Secrets of the Old Course | T+L Golf

Secrets of the Old Course | T+L Golf

© Scott Macpherson Secrets of the Old Course © Scott Macpherson
© Scott Macpherson
© Scott Macpherson Secrets of the Old Course
© Scott Macpherson
Where were the four holes that disappeared in 1764?What’s under the eighteenth green? And just what are those strange stones in the fairways?

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.


What’s Under the Eighteenth?

Not far from the Wynd is the famous Valley of Sin. It continues to live up to its name: Who can forget the image of Costantino Rocca spread-eagled in the Valley, having just holed a monster birdie putt to get into the playoff with John Daly for the 1995 Open Championship?But the green has its own story to offer. The base of the Valley was likely the original ground level, with the green pushed up behind it by Old Tom Morris. Of all the features that are man-made, the Home green is perhaps the most significant, and Old Tom was said to have been exceptionally proud of it. Next time you tap in on eighteen, consider this: The foundation of the green may include human remains! As Andrew Kirkaldy, Morris’s successor as the professional at St. Andrews, wrote in My Fifty Years of Golf: “What is now the eighteenth green on the Old Course was built up from a rubbish heap that had also served as a burial ground.” A. W. Tillinghast concurred, saying Morris had told him it had been “built over the bones of dead men.

The March Stones

Visitors may notice another distinct Old Course oddity in the form of the small markers—they look much like gravestones—in the middle of fairways (such as the fifth and seventh) and near teeing grounds (such as the second and eleventh). I was puzzled by their presence until I found a second copy of the Plan of Pilmoor Links in the National Archives of Scotland. More legible than the first one I’d encountered, which hangs in the office of the Secretary of the R&A, I discerned from it that “the March Stones with the letter G on the side next to the Golf Course . . . defined the outside limits of the course.” (“March” is an archaic term for “boundary.”) As the layout widened, features that were once at the margins moved closer to the middle. Almost all the stones marked on the plan can still be located, giving an indication of how much the area of the Old Course has increased. My calculations suggest it was just over fifty acres in 1821. It is now over ninety.

How the Greens and Fairways Grew

Until around 1850, play on the Old Course took place in both directions—the routing lends itself to reversibility. But in the 1850s, the railroad’s arrival and the invention of the cheaper and more durable “guttie” ball led to more feet stomping down the gorse and heather that lined the holes, not to mention increased traffic around each green’s cup, which served both inward- and outward-bound players. In 1856, greenkeeper Allan Robertson began to cut a second hole in each green, and the next year both the greens and fairways were expanded to accommodate the new visitors. The transformation was almost complete by 1870, when Old Tom Morris constructed a new first green (prior to this, the seventeenth green had also served as the first). Since then, the creation of new back tees has formalized the right-hand course as the championship layout, leaving the clockwise “reverse course” as a curiosity that is only open for play a few days a year.

Bunkers Come and Go

Given the uproar caused by the alteration of the Road Bunker during preparations for the 2005 Open, one can scarcely imagine the furor that might have ensued if entirely new bunkers had been proposed. The most recent period of significant change to the Old Course’s bunkering scheme began in 1904, when thirteen were added, largely as a response to the lively new Haskell ball. The most notable of these was cut into the front left of the fifteenth green, but several fairway bunkers also appeared along the right sides of the second, third, fourth and sixth—all of which increased the risk of taking the direct line to the hole.

Just as interesting is the elimination of the mysterious Halket’s Bunker. Located on the eighteenth, it lay halfway between the Swilcan Bridge and Grannie Clark’s Wynd and would be a hazard of considerable distraction today. It was removed in 1842, when Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair had it turfed over as part of his program of repairs to the area, but its imprint remains. This is the nature of evolution: Things come and go, and sometimes more than once. In 1869, a bunker on the par-four fifteenth was filled in. A Mr. A. G. Sutherland, believing it was of strategic merit, wrote many vigorous letters to the R&A insisting the hazard be recut, but to no avail. Late one night, two men roused a local gardener from his sleep and bribed him with gold to recut the bunker, and a note with Sutherland’s name on it was left in the reinstated hazard. The bunker is still there, a simple pot waiting to catch drives blasted too casually from the fourth or fifteenth tees.

The Old Course may be the spiritual home of golf and a major championship venue, but it is also something of an archaeological site. Because its primary use has not changed, many remnants of its past can still be found aboveground. The railway tracks that used to be the town’s lifeblood, carrying travelers to the St. Andrews Links Station from 1852 to 1969, are long gone, but the path they took is clearly evident by the sixteenth and seventeenth holes. And it is not unheard of for a greenkeeper to turn up an ancient guttie when clearing gorse or renovating bunkers. This occasional contact with the distant past is one of the course’s charming aspects. But its greatest strength is that it remains a viable test for the best players in the world and also provides enjoyment to the thousands of others who visit each year. Its evolution will continue, but one can only hope this essential truth of the Old Course is preserved.


Until Old Tom Morris began his custodianship in the 1860s, the aptly named Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair may have been the most influential shaper of the links. When he was appointed captain of the R&A in 1856, the course was narrow and long, there were no fairways (in the modern sense), and bunkers were undefined, unraked pits. Golf was hard.

His focus seems to have been repairing the area between the Road Hole green and the beach. The Swilcan Burn was edged, Halket’s Bunker was turfed over, and Playfair set about stabilizing the dunes to the right of the first hole. This was the first attempt to reclaim land from the North Sea, and although these efforts were destroyed by strong tides, they laid the groundwork for George Bruce’s successful seawall construction a generation later. There’s little doubt in my mind that Playfair’s vision is the reason the first and eighteenth holes look the way they do today.

Finally, Playfair’s decision to separate the outward-bound golfers from those heading inward by cutting two holes in each green led to one of the Old Course’s most famous features: its double greens. The task was carried out as an expansion of the existing greens by Allan Robertson in 1857.


One of my favorite aspects of the research was finding the many graphic representations of the Old Course. As snapshots in time, they proved a terrific way to trace the course’s evolution. From quirky hand-painted maps and Alister MacKenzie’s magisterial 1924 rendering to modern satellite imagery, each has its own visual style and distinct manner of organizing information.

My favorite is the Plan of Pilmoor Links. (Before the New Course opened in St. Andrews in 1895, the Old Course was known simply as the Links.) Apart from being beautifully drawn, this plan is the first to significantly document the course, its boundaries and length. Surveyed by A. Martin on December 8, 1821, it shows the area of the links that had been purchased by James Cheape, who dedicated the land exclusively to golf.

The plan was the first to situate the Swilcan Bridge in its present location, and it tells us, among other things, the width of the links and the length of the holes. The course at that time was 3,189 yards out, and because that same land was used on the way back, doubling this number gives us the yardage for eighteen holes. The breadth of the holes varied. Generally the width of the golfing land was between 120 yards and 160 yards. However, due to the extent of the whins (gorse), the playing area was almost certainly a good deal tighter.


Though the links have been designated as common land since the twelfth century, control over them has historically been turbulent. When the Town Council went bankrupt in 1797, the land was used as a bond for security on a loan. Part of the agreement allowed the bond holders to sell the links, and they did so later that year. This triggered one of the darker periods for the course.

Two years later the land was sold again, to the Dempster family, merchants who saw an opportunity to raise rabbits for meat and pelts. But the rabbits soon overran the links. When members of the Society of St. Andrews Golfers (the forerunner of the Royal and Ancient) saw the ongoing destruction of the golf course, they began killing the rabbits, claiming the Dempsters had contravened the rule of the sale “that no hurt or damage shall be done thereby to the golf links.” The Dempsters asserted that of the 280 acres they farmed, only ten were part of the golf course, and that they should not be prevented from pursuing a legitimate commercial enterprise.

The Rabbit Wars continued in and out of court until 1821, when James Cheape, a significant local landowner, bought the rights to the links from the Dempsters and deeded it to the Society of St. Andrews Golfers. Cheape said afterward: “I am confident that in putting an end to all future litigation, I am rendering a service to my successors as well as to the Society. . . . Gentlemen, I have saved the links for golf!


1413

The University of St. Andrews is founded. Golf is being played on a primitive links layout.

1754

The Society of St. Andrews Golfers is founded.

1764

The twenty-two-hole Old Course is trimmed to eighteen, setting the standard number of holes for a round of golf.

1799

The Rabbit Wars begin, with the sale of the links to the Dempster family.

1821

James Cheape buys the links and grants priority to the Society of St. Andrews Golfers, bringing the Rabbit Wars to an end. At the same time, he commissions a survey of the links, delineating the length (3,189 yards) and boundaries of the course.

1834

The Society of St. Andrews Golfers becomes the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

1842

Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair has Halket’s Bunker, on the eighteenth hole, filled in.

1856

The R&A, under its new captain, Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair, approves the cutting of two holes on each green. To allow for this, Allan Robertson expands the greens. The course begins to widen.

1866

Old Tom Morris builds the new eighteenth green.

1869

A bunker on the fifteenth that had been turfed over reappears and takes on the name “Sutherland.”

1870

Old Tom Morris builds the new first green.

1893

George Bruce plans embankment (seawall) and land reclamation.

1904

At least thirteen new bunkers are added to the course in response to the livelier Haskell ball.

1949

Hull’s Bunker (on the fifteenth hole) is the last known bunker to be filled in.

2005

A furor erupts when, in preparation for the Open Championship, the Road Bunker on seventeen is slightly reshaped to gather more shots.

Did you enjoy this article?

Share it.

Explore More