On every hole, without exception, the gray-green sea can be observed stretching away to the distant horizon. Astonishingly, we merely have to cock our head in order to take in the medieval quarter of St. Andrews—St. Rule's Tower, the town wall, the castle, the spire of St. Salvator's, and the cathedral and its graveyard, where both Old and Young Tom Morris are buried. On a pellucid day, the panorama to the north extends for miles over the Eden estuary and the Firth of Tay to include Carnoustie and Arbroath and, even farther on, a suggestion of the Grampian Mountains. It is possible that no seaside course in the world is more strikingly situated than the Castle.
And on this course there is not a single weak or indifferent hole. In truth, no hole is less than very good. Which raises the question: How many holes are truly great?Probably at least half of them, which, I grant you, is not easy to grasp.
Among the many unforgettable holes are the three that bring the round to a rousing finish. The sixteenth—436 yards, full of ups and downs and dunelike knobs with fescue whiskers—heads toward the sea. Short of its elevated green is a deep swale lurking to swallow the approach that just fails to get up. The green, sited perilously at the cliff edge, is devilishly contoured in the grand tradition of Kidd and company.
On the seventeenth, a two-hundred-yarder, the shot is fired from a raised tee across a V-shaped chasm that is part rocky inlet and part overgrown vegetation, with a hidden beach at the bottom washed by the swirling North Sea waters. There is safety out to the left; to the right is a calamitous plunge. This just may be Scotland's most thrilling one-shotter, perhaps even eclipsing the eleventh on the Old Course and the fourth at Cruden Bay. But it is not without controversy—more on that momentarily.
The 575-yard home hole rises smoothly as it heads away from the clifftop tee and parallels the cliffs, then bends to the right and descends steeply to its half of an immense double green (the only one in the layout and an appropriate bow to the Old Course). The putting surface, shared with the ninth hole, is all but cantilevered over the water some sixty feet below. An epic creation, this par five is every bit as magnificent as the eighteenth at Pebble Beach or the seventeenth at Old Head.
Regarding the seventeenth, one anecdote from the course's early days is worth passing along: Last July, sixteen golf journalists—eight from the United Kingdom, eight from the United States—were invited to play the shot on the par-three seventeenth, which for them was set up at 170 yards. Depending on whom you ask, the weather was either mild and unusually calm or windy and ominously "changeable."