For a guest at the St Andrews hotel, located along the periphery of the 17th hole’s fairway at the Old Course, the patio can be an especially treacherous place. It gets a wee bit windy all right, and chilly too. Thank God for the Guinness (which is always on tap): a couple of quick draughts, check; favourite beanie, check; cardigan, check; a second cardigan, check; alpine wind-cheater zipped up, check. Just as you’re quaffing some brew, huddling in the bracing air, a golf ball whizzes over your head. And then there’s another one…and another.
You duck for cover, much to the bemusement of these lovely ladies enjoying a spot of July sunshine. But they’re too polite to snicker, the Scots are, even throwing in a good-natured ‘hello!’ without the hint of a mock. They’ve seen this before: a tropical fruit who’s seen all these beautiful pictures of the ’home of golf’ and read reams of history about the Open Championship at St Andrews. And who’s decided to land up, halfway across the world, a few months after the greatest golf tournament in the world—The Open Championship.
And those tee shots, one of which was hit by none other than the local favourite that the entire country (or rather countries, if you include Scotland, Ireland, and England) were rooting for a few months back at The Open weren’t errant. The prodigious Ulsterman, Rory McIlroy, popping by for a practice round at the Old Course was practicing hitting his driver on a line that traced over the hotel boundary walls and back to the right side of the fairway of the dreaded 17th hole.
Known as the ‘Road Hole,’ on account of a narrow paved road that runs on the right of the fairway, the 17th hole was, according to veteran player Mark McCormack, ‘designed by the three witches of Macbeth.’ The 461-yard par 4—short by modern standards—looks harmless enough, and therein lies its deception. Gary Player, the South African legend, recently spoke to the New York Times about his first visit to St Andrews in 1955. ‘“What a crap golf course,” I thought,’ he reminisced. “…But that was my immaturity, my lack of knowledge about the game.”
The Road Hole is a case in point. Those who make it past the wall and to the preferred side of the fairway, need to navigate a solitary green-side pot bunker, the road to the right, and an undulating green that changes its lines depending on the weather. The greens, and the aprons, and the greenside bunkers, as chastised players will tell you, are where the best players come undone. It’s where Open Championships have been decided, and the Old Course has hosted a few of those.
St Andrews is a sleepy gray Scottish town that comes alive every time the Open Championship comes visiting. Golf is the primary topic of discussion at the pubs, and the talk this year was how the power hitters—the likes of Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, et al, had fallen hook, line, and sinker to the Old Course’s wiles. When the weather stays sunny and benign, getting around under par can be a breeze for most top players. And when the skies darken and the winds pick up, then, well, it’s a different ball game altogether.
During my visit in September 2022, the unexpected gorgeous weather brought a multitude of players–not seen, my caddy mentioned, ever since the pandemic swept across the world. I joined these believers who come to St Andrews in droves from all over the world for the ultimate golf pilgrimage. To the place where King James IV dropped by the pro shop to pick up a new set of clubs in 1506, and where nature and wind were the only architects until Old Tom Morris created the current layout in the 19th century. As the 600-year history of the game at St Andrews has unfolded, what used to be one rudimentary course, winding its way through heather and bushes has evolved into multiple championship layouts.
The best part is that the course is not open only to golfers. Every Sunday, the hallowed grounds of the Old Course at St Andrews—the home of golf—open up to the general non-golfing public. And no, it’s not a tradition: Land-use laws in Europe include the ‘right to roam.’ This means that ‘links’—tracts of land stretching along the coast where the first golf courses were made, and which continue to house thousands of courses across the British isles—are required to give access, even if limited, to all and sundry.
It’s not such a big deal in Scotland, where golf is easily accessible to everyone: the country’s five million residents have around 600 courses at their disposal and most people can swing a club. The Scots are proud of their golfing heritage and aware of the game’s significant financial contribution to the economy; suffice to say that non-playing day trippers at the Old Course can be expected to treat the layout with as much veneration as golfers. Not surprisingly, there have been no reported incidents of vandalism or damage at St Andrews. Not only do visitors have the opportunity to soak in the tradition of the game, but they can also choose from no less than 11 courses to do so. With 117 holes St Andrews Links is the largest golfing complex in Europe! This is just as well because itinerant golfers, enthused after the dramatic events that unfolded over the Open in July this year, need to wait in line for over 18 months to get a tee time at the Old Course. St Andrews is not so much a golf course as it is a pilgrimage. And what kind of quest would it be if it didn’t have its share of travails? This is bucket list stuff.