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Secrets of the Old Course | T+L Golf

© Scott Macpherson Secrets of the Old Course

Photo: Scott Macpherson

My first visit to St. Andrews was in 1988. It lasted all of two hours, and it took me a decade to return. When I finally did, in August of 1998, the first thing I did was walk down to the Old Course. After soaking up the afternoon ambience, I continued on to the West Sands. I’d come all the way from New Zealand—never had sand between my toes felt so good.

I’d read a lot about St. Andrews in the time I’d been away. Old Tom Morris used to take a swim in these waters every morning: “Two strokes out, and three strokes back.” Some of the greatest golfers in history had come down to this beach to hit shots, as well. After pausing to collect myself, I walked along the strand. There were acres to wander, but I tracked along the high-tide line, where the sand was warm, and enjoyed the light breeze and sunshine. Soon I’d left the town far behind—it was just me and the seagulls. With this freedom of body, mind and spirit came an epiphany: This was how the Old Course was formed, the progeny of the sand beneath my feet and the wind blowing through my hair. Nature’s hand was clear, yet I knew that nurture had played a role, too. But how?

It took two years before I could even attempt to answer that question. I spent late 1998 and 1999 caddying on the Old Course while waiting for a job as the on-site architect at St. Andrews Bay (now the Fairmont St. Andrews) to commence. During that time I was exposed to all corners of the course, in all conditions. I listened to other caddies—few of whom seemed to let truth get in the way of a good story—and to locals, and all of them were usually adamant about how unchanged the Old Course had remained over the years. But the more I caddied (and played the course myself), the more rumors I heard of lost holes and filled-in bunkers. My questions multiplied.

In late 2000, I began to study the evolution of the Old Course in earnest. Though I didn’t intend it at the time, the project would become my book, St. Andrews: The Evolution of the Old Course. I devised a spreadsheet that became the heart of the research, charting changes to the holes over the years—everything from increases (or decreases) in yardage to the transformation of features to their relative difficulty in Open Championship play. I came to realize that what the caddies and locals meant was that there hadn’t been major changes to the course in their living memory. But golf has been played in St. Andrews for a long time—a primitive layout was in existence before the university was founded, in 1413. The course we know today is replete with curious vestiges of previous eras, a few of which are detailed below. Far from emerging from the sea fully formed, the Old Course is the product of scores of architectural decisions made through the generations.

The Four Lost Holes

Some of these decisions traveled far beyond St. Andrews and now define the game in the most fundamental of ways. For example, early courses in Scotland did not have a standard number of holes—some had five, others seven. St. Andrews first had eleven, then twenty-two: Golfers played eleven holes out to the Eden Estuary, then turned around and played back along the same narrow strip of land. This layout began and ended on the hill where the Martyrs’ Monument stands today. In 1764, however, the Society of St. Andrews Golfers passed a resolution that two of the first four holes (and, therefore, two of the last four) would be dropped, thus reducing the links to eighteen holes. (Some part of those holes must have been incorporated into the resulting eighteen—the space on the hill did not accommodate four full holes.) It is unclear exactly why the holes on the hill were removed from play; maybe they were unsatisfactory in length or just too different from the holes down in the sand dunes. Eliminating them did remove an inconvenience for townspeople who wanted to get to the beach, and it also eventually presented the Royal and Ancient Golf Club with a superior location for their clubhouse, built in 1854. At any rate, this change would have a seismic effect on the world of golf: Due to the growing influence of the R&A, eighteen holes became the standard.

The Tee by the Sea

Upgrades to the town’s infrastructure greatly affected the links, as well. The 1893 construction of the seawall known as the Bruce Embankment is a prime example. Prior to this development, the first hole was only a matter of yards from the beach, as depicted in John Smart’s remarkable painting (now a part of Archie Baird’s golf museum, in Gullane). As an 1893 account explained: “Mr. George Bruce has constructed, at his own expense, a breakwater composed of four old fishing boats, weighted with stones and otherwise secured, at the east end of the West Sands. . . . It is to be hoped Mr. Bruce’s breakwater will stand the winter tides.” It did survive, and the land behind it was raised up to gain the opening hole a buffer from the sea. St. Andrews has a modern seawall now, and the tract of land between the houses and the sea along the line of Grannie Clark’s Wynd is twice as wide—at about two hundred yards—as it was prior to 1821. The first tee is now about a hundred yards from the beach.

What the Wynd Was

Discussing one feature on the Old Course often leads to the reference of another. Take as an example Grannie Clark’s Wynd, the road that bisects the first and eighteenth holes. Who was Grannie Clark?According to historian David Joy, “The Clarks had a cottage on the communal drying green [an area next to the lifeboat house where townspeople dried their laundry], and from about 1830 to the 1860s Grannie Clark supervised the activity around that site and provided endless cups of tea, sandwiches and so on.” As for the road itself, it is a feature unique to the Old Course and a true golf oddity. Historically it was a route for townsfolk to get to the West Sands, and it was also the connection between the beach and the lifeboat house. Of course, the lifeboat house has long since disappeared, but not only does the access road still remain, it is an active feature of the course. Golfers who have the misfortune of having their ball end up on the road must play it as it lies or take relief under penalty. No other championship course has a public road crossing two of its fairways.

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