The Old Course, Fife
Twelve Days of Christmas, #11
(This series is neither well planned or coherent. What it is, though, is the result of spending a few spare hours at Christmas 2021 looking through some recently located files of pictures, and thinking about my golfing journey to this point. I’ve been lucky to have played in some pretty special places, and made some lasting connections along the way, and year end seems as good a time to reflect back on a dozen of these as any. Who knows, it might inspire me to plan a few more exploratory trips for the year ahead. All suggestions & invites are welcome!)
I must have started playing golf in either late ‘84 or early ‘85, as I recall watching Sandy Lyle rock back on his heels, as his chip to the 18th at Royal St George’s came rolling back towards him. This was merely a bump in the road that he travelled to become the first British winner of the Open Championship since Tony Jacklin in ‘69, and Lyle, a Scot who I was pleased to hear regularly plays with hickories these days, remained a favourite growing up, a modern star who appreciated the old ways, too.
It is easy to date when my interest began, as while the years following that Open would have great drama - Nicklaus taking home a sixth Green jacket after brandishing a huge MacGregor putter as if it were a wand, and Faldo and Norman dominating the new World Rankings - I would not have easily forgotten it if I had watched the previous year’s Open, at the Home of Golf, and with the familiar fist-pump and navy Slazenger sweater of Seve.
So, when finally walking on to the 1st tee of The Old Course in 2014, I had built up nigh on thirty years of anticipation. You might think such a long run-up would leave me in good shape to navigate my way round such familiar landscapes, but nothing prepares you for the real experience.
I’d intentionally not done too much prep, apart from watching the events for three decades. On the bookshelf at home remains a wonderful study on the evolution of the links by the architect Scott Macpherson, but to this day I’ve not given it the time it deserves, and so I was exploring these timeless corridors fresh - a St Andrews virgin.
There is so much in this tapestry that I already knew of - the wide field of the 1st and 18th, the Swilcan Bridge, the terrifying Road Hole tee shot and bunker. And beyond the course, so much else that contributes to the ultimate golfing pilgrimage - the Jigger Inn, the Himalayas putting green, the tinted windows of the lounge at the R&A, and, for those lucky enough to step inside, the extraordinarily palatable wine list. So it will never be the case that a golfer can arrive here without preconceptions, although it would be fascinating to see an architecturally focused mind assess this beguiling links without all the baggage, all the history, that surrounds it. It would need to be an alien being to remain detached from all the associated meanings this place carries, though.
As so often when we are in the midst of a pleasurable round, time seemed to bend, and the holes of this beautiful old place flashed past, leaving only faint traces of memories on which to base the decisions of the next effort, two days later. So often I would stand on a tee and have to ask for help as to where I should at least aim to hit the ball, as the fairways are wide and rolling, and perhaps the key theme this initial jaunt would leave me with was one of width. The course is just wide open, waiting.
At every turn, TOC makes you choose how you will play it, rather than showing us how, and I can understand why some golfers “don’t get it” for a while, or ever. We are accustomed to clear signage and direction, on our golf courses and in our lives, but standing in the middle of an ancient field, with short grass all around and the quiet menace of named foes such as “Hell Bunker” floating round our consciousness, I felt suddenly and acutely on my own, faced with a puzzle for which there were no rules. (And I am not sure why “Hell Bunker” got singled out for that name; I went in probably a dozen which I could describe with that term or worse)
We laughed and nearly cried in those two days, so many funny bounces and surprising results. The rain held off, blown beyond us by the gusty winds that swept our balls left, right, and occasionally centre, although it wasn’t ever obvious where centre was, or whether we should even be there. We stared at the Old Course Hotel before nervously blasting our drives over it, miraculously finding the 17th fairway, and managed to avoid both the impossibly deep bunker ahead, and the road behind that sliver of a green. We took photos crossing the burn, and the passing tourists cheered as I sank a rare birdie putt on the last, first time around. An easy game, this.
On the second loop, spooked by one of our four (anonymous for now…) losing their final tee-shot right onto the road, my habitual nightmare - the duck hook - kicked in, and even the world-famous width of that shared 1st and 18th fairway couldn’t keep this ball in play. I would wait for those just starting their adventure to come down the 1st, and then note the slightly raised eyebrows of the locals as I reached over the white fence at the far side of the wrong hole and picked up my ball. Irked by the previous, insolent birdie, TOC had countered with a humiliating blob, and you can guess which one I am reminded of most by those friends who saw it, who had rubbed their eyes to check if it really happened before being bent over double by laughter.
Another standout memory was of the conditioning. Despite closing for 50 Sundays a year, TOC endures an extraordinary number of rounds; yet the turf remains intact and strong on this sandy strip of land. The coarser grasses are hard to find, both the root zone and maintenance practices favouring bents and fescues, which in turn defend the sward against drought, and disease. As with just about everything else at St Andrews, the powers that be get the blend of modern technology and traditional course presentation just right, the attention to detail of The Links Trust setting the standard for greenkeeping. If only more courses were this consistent.
The greens, particularly the shared ones, are enormous, and the thin stripes of the light hand mowers they use here speak of thousands of hours spent walking behind these machines. But that investment pays dividends, the floating heads of the cylinder following every little contour faithfully, and resulting in greens that run perfectly true and look fantastic. The routine top-dressing and aeration programme keeps the surfaces firm, demanding thoughtful, imaginative golf from the eager players.
Despite all the expectation, and all of the history and heritage of this old place, playing golf here remains great fun. It feels natural, as befits a course whose development is often attributed to Mother Nature and Time, and the complexities of the layout, layers of which can be peeled away like those of an onion, never seem onerous or artificial. Instead, the whole experience seems so simple - golf and the local community living in harmony, evolution slowly changing the nature of the links but at a gradual pace. Nothing is hurried here, but it is so special that four hours pass in the blink of an eye, as have the centuries before us on this monumental golf course.
We spend so much time thinking about lists, and rankings, but it seems unfair to even include TOC in any of that. For the likes of Pebble Beach and Royal Portrush are the clear legacy of certain people - the architects, shapers and backers of 19th and 20th century dreams, while TOC - the original “Old Course”, the Very Old Course, seems more like the blueprint for everything that followed. The trigger for golf to survive.
The details of how it came to be what it is today are blurry in places, some events no doubt lost in the sands of time, but the course seems to me to go way beyond classification. There is strategy everywhere here, but there is also an acceptance that luck and fate are still factors in this game, whose Rule book has gone from a single page manifesto to an unintelligible legal booklet. Even getting on the course in the first place requires some good fortune, as you try your hand in the famous ballot.
Here, at the home of golf, you “play the ball as it lies”; hit it, walk fast after it, and hit it again. Unless you’ve missed the 1st fairway left from the 18th, that is. In that case, you pocket the ball, enjoy the view and smile, for that blessed mistress Golf, and its lead actor The Old Course, has claimed another happy, willing victim.
I hope you enjoyed this! If you did, please share it with a friend or two, and encourage them to subscribe. This in turn will encourage me to keep on writing this stuff! You can find a link to some other pieces here, and please also consider following my twitter feed here. Happy New Year fellow golfers!