Nothing in the golf world tops hitting the links at Scotland’s Old Course.
By Donna Carter
It was a May weather day in “the land of plaid” with the same kind of relentless rainfall that required Noah to build an ark. Even though the big tap in the sky was turned on full blast, I didn’t mind a bit that I was starting a golf round in a downpour so heavy it could have filled a wash bucket in mere minutes. My three golf buddies didn’t mind either.
After all, we were standing on the first tee of the Old Course at Scotland’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews and we weren’t about to let rain dampen our excitement. We were living every golfer’s dream to play the most famous links in the world–the birthplace of golf and the course that has hosted more than 25 British Opens since 1873. Just being there, getting ready to tee off on Hole No. 1 was like a religious experience and more than a little intimidating.
Moreover, the intimidation factor was heightened by an ever-present gallery watching golfers hit off the course’s legendary first tee. Consequently each member of my foursome prayed for the same thing: please don’t let me duff my drive. The Old Course can even be daunting for pro golfers like Paul Casey who once said, “the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, especially when I stand on the first and 18th tees.“ Sensing our intimidation, the course starter told us to relax and enjoy ourselves, advice that was easier said than done. He encouraged us by saying, “I’ve seen scores of powerful men responsible for big corporations shiver and quake in their boots as they approach the first tee. This is the effect the course has on most folks.”
After respectable drives and with the first hole under our belts, we did indeed relax and revel in the opportunity to play the most iconic golf course on the planet. This wasn’t merely a round of play on the turf that is the Mecca for golfers around the globe; rather each and every hole was a grand adventure. Just to walk and play on the world’s most famous fairways was a thrill in itself that got even better when on Hole 7, the weather gods turned off the tap and gave us moderate sunshine.
Lying parallel to St. Andrews Bay and the North Sea, the physical characteristics of the layout include more than 112 deviously placed bunkers and believe me I tried more than a few of them on for size. In fact my Scottish caddie, Sandy Thom, stated that during the round I had been in more bunkers than Hitler’s girlfriend, Eva Braun. Among the most famous traps is the massive bunker on the 14th named Hell where Jack Nicklaus once took four strokes to extricate his ball during a British Open, thus recording a 10 on the hole. I, too, landed a shot in Hell, and getting out in one stroke may have been my proudest moment of the round. By the way, don’t even think of playing this course without a caddy. Their advice is invaluable and, if need be, they will even try to disentangle errant balls from the course’s innumerable mounds of wicked yellow gorse.
Another of the Old Course’s challenging features is huge double greens that can leave players facing impossibly long puts. In fact, all but four of the greens are doubles (shared by two holes) with only the 1st, 9th, 17th and 18th being singles. The course was not designed by an architect but has evolved over six centuries with various individuals such as native Scotsman and four times Open Champion, Tom Morris, making the most significant changes between 1865 and 1903. Originally, the course played over 22 holes but was reduced to 18 in 1764, the number that then became the standard for courses worldwide. While the Old Course has long been the undeniable gem, St. Andrews Links actually embodies seven courses, a complex that is among the largest public golf venues in the world. They include The Castle, New Course, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum and the 9-hole Balgove.
A great deal of the fascination with the Old Course, where green fees are about CDN$245, is attached to its history. Golf was being played there as far back as the 1400s when the layout was little more than a seaside Scottish pasture defined by tangles of bushes and heather. The game, in fact, became so popular that in 1457 it was banned by Scotland’s King James II who deemed it was interfering with the time young men should have been spending on archery practice. The ban wasn’t lifted until 1502 when a succeeding monarch, King James IV, himself became a golf aficionado.
King James IV, I suspect, could have played what became the Old Course, any time his royal heart desired. This, however, is not the case for ordinary men today although it’s a public course and accessible to all. Considering its immense popularity and the fact there are typically more than 40,000 rounds played there each year, advance planning offers the best guarantee of getting to live the dream. Visitors can, if they wish, take their chances on a daily lottery system and hope their names are drawn for the next day’s play. (It’s said that over 50 percent of all Old Course starting times per year are lottery draws). I was told, however, that during the summer high season as many as 460 names a day may be entered in the lottery, with only 60 players drawn. Alternatively, tee times can be reserved well in advance by emailing or faxing. (For details on how the advance booking works go to http://www.standrews.org.uk/). Although there is no guarantee, on any given day a single golfer can approach the starter who will try to slot the player in with an existing group.
A round of golf on the Old Course seems to end far too soon, as you make your way up the 18th fairway to cross over the stone Swilcan Bridge—the most recognizable landmark in the world of golf. Rain or shine, it’s a luxury and a privilege to play this course that Arnold Palmer once described in this way: “This is the origin of the game; golf in its purest form and it’s still played that way on a course seemingly untouched by time.“
While a trip to Scotland to play the Old Course is the crème de la crème of golf experiences, the country of kilts and bagpipes has several other great courses to consider and there are money saving packages available that will combine a selection of the country’s best.
Royal Troon www.royaltroon.co.uk
NOTE: The British Open Championship returns to St. Andrews in July 2015.
Donna Carter is a freelance writer based in Cobourg, ON.
Photo Credit Courtesy of: VisitScotland/ScottishViewpoint