(Editor’s Note: For anyone who has played St. Andrews Old Course – site of the 144th Open Championship – they would understand that’s it’s a special place. You can feel its history. Here’s a look back at our experience during a round on this sacred site.)
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Someone once told me, when I asked what was his favorite hole on a certain course, that the first hole is always his favorite on any course. He contended that it’s the start of your golfing journey that day. Your expectations were unblemished by shanks or muffs. The possibilities were tangible. Once you teed off, who knows where this round would take you.
Yet this first hole was like no other. This was The First Hole. This was St. Andrews, the Old Course, the birthplace of golf, 600 years and counting. The 158-year-old Royal & Ancient Golf Club clubhouse loomed 15 yards from my tee position. I imagined that there’s always someone standing guard, probably holding a 19th Century spyglass, looking out from those darkened windows to ensure that every golfer using these tees ardently follows the rules and etiquette the club long-ago established.
English golf writer Pat Ward-Thomas said of the Old Course, “in the beginning, The Old Course knew no architect but nature, it came into being by evolution rather than design and on no other course is the hand less evident. St. Andrews is timeless.”
When you look at your opening tee shot, it’s like a long 12-lane green highway with a wash – the Swilcan Burn – about 350 yards out on the 440-yard hole. I couldn’t possibly reach it on my drive, only in my dreams, which leading up to this day, were heroic and in technicolor.
There’s no other place in the golf world like this. On my left was the parallel 18th hole, where we would finish in about four hours. That was a finishing hole I also so looked forward to playing, with the undulating Valley of Sins approach onto the vast green. Yet at the same time, I didn’t look forward to it. It would mean the end of this day. It would mean that our months of anticipation over playing the Old Course would dissipate. I wanted to slow down. I wanted to live in this moment for the longest of moments. If life could be stuck in a loop, play it again and again right here.
Further down the 18th fairway to the left you could see the prominent Swilcan Bridge, a 700-year-old Romanesque style stone bridge over the Burn, the thin waterway that meanders through the property and dumps into the nearby North Sea. That’s where we would eventually stand for pictures, clubs in hand, the R&A clubhouse and the memories behind us. That could wait. This was the time of nervous anticipation for my son Bobby and I as we approached our 11:50 am tee time on March 26.
It was a glorious day, the hottest day ever in March in Scotland. We were in shirtsleeves. There were a few thin clouds and just a slight breath of wind coming off the West Sands, the wide walking beach to our right where the movie Chariots of Fire was filmed. It felt nostalgic, like summer. It felt like your best day as a kid.
A random gallery had formed to my right, along what looked like a white racetrack fence. I could see them peripherally. There’s no exclusivity to the Old Course. It’s in the public trust so the locals treat it as a park. They walk their dogs around it. They kick soccer balls. They hold hands. They even drive through it, as there’s a narrow road that traverses the first and 18th fairways, 150 yards from the first tee. Golfers merely wait for all traffic to pass.
In my mind, I fancied that these local onlookers expected not a decent shot but a great one. This was the ancestral home of golf. There was a certain threshold I needed to achieve. A piddly effort, especially where I hit from, would cause a bunch of chaps in flat caps to wag their heads in disdain. How dare he hit off the back tees with that swing.
They had seen so many great golfers come through here. Jones. Nicklaus. Watson. Woods. They had seen so many famous people, from royals to presidents, athletes to actors. For me, if any great golfer or famous person had not played St. Andrews, they were neither.
Now you might think that I had built up this moment to be a little too epic. And you would be right. With a nod toward hyperbole, this was the most important tee shot of my life. My entire Scottish golfing experience was tied up in this result. That tied me up. God forbid that this would be a shank. I would have to live with that. No breakfast mulligans allowed under the shadow of the Royals and the Ancients. You have one shot. One shot. That’s it. You could have 100 more strokes on this day, but they all pale in comparison to the first one.
As the weeks approached to this day, whenever I worked on a range I imagined myself here. Like a youngster on playground, counting down the seconds as he set up for the game-winning basket, I had the same golf visualizations. I would walk behind and around the ball and set my jaw with the purposeful intent of blasting it straight and long down the Old Course No. 1.
Despite sketchy weather back in Seattle, I spent much of the winter taking lessons from my club pro Joe Carranza. Just days before I departed for Scotland, he showed me video evidence of my flawed swing. It was Jim Furyk-like without a clue. There was a decent drawback followed by a loop to a steep downswing, about a foot apart from each other. That kind of wide and wild gyration can only result in inconsistency, imprecise impact, deep divots, limited distance and drifts to the right. That about sums me up.
All that last week I worked on a level elliptical swing but it’s so hard to change a lifetime swing in a week. When you don’t have a grooved swing, when you are still searching for your rhythm and balance, your greatest fear is a dribble off the tee. And then to do it in front of the most astute golf crowd in the world. Oh, the humiliation.
So what did I do to calm down? I exacerbated it. In the morning well before our tee time, I noticed that some players hit off the back championship tee where all the great players hit. How could I not hit there? So I asked the starter and he allowed it, saying, “only if you promise to hit from the yellow boxes after that.”
We showed up an hour before our scheduled time yet it seemed like mere minutes before we were on deck. I had butterflies. We putted some on the adjacent practice green. We joked with the painters working on the starter’s hut. I tried to humor through the nerves. When the starter told me that I had to use a small mat for fairway shots I told him it was unnecessary because I didn’t plan on being in the fairways.
A course worker had finished mowing the back tee and used a long bamboo stick to level the sands and wipe away the dew. It was ready for me. I asked the starter that when he announced our group on the PA system, “could you also mention my list of accomplishments.” More nervous humor.
As I addressed the ball, my mind was a muddle. You want to avoid a long mental checklist. You need a natural, fluid, mindless, steady stroke. But there was too much invested in this tee shot. I was grasping at just about every swing thought ever offered as I stared at that dimpled Titleist 4. I had nothing. I backed off. I never back off.
My son was to my right, trying to ready his camera. I stepped back a few feet and went through a series of swings intended to calm down my muscles as much as my mind. What I needed was a rhythm, a tempo. I didn’t have to crush the ball, just hit it squarely. Simple thoughts.
As I addressed the ball a second time, tempo be damned. I went after it so fast that Bobby only captured my follow-through. But I had liftoff. Not great, not bad. It drifted slightly right, safely inside the white fence and well beyond the pedestrian road. I was on the ancient grass, ready and relieved.
Bobby had hit his tee shot long but way to the left, onto the 18th fairway. He also was safe. We could both live with our shots yet there was one other drive to worry about, the 17th ‘Road Hole,’ over the Old Course hotel and railway shed. We could see that hole in the distance but it could wait. We were off and in the moment.
After a 6 on the opening hole – due to a regrettably weak second shot that flew out of bounds – I had forgotten something I wanted to show Bobby just before we teed off. I took out a picture of my late father George, his grandfather. How he loved golf. He loved Byron Nelson. Bobby never knew him; I hardly did. He died in 1957. He was coming along with us.
The Old Course is a classic nine-out, nine-in layout. If you look at the course map, it looks like a banana. As you get two or three holes away from the city, it feels more relaxed. You can understand how the folks centuries ago would enjoy this pursuit because you have the feeling of isolation. The city and your troubles disappear in the distance.
The course originally had 12 holes, 10 of which were played twice, for 22 holes. In 1764, the first four holes were combined to make two holes, setting the standard for 18 holes for all the world’s courses that followed.
There are no structures along most of the course, just gentle rolling hills, bushes, gorse, small low trees, thick rough and 112 bunkers, many of them hidden. The bunkers vary in depth, width and expanse but the curious ones were the shallow, narrow ones (which we never got in, fortunately). They look so narrow that it doesn’t appear you can work the ball laterally. You need to go backward.
I landed in a bunker on the second hole but learned my hard Tin Cup lesson from Carnoustie the day before. It took one shot to get out, laterally, for a double bogey that could have been worse. When Tiger Woods won here in 2000, he never once landed in a bunker.
Bobby parred three of the first six holes but I took an eight on the par-5, 514-yard fifth hole, one that included another bunker shot and three putts. It was my first of four three-putt efforts, although that includes putting from well off the greens at times. When John Daly won here in 1995, he had no three-putt greens.
Then I got my first of three straight pars on the par-4, 359-yard seventh, one with the most gigantic bunker I’ve ever seen. It also protects the 11th green to the left.
The Old Course introduced the double-green concept as there are seven of them (all adding up to 18) and are huge, some as big as a football field. Only the 1st, 9th, 17th and 18th holes have their own greens. Old Tom Morris, the course’s famed caretaker, separated the 1st green from the 17th green in 1863.
As you play, you think about others who have played here. You harken back to the foot-wedge kings, queens and royals. You also think about the professional golfers in one of the 28 Open Championships held here, the first one in 1878.
Bobby Jones competed at the Open in 1921 and never made it past the 11th green. Angry and confused, he stormed off the course. Six years later, he returned and won the Open by six shots.
“The more I studied the Old Course the more I loved it,” Jones would say later, “and the more I loved it, the more I studied it. I came to feel that it was for me the most favorable meeting ground possible for an important contest.”
As you pass by the 14th hole’s Hell Bunker, a oddly M-shaped cavern that can swallow an adult, you think about Jack Nicklaus, who won here twice. But in 1995, it took him four shots to get out of Hell, taking a 10.
That’s not how Old Course devotees remember Nicklaus. He won three British Opens, his second was here in 1970 and his third was here in 1978, when the wind was gusting as high as 56 miles per hour. He is much admired by the locals.
In 2005, Nicklaus chose the Old Course as his final competitive round. Playing with Luke Donald and Tom Watson, he missed the cut but would make a 15-foot putt for a birdie on the final hole.
“I was hooked on this place from a young age,” Nicklaus said long after he retired, “and always brought with me the words of Bobby Jones, who said no golfer’s resume is complete without a win at St. Andrews on it.”
As Bobby and I worked our way in, the city began rising on the horizon again. In the distant mist, you could see the hotel and the old railway shed we needed to clear. I was determined not to build this up as I did with my opening drive – even if this was the most famous golf hole in the the history of golfdom.
The railway shed in front of the hotel was actually rebuilt last century so that golfers always would have that same disadvantage on the hole. The hole doglegs right around the shed and hotel. At 467 yards, it’s closer to a par-5.
“If you designed the hole now, you would be shot,” British golfer Colin Montgomerie said last year in a New York Times story. “If you said now, ‘I’m going to put a tee over an old railway on a practice ground and get you to hit over a disused course and over a hotel,’ people would think you were off your head.”
Advice I received was to hit the shot over the ‘L’ in hotel and let it draw to the fairway. Problem was: I have no draw, just plenty of slice. I had to do it the old-fashioned way, move it left-to-right, as I did. In my eternal mind’s eye I see the ball disappearing around the corner. What a relief. I thought I might have ended up in someone’s crème brulee. Bobby, who has a draw, arched his drive over the edge of the structure, dropping it long and safe onto the fairway.
My second shot wasn’t clean, finishing about 80 yards from the green, which is flush to the in-play road and rock wall just behind. Bobby also hit his short. When he hit his second shot in front of the 150-yard-old, white-washed Jigger Inn, next to the 17th fairway, I noticed every head on the patio turn to watch the ball’s flight.
Both of us managed to wedge our balls onto the green without sliding off the back side. One of two local players who joined us for the final two holes found the notorious pot bunker in front of the flag. He had no choice but to splash it sideways.
When you play an great hole, such as this one, you’d love a great result. It nearly happened. My curling 45-foot putt hit the back of the cup and bounced up. It was too hard, however, as it rolled four feet past. Bobby and I both bogeyed.
Then it was time to the obligatory – and emotional – posing for pictures on the 18th’s Swilcan bridge, me, Bobby and George. How my dad would have loved taking his shot over that hotel.
We walked up the vast 18th fairway, with the R&A club in the distance and a gallery of fans in a small grandstand behind the green. Somehow, I managed to clear the deep swales in the Valley of Sins and land my approach on the green, albeit 65 feet from the pin. My putt rolled seven feet past but I dropped that for a par and an even 90. Bobby finished at 89.
Our round was over. We had hoped it would never end. And it never will.