My latest Sympatico column is on the subject of playing St. Andrews, which I was lucky enough to do in 2003 and again a year later. Interestingly, I was suppposed to play it again in 2006 with a friend who is an R&A member. We played Kingsbarns together in the morning and planned on heading out to the Old Course in the afternoon after the Fall matches were finished. Apparently my member friend had done this in the past. This time there wasn’t any chance — the course had a big “closed” sign on it. It didn’t matter, apparently, that the day was perfect — 20 degrees with a touch of a breeze. Maybe the R&A secretary had some bad bacon for breakfast. Regardless of the reason, the course was closed and my playing partner, golf designer Ian Andrew, was clearly upset. It was the second time he’d been turned away from the Old Course, which to a golf designer is what the Sistine Chapel is to a painter. Anyway, he did get a chance to play it a couple of years later.
For me the big revelation was how difficult it was to find the appropriate line, especially off the tee on the front nine. I’m not a huge fan of St. Andrews’ caddies, but I do think the first time around the Old Course they are a real necessity. The second time I played the course I didn’t bother with the caddies (the first ones had pushed us a fair bit, and since we played in 3.5 hours I think the urgency was for the caddies to grab an afternoon bag) and really enjoyed the course, trying different shots and approaches from different angles. This time we ran into some Scandinavians as it started to rain. They were on the 14th hole and as the drizzle came down, and with my group standing next to the tee, they proceeded to hit two balls a piece. That’s when Fairway Stevie lost it, proclaimed to the stunned Norwegians that we were indeed playing through and had his ball in the air before they knew what hit them. We finished that game in just over three hours.
Anyway, I hope this column gives you a sense of the challenge not only of the Old Course, but of actually managing to get a round on it.
It is the dream of every golfer, and I happened to be fortunate enough to experience it on desperately cold day in early May seven years ago.
Along with my brother and two friends, we had wandered out of our van at 6 a.m., walked across a deserted street and over to the starter’s hut. In most places people wouldn’t be caught playing golf on a day when the breeze off the ocean puts a chill in your bones. But this wasn’t most places. It was St. Andrews and we were about to hand over our handicap and credit cards in exchange for a shot at playing the most heralded and famous course in golf. We were about to tee off at the Old Course.
This week the course will host the best players in the game when the British Open, or the “Open Championship” as the Europeans call it, kicks off on Thursday. But for a vast majority of the year, The Old Course is a beacon, luring public golfers to its ancient fairways. Given that it is immensely popular – regardless of economic circumstances or changes in travel patterns – obtaining a round at the Old Course is as challenging as putting on its other-worldly greens. The Old Course at St. Andrews may be the most famous golf course in the world, but it is also famous for being one of the most difficult places to actually get a game. 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.
After flipping handicap notices and credit cards with the starter in the small hut near the first tee, we met our caddies, and at 6:40 a.m. With no warm-up (there is a practice range near the 17th hole, and in fact the tee for the Road Hole is situated in it this week) and in conditions that rival Canada in November, I hooked my first drive down the fairway that it shares with the Old Course’s closing hole. Ten minutes later I had recorded my first par at the Old Course, the birth place of the game of golf.