Nine Things to Know: The Old Course at St. Andrews
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
The Open Championship is celebrating an important milestone this week at its most historic venue. The Old Course at St. Andrews is hosting the 150th Open after a one-year delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It will be worth the wait.
It was Bobby Jones who once said that a player must win at St. Andrews to be considered great. Golf has been played on the Old Course for centuries and players have competed for the Claret Jug here since the 1800s.
Charles Blair Macdonald, a World Golf Hall of Fame architect and player, called it “the most entrancing course in the world besides being the finest test of golfing ability.”
To win at St. Andrews, a player must conquer a unique challenge in the shadow of history. Here’s Nine Things to Know about the venue for this year’s Open Championship.
1. PATRON SAINT
St. Andrews is the Home of Golf but it once attracted visitors for a different reason. It was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, attracting Catholic pilgrims from across Europe to the town named for the country’s patron saint.
Andrew and his brother Peter were Jesus’ first disciples. Andrew died a martyr’s death on an X-shaped cross because he did not feel worthy of being crucified on the same type of cross as Christ. Andrew’s diagonal cross, known as a saltire, is depicted on Scotland’s national flag.
Legend has it that some of Andrew’s bones – including finger bones, an arm bone and a kneecap – were brought to St. Andrews as relics in the eighth century after a monk received an angelic vision telling him to carry the bones to the end of the earth. That turned out to be what is now the tiny seaside town of St. Andrews, which grew quickly as many made the difficult journey to this promontory between the Firth of Forth and Firth of Tay.
“This region, once poor, foul and desolate is now rich, beautiful and flourishing,” it was once written about the town. “Hither come to pray a crowd of men from the most distant regions, … to seek the prayers of Saint Andrew.”
The St. Andrews Cathedral, whose ruins still stand today, was completed in the 14th century after taking more than 150 years to complete. It fell in the late 16th century. It is believed to have been destroyed in the violence of the Scottish Reformation, though some historians say it simply fell because of neglect.
St. Andrews also is home to the oldest university in Scotland. The University of St. Andrews was founded in 1413, making it the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world.
The famed course architect Alister Mackenzie once wrote that the Scottish are passionate about three things: golf, religion and politics. The history of St. Andrews confirms that.
2. HOME GAME
Pilgrims of a different sort started coming to St. Andrews centuries later, rescuing the town from the difficult times that followed the cathedral’s demise.
“With the Cathedral’s decay, the glory of St. Andrews departed slowly but remorselessly until it reached its lowest ebb in the second half of the 18th century,” wrote James K. Robertson in his history of St. Andrews. “The university shared in the decline, and extinction threatened the ancient, grey city.”
It was golf that led to the town’s revival. Macdonald illustrated the importance of the game to the town, and vice versa, when he wrote that “interwoven with the history and the antiquity of St. Andrews are the history and the antiquity of golf.”
The land on which the Old Course sits was declared “common ground” for the people in the 12th century. It is believed that the first written reference to golf being played on the Old Course was a 1552 charter that confirmed the citizens’ rights to use the links for “golfe, futeball, shuting and all games.” It was undoubtedly being played there earlier, however.
Now referred to as the Home of Golf, St. Andrews was known as the “Metropolis of Golfing” in the late 17th century. Henry Cockburn’s 19th century book “Circuit Journeys” said that golf in St. Andrews is “not a mere pastime, but a business and a passion.”
“There is a pretty large set who do nothing else, who begin in the morning and stop only for dinner,” Cockburn wrote, “and who, after practicing the game in the sea breeze all day discuss it all night.”
Those words could easily describe today’s visitors to the town.
A poem from the late 19th century asks, “Would you like to see a city given over, soul and body to a tyrannizing game?” The city is St. Andrews and the game, of course, is golf. More courses were built as the game’s popularity grew. In fact, the Old Course didn’t earn its moniker until St. Andrews’ New Course was completed … in 1895.
The course that remains today bears many similarities to what was played more than a century ago, as the ground of St. Andrews is too sacrosanct to meddle with. Ben Crenshaw called it “the original course” and “the supreme natural test.”
3. EIGHTEEN HOLES
The Old Course became an 18-hole layout in 1764, setting the standard for the game.
Before that, a round at the Old Course consisted of 22 holes. It was laid out on a narrow strip of land that now houses the back nine, consisting of 11 holes that golfers played out toward the Eden Estuary before turning around and retracing their steps back to town.
As the game’s popularity grew, however, that became untenable. The greens were eventually enlarged, allowing two holes to be cut on each putting surface, one for outward play and another for those returning inward. The fairways were widened, as well, allowing for the creation of two nines.
Jack Nicklaus called St. Andrews’ seven “enormous, roller-coaster double greens” the Old Course’s most distinctive feature.
“Although every golf tournament is to some degree a putting contest,” he wrote in his autobiography, “the premium on the short stick at St. Andrews is greater than anywhere else in the championship game.”
Players will face some of the longest putts of their life at the Old Course, and use the putter from well off the greens, as well, in lieu of a 60-degree wedge.
Only the first, ninth, 17th and 18th holes have single greens. The green for the seventh and 11th holes is 112 yards wide, while the shared putting surface for Nos. 6 and 12 is 104 yards wide. The green shared by Nos. 5 and 13 is more than 37,000 square feet.
It’s possible to be on the right green, but on the wrong hole. It happened to David Toms when he was playing with Tiger Woods in Saturday’s final group of the 2000 Open Championship.
“I was so distracted by what was going on that I hit to the wrong pin on the fifth hole,” Toms recalled. “I actually hit to the pin on 13 on one of the double greens. I thought I had hit a great shot and my caddie was like, ‘What are you doing? You just hit it 50 yards left of where we’re trying to go with an 8-iron.’”
The first and 18th holes also share a fairway. It is 129 yards wide, making it the widest in golf. Justin Thomas’ first tee shot as a pro took place on that hole, in the first round of the 2013 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. It also could have been his last.
“I remember thinking if I miss this fairway, I probably need to retire,” he said. The dual fairway is one of the most famous settings in the game, as players begin and finish their rounds surrounded by the town and in the foreboding shadow of the R&A clubhouse.
4. PRO’S PRO
Many golf fans know about Old Tom Morris and his son, known as Young Tom, but the pro who preceded them at St. Andrews also is important to the game's history, though less well-known than the father-son duo.
That man was Allan Robertson, who is credited with being the first professional golfer and the first man to break 80 on the Old Course, doing so a few months before his death at age 43. He was the undisputed greatest player of his day. It was his death in 1859 that led to The Open debuting the following year, to determine who would assume his place as the game’s best player.
Robertson came from several generations of ballmakers. His father David was the senior caddie for the R&A, as well.
Allan followed in the family business, becoming known not just for his play but his skill at making feathery balls. Making those balls was an arduous process involving feathers being stuffed into the ball with a blunt instrument. Only three or four could be made per day, making them prohibitively expensive. James K. Robertson also credits Allan Robertson with “early improvements to the condition of the Old Course as well as with the general standard of play.”
Old Tom Morris apprenticed under Robertson until a disagreement about the new gutta percha ball, which debuted in 1848. Robertson feared the new ball would put him out of business. He once paid caddies to give him any that they found so that he could burn them.
An argument between Robertson and Morris over Morris’ use of a gutta percha ball in a match led him to start his own shop for making clubs and balls. Three years later, Morris moved to Prestwick. He spent more than a decade there, laying out the course that would host the first 12 Open Championships. He returned to St. Andrews in 1864 after being appointed head greenkeeper, a post he would hold for four decades. He had a radical impact on the course, widening the fairways and putting surfaces and building the first and 18th greens as they are today, according to historian Roger McStravick.
As the popularity of the game grew, and more golfers flocked to the Home of Golf, Morris came to symbolize “all that was finest in the Scottish character and in the ancient Scottish game,” wrote James K. Robertson.
“His kindly, yet capable and gentle nature enshrined him a good many years before his death as the authentic Grand Old Man of Golf,” Robertson continued. “To generations of people all over the world, his name and his picture epitomized golf.”
Another writer referred to him as “The High Priest of the Hierarchy of Professional Golf.”
Old Tom also earned repute with his play, competing in the first 36 Open Championships and winning it four times, just as his son, Young Tom, did. Young Tom was a superstar, recognized as a teen phenom before winning The Open four consecutive times and establishing himself as an unprecedented talent. He won by 11 strokes over 36 holes in 1869 and 12 shots the following year before suffering an untimely death at 24, shortly after his wife and child died in childbirth.
“Suffice to leave it that ‘Young Tom’ was peerless in his day,” wrote James K. Robertson.
Old Tom is the oldest winner in The Open’s history, having won the 1867 Open at 46 years old, a year before Young Tom became the youngest winner in Open history at 17 years old.
5. BIG 1-5-0
St. Andrews’ role in the game makes it a fitting venue for the 150th Open. This is the 30th time The Open has visited the Old Course, the most of any course and nearly twice as many as any modern venue. Prestwick, which hosted the first Open Championship, hosted the last of its 24 Opens in 1925. Muirfield is third on the list, having hosted 16 Opens.
A St. Andrews caddie, Tom Kidd, won the first Open at the Old Course, in 1873, and was the first golfer to receive the Claret Jug. The winners of the first 11 Open Championships held the Challenge Belt for the year following their victory, but it was retired after Young Tom Morris won it for the third year in a row in 1870, a feat that allowed him to keep the belt in perpetuity. With no trophy to award the winner the following year and Prestwick seeking additional venues to host The Open, the tournament was not played in 1871.
It resumed in 1872, with St. Andrews and Musselburgh joining Prestwick as the tournament’s venues. The clubs agreed on a new trophy, the Claret Jug, but it wasn’t ready for that year’s Open, which Young Tom also won. He was awarded a gold medal in lieu of the Jug, which started the tradition of proclaiming The Open’s winner as the Champion Golfer of the Year. That tradition endures today.
The silver pitcher made by Mackay Cunningham & Co. in Edinburgh was first awarded in 1873.
6. ACQUIRED TASTE
Despite its vaunted status in the game, it isn’t always love at first sight for players making their first trip to St. Andrews. The blind shots, hidden bunkers and humps and hollows can quickly frustrate players. But each subsequent trip around the historic grounds reveals more about the course and deepens players’ appreciation.
Mackenzie once wrote that the Old Course’s critics either “have not brains enough or have not played it long enough to appreciate its many virtues.”
George Duncan, winner of the 1920 Open, said that St. Andrews has “a character and features that you can find nowhere else. … You can play a damned good shot and find the ball in a damned bad place. That is the real game of golf.”
Some are shocked by the barren landscape of the Old Course. Sam Snead thought it was an abandoned course when he saw it from his train car as he arrived for the 1946 Open Championship. He went on to win by four.
“Until you play it, St. Andrews looks like the sort of real estate you couldn’t give away,” said Snead.
Curtis Strange said he thought he’d been transplanted to the moon when he first played there. There are no trees, many of the bunkers are not visible off the tee and players face multiple blind shots.
“At first glance, St. Andrews appears under-equipped,” wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Murray. “There’s not a tree on it. It’s as wide open as a waterfront saloon. … It relies on its attackers’ overconfidence. … That’s the way golfers are at St. Andrews. The first time. They get less reckless with each succeeding 18 and get downright cautious after they’ve been embarrassed by it a few times.”
Bobby Jones may have been the most famous example of a player whose affection for St. Andrews grew over the years. Jones tore up his scorecard in the third round of the 1921 Open after taking four shots to escape a bunker on the 11th hole. He won The Open at St. Andrews six years later and won the British Amateur there during his Grand Slam season of 1930. He once wrote that he originally considered St. Andrews “the most unfair and one of the worst courses (I) had ever played on.”
“The more I studied the Old Course, the more I loved it,” Jones said, “and the more I loved it, the more I studied it."
His own course, Augusta National, is an inland tribute to St. Andrews.
It was also Jones who told a young Nicklaus that “to be a good golfer is one thing, but to be a great golfer is to win at St. Andrews.” Both Nicklaus and Tiger Woods won twice at St. Andrews. Nicklaus called an Open at the Old Course “the most intriguing and maybe the most demanding challenge in the game.” He said St. Andrews is golf’s toughest course to learn and that “there is nothing like it anywhere else, visually or architecturally.”
Legends like Jones, Snead, Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo have also hoisted the Claret Jug at the Old Course.
“St. Andrews still retains its pristine charm,” wrote Mackenzie. “I doubt if even in a hundred years’ time a course will be made which has such interesting strategic problems and which creates such enduring and increasing pleasurable excitement and varied shots.”
7. TIGER AND JACK
The complete, and unique, examination that St. Andrews presents is best illustrated by the fact that two of the greatest players in the game’s history, Nicklaus and Woods, each won two of their three Open Championships at the Old Course.
“I fell in love with it the first time I played it,” Nicklaus said, though he admits there might have been some youthful rebellion behind that opinion. His father, Charlie, gave St. Andrews a negative review after playing it with friends years earlier.
“Of course, they three-putted 13, 14, 15 greens,” Nicklaus said, “and they didn’t have a very good time because they didn’t understand the golf course.”
Nicklaus was runner-up to Tony Lema in his first Open at St. Andrews. The winds he faced in those first two rounds – including gusts exceeding 60 mph – were among the worst he faced in his Open career, he later wrote.
“It was sometimes a struggle to remain standing, never mind swing a golf club,” he said. “As the compass has 360 degrees, so there are that many wind directions at St. Andrews. Worse yet, they frequently seem to change every few minutes.”
The prevailing wind blows to the golfer’s right on the Old Course’s outward holes, which made it difficult for Nicklaus and his trademark fade in his debut. Six years later, a slight adjustment to his setup paid dividends. He closed the clubface at address to apply hook spin to his tee shots, a tweak that he admitted he was reluctant to make.
“The technique worked beautifully immediately,” Nicklaus wrote in his autobiography about the 1970 Open at St. Andrews, “reminding me that, yet again, no matter how long or well you play, there’s always something new to learn about the game of golf.”
Nicklaus also was the beneficiary of one of the great gaffes in major history, as Doug Sanders missed a 2-foot putt on the final hole of regulation. Nicklaus went on to beat him in a playoff. And eight years later, Nicklaus won by two strokes over Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite and Simon Owen.
Nicklaus’ appreciation for St. Andrews’ role in the game is why he chose to make it the scene of his final Open … twice. He originally intended to play the majors for the final time in 2000, but he returned to Scotland five years later for one last major championship.
Nicklaus’ farewells coincided with Woods’ wins, as he was victorious by a combined 13 shots in the 2000 and 2005 Opens. The eight-shot win at St. Andrews came on the heels of his 15-shot triumph in the 2000 U.S. Open. He famously did not hit his ball in any of St. Andrews’ 112 bunkers that week.
Woods’ score of 19 under par broke the record Nick Faldo had set at St. Andrews a decade earlier for lowest 72-hole score in relation to par at a major. Woods’ instructor at the time, Butch Harmon, said that Woods’ performance in St. Andrews that year was “the greatest ball-striking exhibition I’ve ever seen, and perhaps the greatest in history.”
That is high praise, considering Harmon watched Ben Hogan practice with his father before becoming an instructor to many of the top players in the game himself. Harmon watched Woods warm up for the first round by peppering the 300-yard sign on St. Andrews’ practice tee.
“Every shot – low fades, high draws and boring straight shots – flew over the center of the sign, bisecting the zero,” Harmon wrote in his book “The Pro.” “Most players would have been happy to hit it somewhere near the sign. … Tiger expected to hit every drive over that zero.”
Woods returned five years later to win by five shots.
“That’s how golf is meant to be played,” Woods said of St. Andrews. “You have to think. You have to think about your placement. … You have to picture a trajectory and shape and try to hit that.”
8. THE LOOP
Most links courses head ‘out’ and then ‘in,’ running in parallel tracks away from and back toward the clubhouse. The Old Course also goes ‘around’ in the middle of the round. It’s a famed stretch of holes known as ‘The Loop.’ One newspaper account describes those six holes as “a short, confusing stretch that yields birdies and, if one is not alert, bruises.” That’s most visible on the par-3 11th, where players walking from the tee to the green pass through the line of play for the par-4 seventh. The two holes also share a green.
“The Loop” is a circular stretch of holes out by the Eden Estuary that turns the Old Course back toward the Ol’ Gray Toon. “The Loop” is the site of the course’s only two par-3s, Nos. 8 and 11, and the longest of the four par-4s in that stretch is just 372 yards (the others are 356, 342 and 312 yards long). Depending on the wind, several of the par-4s are drivable, and it represents the most scorable stretch on the golf course.
9. LANDMARK ATTRACTIONS
There are more than 110 bunkers at St. Andrews and many of them are memorable not just for their size and depth, but also their names. A player will look at a bunker one day and then question its purpose. Then on the next day, when the wind blows from a different direction, he will be able to answer his own question. Alister Mackenzie wrote, “The bunkers at St. Andrews are thus placed in positions where players are most likely to go, in fact in the precise positions which the ordinary green committee would suggest should be filled up.”
The traps have names like Kitchen, Cottage, the Seven Sisters and Hell, as well as the Principal’s Nose and Spectacles.
“The strategy of this golf course is to respect the bunkers,” said Faldo, who hit it into just one when he won at St. Andrews in 1990. “Anything can happen. You get under the lip and you have to come out backwards or … you can’t even get to it.”
Said Irish legend Christy O’Connor Jr., “Bunkers should be a hazard. They are a hazard here at St. Andrews.”
The Hell bunker – which is some 300 square yards and 10 feet deep – forces players to make a choice on the Old Course’s longest hole. They can either fly over the bunker to get near or on the green or play to stay short. The bunker is so deep that players cannot see out of it. Jack Nicklaus needed four swings to escape in 1995, en route to a 10 on the hole.
“I tried to go sideways every time,” Nicklaus said. “I was just trying to get out. I couldn’t get out. I certainly don’t want to visit it again. I guess that’s why they call it Hell.”
Next to it is the small bunker known as Pulpit, so named because you can see Hell from there.
In 2015, the last time The Open was played at the Old Course, the 14th hole was one of just eight par-5s on the entire TOUR to play over par that year. It isn’t just the bunkers on No. 14 that have nicknames. The wide expanse of fairway right of the Beardies bunkers is known as the Elysian Fields, named for the final resting place of the heroic and virtuous in Greek mythology. The fairway is so named because it takes a bold drive between those penal pot bunkers and an out-of-bounds wall to reach it.
Because the Old Course used to be played in both directions (clockwise and its current counterclockwise routing), some of the bunkers are not visible from the tee in the current configuration. It is most evident on the 12th hole, where the sneaky fairway bunkers face the green.
The closing holes feature a couple of the course’s most famous bunkers. The Principal’s Nose is a cluster of three bunkers on the 16th hole, while the Road Bunker is, in Nicklaus’ words, “a terrifying pot bunker eating deep into the green’s left side.”
Tommy Nakajima famously needed four attempts to escape it in 1978 after putting his ball into the bunker, and David Duval made an 8 on the hole after also taking four swings in the bunker while playing alongside Woods in Sunday’s final group in 2000.
The 17th hole was the toughest on the entire TOUR in 2015, playing to a 4.66 scoring average.
There isn’t a bunker on St. Andrews’ final hole, but its green is guarded by another of the Old Course’s landmarks. The Valley of Sin is a deep depression that guards the left side of the green.
Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.