The Old Course at St. Andrews
Designer: God, Allan Robertson, Old Tom Morris
There is a school of thought that says the spiritual home of golf, the Old Course at St. Andrews, was not designed or built by man but simply evolved over time thanks to Mother Nature. The game dates to at least 1457 in the “Auld Toun,” when King James II famously outlawed the sport, and for the first several centuries of its existence, that evolution was ever present. The fairways and greens ebbed and flowed naturally thanks to the grazing sheep, while their burrowing in the dunes to seek shelter from the elements formed barren sandy pits and the game’s first hazards.
The growing popularity of the sport in the 18th and 19th century, along with the formation of the Society of St. Andrews Golfers – what we know today as the Royal & Ancient Golf Club – would lead to countless changes to the old links that were far less natural. The original 22 hole course was shortened to 18 holes, which quickly became the standard for the entire sport. The shared fairways were soon widened to enormous proportions by Allan Robertson, and the famous double-greens eventually followed suit.
Of all the men who shaped the Old Course, however, none had a greater impact than Old Tom Morris. The Keeper of the Green oversaw a number of changes to the links, including a rebuilt 18th green and a new hazard known as the “Valley of Sin.” He built a new putting surface on the 1st hole just beyond the Swilcan Burn, and improved the condition and safety of the greens by introducing a small patch of turf called the “tee box.” Throughout his 40 year career, Old Tom Morris was the face of The Home of Golf and no one – be it the local butcher or the Duke of York – played the links without first having a word with the game’s Grand Old Man.
Whether it was formed naturally or by the hands man, the Old Course remains, as it has for centuries, a somewhat confounding experience. From the tee it’s sometimes hard to tell which way we’re headed, and once there the crumpled linksland rarely yields a truly flat stance. The bunkers are often in the oddest of places or hidden altogether – thanks to the days when the course was played in reverse of its current order – and should we find one these hellish pits, we’re quickly reminded that they are indeed hazards. We follow the widely held advice to keep left off the tee – as all of the trouble lurks to the right – only to find an approach that is exponentially more difficult than had we taken the more daring line. And then there’s the gargantuan and wildly contoured double-greens, where the threat of a 4-putt is always close at hand (as young Spieth will attest).
For many, the Old Course is reminiscent of the stern schoolteacher that we cursed as a child, but admired later in life. It often takes time to fully appreciate their intentions. And yet, we know of numerous Members of the Forces who have carded a career best round here, sight unseen. Regardless of which holds true for you, there can be no doubt… From the first nerve-wracking tee shot with the R&A clubhouse looming, to the stroll across the Swilcan Bridge and onward to The Dunvegan for a celebratory pint, once discovered, the magic of the Old Course is one that will never leave you.
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