Make the pilgrimage: Playing the Old Course at St. Andrews

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Playing the Old Course at St. Andrews is a pilgrimage every golfer should make at least once during his life time. For the Old Course has been an epic stage for some of the greatest moments in world golf. Arnold Palmer's fond farewell to the British galleries in 1995 is amongst my personal favourites.

At every green, thousands of fans took their chance to give one final standing ovation to the man who single-handedly rejuvenated American interest in our Open Championship. I don't think any greater tribute has been paid to any man and no one who witnessed it will ever forget Arnie stopping on the Swilcan Bridge to acknowledge St. Andrews' galleries for the last time.

However, there are hundreds of other great moments which have occurred on these famous links. Bobby Jones captured the British Amateur title here in 1930 en route to his remarkable grand slam. More recently, Tiger Woods completed the modern grand slam when he won the Open Championship for the first time here in July of 2000.

At almost every juncture there are sights which are instantly recognizable to anyone with a passion for the game. The Swilcan Burn, the Road Hole, Hell Bunker, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the Swilcan Bridge, and the Old Course Hotel. In the intervening years between the two dominant figures of Woods and Jones, many of the other greats have triumphed over the Old Course.

Nicklaus won the Open here in both 1970 and 1978. 1970 was the year Doug Sanders missed from three feet at the last when the title was within his grasp. Nicklaus went on to win the eighteenth hole play-off by one shot from the luckless Sanders. The late Seve Ballesteros captured his second Open Championship crown at St. Andrews in 1984. Faldo won at St. Andrews in 1990 with an amazing score of seventeen under par. Although this was narrowly surpassed by Tiger in 2000, many critics feel that due to the testing conditions, Faldo's four rounds were the best anywhere in Open history.

These snapshots of golfing history provide a glimpse of why St. Andrews is a golfing mecca for all. Every where you look their are images which instantly generate personal memories for every lover of the game.

The first at St. Andrews provides the most generous target anywhere in championship golf. At a remarkable one hundred yards wide, most (although surprisingly not all), will be able to find this fairway.

However, despite the vast expanse of fairway in front of you, it is impossible not to be nervous on the first tee of the Old Course. The members of the R&A will be watching from their lounge window, and irrespective of the time of day, there will be tourists casting an envious glance at anyone lucky enough to be teeing it up at the first.

Whilst the opening blow at St. Andrews may be relatively easy, the approach to the first is devilishly tricky. For immediately in front of the green lies the Swilcan Burn. Accordingly, one more club than you initially think is always a wise move, but still the shot requires a great deal of flare. Even if one carries the burn, the work is not always done, for the greens here can be lightning quick and it is not unheard of for even the professionals to race their first putt past the hole only to find it nestling back in the burn which they had been so glad to avoid with their seconds.

Once the challenges of the first have been overcome, the golfer gets the chance to settle into the course a little. For with television coverage such as it is, the networks inevitably show more of the closing holes where titles are won and lost rather than the developments that happen during the opening exchanges. Nevertheless, if a good score is to be achieved over these famous links, it is essential to make a solid start.

As a result of the design of the course where many of the greens and fairways are shared, it is almost always better to go left instead of right. Indeed, the seven shared greens are one of the many unique features about St. Andrews. This has two consequences, firstly the greens themselves are expansive, indeed the green shared by the fifth and thirteenth is the largest green in world golf. Secondly it means that on the Old Course, your putting stroke will receive a thorough examination. Putt well and you will be rewarded, putt badly and the numbers on the card will rise sharply.

My own personal opinion is that the opening stretch at St. Andrews lacks a bit in character, with numerous partially blind tee shots. However, when the golfer reaches the seventh, the course exudes personality and illustrates why it has been and will continue to be the scene for many Open Championships.

At the seventh, the player is faced with a tight drive into a narrow bottleneck. From there, the hole sweeps sharply right. Unless playing into a strong breeze the large bunker in front of the green really should not come into play. That said, the bunker does make the putting surface seem closer than it really is and one should check the yardage carefully before hitting your second.

The eighth is one of the two short holes at St. Andrews and its appeal has to be in the simplicity of its design. One large, deep bunker guards the front of this green from where there quite literally is often no escape. The challenge is to carry the bunker and to stop the ball running past the cup. The green itself is large and therefore finding the putting surface is no real feat, but setting up a realistic birdie chance requires a great deal of precision.

The ninth throws up a definite birdie chance. For the longer hitters it is within reach at 356 yards. The difficulty lies in avoiding the two/three large cleverly placed bunkers in the middle of the fairway. Those taking on the green must go left of these, others with less length may choose the right hand side of the fairway, as it arguably gives a better angle of approach. If, however, you fancy the challenge of the left hand route, don't be overly intimidated by the tee shot. There is a lot more room left than you think from the tee.

The eleventh is the other par three at St. Andrews, and must be amongst the most difficult in golf. At 172 yards, it is not phenomenally long but it presents other tremendous challenges. Anything fractionally short will run off the steep banking in front leaving an awkward pitch shot. Anything long leaves no shot whatsoever, as stopping the ball on the green from over the back is impossible. Consequently, your best and perhaps only chance of three here is to find the putting surface with your tee shot. Even then the vicious sloping nature of this green makes two putts no formality.

On the way back in, the 14th stands out as the most challenging of all. While not as famous as its counterpart at the seventeenth, the statistics from Open Championships at St. Andrews mark this hole out as toughest on the course. A wonderful 567 yard, par five with no escape routes, and tactical choices to be made with every shot. The first decision to be made off the tee is whether to stick to the conventional route and play down the fourteenth fairway or to try and carry the ball on to the fifth fairway. The latter route takes Hell bunker out of play but requires a good hit to carry the Beardies ( a set of bunkers) on the left of the fourteenth fairway.

The more conventional route is filled with potential disaster. For on the right of this fairway is a dry stone dyke marking the out of bounds, while on the left are the aforementioned Beardies. Finding the fairway, known as the Elysian Fields, should be met by a sigh of relief. The only requirement for the second shot here is to avoid Hell bunker, the sight of many a downfall.

Nicklaus was stuck in here during the 1995 Open and eventually ended up recording a double figure score for the fourteenth. Once passed Hell bunker, the demands of the hole are far from finished as this green has a steep embankment on its right hand side. If the pin is anywhere on the right of this green, the approach shot will be tricky. Anything boldly floated over the bank will have great difficulty stopping. Consequently the best ploy has to be employing the trusty pitch and run.

The 17th at St. Andrews almost speaks for itself. A treacherous hole where a par is such an achievement that your grandchildren will no doubt one day hear of the feat. The drive needs to be tighter to the hotel than you may have envisioned, for any shot which is conservatively pushed down the left will find the rough leaving no chance of getting home in two.

Once the drive is away, the second shot is as demanding as any in golf. Often it is played with a long iron to a plateaued green which is only about ten yards deep. Added to that are the facts that firstly the road lurks in wait beyond this green and secondly that the pin invariably sits grinning to itself behind the notorious road hole bunker.

Anyone who finds the putting surface here has played a fantastic shot and deserves to two putt at worsted for that much sought after par. It is perhaps testimony to the seventeenth's difficulty that par is the sought after and yet often elusive score.

Once passed the 17th try and soak up the atmosphere of this famous setting. Afterall, the 18th fairway and its surroundings are an amphitheater of history. Take time to enjoy the experience while you're there as many can only make this pilgrimage once.

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Make the pilgrimage: Playing the Old Course at St. Andrews