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A Royal and Ancient Sort of Place

Article courtesy of "Inside the Tour"

John Heffernan enjoys an educated stroll around St Andrews, the sport's most celebrated playground and universally acknowledged as the Home of Golf.

Say the name ‘St Andrews’ to a friend and what is the first thing which comes to mind? A Saint? A cathedral? A University? No, the chances are they will conjure up the image of a strip of seemingly unprepossessing turf, stretched along a cold and barren part of the east coast of Scotland.

This rugged piece of land is pock-marked with bunkers, dissected by a stream (or as the Scots prefer ‘burn’) and for most of the year is buffeted by a stiff, north-easterly wind. And yet for any person who has ever tried to swing a golf club, this ground is very sacred.
Quite simply, this is the Home of Golf; and although there is unlikely to ever be documentary proof that the Old Course is the oldest golf layout in the world, it is widely acknowledged as the spiritual home of the game, the epicentre of golf’s 600-year history.

On arrival, your first port of call should be the 1st tee, where you will see a demonstration of this truth, as normally robust and brave men turn to jelly under the burden of so much history on their shoulders.

The Old Course has hosted more Open Championships (26) than any other links on the Open rota; and last year Tiger Woods added his name to a roll call of the game’s greats when he won the Millennium Open by eight shots over the hallowed ground.

Watching him during that memorable week, it was like observing a chess Grand Master, as he plotted his way around the hazards, playing well within himself, avoiding the infamous pot bunkers. If anyone needed proof that this course provided the ultimate challenge - the greatest cerebral as well as physical test imaginable – then this was it.

"There’s more to be learned here about course design than anywhere else in the world," said the great Jack Nicklaus, who has designed a course or two in his time. "Collection bunkers, false fronts, bump shots; the fundamentals of design became fundamentals because of what’s here. And it all happened accidentally. Or maybe accidentally on purpose."

As Nicklaus acknowledges, the extraordinary thing about St Andrews is that no architect designed the Old Course; it just evolved over centuries from a meadow where rabbits roamed and locals used as a place to hang out their washing.

And yet (and here is the most exquisite irony) every golf course architect in history has taken some little nugget of wisdom away from it. The point is that the challenge is extremely subtle, and it often takes years before you can fully appreciate how crafty and intricate the old girl is.

Tony Lema, who won the Open here in 1964, compared her to his grandmother. "She is crotchety and eccentric; but also very elegant."

Many a first-time visitor has been unimpressed by this misshapen slab of turf
- Bobby Jones for one. Even the dunes don’t look that impressive, and they certainly pale into insignificance when you compare them with those at, say, Royal Birkdale or Royal St George’s. And yet by the time he is ready to hang up his Footjoys, every great player worth his salt recognises her ingenious charms and qualities.

"I have already said hundreds of times that I like it better than any golf course I have ever played," said Jones, after winning the Open here in 1927. "And, although I have played it many, many times, its charm for me increases with every round. The more I study the Old Course, the more I love it, and the more I love it, the more I study it."

If the flag positions are on the front right of the greens, you can hit it down the left of the wide double-fairways all day long, and on a calm day the challenge is reduced. Add a stiff cross-breeze off the sea (which there invariably is at St Andrews) and hide the pins on the left of the greens like they do on the final day of the Open; and suddenly she is transformed into a quite different animal.

Under these conditions, you realise that if you play your approach from the left of a fairway, you have no chance of stopping the ball close, and you will probably be left with a 150-foot putt on one of the huge double-greens.

It dawns on you that the only way to get close to the pins is to drive up the right-hand side, which means you are flirting with the gorse on the front nine and near the out-of-bounds fence on the back. Suddenly, you realise it is actually an incredibly difficult driving course.

The hazards are legendary and often have their own personal denomination whether it be ‘Granny Clark’s Wynd’ (a tarmac road where spectators and dog-walkers can cross the 1st fairway) or ‘Miss Grainger’s Bosoms’ (two beguiling and formidable humps on the 15th fairway).

Pot bunkers, hardly big enough to accommodate one man and his sand-wedge, are everywhere; and as well as being deep and possessing steep faces, they are also often invisible from the tee.

And then, of course, you come to the 17th, or Road Hole, perhaps the most famous hole in golf; a treacherous par-four which dog-legs right. "The reason the Road Hole is the greatest par-four in the world," says Ben Crenshaw, "is because it is a par-5." Crenshaw’s point is that if you try to play your second shot to the slippery green, which is angled away from you, the chances are you will end up (a) in the Road Hole bunker, (b) on the Road, or (c) up against the wall. Don’t risk it, and play your approach short of the green.

Of course, the Old Course is not the only golf in town. Many say the New (which is actually 106 years old) is tougher than the Old. And, if either the New or the Jubilee courses (right) were anywhere else but St Andrews, they would be talked about as truly great courses in their own right. Add to these, the Eden (unusual for a links, because it has an inland pond on it), the Strathtyrum (a shortish, holiday type layout) and the Balgove (ideal for beginners) and you have 99 holes guaranteed to make your mouth water.

What’s more, within a radius of 10 miles, other multi-million pound developments are appearing every year. The most notable of these are the Duke’s (designed by five-times Open champion Peter Thomson), Kingsbarns (expensive but already establishing an awesome reputation as one of the most exhilarating golf venues in the British Isles), and two brand new courses at St Andrews Bay (designed by the European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance from ideas laid down by the late Gene Sarazen).

Once the golf is over, you will find it very difficult to forget that you are in the game’s capital city. The taxis have the words "Golf City" on their roofs. The pubs and hostelries are called things like "The Niblick". Everyone in the winding cobbled streets seems to be either on their way to the links, bags tucked under arm; or on their way back.

Unlike anywhere else on earth, St Andrews is the sort of place where you might well find a butcher, a green-grocer and a postman who all play to single-figure handicaps. Drift into any one of the 20 excellent pubs in town, and the talk will not be of politics and putting the world to rights, but rather of ‘sliced drives’ and ‘lip-outs’. Stop an old lady in the street and she may well be able to tell you why the Royal & Ancient Golf Club have yet to ban Callaway’s ERC II driver.

There is a magic and serenity about the town which is difficult to define. It is home to one of Britain’s great universities (only Oxford and Cambridge are older); and during term-time you will see the students in their red gowns, scurrying to lectures. Founded in 1410, the University counts James Wilson (who signed the American Declaration of Independence) among its famous alumnae, and Jack Nicklaus, the Queen Mother, Dirk Bogarde and Yehudi Menuhin are all honorary graduates. Prince William goes there this October, and so – not surprisingly – they have had a record number of applications.There is a cosy and intimate atmosphere in the town and it is easy to walk anywhere. If you stay more than a couple of days, you will start recognising people in the street, and greeting them as friends.

Make sure, before you depart, that you go round the Golf Museum – where you will be able to see how difficult it was to hit a feathery ball with a hickory club. Go and visit the old cathedral grounds where both Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom, are buried. (They won eight Open Championships between them and their spirits live on in St Andrews.) Go to the wall by the 17th green and see if you can play the chip which cost Tom Watson the 1985 Open. Walk down the West Sands, one of the most breath-taking beaches anywhere in the world; where the opening sequence to the film "Chariots of Fire" was filmed. And go into St Salvator’s church in North Street. When you come out, commit the spire to memory because it is your line when you stand on the 15th tee.

Then, when you eventually leave, go and tell that friend why this strip of seemingly unprepossessing turf is so special. Chances are you won’t be lost for words.

Article courtesy of "Inside the Tour"

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