You know it as The Links - the street thronged with spectators whenever an Open Championship comes to St Andrews. But in the 1870s, as historian Roger McStravick reveals in a new book, the very idea of building a road on what we now know as the Old Course caused fury
It is in the small things where big discoveries can be made. This one arrived in a simple receipt.
“Honestly, my level of nerdiness is quite high,” says Roger McStravick, recounting the moment he realised the Old Course’s famous opening hole had a very different birth to what had always been assumed.
“The reason why I am able to find new stuff is because I look at original material,” he adds. “I don’t tend to believe anything at all, unless I have seen it myself.
“That’s the joy of St Andrews – that you can actually go and look at statements. For years people wrote that the 1st hole was developed in the 1840s, but then I went back and looked at the original letters and receipts and it was ‘no, they started the land reclamation in the 1830s’.
“And here’s the receipt. I will get excited about a receipt from 1830 because it actually redefines what the history of the 1st hole is.”
It’s that level of detail – the commitment to cutting through assumptions and looking with fresh eyes – which has made McStravick one of golf’s most renowned historians.
His street-by-street exploration of the evolution of the Auld Grey Toon, St Andrews In the Footsteps of Old Tom Morris, is arguably the definitive history of the Home of Golf, and his newest title will surely be as well received.
McStravick takes us back to 1879 in St Andrews The Road War Papers, as he recounts a dispute that went all the way to the House of Lords.
Centred on what’s now one of the most famous streets in golf – The Links, which stretches from Golf Place to Grannie Clark’s Wynd and beyond – it details an argument which split the town and involved all the famous figures of the day, including Old Tom Morris.
“The links land, since about 1124, has always been public,” explains McStravick. “So when the Council wanted to allow a road in the 1870s, in front of the Tom Morris shop and the houses, there was outrage that they could consider putting a road across this ancient links.
“There was a big fight in the council with it and there was one man called John Paterson, and he is the main character, really, in the whole book.
“He was against the road altogether. He came to St Andrews, fell in love with the place, and with the passion of a new convert he could not understand why the Town Council, which he was a member of, would even consider allowing this road.
“People had built houses there facing the course on the understanding that, at some point, what was a path would become a road. They wanted the road and, on the other side, you had John Paterson, plus others, who didn’t want the road.
“This wasn’t just a little St Andrews issue. The papers were getting involved and it went all the way to the House of Lords.”
The Road War has been written about before, and the almost comical to modern eyes accounts of one set of workers building it and another stripping it bare formed a novel addition to the way we view an era when St Andrews was evolving into the golfing metropolis we know today.
But it was a chance discovery that led McStravick to dive headlong into unearthing everything he could find about this curious period.
“It was a wonderful case to follow,” he adds. “The evolution of the book started with St Andrews In The Footsteps of Old Tom Morris.
“I was researching that in the University of St Andrews’ special collection archive and Katrina came over and said ‘we have a box called ‘St Andrews Links’ but nobody really knows what it is, would you like to see it?’
“I said ‘yes, of course’ and I opened it up and I couldn’t believe it. It was statements made by all my heroes – Tom Morris, Daw Anderson, Jamie Anderson, John Whyte Melville – all those greats of that 1879 era and all these people who have done so much for the evolution of golf as well.
“This was them talking: this was where they came from, this is their earliest memories of the links. That was just gold dust. I couldn’t believe what I was reading – not somebody writing about Tom Morris. This was actually Tom Morris. This is a verbatim statement by Tom Morris.
“So it was just wonderful because it brought the evolution of the course to life. The book was originally going to be called The Road War Statements – and just be that – but this was the people themselves. This was what they were going through, what they felt.
“For example, there was a carter who took the rubbish from St Andrews, and this was how the 1st hole today was created.
“They took the rubbish from St Andrews, took it down and dumped it on the beach and then covered it with soil and that reclaimed land is the 1st hole. The 1st hole is effectively built on the town’s rubbish.
“This was John Carstairs, the man who actually did it, who took the rubbish from the town, talking about that whole case.
“There are statements from people who were born in the 1700s. It was lovely to hear the people, what they thought of St Andrews Links, and they solved so many mysteries.
“I could have researched it for the rest of my life. I loved it and I have to say I’m finding it very hard to leave 1879. I’m sort of kicking and screaming.
“It’s taken me about three months to extract myself from the book because I just loved hearing the stories.”
Now listen to Roger McStravick talking in more depth about St Andrews The Road War Papers on the NCG podcast
St Andrews: The Road War Papers by Roger McStravick is available from Fine Golf Books.