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What is it about “The Old Course” that gets everyone so wound up? Every pro dreams of winning there. Sooner or later just about every golfer who gives the game any regard at all dreams of playing The Old Course even just once to test their mettle. The old golf course on the grounds of The Home of Golf at St. Andrews Scotland is in many respects the Mecca of golf.
Some might suggest that this is all just about the pure nostalgia of playing a really old golf course but The Old Course is not likely the first golf course. That said, we do know that King James IV was buying golf clubs at St. Andrews in 1506 so the place is pretty damned old. No need to split hairs on that one. So the place is old, but does that automatically make it good? Surely today’s great golf course architects are building better golf courses. Aren’t they? And, heck, that old track didn’t even have an architect. How could a track that almost formed itself be that good? According to most accounts of how the place happened it seems pretty much like people just started hitting balls around and it kind of just sprung itself up on some seaside land that wasn’t useful for much else 5 centuries ago. The more arable ground lay more inland away from the stiff salt breeze that robbed these grounds of any real value as farm land. Fortunately for us all, what made the links land at St Andrews unsuited for more practical use made it ideal for the evolution of a golf course.
The seaside tract of land has no huge abrupt elevation changes but is nonetheless rolling with undulations that make for frequent shots from subtle but significantly uneven lies. At the base of many of these swales and often not visible from the tee, the unfortunate will find many very deep sod face bunkers. One hundred and twelve of them with names like “Strath” and “Hell”. In fact just about every bump and mound on the course has a name as if if one were to lay St. Andrews out on a map its features would give one the impression that it were its’ own country. Add some thick gorse and deep fescue and watch the wind pick up and you’ve got a recipe for some crazy golf action. What makes St. Andrews so exciting it that not only is there potential for things to get crazy in both directions, it is almost certain that during the course of any championship it will. Benign one day and treacherous the next. Oh, did I say day? Perhaps I should have said minute, because the conditions, and a golfers fortunes, can swing in that short of a space of time. When Bill Mehlhorn visited The Old Course in the 1920’s he was advised that he was about to play a golf course where there was a good chance that every shot played that day would be into the wind and that is precisely what happened.
The beauty is that what holds today is the same as what held for Bobby Jones and Peter Thomson and Jack, Seve, J.D., Tiger Woods and the rest of the greats who've walked these fairways. The course conditions. The weather. The changing winds. The works. It should be no surpirse that the list of champions here is staggering.
For a taste of things check out the video that our man Jimmy Nissen put together below.
Bobby Jones first played St. Andrews in the 1921 British Open. His initial thoughts were of how simple the golf course appeared. The fairways appeared to be quite generous and the greens (7 of them double greens) were massive. How could it be difficult? The trick is that just hitting the fairway does not guarantee that the golfer has a decent angle to get onto the green and get it close. If you didn’t get it close 100 foot putts and longer upped the ante yet again. Jones managed a 46 on the front and he picked his ball up and walked in after an experience in a deep bunker on the 11th left him feeling more like a gardener than a golfer. Some say he ripped his card up. All we really need take from this is that looks can be deceiving and anything can happen at St. Andrews.