What is so special about The Old Course, St Andrews?

swilcan bridge1

“If you’re going to be a player people will remember, you have to win the Open at St. Andrews.”Jack Nicklaus

By Ian Hardie

While much will be made of the thrilling play-off victory by Zach Johnson over Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in the 2015 Open Championship to become The Champion Golfer of the Year

I’d like to take a look at what I believe was the real star of the event – The Old Course at St Andrews – a golf course that I, like many other millions of golfers around the world, have on my bucket list

The Old Course at St Andrews, Fife, Scotland is one of the oldest golf courses in the world and is considered by many to be the “home of golf” – with the sport first being played on the Links at St Andrews in the early 1400s

You would expect that such a significant course and a major part of the history of the game of golf would be owned by some billionaire or big corporation that meant it was only available to a ‘privileged few’ – but you’d be wrong!

The Old Course is in actual fact a public course over common land (that is held in trust under an act of parliament) in the town of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland

Adjacent to the first tee sits the club house of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews – which you would also expect to have control of the golf course but once again – that’s not the case as it’s only one of many clubs that have playing privileges on the course, along with the general public

That’s right – the general public is able to play there – unlike a lot of the other famous courses

Having been around for so long, the course has been through some interesting and challenging times – the first of which was when the St Andrews Links (as it was called back then) actually went bankrupt in 1797 – this resulted in the Town Council of St. Andrews deciding to allow rabbit farming on the golf course to increase its usage and income

Something that probably wouldn’t be considered a good idea these days!

Not surprisingly, a bit over twenty years of legal battling between the golfers and the rabbit farmers followed – which ended in 1821 when a local landowner and golfer named James Cheape of Strathtyrum bought the land and set about removing the rabbits so the golfers could play on the course – he later gifted it back to the town of St Andrews after his death

Interestingly, the course evolved without the help of any one architect for many years although a golfer called Old Tom Morris had a hand in re-designing a lot of the holes that are still in play today

The Old Tom Morris re-design came about – as since 1764 the course had consisted of 22 holes with 8 double greens – mostly played over the same set of fairways on the way out and then back to the finish using the same fairways for the holes with the exception of the 11th and 22nd holes

The layout of the course worked when it was a relatively small sport but as interest in the game increased, this meant that groups of golfers would often be playing on the same fairway but going in different directions

Members at the time, decided that the first four and last four holes on the course were too short and should be combined into four total holes (two in and two out)

The result of which meant that St Andrews ended up with an 18 hole course – this was how the standard number of 18 holes for a golf course that we know these days – came about

Finally, in 1863, Old Tom Morris had the 1st green separated from the 17th green, producing the current 18-hole layout with seven double greens which are one of the unique features of the Old Course

The seven (large) greens are shared by two holes each, with the hole numbers all adding up to 18 – I’m not sure if there was any reason behind that but it is quite interesting that the 2nd is paired with the 16th, the 3rd with the 15th……………..all the way up to the 8th and the 10th

Only the 1st, 9th, 17th and 18th holes have their own greens – meaning that the entire 18 hole golf course only has 11 greens – which is somewhat unusual!

The course also features the Swilcan Bridge, which spans the Swilcan Burn that runs across the first and 18th holes and has become a famous icon for golf in the world

Everyone who plays the 18th hole walks over this 700 year old bridge and many pictures of the farewells of the most iconic golfers in history have been taken on this bridge

The most notable ones during the 2015 Open being Tom Watson (5 Open wins) and Nick Faldo (3 Open wins) both playing in the event for the last time

Another unique feature is that the Old Course can be played in either direction – clockwise or anti-clockwise – but not at the same time!

Play is generally anti-clockwise, although clockwise play has been permitted on one day each year in recent years and since 2008 has been allowed on the Friday, Saturday and Monday of the first weekend in April

Originally, the course was reversed every week in order to let the grass recover better

One other unusual thing about the Old Course – is that it is closed on nearly every Sunday to let the course rest, meaning that on most Sundays, the course turns into a park for all the townspeople who come out to stroll, picnic and otherwise enjoy the grounds

As a general rule, Sunday play is allowed on the course only four times a year

The Old Course has 112 bunkers which sounds like a lot until you compare that to the course that has the most in the world currently – 967 bunkers on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, USA – although at the Old Course all of the bunkers are individually named, with most having their own unique story and history behind them

The two most famous of which are the 10 foot deep ‘Hell Bunker’ on the 14th hole (yes, that’s right 10 feet deep!) and the ‘Road Hole Bunker’ on the par 4, 17th hole – which is what the image at the start of this article is of

One of the world’s most famous golf holes, the Road Hole has among its unique features:

Players using the back tees cannot see where their tee shots land – something that isn’t that unusual – except that to hit the fairway they must take aim over a corner of a hotel known as ‘The Old Course Hotel’

The challenge on the hole isn’t over once they find the fairway though, as other than penalising rough, the primary hazard in front of the green is that sand trap known as the ‘Road Hole Bunker’

Over the back of the green, hazards include an actual tarmac road – as well as an old stone wall – both of which are ‘in play’ meaning that a wayward shot can lead to a golfer having to hit their next shot off the road or having to hit the face of the wall and take their chances with the ensuing bounce

Considering the massive development in both equipment and the technique of the game that has happened since play at this course began in the 1400’s – it’s a testament to the early designers that even now – the best golfers in the world are still severely tested by this golf course

Is it actually the birthplace of the game – I’m still not so sure about that – that’s something we might look at another day

Until then if you want to know a lot more about The Old Course, St Andrews – I’d suggest grabbing a copy of this extremely good book

Play well


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