St. Andrews. I turned again, and let my eyes wander, soaking in the perfection of the place, time, and space I was occupying in it. In those few seconds, I knew this ancient town in Fife had become a place I would yearn for, a place that no matter how many times I’ve been, I can’t wait to return.
They call it the Home of Golf and it’s certainly a sharp tagline. But I think the Old Course is something more for those passionate enough to make the journey, play it, and fall in love with it. For those kindred golfers, it’s a magical place, an ethereal landscape. It’s where, as pilgrims, we pay homage not only to our game’s history but also its future. And while we may not have been born there or immigrated, it is and always will be our spiritual home.
A connection to history
History has much to do with our obsession. The Scots have been playing our beloved game on the ancient links in St. Andrews for nearly 600 years. Shaped over the centuries by history, the gods and a few men, today it continues to test the mettle of players at every level including the best in the world as a permanent fixture in the Open Championship rotation.
“The Old Course is clearly sui generis [unlike any other]. It’s matchless and timeless,” says golf historian Sidney Matthew. “Part of the reason the Old Course is an important experience is because it’s the Home of Golf and everybody who’s anybody in golf has either played there or been deprived the experience for reasons out of their control,” says Matthew, who also authored Wry Stories on The Road Hole, the Old Course’s most famous and challenging.
This era’s ultimate somebody, Tiger Woods, in his post Masters interview, called St. Andrews “my favorite golf course in the world.” Woods, who completed his first career Grand Slam on the Old Course, said it’s a place “near and dear to my heart.”
A course for champions
This year’s (men’s) Open will be the 150th championship and the 30th time St. Andrews has played its host. Beyond Woods, many of the game’s greats have won here: Bob Martin, the first back in 1876, John Henry Taylor, James Braid, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Peter Thompson, Bobby Locke, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, John Daly, Louis Oosthuizen, and most recently, Zach Johnson.
“One can’t help but soak in the nostalgia of all the famous players and all the famous championships played there such that the question to a serious golfer is, “Have you ever played St. Andrews?” Matthew adds. “How many have said ‘Before I’m done, I must play the Old Course.’”
Stacy Lewis is another who left her mark on golfing history at St. Andrews when she hoisted the trophy at the 2013 Women’s Open Championship.
“St. Andrews truly is special because of the history. It’s where golf started and gives you a feeling of being different. You can almost feel the history,” Lewis said. “Even the surrounding town is special. The world changes and St. Andrews takes you back to the origins of golf and reminds me why I love the game.”
An experience like no other
A previous era’s greatest champion, Bobby Jones did not fall in love with the Old Course on first sight. In fact, Jones picked up his ball and withdrew on the 11th hole during the 1921 Open’s third round. Like many others, it took him some time to appreciate it. But years later he would say, “If I had to be sentenced to play only one course the rest of my life, I would pick St. Andrews, in Scotland because it changes so much and there’s nothing about it that is obvious.”
As far as an eternal return, I can’t imagine a better place for a golfer. A round on the Old Course is a transcendent experience. You feel almost as if you’re floating from tee to green along the fairways as you gaze at the ancient town and out into the North Sea. Teeing off in the shadow of the Royal and Ancient club, the history is impossible to ignore. The weight of it is almost tangible. But standing in the present, while anticipating the holes to come, the general advice for a first round is to stick to the left side when driving the ball. But this can be folly for those trying to score. Often the best angle to pins is from the right side. So players must take on trouble to have a shot at birdie.
There are no bad holes here, in fact it’s a brilliant golf course. Perhaps there are a few easy pars but no throwaways and only a pair each of par-3s and par-5s. Players have to navigate waves of undulation as they play along the sea. Knobs, hollows and more than 100 bunkers with names like Shell, Hell, the Beardies, the Principal’s Nose, and Coffin challenge golfers as they make their way along the fairways lined with hellacious gorse bushes, tall grasses, and resplendent heather. In general, golf is an exercise in creative problem solving but on sandy links land, when the weather is up, the challenge multiplies. Flying the ball to pins can be dangerous and players must embrace the ground game with run-up shots. This is no small feat for those accustomed to parkland courses.
The greens, 14 of them double, and their subtle twists and breaks are probably the most well-documented anywhere in the world. But thanks to the ever-changing conditions, even a well-struck putt may not do exactly what you expect. In fact, St. Andrews is so enigmatic, after another 600 years, a player sentenced to Jones’s eternal return might not be able to solve every one of the course’s riddles.
The course at the center of it all
But it’s precisely those puzzles that have made St. Andrews the center of the golf universe and the most important course in the world in terms of design and architecture. The game’s big bang started here, expanding ever outward now to more than 30,000 courses in 200+ countries. Every other course in the world, including the six others operated by the St. Andrews Links Trust, was in some way inspired by the fairways and greens of the Old Course. Despite its age, it’s a test of golf that remains relevant centuries later.
“The Old Course has stood the test of time because it relies on the natural ground to create strategy, promote variety…the conditions are ever-changing,” says Gil Hanse, one of todays pre-eminent golf architects. “Due to its pure naturalness, it’s always unpredictable, and allows golfers to choose their own path around it rather than having a path dictated to the golfer by the concepts of a golf course architect. This sense of discovery, risks, and rewards—courtesy of Mother Nature—is timeless in the questions it asks golfers, and the answers are never the same.”
For those who have yet to play the Old Course, there are a few ways to win a tee time. But every pilgrim should experience the single golfer’s line at least once. Hopeful players will stand in wait during the wee hours, witnessing dawn. Only then will they be allowed into the pavilion to inquire about playing that day. Here you won’t find many casual players, rather it’s a cue of only the most committed golfers.
Some of those players may not fall in love with St. Andrews right away. They might find the run-outs too unpredictable, the bounces too cruel, and the winds unfair. But many will—and those lucky enough to feel the thunderbolt will always have a place to call home.
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