IT IS SURPRISING how many people come off the Old Course at St Andrews after playing it for the first time feeling a touch disappointed. After the exhilaration of being called to the first tee by the starter and the nerve wracking opening drive, quite often the famous old fairways do not somehow seem that special.
What first time players may not get is the infinite challenge and variety that this grand old lady of world golf has to offer. Just as a visit to Venice is not all about having a coffee in St Mark’s Square and a gondola ride playing the Old Course is not just about that opening tee shot and how many shots it takes to get down on the notorious Road Hole at 17.
The first thing that will strike new visitors is how much more undulating the course is than it appears on a TV screen. Subtle run-offs, dips, dykes and hollows are everywhere, and on no golf course on earth is it so important to play for position even when that position seems an unlikely one. And this is one of the reasons golfers can find the course disappointing first time around, because knowledge and being aware of the options are crucial to a successful round.
It may well be wise to splash out on a caddy and, if you do, look for one of the older ones, as complaints have been made about some of the youngsters being far more keen to get round quickly rather than provide their player with useful information. And cutting asides, that some have experienced, along the lines of. ‘The way you are playing it really does not matter what club you hit from here,’ are neither helpful nor necessary.
Also remember that when the course was first played it went anti-clockwise with players teeing off and heading down towards the what is now the 17th green, although was then a double before Tom Morris decided to reconfigure it. This change explains why, these days, many hazards cannot be seen from the tee. Nowhere is this more apparent that at the par four 12th where four wicked pot bunkers lie in wait in the middle of the fairway. So if you do not hire a caddy make very sure that you invest in a course guide and yardage chart.
And then simply enjoy the experience of walking in the footsteps of all the great golfers that have bestrode these fairways since the Old Course first held the Open Championship in 1873. Only Ben Hogan, of the world’s finest, has not competed in an Open here. Sam Snead, when he first viewed the course from the train, commented, ‘Say, that looks like an old abandoned golf course.’ A few days later, in 1946, he was to lift the claret jug.
It was at St Andrews that Bobby Jones’s playing partner and Open winner, Jock Hutchison, holed in one at the par three eighth and lipped out for another ace on the par four ninth in 1921. Jones scored six at both 10 and 11 before tearing up his card. Jones was later to say, having won both the Open and Amateur titles there, ‘If I had ever been told I was to play there and nowhere else I should have chosen the Old Course.’
Playing the enormous double greens having avoided giant bunkers such as the fearful shell bunker on eight and the even more horrific ‘Hell’ with its 10′ lip on 14, provides an experience found nowhere else. And there are also some of the world’s great golf holes to be enjoyed with the par three 11th; par five 14th and Seve Ballesteros’s favourite golf hole, the par four 17th. ‘This great golf hole,’ he said ‘You can take three, four or five, maybe seven, eight, nine!’ Ballesteros had a print of the 17th and 18th holes of the Old Course on his bedroom wall at his home in Pedrena.
Finally there is the iconic walk up 18, pausing only for a photograph on the little stone, Swilcan Bridge, where generations of Open winners have taken their leave of this subtle, challenging and iconic old course. And for those, like Bobby Jones, who walked off the course feeling disappointed the first time, there is always the next time and the time after that to come back and more fully appreciate the true wonder of what is on offer, just as he did.