St. Andrews isn’t always love at first sight
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - If first impressions determined major-championship venues, then St. Andrews might never have staged the British Open. Many who play the Old Course for the first time fail to see what all the fuss is about.
Disenchantment upon first visiting the Old Course is well documented. Bobby Jones was so dissatisfied with the course during the 1921 Open that he tore up his scorecard after the 11th hole of Round 3. He later came to love the course: “I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews,” he once said, “and I would still have a rich and full life.”
Rory McIlroy, 21, has a long way to go to match Jones’ exploits. Like Jones, though, he was not a huge fan – at first.
“My first impressions were that I didn’t actually like it that much,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t like initially that I couldn’t pick lines off the tee, couldn’t see where I was supposed to drive the ball.”
Lee Westwood’s dislike for the hallowed turf provoked an angry outcry from purists when he remarked in 1999: “It wouldn’t be in my top 200 – in Fife.”
McIlroy and Westwood have grown to love the course. They’ve come to realize what Sam Snead meant when he said: “Until you play it, St. Andrews looks like the sort of real estate you couldn’t give away.”
McIlroy has gone from wondering why the Old Course was so revered to placing it in his top two in the world.
“It’s grown on me,” he said. “You can play it so many different ways. There are times when you need to be pin high, other times when you have to be past the pin, or short of the pin because there are so many slopes and holes can change drastically.
“The better you get to know it, the more you like it. This and Augusta are the two that are most special to me.”
Even Westwood has changed his tune.
“As you get older, you learn to appreciate the subtleties of things,” Westwood said earlier this year. “Now it’s a course I enjoy playing and look forward to playing.”
For Ernie Els, it was love at first sight.
“I first played the Old Course in the St. Andrews Links Trophy in 1987 and fell in love with it right away,” Els said. “I grew up in Johannesburg (South Africa) and we never played anything like this.”
Countryman Trevor Immelman is another who turned up in the Auld Grey Toon and didn’t want to leave.
“I was absolutely blown away by the whole atmosphere that surrounds this town, the golf course and the history,” Immelman said of his first visit in the mid-1990s. “The Old Course is so unique. It offers up something totally different to any other golf course on earth.”
Brad Faxon is a self-confessed links addict. He thought he knew everything there was to know about the Old Course, only to find out the opposite when he first stepped onto the hallowed turf.
“What I thought it was going to be like and what it was like was so different,” Faxon said. “I thought it would be fairly straightforward. It isn’t.
“It’s different every time you play it. It’s got so much strategy to it that you don’t even realize when you are playing it. The lines off the tee change every single time you play. It’s a course that can be set up very easily or a course that can be set up extremely difficult.”
Els feels the Old Course is illusory.
“It stays exactly the same but it keeps changing, that’s why it’s so unique,” Els said. “It’s a different golf course every time you play it.”
Padraig Harrington says all 18 holes can be brutal or benevolent.
“It’s fascinating on this course how much a pin position or the direction of the wind can change a hole. It’s tremendous in that sense,” Harrington said.
“There is no hole that can’t show its teeth just because of the wind or a change of pin position.”
All golf courses evolve. The Old Course, however, has changed little since Jones first stepped foot on it 79 years ago. Or even from when Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris were tearing it up.
However, the Old Course will have one significant development for next year’s Open Championship, the 150th anniversary of the game’s oldest tournament. Its most famous hole will regain its teeth.
Of all the holes at St. Andrews, more probably has been written on The Road Hole – No. 17 – than the rest put together. For centuries, it has struck fear into all who’ve faced it.
“No player ever stands on the tee here facing the black sheds without having to suppress a small tremor,” wrote Robert Harris in “Sixty Years of Golf.”
“It is reviled, scoffed at once in a way, then it becomes feared, cursed with vehemence as being stupid and unfair.”
No wonder Ben Crenshaw once remarked: “The reason the Road Hole at St. Andrews is the greatest par 4 in the world is because it’s a par 5!”
It will come close to Crenshaw’s depiction for this year’s championship. Work has commenced to add 35 yards to the hole. A new tee is being built on the Links Trust practice ground. The Road Hole will measure 490 yards for the 139th Open Championship.
“The 17th was played at the same yardage in 1900 as it was in 2005, and this fueled our belief that the formidable challenge of this iconic hole should be returned for the Open Championship,” said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A.
“Over the years, we have seen the threat from the road behind the green, and to a lesser extent the Road Bunker, diminished as players have been hitting shorter irons for their approach shots. This change will ensure that the hole plays as it was originally intended.”
What won’t change is the unique experience that goes with playing an Open Championship over the Old Course.
“To know even a little bit about the history of the game, it’s just the greatest place to play,” Faxon said. “It’s a bit like playing in a museum or a sacred place.”