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Secrets of the Old Course | T+L Golf

© Scott Macpherson Secrets of the Old Course

Photo: Scott Macpherson

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.

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