For most golfers arriving on the 1st tee on St Andrews Old, what they are about to enjoy is a wholly new experience. Even those who have played at the likes of Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham & St Annes will not be completely prepared for the unique examination the Old Course sets. To start with, there are those famous double greens, some of which are of the proportion of a football pitch. Merely finding the greens is not enough to set up pars. Three-putting is a fact of life here, especially if approach shots are less than precise.
Find the wrong contour, or land on the wrong side of a mound, and balls can jump at right angles to the intended direction. Nor is there any long grass at St Andrews Old. Instead, the course is framed on one side by gorse bushes and on the other by the course boundary.
Hitting out of bounds is a possibility on at least six holes, while the spectre of an unplayable lie is more or less omnipresent. The safe line at all times is to hit to the left up the middle of the course, which travels away from the town for seven holes, then has a loop of four before the 12th through to the 18th return you back to the clubhouse.
However, in general terms, the further left you play the harder will be the second shot. On almost every instance, bunkers will then stand between the player and the flag. Almost every single bunker inflicts heavy punishment and an escape in any direction at the first attempt is an acceptable result.
The problems really come when a stance and/or backswing becomes impossible due to the steep walls. The three most famous bunkers all come during the back nine, at the 11th, 14th and 17th respectively.
Strath bunker defends the par-three 11th, and is an evil creation that provides the hole’s sole defence. Any golf fan should be accustomed to the sight of the pin on 11 placed directly behind it whenever The Open comes to town for at least three of the four days, if not all four.
The 14th, one of only three par fives, is dominated by Hell bunker, a half-acre expanse of sand that demands a clear strategy when laying up. And then is there is the 17th, the Road hole, with its eponymous bunker. Eating into the very heart of the green, it strikes fear – or at the very least the utmost respect – into the heart of every player.
Apart from the sand, St Andrews Old has several awkward blind shots, most notably on the 6th and 7th. On both occasions, players have to fire over what appears an endless expanse of gorse into oblivion. The targets are actually generous, but for players totally unused to such a vista it can be off-putting.
Then there is the sheer history of the place. As anyone lucky enough to have tackled the Old Course will know, merely standing on the 1st tee is enough to send a shiver down the spine. It is possible to be overly reverential of the venue rather than just playing what is in front of you as another golf course.
Similarly, from almost the start of the back nine the town can be seen on the horizon and it almost sucks you in. The course is not long by modern standards however, and can yield opportunities for even the least competent pilgrim to notch a few easy pars and even the odd birdie.
Find the wrong contour, or land on the wrong side of a mound, and balls can jump at right angles to the intended direction.
It should always be remembered that St Andrews Old, and any other true links for that matter, is designed to be played in at least a breeze and the difficulty on any given day is almost entirely dependent on the conditions.
Of the two nines, the outward half is more likely to play downwind and therefore play the easier. But nothing can be taken for granted and it is not unheard of for players to play into the wind on the way out only to find by the time they reach the 12th tee for the homeward stretch that it has turned round.
And on a course designed predominantly by mother nature, with just a little help from various mortal sources over the past centuries, those, like the immortals playing in the Open every five years, that will play well around St Andrews Old accept that not every bounce will be kind, not every lie perfect and not every putt run true.
It is the essence of links golf, and the game in its purest form, that there are variables that simply cannot be taken into account. This is a course that must be played as much in the mind as on those famous old rumpled fairways and greens.
The Legend of St Andrews Old
“The more I studied the Old Course, the more I loved it; and the more I loved it, the more I studied it, so that I came to feel that it was for me the most favourable meeting ground for an important contest. I felt that my knowledge of the course enabled me to play it with patience and restraint until she might exact her toll from my adversary, who might treat her with less respect and understanding.”
– Bobby Jones, upon receiving the freedom of St Andrews in 1958. Jones, an amateur, won the Grand Slam in 1930, claiming each of the US Amateur, US Open, British Amateur and Open Championship. He also won the Open at St Andrews in 1927. Legend has it that on his first visit to St Andrews he tore up his scorecard in frustration and tossed the scraps of paper into the Eden Estuary.