What golf's 'Patio-gate' episode of 2023 reveals about the limits of change in a centuries-old obsession

The public outcry over the Royal & Ancient's well-intentioned renovation of one of the game's most sacred spots is a reminder of how even though change and modernity are always present, nostalgia and tradition drive golf's appeal.
The Swican Bridge at The Old Course at St. Andrews Links is an icon. Even the slightest alteration is enough to get golf fans riled up, as the St. Andrews Links Trust learned recently.

If they were alive today, those shepherds might die laughing at the commotion.

The Scots who built a small but sturdy bridge of scarcely three paces over the skinny Swilcan Burn some 700 years ago thought they were just making it easier to move livestock around the outskirts of St. Andrews. They had no idea what their creation - one of probably hundreds laid over burns, brooks and streams throughout the country - would mean centuries later.

Change is all the rage in golf. But you'd better not dare touch our bridge.

Similarly, the Royal & Ancient and the St. Andrews Links Trust seemingly had no idea what a firestorm they would touch off by trying to preserve that little stone bridge, the Swilcan Bridge, the spiritual center of the universe for millions of golfers.

What is 'Patio-gate,' and why did golfers lose their minds about it?

In case you missed it, this four-act drama unfolded on social media, starting last weekend, when prominent golf blogger David Jones - 'UK Golf Guy' - made a startling discovery while visiting The Old Course at St. Andrews Links: an array of stones laid out a few steps short of the famous landmark.

Jones' tweet went viral, setting off scores of responses. "Who sanctioned this monstrosity?" asked longtime golf writer John Huggan. Australian pro golfer Scott Hend replied to the original tweet, calling it "Shockingly bad".

On Sunday, the Links Trust issued a statement explaining the project. "Historically the bridge has previously seen a stone pathway leading onto it," they said, adding that the goal of the project was "to preserve the iconic nature of the Swilcan Bridge and its surroundings while ensuring that as many people as possible can continue to visit the site year round."

By and large, golfers did not accept the explanation, and continued to cry out against it. Some even had a bit of fun with the imagery provided, including PGA Tour veteran and PGA Tour Champions member Tim Herron:

To their credit, the Links Trust read the writing on the screen took swift and decisive action. On Monday, they issued a follow-up statement, saying that "while this installation would have provided some protection, in this instance we believe we are unable to create a look which is in keeping with its iconic setting and have taken the decision to remove it."

The statement also acknowledged, albeit obliquely, the influence of the public outcry on the decision. "We have also taken on feedback from many partners and stakeholders as well as the golfing public and we would like to thank everyone who has been in touch for their contribution to the issue," it continued. "The widespread attention and commentary is indicative of the regard in which St Andrews is held around the world and we are conscious of our role in preserving this heritage while recognising its hallowed grounds have continued to evolve to meet demands for more than 600 years."

The stones are to be removed - none of them thrown through the windows of detractors, hopefully - and the walk-up to the bridge replanted with turf.

Patio-gate and golf's tolerance for change

The Swilcan Bridge is one of those rare places where golf's capital-H 'History' collides with the personal. Everyday enthusiasts can enjoy a meaningful moment there, just like the greats of the game.

Golf is undergoing significant changes on multiple fronts. Its historic surge in popularity in the last three years has obliterated the previous narrative: that the game was graying, decaying and taking up more space in the world than it deserved. But things are different now. Major equipment manufacturers are all-in on off-course 'golfertainment' venues, with Callaway merging with Topgolf and TaylorMade investing in PopStroke. Short courses, long considered a less-than-serious form of golf, are popping up across the world, their virtues as enjoyable diversions for avid players and potential to induct newbies into the game finally being taken seriously by resorts, municipalities and institutions. And golf's spectator-sport side is poised to evolve rapidly in the coming years, as LIV Golf and the PGA Tour vie for dominance while the four major championships continue to grow in importance. It receives the Netflix treatment in the form of all-access docuseries Full Swing later this month. Change is all the rage in golf.

But you'd better not dare touch our bridge.

Critical distance is a tricky thing. The stewards of St. Andrews see the Swilcan Bridge every day. They know its importance, of course, but it's a familiar object, close enough at hand that they likely felt it was not just a good idea to lay some extra stones at the bridge's north end, but almost necessary, in order to make sure the landmark continues to be something anyone can experience for centuries to come.

But for golfers thousands of miles away, the Swilcan Bridge is a sacred relic, and touching it or its surrounds is simply unthinkable. It is too loaded down with golf history, not just universal but personal as well. Sure, Old Tom and Bobby and Arnie and Jack and Tiger have walked over it, but so have we, with friends and family. Even if the Royal & Ancient never considered changing the structure itself, to a sensitive and tradition-conscious golfing public, even just a few extra stones on the ground is a bridge too far.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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What golf's 'Patio-gate' episode of 2023 reveals about the limits of change in a centuries-old obsession