If I had ever been set down in any one place and told I was to play there, and nowhere else for the rest of my life, I should have chosen the Old Course.
--BOBBY JONES (1950)
They come here on pilgrimages from all over the world, imbued with the intensity of religious zealots.
They come from Japan, Mexico, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, from all over America and from many other places.
To play golf.
To play golf at the Old Course, where golf began.
“To be here playing golf on the Old Course is like dying and going to heaven,” said Marty Jacobs, 56, a Torrance, Calif., automobile dealer.
“Look at it. It’s a cow pasture. But that’s the way golf was. You stand on the first tee and the blood rushes to your head. You have a feeling of awe and respect, a feeling you get on no other course.”
Carol Gramer, 39, and Alan Sterling, 33, were here from Winston-Salem, N.C.
“Watch out for the whins,” warned Sterling as Gramer was about to tee off on the second hole. They could see no fairway in front of them, only rough. The whins, thickets of spiny shrubs, were off to the right.
A chilling blast of wind off the North Sea carried Gramer’s ball toward the whins. Winds are almost a perpetual hazard on the Old Course.
“Winds and the whins are what you expect,” allowed Gramer with a big grin. “Being here is a lifelong dream come true for any golfer. The prestige. The nostalgia. The history . . .”
Bobby Jones, who called the Old Course the most fascinating golf course he ever played, had this to say about the breezes at St. Andrews: “Wind may follow you all around the course. It may oppose you all the way, turning when you turn.”
The Old Course was here before Columbus discovered America. No one knows how long Scots have been playing the game at St. Andrews.
“We do know that in 1450, the king of Scotland banned golf for a time at the Old Course because he said the men were spending too much time on the links and not enough time with their archery and sword making to defend against the English,” said Alec Beveridge, 56, secretary of the St. Andrews Links Trust.
Beveridge also noted that in 1552, Archbishop John Hamilton of this ancient town issued an edict that the Old Course belonged to all the citizens of St. Andrews, as indeed it does to this day. The original edict is in the archives of the St. Andrews Town Council.
Everything about golf goes back to St. Andrews. Golf courses have 18 holes because the Old Course here has 18 holes.
Golf courses have sand traps because the Old Course is on a promontory overlooking the North Sea and sheep took cover from the wind behind hillocks, wearing out the vegetation. Sand accumulated behind these humps, creating bunkers. The Old Course has 132 natural bunkers.
“They called this a links in the old days because the course is a strip of ground, a link between land and sea,” explained Beveridge. “The Old Course wasn’t designed by man. It was designed and shaped by God.
“It evolved in a natural state. It just happened. What you see is what we’ve got by pure happenstance. The contours. The bunkers. They were not created by man. Nor were the hollows or the swales (low marshy land). The heather in the rough and the whins were not planted. They are wild.”
It’s a course played by presidents and kings, by captains of industry and plain working stiffs who love golf. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald R. Ford played here. Mary Queen of Scots played here. She lived from 1542 to 1587, when she was beheaded.
“In summer, reservations are vital,” Beveridge said. “People write, wire and telephone months ahead of time. I get letters from golfers earning average incomes in America who say they have been saving for years to come over here and play the Old Course.
“We’ve had players like that who have come and died on the course. But they die with a smile on their face.”
He told of one man in a foursome of friends who had come from the United States.
“They were playing in a tournament,” recalled Beveridge. “One of them teed up his ball on the third hole. He swung and had a heart attack and fell dead between the markers.
“A caddy ran to get a doctor but the man was dead. His three friends decided there was nothing they could do. So they decided to continue play.
“His body was in the way. They had to tee off in front of the markers. When they finished the 18 holes they were disqualified because they were supposed to tee off between the markers.”
No carts--pull or electric--are allowed on the Old Course. A round of play in summer costs $25 U.S. plus $18 for a “gold caddy,” $15 for a “silver caddy” or $9 for a “bag carrier.”
“I hired a gold caddy,” said Jacobs, who lives in Palos Verdes Estates. “He hands you an iron. You don’t select it. He does. He says: ‘Hit the 5-iron. It will get you there.’ It gets you there if you hit it properly . . .”
The Old Course has seven enormous greens, each accommodating two holes. That’s unique to the world’s oldest golf course.
And everything here has a name. There are bunkers with names such as Kruger and Mrs. Kruger, Coffin and Hell. In front of the green on the 18th hole is a deep hollow called Valley of Sin.
St. Andrews, named after the patron saint of Scotland, is one of the oldest towns in the country. St. Andrews University, the oldest university in Scotland, was founded here in 1410.
There are four 18-hole courses belonging to the St. Andrews Links Trust, all adjacent and all owned by the town of St. Andrews, the Old Course, the New Course--laid down in 1896--the Jubilee Course and Eden, as well as a nine-hole course.
There are five golf clubs in St. Andrews whose members play at the town-owned courses, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St. Andrews Golf Club, the Thistle Golf Club and two women’s clubs, St. Rule and St. Regulus.
Most golfers know, of course, that the ultimate authority in golfing worldwide is the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.
“Golf is our national sport here in Scotland,” Beveridge said. “We have five million people in this country, which is 275 miles long and 150 miles wide. And, we have more than 400 golf courses.
“Quite a number of clubs in Scotland are over 100 years old. Golf is not an elitist sport in this country. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker are all keen on golf.
“And they, like golfers all over the world, look forward to playing a round at the Old Course where golf began.”