As a golfer there is one course that must be played, a course where golf has been played for over 600 years, a place where golf was invented and refined to the game we all love and know today, a place where legends have one won and lost in spectacular style. This is a destination which golfers from around the world travel to like some sacred pilgrimage and yet this prestigious course is built on common land – a course for the people… The Old Course at St Andrews.
Back in 1123 King David 1st of Scotland granted the Links land to the people of St Andrews and, from that time to this the people of St Andrews have had the right to use the Links for Recreation, with Golf becoming their favoured pastime.
When golf as first played on the Links course is unknown although by 1457 it was well established leading the then King, James II to ban it as it was distracting his men from archery practice. After that both James III and James IV continued the ban until 1502 when James IV got the bug and asked his bow makers to make him a set of clubs and, since that day golf has always been played here. Following the long illustrious history it was now time for yours truly Lefty III, Newby II and John Spencer IV to play this hallowed turf. (King Twoputt was left behind to rule his subjects!).
St Andrews has a modern clubhouse that sits in the middle of the links courses. With comfortable changing rooms featuring a wind gauge display on the wall (a warning of things to come), the clubhouse has a fine restaurant with bar to top up your hip flask and, as you would expect, a store full of St Andrews merchandise.
We received a friendly welcome from the front desk clerk who checked us in and arranged for the stretched buggy to take us to the first Tee. At the starter hut where we received a cordial welcome, our cards and course planner. Realisation now hits you and you stand in awe on the first on the Old Course with the Royal and Ancient clubhouse behind you, where Old Tom Morris, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Arnold Palmer have all stood, as well as royalty. Enough sentiment from me, let’s get onto the course which is going to be hard as most of you already know every nook and cranny of it from television coverage. The first (Burn) is a par 4,355yards it has one of the widest fairways I have seen but there is OOB left and right The line is a small gorse bush at the edge of the Swilcan Burn that winds its way across the fairway in front of the green.
You have a fair chance with your second shot of hitting the green considering it is 45yrds from front to back. You realise very quickly that with a selection of modern clubs in your bag you can hit further than our predecessors 400 years ago and that on the Old Course the game is not won on the fairway but on the greens. So, unless you are two feet from the hole you had better hope that your putting is up to scratch. I can give testament to this fact as I landed on the edge of the green and carded a 6!! I then had to take the 3 putt walk of shame to the next hole.
The 2nd is 395yrd par 4 where you have gorse bushes to the right of the tee. You are best staying left but you must be careful because about 246yrd up the fairway is the Cheape’s bunker. You don’t want to end up here because you would find yourself chipping back on the fairway the same way you came in, forward is not an option.
Avoiding this hazard will leave you a shot onto the green of about 150yrds. Take into account the pronounced diagonal ridge which forms the chief obstacle to the green. On the day we played the pin was on the top half of the ridge. We all managed to stay topside of the flag, but still I 3 putted, this time John had to join me on the walk of shame. The 3 (Cartgate) is 337 par 4, not the longest par 4 in the world but as I’ve said it’s when you get to the green that you need your ‘A’ game. You need to drive over 180 yards otherwise you’re in the wilds I’m afraid. If you tend to scuff your drives you will be punished, the line is over the ‘Principal’s Nose’ not up it. The major hazard on this hole is the Cartgate bunker which eats into the left of the green. The further left the drive the more it comes into play on the approach, avoid this at all cost it’s a real monster of a bunker if you are unfortunate and end up in it. I can only advise that you watch the youtube video posted by European Ryder Cup Captain, Paul McGinley on how to get out of the “formidable Cartgate Bunker”.
The green on the 3rd is massive, at one point it’s 50yrd from front to back. It’s a double green being shared with the 12th on the way back in. This time I got closer to the flag and managed to two putt. Now I was starting to get a feel for the greens. Hole 4 (Ginger Beer) should be called ‘over bunkers’. This par 4, 411yards is all about placement and a bit of luck. The fairway is scattered with pot bunkers, some you can see and others are sneakily hiding from you. I found the best solution was to hit a straight drive and hope for the best, I’m not sure that’s the advice you would receive from one of the Caddies but it worked for me. It’s a risky shot just going straight as the fairway narrows to a valley, but it does give you the safest approach shot to the green. If you go the other way to the left, yes there is more fairway to aim at but it leaves you a pig of an approach shot over a large mound covered with gorse bushes dotted with pot bunkers.
I came short of the green but managed to rescue a bogie. John and Newby got solid pars in fact I’m sure Newby would like me to tell you that he was only one over par at this point and that he birdied the 1st . Now I have written that he’s given me my ‘Old Course Sporran’ back. We hit the first par 5 on the course (Hole O’ Cross) it’s 514yrds long. Aim just left of the far-off bunkers (The Spectacles). I think it’s called this because you will need a pair to see them. Beyond is a deep swale before the green, but be aware of the approach as the distance can vary as the green is 100yrds deep!! I landed on the green about 30ft away from the flag for 4, this had ‘Card wrecker’ written all over it, but much to my surprise John, Newby and me got it in two, A bogie, I will take that any day on this hole.
Let’s move onto the 7th High (out) most of you will know this hole because of the famous ‘Shell’ which proudly protects the front of the green. Over the years it has wrecked many cards and dashed the dreams of professional golfers from all around the world –not to mention yours truly Lefty. What makes this difficult is that it cuts into the green which is narrow at this point so you have to get up and down quickly. You are greeted by the face of the bunker which towers in front of you like the great wall of China. How did I do? Well let’s put it this way, I was in the bunker for one and got it in the hole for 6!!
You may have noticed by now that the holes are not the longest in the world, so why do Tiger Woods, Rory and Co struggle when they play in the Open? You soon find out why when you stand on the 8th as now you are hitting into the wind. John who plays off 6 played this par3, 154yrds with a 5 wood and still came short. It’s the same with the 9th a short par 4 at only 289yrds, but my word, when the wind blows it might as well be 50000yrds. You do get a little reprise from the wind on the 10th and 11th as you play with the wind behind you. The 10th is named after the Open Champion of 1927 and Amateur Champion of 1930, Bobby Jones whose relationship with St Andrews has passed into folklore. So, in honour of the great golfer we decided to par it, well John did, Newby and I honoured him with bogies then a wee dram on the green.
11th hole High (In) is a par 3, 164 yards. With the wind behind me I seized my chance to get a par and made it. Just be careful as the green slopes from back to front with Hill and Strath archetypal greenside bunkers waiting for you. The course planner gives a warning if the wind is against you; it says “this demanding par three has been described as the shortest par five in golf in any kind of wind it’s a challenge to find the green”. Just a tip, when you’re on the green take a look around you and take in the view. Moving on to the 13th (Hole O’Cross) par 4, 388yrds we now found ourselves again playing into the wind. According to the locals we were playing in a ‘gentle breeze’ which brings an altogether different hazard. Your drive should avoid the rather ominously named Coffins, a group of bunkers 200 yards from the tee, ‘avoid these at all cost’ as they are called Coffins for a reason. Go in them and you might just keel over and lie down. Fortunately we all missed the ‘Coffins’ which then left a great approach shot onto an immense green. You might hit your second shot and think “I’ve gone short” Or “I’ve over hit it” you have not, trust me your second shot will be on whether you think it is or not!
At this point the clouds has cleared and we had beautiful blue skies overhead, with the low winter sun casting shadows across the course we truly could appreciate the contours of the land, with its bumps and lumps, dips and mounds – and that’s just the greens! Now it’s time to face the 14th (Long) par 5, 523yrds, stroke index 1. It is probably the second most famous bunker on the Old Course ‘ Hell’ it is aptly named and one of the largest on the links. In 1995, Jack Nicklaus landed in it, and it took him three swings to get out. Most people will lay up before the bunker, but I’m not most people so I went for it and, you will be pleased to hear, that I missed ‘Hell’ but ended up in the Kitchen. No, not the one where you put the kettle on for a brew, the lesser known bunker just before ‘hell’. I think it’s called ‘kitchen’ because I threw everything at it including the kitchen sink and still could not get out.
The 15th (Cartgate) is 391 yard par 4. You need to be hitting over 200 yards to reach the fairway so again like most of the holes, no Sally gunnels. The line off the tee is straight at Miss Grainger’s Bosoms, if she is not there then aim at the church steeple…wayhay!! But seriously the line is at Miss Grainger’s Bosoms. This hole has a deceptively deep green and we found it one of the trickiest on the course. I thought I had finished making the 3 putt walk of shame but I had to do it again.
Now I bring you to probably the most iconic holes in the world the 16th, 17th, 18th playing back into the town of St Andrews. The 16th (Corner of the Dyke) par 4, 345yrd is a treacherous tee shot with OOB to the right and the ‘Principal’s nose’ cluster of bunkers protecting the left of the fairway. Hit a straight drive of about 250 yrds and this will take out the cluster and leave you a good approach shot to the green. John rattled the hole for a birdie and Newby and I got our pars, so my advice is let rip on the drive. Walking onto the17th (Road) standing on the tee I realised that I already knew this hole and how to play it as I’ve watched it played that many times while watching the Open waiting to see if anyone would hit the St Andrews hotel spa building that juts out leaving you a blind tee shot over the building and onto the fairway. Which one of us would hit the building? You can go on County Golfers Facebook page to find out. Get over the building and you will get a shot at the green. Caution must be used here as: 1. you have the most famous bunker on the course ‘Road Bunker’ and 2. The green is very narrow with a road behind it that is in play. Just a note about the ‘Road bunker’ or as it’s also known “the Sands of Nakajima,” after Japanese golfer Tommy Nakajima. Nakajima was in contention at the 1978 British Open until he hit into the Road bunker and needed four swings to get out of it, ouch! That’s got to hurt.
I hit a sweet 7 iron onto the green , John was further down than me and shouted “great shot lefty you’re on the green“. With joy and glee in my heart I approached the green only to find John and Newby laughing.“ Where is my ball I asked?” “You need a stop sign” they sniggered. I walked across the green and saw my ball proudly sitting in the middle of the road, which by the way is still in play. There is only one thing you can do in this situation, reach for the hip flask, after a good swig on that I got out my seven Iron and tapped it onto the green and sunk it for a par, Ha!!
The 18th (Tom Morris) a par 4, 361 yards, this hole is iconic. Before you even play this you have seen pictures in the club house of legends of the game shaking hands on the green. It does send a little tickle down your spine, not only that, you get to walk over the Swilcan Bridge, everyone who crosses it stops to have his or her photo taken, even the pros. Who can forget the emotional picture of Jack Nicklaus saying farewell to the crowds while standing on the Swilcan, and Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer to mention a few. After crossing this you get to aim at the famous 18th green, protected by ‘the valley of sin’ where pictures of Ballesteros filled my head. We could argue that the single most memorable moment of his career was his joyous reaction after holing a birdie putt on the 18th green to win the 1984 Open Championship – an image that was to become emblematic of his company. These images keep going through your head until you find yourself on the green. I will warn you that on a sunny day there can be up to 100 people stood watching you sink your putt so make sure you do this hole justice and par or even better birdie it. To sum up, film stars, sport celebrities presidents and prime ministers, people from all walks of life come to play St Andrews Old Course. Playing the Old Course is a privilege, but not just for a select few but open to all lovers of golf. The Old Course remains public land, thus giving all of us a chance to follow in the footsteps of our golfing heroes.
A special thank you to all at St Andrews for letting us play, and a big thank you has to go to Laurie for arranging the trip and for treating me to a pint of heather beer brewed especially for St Andrews Links, “what is it Laurie, Ale or Larger? I still cannot decide!!”