2005: The Old Course, St. Andrews

St. Andrews, Scotland

First-time visitors to The Old Course at St. Andrews might think they’ve been the victim of some cruel, cosmic joke. Halfway through an inaugural round here, they might begin looking for the proper golf course. It’s not uncommon to come off the 18th green totally unimpressed, even bitterly disappointed.

It takes time to appreciate this place – longer than most people allow themselves if they take one of those whirlwind, 36-holes-per-day tours that allot a half day to the Old Course.

Golf here is roughly half a millennium old. There’s no point rushing if your hope is to understand what the place is all about. It takes repeated visits. No wonder people stroll the place at night – as if to soak in the ambience and feel the features on the soles of their feet. Or they just pause for an hour or two to watch, lingering in the public area behind the 18th green or dawdling by the fence that runs the length of golf’s most famous closing hole.

On television during the British Open this week, the Old Course will look strange. In person, it looks even stranger. Here’s a par-72 golf course with only 11 greens, two par 3s, two par 5s, fairways 100 yards wide, not a single tree to define a line of play, a third of its 112 bunkers blind from the approach area and each hole playable five different ways. In many cases, the favored line of approach is down the right, but that’s so risky that smart players opt for the left side and prefer to fly their approaches over the heavily defended centers of almost every green.

The only water hazard appears at the first hole. Two holes, the seventh and 11th, actually cross at their respective approach shots. And yet, in the words of Peter Thomson, five-time British Open champion (including 1955 at St. Andrews), “it’s the model for all golf course design.”

Amazingly, the Old Course is perfectly playable backward, that is counterclockwise, starting with the tee shot toward the 17th green and then reverse around the loop from there. All of a sudden, bunkers that you thought were 30 yards in front of a tee make sense as relevant because, when viewed as part of the reverse course, they come into play the other way around. That’s actually the way they regularly played it in the 19th century, and the way they still do it one weekend each April.

At St. Andrews, serendipity rules. If it’s control you seek, look elsewhere – or stay in the U.S. and chase your illusions of fairness and predictability on a parkland golf course.







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