Mark Townsend first played St Andrews' Old Course in 1986 and he continues to get excited and spooked in equal measure by its unique and eccentric charms
Every year more than 230,000 rounds are played over seven public courses at St Andrews, but it’s the course that starts and ends in the town that we are all fascinated by. The Old Course, home to 29 Open Championships, is said to have been designed by Mother Nature herself and it’s like nowhere else.
I first played here in 1986 with three school friends and my latest effort came in the spring of 2018. And, much like my first wide-eyed visit 33 years ago, the Old Course continues to thrill and spook me in equal measure.
So, if you are lucky enough to tread the hallowed links, here is your cut-out-and-keep guide to trying to remain measured and live up to your own moderate expectations.
Spend some time on the Old Course 1st tee
Take 20 minutes out of your day and just sit down and watch people teeing off the 1st. This is what you look like. There might be some small talk, a few giggles and plenty of practice swishes but you can’t hide the fact that whoever you are or however many times you’ve played the Old Course you will be in tatters at this stage of your round.
I watched four groups tee off, three gents almost hit it on the beach and none hit a second ball. Most found the biggest fairway in the world and heaved a big sigh of relief and a couple very nearly popped one into the lobby of the Rusacks Hotel but stayed on the short stuff.
Play a succession of holes from the wrong fairway
People talk often and regularly about easterlies and westerlies but I’ve never really got my head round any of it.
Put more simply the last two times I’ve been here the wind has been howling off the left from the 2nd to the 7th which means that you will generally spend your first hour and a half holding on to every driver and trudging across to the wrong fairway.
And this, as we all know, will leave an unfathomable shot to a distant green and a missed green.
Coming home you think everything will be so much easier but, with a right-to-left wind, your ball-striking and lack of control will only be highlighted as you continue to bat shots away from the out of bounds.
Get acquainted with the bunkers
You’ll be familiar with the Road bunker at 17, Hell bunker at 14, pictured, and maybe Coffins bunker at 13, but then the memory might get a little sketchy.
After 18 holes all that should have changed as you effectively drop a shot, probably two, by visiting plenty of them. There are more than 100 either dominating or dotted around the course.
At the 3rd, just short of the enormous Cartgate bunker, there is one that is so small it resembles a trap door to a cellar.
Otherwise there were memorable visits to Strath at 11, one unnamed hazard at 14 that shouldn’t really be part of the hole and the left nostril of the Principal’s Nose two holes later.
All came with dropped shots, as they do at a premium links course, and my mind drifts to Tiger in 2000 when he didn’t find a single bunker in 72 holes. Unbelievable.
Hit the 17th fairway
A playing partner gave me some good advice on this tee by saying that if you look at the angle that the Old Course Hotel runs at then the fairway is something similar ie there’s plenty of room down there and no reason smother it left as I had done the previous four occasions.
People talk about hitting it over one of the letter ‘o’s on the old railway shed, I forget which one, but basically there is all sorts of room down there.
Twenty-two years later I do finally find the fairway and, standing there it feels so much nicer than shunting one out of the adjacent rough.
Come on, you’ve seen this shot a thousand times, front edge, touch of draw and watch it roll up to 20 feet…
Play one off the road
Or alternatively tug a hybrid that, given it is going straight left, has far too much on it. I had spent the previous 200-yard walk to the ball picturing a huge, growing round of applause as it slowly crept onto the right level.
Instead I couldn’t even look at the end result, turning away and quietly despising my overly-anxious self.
There it was, on the shingle part of the road which made a recovery putt almost impossible. After waiting for two passers-by to exit the scene I pondered all the terrible eventualities of what might happen next with a double-hit and raging knife along the road all the way to the Old Course Hotel entrance in the forefront of my mind.
Somehow I heaved it onto the green and made five.
Take four putts
This is definitely one to tick off your bucket list. When your approach has stopped rolling you will likely be on some sort of high given that there is no sand involved and you can now putt it.
A few minutes later the realisation will begin lurking up on you that you’re not even going to three-putt it.
The first one will probably be a misread where you have got on the wrong side of a slope or maybe a common-or-garden mishit from 100 feet. The second putt will involve some level of panic as you will now be on the wrong side of that slope, the third will be a resigned miss and the final one a one-handed, back-handed waft that lets you off the hook should you miss again.
Hold your finish at 18
What it taketh away with a light hurricane in your face on your opening tee shot, it giveth with the closing tee shot.
With a line of parked cars to your right there will be doubts but otherwise everything is in our favour.
You will no doubt have coerced someone into taking a photo of you at some point in your swing so hold your finish and enjoy your moment.
The ghosts of ’86, when I three-putted both times, were brushed aside with a two-putt birdie. I didn’t hit the green, I just putted it.
Spend some time by the final green
This is a bit like the opening scene at the airport in Love Actually where everyone is happy and smiling and laughing and you cry a little bit.
As much as you want do it all over again, it’s done. You’ve satisfied a life’s dream, played the Old Course, have come through it unscathed and, here you are, putting out where Jack and Seve and Nick and Tiger have all closed out Open Championships.
It doesn’t really matter if you knock one in or miss from two foot, the main thing is you’re following in all their footsteps and you’re about an 8-iron away from a collection of quality boozers.