ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | The Old is almost certainly the most famous course on the planet, a superb major championship site, a Mecca for recreational players making golf’s equivalent of a hadj on the Firth of Forth and the lifeblood of this burgh of some 14,000 people, many of whom are also fanatics of the royal and ancient game. But what is not acknowledged as often is that it is also one of the most interesting courses in the world from a design standpoint, simple yet complex and singular because it was largely fashioned by Mother Nature, not man. That makes the intricacies of the out-and-back track a little harder for mere mortals to discern. But it is also what makes the Old, which in 2021 will host the Open Championship for the 30th time, such a pleasure to play.
The Old Course is pure genius architecturally, and that is also why it has been such an influencer in course design through the decades. Its routing has been studied for years, and its holes copied time and again: like the par-3 eighth dubbed Short, or No. 11, another par-3 known as Eden and once described by Dr. Alister MacKenzie as “one of the ideal holes of the world.” The designer of Cypress Point (with assistance from Marion Hollins) and Augusta National (with substantial input from Bobby Jones), “The Good Doctor,” as MacKenzie was often called, meted out similar praise for the par-5 14th called Long, saying it was “probably the best hole of its length in existence.” Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor are but two architects who frequently included renditions of these holes in their designs at places such as the National Golf Links, Chicago Golf Club, Mid Ocean and Yale, as well as one of No. 17, the infamous Road Hole.
Historians generally agree that the sport was first played on the links here in the early 1400s, though details are quite sketchy as to its actual origins and who the early adopters might have been.
“Peter Thomson once told me that every golf course in the world has a touch of the Old,” says two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw of the late Aussie who won five Open Championships, including one on the Old; designed dozens of courses; and wrote extensively about the game. “I think he had it exactly right.”
Historians generally agree that the sport was first played on the links here in the early 1400s, though details are quite sketchy as to its actual origins and who the early adopters might have been. What is known is that the game became so popular by the middle of that century that King James II banned it. He was concerned that golf was distracting his soldiers from their archery practice and wanted to be sure they were ready and able to repel any invasions from England, which were a real worry back then. The injunction remained in place through that monarch’s reign, and also that of his successor James III. James IV was equally opposed to the sport when he took the throne but ended up lifting the ban in 1502, in part because he himself had become smitten by golf and had even procured a set of clubs. Fifty years later, Archbishop John Hamilton gave residents of St Andrews the rights to tee off on the links. Then, in 1754, a group of locals formed the Society of St Andrews Golfers, which was a precursor to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. And they played the vast majority of their rounds on the course that had long before been laid out on the links of the Auld Grey Toon – and that did not start to be called the Old until after the New Course opened in 1895.
At the time of the Society’s establishment, the Old comprised 22 holes. But 10 years later, in 1764, it was shortened to 18, and that became the standard for future courses. Then in 1848, Allan Robertson, a noted club and ball maker from St Andrews as well as the greatest player of his day and the first person ever to make his living entirely from golf, made several modifications to the layout, widening fairways and creating the double greens that exist today as well as the one on the Road Hole. After Robertson died in 1859, his one-time apprentice and longtime friend and frequent match-play partner Old Tom Morris made a few alterations of his own to the track he had come to oversee as Keeper of the Green, most notably to the 18th green. Decades later, Old Tom’s deft touch is still in evidence there, and the refined but devilish undulations with which he endowed that putting surface ensure that the shortish, relatively straightforward finisher often plays much harder than most golfers expect it will.
What Robertson and Morris did to enhance the Old was significant. But it nonetheless remained a course very much without a designer, per se. “Like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it ‘simply growed,’” wrote Alister MacKenzie in his seminal book, The Spirit of St Andrews. Give God most of the credit for the Old. After all, it was He who shaped the mounds with winds and rain and grew the fescue and marram, and the gorse that flowered so beautifully in the spring. And His sheep formed the sandy bunkers when they burrowed into the grassy grounds to escape the storms that came in off the North Sea.
Established in 1860, the Open Championship was staged on the Old Course in St Andrews for the first time in 1873. Since then, the tournament has been played here 28 other times, and the list of victors demonstrates just how well the layout was able to identify the best golfers in the game. J.H. Taylor and James Braid won here. Bobby Jones and Sam Snead, too. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods each took two of their three Opens at St Andrews. Seve Ballesteros prevailed in 1984, and his fist pump after birdieing No. 18 to win by two that year remains one of the most enduring, and endearing, images in the history of the game. The next time the Open was contested on the Old, in 1990, Nick Faldo came out on top, shooting a record 18-under par to claim the Claret Jug just three months after he had won his second Masters title.
Competitors in those championships no doubt discovered the same thing millions of golfers have known about the Old through the years, and that is how deceptively tactical that course is. It doesn’t play particularly long, from the regular tees (usually just under 6,400 yards for the par-72 track) or those that tour professionals use (about 7,300 yards for the 2015 Open). But it demands accuracy, on drives and approaches, and distance control, especially when the wind is up, as it so often is. “You also have to be a very good lag putter to score well on those big, double greens,” says Crenshaw. “There are seven in all, and all but the first, ninth, 17th and 18th holes play into them.”
According to Crenshaw, the safest strategy is to play the Old down the left side of the fairways, where golfers generally find the most room off the tee. But they will then encounter more trouble on their approaches from that side, largely in the form of bunkers that swallow errant shots and mounds that obstruct clear views of the putting surfaces. “The more dangerous way to play the Old off the tee is to go down the right side, where there is often lots of gorse and even out-of-bounds (as the Old plays in a counter-clockwise direction),” he says. “However, the golfer who does that successfully is rewarded with more open and better-angled approaches to the greens.”
But getting on those greens in regulation by no means guarantees a birdie or par. The size of the putting surfaces, many of which are as big as 25,000 square feet, sees to that, as do the subtle contours of the greens and the many pin placements that can be employed on them.
Old as the Old Course may be, however, it has been brought into the modern golf world through a series of tweaks the last decade at the hands of architect Martin Hawtree. The primary goal, in the words of former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, was “to stiffen its defenses” and keep the iconic Open Championship venue as relevant as possible for the best players in the world. Hawtree added length to a handful of holes, tightened some fairways and repositioned, revamped and removed a number of bunkers. While those moves elicited expected howls of outrage from some self-described traditionalists, they were roundly applauded by most players and architecture critics alike. And the Old held up quite nicely the last two years the Open was contested here, in 2010 and 2015.
It seems certain that the course will once again prove to be a worthy Open venue when that championship returns to St Andrews two summers from now. And it will never stop being that cynosure for recreational players the world over.
The genius of the Old is that great.
Top photo: Courtesy St Andrews Links Trust
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