Amongst certain circles it’s bordering on treason to say the Old Course is overrated. That being said, it seems to be a popular, if less outspoken opinion to say that whilst the experience is great, the course in comparison is a little disappointing. And if I’m to be frank, when it makes its appearance on our TV screens, it’s not a course I find particularly alluring, so I fully expected my own assessment of the course to conform with this ‘overrated’ opinion.
So with my expectations in check, I headed to Fife for a week-long golf tour, and I’ll happily admit that I was looking forward more to my day trip to East Lothian to play North Berwick than I was to my round on the Old Course. Notwithstanding these preconceptions however, my sense of anticipation quickly changed as soon as I reached The Home of Golf. For this university town must itself have a first-class degree in marketing and self promotion, because if you hadn’t been particularly excited about playing the Old Course before you arrive, you damn well soon will be. Once you’ve seen golfers teeing off the 1st and playing out 18, all whilst being situated slap-bang in the middle of the town, and then had this sense of anticipation compounded by facing ballot-place rejection for two consecutive days, getting that Old Course tee time suddenly gets an elevated sense of priority.
Anyway, I’m happy to report that the ballot came through third time lucky, saving us from the burden of lining up at an ungodly hour to join the singles' queue. So at dawn, allocated with the first open-ballot tee time of the day, an empty St Andrews Old Course with its centuries of history would greet us to what proved to be the most exceptional morning of golf.
I’m not going to even attempt to start trying to describe each hole. Countless articles, dissertations and books have been written about St Andrews’ hallowed turf in a far more eloquent and intellectual manner than I’d be able to, and in truth, I can’t recall every hole, but I can remember distinct features. Hollows, undulations and natural shapes, swales, gullies and run off areas all combine to mould a course like no other. It’s no wonder the Old Course represents ground-zero for golf architecture enthusiasts. You’re faced with mounds obscuring views, extreme contours and enormous yet severely undulating double greens. Each and every shot proves to be thought provoking and captivating. It’s the most intelligent course I’ve played, for it’s full of magic tricks and allows you to use your imagination like maybe no other course in golf. “How on earth did my ball end up there?” becomes a frequent thought due to the hidden hazards dotted here and there such as the crazy reverse bunkers on 12 which only come into view once you’ve idled your way past them.
The bunkers themselves are tremendous, many of which are monstrous in size and depth. Similar to many other natural catastrophes like typhoons and hurricanes, they’ve been given names to add to the sense of terror that comes with approaching them; Cartgate, Seven Sisters, Spectacles, Shell, Strath, Hell and Roadhole, to name but a few. But whilst the features themselves are distinctive and memorable, I can’t say the same for all of the holes individually, which is why some people probably don’t hold the course in the same high regard.
Nevertheless, the closing stretch from 11, where you play a mid iron to a raised green ahead of the Eden Estuary, and then make your way inward and back into town is just phenomenal. And each hole here along this closing sequence, together with each shot I played, for better or worse, has been etched into my brain. Then comes the crescendo at 17, a real tough old dog of a hole, a reputation well deserved as I fell foul of a triple bogey, before playing the glorious albeit simpler 18th for the first time. There are much better holes across the Old Course than the 18th, but this final hole is pure theatre and sense of occasion. It’s a hairs standing on end experience and one that’s unrivalled in that to my knowledge, no other course has a closing hole that gets amongst the public like this one. The drive with danger down the right, the photo for old time’s sake on the Swilken Bridge, playing your approach in front of the R&A building and Hamilton Grand hotel and then putting out on the 18th with the knowledge of what history has been made here before you. Then you have to hold your nerve in front of all of the people that gather to watch around the green; why oh why did I leave myself a three-footer on the last? There must be 20-odd people watching from the street.
So sink the putt, gesture to the watchers-on like it was never in doubt, and enjoy a well earned pint in the Jigger Inn. The course and the experience are inseparable, and this is an experience that any golf lover must pay homage to during their lifetime.
The Old Course overrated you say? Not for me.
Date: May 06, 2019