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The Old Course at St. Andrews is the most important golf course in the world. It may not be the first golf course, or perhaps the "best," whatever that means, but everything that people have loved about the game for more than a half-millennium can be traced back to it.
An opportunity to get away from it all and enjoy a few hours in nature? Check. You start and finish practically in the center of the medieval town of St. Andrews, but in between, you're out among rippling dunes, gorse bushes and the salty breeze off the Eden estuary, which surrounds The Old Course and its fellow St. Andrews Links Trust golf courses on three sides.
A platform for the greatest golfers of all time? Check. Tiger Woods (2000, 2005) and Jack Nicklaus (1970, 1978) have won the Open Championship there, hoisting the Claret Jug in the shadow of the imperious stone Royal & Ancient clubhouse. So have generational talents like Nick Faldo (1990), Seve Ballesteros (1984), Peter Thomson (1955) and Sam Snead (1946). Woods and Nicklaus both share the distinction of having completed the career Grand Slam at St. Andrews.
An almost mystical text from which the greatest golf course architects constantly derive inspiration? Check. When Bobby Jones, himself an Open Champion at St. Andrews (1927), sought to build what would become Augusta National Golf Club, he leaned on the expertise of Australian architect Alister MacKenzie, whose The Spirit of St. Andrews is one of the seminal books of golf course architecture. Is it any wonder that Dr. MacKenzie sought to use Augusta National to export The Old Course's main virtues to America?
The Old Course at St Andrews rarely appeals at first sight, and it not infrequently takes years before scoffers succumb to its many virtues.
Those virtues, have been transported across the globe by architects from C.B. Macdonald to Tom Doak in order to develop the greatest latter-day courses of all types. "Every golf course in the world owes something to the Old Course," wrote veteran golf correspondent Peter Dobereiner, "for, either by accident or design, it embodies every feature and architectural trick."
Books could be (and have been) written on what makes The Old Course interesting, but for the sake of quick reference, there are two bedrock design principles that it embodies: strategy and variety.
(Note: The Old Course's greens average more than 22,000 square feet each - by far the largest in championship golf. Meanwhile, the greens at The Country Club, site of last month's U.S. Open, average 4,400 square feet each. How's that for course-to-course variety?)
Because The Old Course tacks generally counterclockwise, the boundary of the course's skinny, candy cane-shaped tract is on the golfer's right for all but the five holes around the turn. On these holes, the overarching dynamic is that if you play down the right off the tee, you will be rewarded with fairly direct access to the green. There is generally a lot of room to bail left off the tee, but doing so means having to confront an awkward angle due to bunkers and contours that frustrate efforts to come in from the left side of greens. The notion of delaying the harder shot is foundational to compelling golf course architecture the world over.
While the rule of thumb about left and right may make The Old Course seem like it lacks variety, nothing could be further from the truth. The enormity of the course's greens - huge double greens serve all but four holes - means that roving hole locations can make a given hole play drastically differently one day to the next. On top of that, the elements - wind, firmness of turf, presence or absence of precipitation, temperature - are capricious in Scotland, such that every shot is a different challenge one day to the next. There are endless variations, both subtle and overt, that force players to engage mentally on a level that few of the tens of thousands of other golf courses in the world can match. It is the reason why The Old Course is known for growing on players the more they play it. "The Old Course at St Andrews rarely appeals at first sight," wrote Alister MacKenzie, "and it not infrequently takes years before scoffers succumb to its many virtues."
But the Old Course is large; it contains multitudes. Just as it helped establish so many conventions in golf and course design, it also breaks them just as readily.
It has just two par 5s, which is not especially rare in golf, but it also has just two par threes, which makes it one of three known 18-hole courses - all of them in Scotland (Elie, Irvine) - with so few one-shotters.
There is only one water feature at The Old Course: the Swilcan Burn. It only comes into play on one hole, the first.
The course has dozens of named features: entire holes and bunkers, mostly. Other courses have copied this, but the results are often corny at best. But The Old Course has its originality in its corner.
Would any golf course architect force a player to hit diagonally over part of a hotel property, and then again to an impossibly skinny and fussy green guarded by a road? Not if he or she wanted future work. And yet the 17th hole is iconic and beloved.
Millions of golfers value their Sunday rounds, but it's not allowed at The Old Course except on special occasions, like the final round of The Open Championship.
Did you know The Old Course was originally meant to play in the opposite direction? Now it's a once-a-year occurrence. How many other courses in the world permit such an outing? Almost none.
The Old Course's little quirks and features are part of what endear it to every smitten golfer, but what helps it endure are its 18 endlessly interesting holes, which add up to one of the most special journeys one can take in the game.
As you watch The 150th Open Championship this week, there will be interesting aspects of every single hole. Here is what you should know about The Old Course at St. Andrews.
Hole No. 1 - Burn
Par 4, 376 yards
What makes a tee shot to a 129-yard-wide fairway so nerve-wracking? How about the weight of half a millennium of golfing history and a century and a half of Open Championship history bearing down on your shoulders? Some - like Ian Baker-Finch in 1995 - may crack, but most will position a tee shot somewhere in the great expanse of fairway that affords a comfortable shot distance and angle to the day's hole location on the flattish green, set just on the other side of the Swilcan Burn.
Hole No. 2 - Dyke
Par 4, 453 yards
After the relative width of the opening tee shot, things tighten up in a hurry, as the second tee shot is blind and plays into the narrowest part of the property, where fewer than 90 yards separate the boundaries. The first double green on the course presents a fairly shallow target, made more elusive by the deep depression eating into the front of the putting surface.
Hole No. 3 - Cartgate (Out)
Par 4, 397 yards
Here, The Old Course's basic strategic dilemma reveals itself. There is ample room - fairway, even - available to accommodate a miss left, but the angle is rotten, as the Cartgate bunker stands in the way of the approach to most hole locations. Better to challenge the echelon of pots up the right to gain the preferred angle.
Hole No. 4 - Ginger Beer
Par 4, 480 yards
Golf equipment's largely unchecked evolution has seen to it that golfers now have to backtrack by more than 100 yards to get to the Open Championship tee here. This is an early opportunity for the longest hitters to distinguish themselves, as the fairway widens from less than 30 yards to more than 100 for those who can move the ball 290-plus yards through the air. A mound sits in front of this green like a giant pimple, waiting to deflect approach shots that do not carry far enough to front hole locations.
Hole No. 5 - Hole O'Cross (Out)
Par 5, 568 yards
A cavalcade of bunkers down the right rightly redirect the golfer's attention from the direct path to the green here, so most tee shots will veer left, where one of the course's march stones (markers denoting grazing land boundaries from as long as 800 years ago) sits. The second shot should clear a diagonal ridge between the famed Spectacles bunkers in order to reach the green in two.
Hole No. 6 - Heathery (Out)
Par 4, 412 yards
If this hole plays with the wind, players should be able to take all of the bunkers out of play, focusing instead on negotiating the low area short of the green on a wedge approach. But if the wind is in players' faces, the tee shot becomes a tactical challenge, as they will need to decide which bunkers to challenge, and which to leave alone.
Hole No. 7 - High (Out)
Par 4, 371 yards
The Eden Estuary heaves into view for the first time here, as does the imposing Shell bunker, which players should stay short of off the tee. The contouring of the bunker makes for an optical illusion that architects love copying at other courses: to the golfer's eye, the bunker looks like it is flush against the edge of the putting surface,when in reality more than 30 yards separate them. Here, players encounter traffic in the form of golfers playing the 11th hole, whose path crosses that of the 7th.
Hole No. 8 - Short
Par 3, 175 yards
Reversing direction for the first time all round, players will have to acclimate to a totally different wind quickly. The changing directions of that wind plus the enormity of the green mean this par 3 can require several different clubs on successive days.
Hole No. 9 - End
Par 4, 352 yards
Flat and featureless all the way except for the largely avoidable pot bunkers that the golfer encounters on the way to the green, this is as much a golf hole as a gas station, where steady players will look to refuel with a birdie (potentially an eagle if the wind is favorable) after a turbulent outward stretch and in preparation for the bumpy ride home.
Hole No. 10 - Bobby Jones
Par 4, 386 yards
A drivable hole under favorable wind conditions, there is more room for aggression off the tee here than usual, although a bunker some 55 yards short and right of the green sits in the perfect spot to catch a bailed-out tee ball. The massive oval putting surface, shared with the 8th, is more subtle than the more overtly contoured ones in the middle of the routing, but its front-to-back tilt makes things tricky, especially for those who will have putts of 30 yards or longer.
Hole No. 11 - High (In)
Par 3, 174 yards
The name of this hole is somewhat misleading; it is one of the most-copied par 3s in the world, initially popularized in America by C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor and going by the name "Eden," after the Eden Estuary, which provides the scenic backdrop to this scary hole. The deep left-side Hill bunker (which frustrated Bobby Jones to the point where he stormed off the course in anger on his first tussle with it) and front-right Strath bunker pinch the putting surface, which slopes hard from back to front. Going long is one of the biggest mistakes on the course, as a deep swale makes it almost impossible to get up and down.
Hole No. 12 - Heathery (In)
Par 4, 348 yards
Almost everything about this hole is wrong, which makes sense, because its corridor is most suited to the course's reverse routing. None of the bunkers, which are concentrated more down the center of the hole than any other, can be seen from the tee, but they're in plain view when one looks back from the green. The putting surface is as audacious as any in the world, with a shallow table-top section guarded by steep dropoffs short and long. It is appropriately scary for such a short par four; there will be birdies here and maybe an eagle or two, but you will also see some world-class golfers made to look like utter fools when they can't figure out the contours guarding most hole locations.
Hole No. 13 - Hole O'Cross (In)
Par 4, 465 yards
Remember the adage about playing left leaving a more awkward approach at The Old Course? This is a potential exception, as players who go far enough left off the tee, into the beginning of the sixth fairway, can actually catch sign of the flag between two mounds on this long two-shotter. Even if they can't see the green, they know there's plenty of it; the 5th/13th double-green is the largest on the course at more than 100 yards from end to end and nearly 38,000 square feet in total area.
Hole No. 14 - Long
Par 5, 618 yards
In many ways the highest standard against which other par 5s are judged, this hole is golf's version of Dante's Divine Comedy. There's heaven in the guise of the Elysian Fields, a rare flat landing area where the best tee shots come to rest and afford a sensible look toward the green. But to get there, golfers will have to go through - or, hopefully, over - Hell, the course's largest and deepest (10 feet) bunker, which will come into play for those who miss the fairway, especially if the wind is in. As usual, it is generally safe to tack left, but the prospects of wedging a ball close for a birdie from that side are far poorer than by taking the direct, dangerous route.
Hole No. 15 - Cartgate (In)
Par 4, 455 yards
Not overly long by modern standards, the tee shot nevertheless may take driver out of some players' hands, as the total fairway shrinks from 100 yards across (shared with the 4th) to barely 20 around the 300-yard mark. Bombers' greed could be punished if they find the rough, especially if the flag is cut near the pot bunker at the front of the green or the cashew-shaped Cartgate bunker at the back.
Hole No. 16 - Corner of the Dyke
Par 4, 423 yards
One of the tightest tee shots awaits here, as fewer than 30 yards separate the course's western boundary from the Principal's Nose, a triad of pot bunkers that defines the challenge. At 40 yards from front to back, the putting surface is plenty deep, but the presence of bunkers along the left and the aforementioned boundary right make things claustrophobic, especially as the round reaches its latest stages.
Hole No. 17 - Road
Par 4, 495 yards
In any other place, a drive over a corner of an old replica rail shed to a totally blind landing area followed by a tiny, pinched green that partially slopes away toward a road and stone wall directly behind and a fronting bunker more than six feet deep would add up to an abomination of a golf hole, one that no architect looking to be hired again would ever think to build. And yet, at St. Andrews, it is the most anticipated and iconic single test in links golf. All of the quirks and unusual challenges the course has thrown at a golfer so far collide at the Road Hole in a final, dramatic confrontation. If several golfers have a chance to win come the final holes on Sunday, this one will likely separate the winner from the rest, adding another chapter to its inimitable history.
Hole No. 18 - Tom Morris
Par 4, 357 yards
Once again, a short (sometimes drivable), extremely wide two-shotter is not exactly the typical major championship finishing hole, but that's part of what makes The Old Course so special: it breaks as many conventions as it has established, if not more. After the wringer of the Road hole, the closer will present the opportunity for a birdie that could help one golfer win the Claret Jug outright, as long as he can avoid the famous Valley of Sin short of the green.