The Experience of Playing the Old Course at St Andrews
Article by Golfshake Ambassador Andrew Picken - Part of the Ultimate Lad & Dad Trip
Beginning the Ultimate Lad & Dad Trip with my son, Alex, Monday was a travel day from Derbyshire to St Andrews, our seven hour car journey was an absolute pleasure to make knowing our tee time on the Old Course had been secured. The A1 was kind to us and the Scottish scenery was fascinating and beautiful.
We drove into the town two hours before our tee time to meet with Golfshake's Digital Editor and local resident Kieran Clark in order to savour the atmosphere of the place. We had arranged to meet in the Links Clubhouse car park.
But I mistakenly parked at the Old Course Hotel. Not a good choice given the presence of two golf balls sitting looking forlorn on the tarmac having just been “parked” themselves by golfers playing the 17th on the Old Course. Hopefully none of us would experience a similar fate a few hours later.
The Town of St Andrews
St Andrews has a pulse of its own. It is intrinsically linked to the university and golf. It is difficult to describe fully the feeling of playing the Old Course other than to say that it felt like I was playing it with ghosts watching over my shoulder as an eager spectator.
The town is golf, its spiritual home, the cradle of the game, but it is more than that. The inclusivity and importance of the Links to St Andrews is unique in global golf. On Sundays when the course is closed kids play on the fairways, students arrange snowball fights across the hallowed fairways in winter, and dog walkers roam the iconic holes. This is a very special place to visit.
We all decided to carry our bags and not use a caddie given Kieran’s local knowledge of every inch of the course. When YOU visit please note that trolleys are not allowed on the course until after 12pm if you are if you’re lucky enough to obtain an early morning slot.
We wandered excitedly to the putting green and I literally just stood and looked over the general activities in the front of the striking R&A Clubhouse. I had seen this building so many times on the TV and it really was a strange but to be at that location waiting to play on this incredible golf course, walking in the footsteps of history.
Kieran told us of the story of the rich American visitor who entered the ballot. He got himself a tee time, hired a full set of equipment and caddie. He then hit a single tee shot before shaking the hands of his playing partners, paying and tipping the bagman, then walking off. He simply wanted to be able to say but he had played a tee shot from the first tee of the Old Course at St Andrews. But there was absolutely no chance that any of us would be choosing to walk off after one-shot.
As we were called to the starter hut, Alex announced that this was the widest fairway in golf, 129 yards from one side to the other. No pressure here then. Our green fee included a lovely inscribed valuables pouch, course planner, tees, pencils and pitch mark repairer.
I could feel my heart beating loudly in my ears as the group in front of us played away. My blood pressure rocketed; I was soon going to be achieving an ambition that I had held for over 40 years.
My late father in law, Joe, had talked in reverential tones about his visit to St Andrews but he was unable to get on the course to play. I intended to use a few of his old golf balls, replicating the tribute I paid him at Royal Portrush. I had searched his golfing paraphernalia and discovered a very old course planner detailing the Old Course. Tucked inside the front of the plastic case was a receipt for his purchase of the planner and a sleeve of non-descript golf balls that that the Old Course logo fixed on them. These balls were like pebbles. Given they were bought in July 1989, that’s no surprise.
We were remembering my late father in law and his gift of golf to me. I know that to play this place was on his bucket list but through ill health he never achieved his goal. I was still unprepared for the wave of emotion that overtook me as I put his ball into play.
I, in turn, was trying to reinforce the gift of golf that I had passed on to my son.
Playing the Old Course
This is a very special place - a borderline religious experience - and we all felt privileged to be playing in the footsteps of the legendary golfers who went before.
It has a history and past that provides the entire foundation to our wonderful game. As the sun set on our experience, I fully appreciated the terrain on which we were playing. The shadows highlighted and accentuated the natural form of the ground. It almost began to come alive as we walked and the shadows animated the fairways.
Some have been unimpressed on their first time playing here, legendary course architect Pete Dye for one. (Dye described the Old Course as being a cow pasture on his first round but then played it twice more to declare that actually it was the greatest course in creation).
I simply recognised that mother nature had created impacted sand dunes that were 2000 years old and that man had adapted them for his use over 600 years ago. 112 bunkers disguised off the tee. Most having their own names which is ominous in its own right. Coffins, Grave, Hell, Principal's Nose. These don’t give a welcoming impression, do they?
The great Bobby Jones declared: “You have to study it, the more you study, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you study.” He walked off mid round after his first competitive experience here during the 1921 Open but then grew to love it and was in turn adored by the Scottish fans as he learned how to tame the beast, winning the Claret Jug in 1927.
Jones later said: “I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St Andrews and I would still have a rich, full life.”
Having reviewed the photos and videos we took, it is clear the sheer joy, togetherness and absolute pleasure that we gained from the opportunity to play the Old Course. It is one of my most memorable golf experiences and it will stay with me for many years to come.
As I wandered up the 17th fairway to find my provisional ball. The first sliced right around the Old Course Hotel and into the pond in the middle of the garden. I genuinely found myself quietly reflecting on the names of those who had made this same walk over generations past.
Old & Young Tom Morris
JH Taylor, Harry Vardon and James Braid. The Great Triumvirate
Bobby Jones and Sam Snead
Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema
Seve Ballesteros and Sir Nick Faldo
I couldn’t help but think about the putt that Seve made into his iconic fist punch.
Playing here felt like tapping into a sporting time machine and being able to access its memory banks that are specific to you as a golf fan.
Looking back towards the famous skyline and driving past Grannie Clark’s Wynd, the road that cuts across the first and 18th fairway is a memory that I will take with me to the grave, the elation at then sinking the par putt was incredible. It was not the most graceful swing but it was one of the most exciting I have ever made.
Part of my excitement at crossing the road with my tee shot was that I knew that Bobby Jones played from the tarmac during his Open win in 1927. He was the first winner to record an under-par score. The tarmac was only four years old and as his ball fell into the hole it was said that 10,000 spectators watched as ball, grass and tar tumbled into the hole to rapturous applause.
After our round as I walked off the final green, I thought to myself that I could play this course 1000 times, on 1,000 consecutive days and could guarantee a 1,000 different experiences. Alongside Alex, it was a very special moment in my golf life and my life as a father.
Playing Here is a Sensory Experience
The squeals of delight of the kids playing on the beach. The students who bring a net and play beach volleyball within sight of the Old Pavilion. The sounds of the perfectly struck shots by elite amateurs playing in the Links Trophy, a simple handshake away from the noise of the laughter coming from the Himalayas. The groups of American tourists in the garden of the Jigger Inn “supporting” their mates as they play the 17th.
There is a distinct smell to the place. I could smell the salt of the sea at many places around the course. The estuary at high tide has a very distinctive scent with a musty, damp odour. The gorse and heather and sandy turf has a smell that I can only describe as Scotland in a tin. When you spend the amount of time, I do in the rough it seeps into the fabric of your trousers and stays with you for hours after the game.
Father & Son Connection
This trip was designed to add to Alex’s golfing education. He came to the game late and I’ve always tried to pass on an understanding of the game and its traditions and heritage. Golf is like life and can throw you some bitter pills.
Its life lessons, the friendships, the heartaches, the sheer FUN and joy that it has provided for me. I want him to enjoy that legacy long after my departure and it is clear that he too has developed a passion for the game. He knows the good breaks, the bad breaks and the occasional piece of fortune that accompany most of us as we play this wonderful game.
I found myself remembering my own late father and father in law. It felt like a very special moment as we approached the iconic Road Hole green together sharing this epic adventure. I knew that despite them no longer being here I would never finish being a son. Generations had gone before, each having its own appreciation of this wonderful place.
The Meaning of Time
I have just realised as I read this back that TIME is the key factor I have been describing. It links all the players who graced the ground before and after our visit. Time taken to enjoy this wonderful experience. Time taken to be terrified at its prospect. Will the dread and fear of failure outweigh the delight of the chance to play?
Time to appreciate this special place with special people. I knew I would never have the ability of the elite that had played before but I also knew that the pleasure I felt probably was more than they had ever felt at being at this place at that time.
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