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Old Course, New World

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St. Andrews is changing. Just as the old ecclesiastical metropolis of Scotland decayed from ancient grandeur into historical landmark, so the current evolutionary turn is making its mark. The problem is no one can quite decide how attractive the new creature is going to be. Old--very old--guidebooks routinely assumed the town's "admitted supremacy." This is after all the "mother city" of the game, to the golfer what the Vatican is to the Catholic, what Everest is to the climber, what Las Vegas is to the gambler. The pilgrims still flock, the open-air cathedral that is the Old Course is still there in all its hypnotic royal-and-ancient splendor. But in a world of globally recognized competitive products, the town is now seeing its name and fame being traded like a commodity: The St. Andrews brand has arrived. And oh, some of the auld townsfolk dinnae like it a' tall.

On the walls of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, overlooking the first and eighteenth fairways of the Old Course, there hangs a painting of golf being played over the links at St. Andrews. Painted around 1680, it is one of the earliest depictions of the game anywhere. More than three hundred years on, the canvas's landscape is still identifiable. The venerable university--currently attended by Prince William and, say cynical locals, a flock of American "babes" interested in becoming the new Grace Kelly--is still academically sound. The "municipal" courses owned by the town (which include the Old Course) are thriving. Golf as the village industry is ubiquitous.

But it is the shock of the new that produces heated debate in the numerous pubs and alehouses. Kingsbarns, a modern links masterpiece, is just a ten-minute drive from the cathedral ruins in town. The two new courses and large complex of the St. Andrews Bay Resort lie along the same road, their cliffside holes visible from parts of the old town. Both are American-owned businesses. Planning authorities have been inundated with applications for a flurry of additional courses all evidently hell-bent on wrapping themselves in the lure and mysticism that is encapsulated in the name and location of St. Andrews. Many applicants have retreated in defeat, others have merely parked themselves in the shadows till further opportunity arises. The result?There is buzz and a renaissance feel about the place. New restaurants have ditched chintz and traditional tartan in favor of cool modernity. Established institutions have smartened themselves up for the challenges ahead. Before he won the British Open in 1946, Sam Snead commented that the Old Course looked like "some old abandoned golf course." That seems an unthinkable utterance today when you consider the whole St. Andrews experience. The place has traded exclusively on Old Tom Morris antiquity before, but no longer, it would seem. The hope?Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose--as they don't say in the R&A.


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