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The Open Championship: Playing the Old Course

The Open Championship is my favourite of the majors. Perhaps not surprisingly given that, I’ve had a chance to play many of the venues. This story appeared in the National Post today — largely written about my two experiences at the Old Course. It is an amazing site and a great golf course, regardless of what anyone says.

Playing on sacred soil: The historic Old Course at Scotland’s St. Andrews is considered the birthplace of golfNational Post Tuesday, July 12, 2005 Page: SR6 Section: Special Report: Post Golf Byline: Robert Thompson Source: National Post
There is nothing more daunting than showing up on the first tee of the Old Course at St. Andrew’s. It is the home of golf, the place where the game is said to have originated, but that is only one factor that contributes to the nerves of golfers.
The reality is the location, just on the outskirts of St. Andrews’ busy downtown streets, and the resulting meandering tourists, are the real reason golfers get butterflies, even when hitting a tee shot into a fairway that is wider than a football field. No one wants to top a ball while playing golf. But topping a tee shot on one of the most famous courses in the world, in front of dozens of spectators, is simply more than the delicate psyches of most golfers can handle.
Perhaps because the opening tee shot looks so easy, the caddies of St. Andrews feel obliged to start telling tales of the disasters they’ve seen on the first hole at The Old Course.
The first time I had the chance to play St. Andrews was with my brother and two friends, three years ago. The tee time was 6:30 a.m. and there was a nip in the air, even though it was May. Without warming up, our group stepped up to the first tee, took the requisite photos that seem to be snapped by every foursome playing the course and waited to have our names announced by the starter.
Just before our opening shots, one of our caddies, in his heavy Scottish accent, felt the need to tell us how Ian Baker-Finch, the former British Open winner, managed the remarkable feat of hitting a ball out of bounds from the first tee and into one of St. Andrews’ fabled streets during the 1995 tournament. Then he regaled us with a tale about the Japanese tourist who hit three out of bounds and then three more into the burn that fronts the first green. And then there was … You get the picture.
On that biting day, I stood shivering in the howling wind coming from the Scottish coast, just an hour after sun-up. Strangely, given the conditions, I was about to become the envy of a large number of my friends.
After all, I had done the unthinkable: obtained a slot for four on The Old Course at St. Andrews, the most famous golf course in the world. St. Andrews is also famous for being one of the most difficult places to actually get a round. Players often book more than a year in advance or pay thousands for one of the package tours that take them to the fairways of the birthplace of golf.
In conditions that rival Canada in November, I hooked my first drive down the larger-than-life fairway. Ten minutes later, I had recorded my first par at The Old Course.
Because of the difficulty in getting a tee time at St. Andrews, players travel all over the world, line up at ungodly early hours and sometimes pay thousands to gain access to its legendary fairways. When my group went to St. Andrews, ostensibly a public golf course owned by the town of St. Andrews, we left Canada without a tee time, willing to try our hand at the ballot system that distributes half the rounds at The Old Course.
If that failed, we were willing to go to extreme lengths to get our round. One famed golf pro, now a prominent television announcer, told me the way on to St. Andrews was to bribe the starter.
How much should I offer? “It depends on how hungover the starter is,” was the reply.
The thought I might offend someone at the home of golf dissuaded me from that plan.
While demand makes it extremely hard to play The Old Course, it is still a public facility. So available to the public, in fact, that cars drive across the first fairway and townspeople can regularly be seen walking dogs or pushing prams along its fairways. The Old Course, you see, is built on public land, which means it belongs to the town.
With this democratic notion in mind, the Old Course uses a ballot to give hopeful players the opportunity to hit a ball into the Sands of Nakajima, the bunker that sits next to the green at the 17th hole.
Luck was with us, as we were selected for the ballot on our first try.
Unlike most public courses, St. Andrews requires players to have a degree of skill and to carry a handicap card from a noted golf organization. Men must play to 24, meaning they will regularly shoot around 96, and women as high as 36, meaning they are not likely to break triple-digit scores. No handicap card, no golf — that’s the rule at St. Andrews.
After having your handicap card scrutinized, players must fork over a credit card and the equivalent of around $250. Once through, players can head to the first tee.
On the course, golfers experience an otherworldly take on the game. Sure, St. Andrews is a links, roughly translating to an out-and-back golf course played on sandy soil next to the sea. Beyond that, it is unlike any golf course most have played.
Many dislike The Old Course their first time. Bobby Jones struggled during his first rounds. Sam Snead thought it wildly overrated. But both came to appreciate the quirkiness and delight offered by the course.
What makes St. Andrews special? Certainly, the holes themselves are unique. Lined by gorse, a thorny bush, each hole at St. Andrews offers its own strange take on the game.
Take, for example, the second hole. Unlike most North American holes that clearly dictate the way a golfer should play them, the second at The Old Course has a blind tee shot to a bumpy fairway. Hit it far enough and you are left with an approach to a green with a small hill fronting it. It looks simple enough, but disaster lurks in the gorse and the difficult green.
Three holes later, the par-5 fifth offers a rolling, lumpy fairway and a massive green that is 100 yards deep. It is unlike anything you’ll find in North America.
Given this strangeness, if you’re tackling The Old Course for the first time, you should be prepared to ante up for caddies, which cost around $75, plus tip, which usually amounts to another $20 to $25. Without a caddy, you’ll likely struggle to find your way around the course with its blind tee shots, massive double greens and convoluted routing.
The caddies will help you find your way around the particularly treacherous back nine, where the Hell Bunker on the par-5 14th, a hole lengthened for the Open, snatches balls up, often holding on to them for a couple of strokes.
Playing the final two holes at The Old Course, the famed 17th “Road Hole” and the short 18th, is something every dedicated golfer dreams about. The 17th, a 461-yard par 4, starts with an improbable blind tee shot that must fly over a maintenance shed and precariously close to the Old Course Hotel to find the fairway. Not surprisingly, shots regularly smash windows at the hotel.
If you survive “the sands of Nakajima,” the famed Road Hole bunker where Tommy Nakajima required five shots to escape in 1978 and David Duval took four shots to make the green, then you face the crowds that form around the 18th, which plays right up to the edge of town. Locals and tourists sit on benches watching golfers hit shots from “the Valley of Sin” and attempt to not embarrass themselves in front of the throng.
I’ve had the chance to tackle the course twice and still haven’t had time to take in all of the nuances and details of the world’s most famous golf venue.
While the pros tee it up at St. Andrews for free, everyday players pay almost $350 for the privilege. That’s $700 I’ve paid to play The Old Course, without taking into account travel and accommodation costs.
It was worth every penny.

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Jeff Lancaster

Jeff Lancaster is the Publisher of CanadianGolfer.com.

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