Five Things Golfers Might Not Know About The Old Course in St. Andrews

To trace the history of golf back to its origins, you have to look back to The Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.  It was there that golf was really shaped into the game we all play and love.  Today, The Old Course is still as important to the game of golf as it was in the 1860’s.  It is the home of the Royal & Ancient (“R&A”), official keepers of the game and developers of the official rules of golf around the world. Every five years the Open Championship returns to St. Andrews, which was again the case in 2010 as the Open celebrated its 150th anniversary.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Scotland to watch the Open with my parents, sister, aunt and uncle.

I think every golfer is quite familiar with St. Andrews and The Old Course.  This is especially true for those of my vintage, who have undoubtedly played the golf numerous times on Tiger Woods golf on their Playstations or X-Box’s.  For everyone else, they’ve seen the course on television.  They’ve seen the strong winds, the brown greens and the seemingly endless fairways.  Having had the opportunity to walk around the course for four days, I thought I would share a few things that fascinated me and might not be familiar to the five of you that read my blog.

The Layout

Have you ever given much thought to the golf scorecard at your favourite club?  On the front nine, you will be considered to have gone ‘out’.  The back nine is known as the inward half (or ‘in’).  This terminology originates in St. Andrews, where the course layout is literally a trip out and away from the clubhouse followed by nine holes to get back in.

What struck me was how straight out and then in the course layout is.  Most of the course fits inside of 150- 300 yards of space in terms of width.  After seven holes straight out, there is a bit of a loop for four holes to get turned around for the trip home.  Included in these four holes are the only two par 3’s on the course.  I always seem to forget that there are only two par 3’s and two par 5’s on the course.

If you look at the layout pictured above, you’ll note the famous double-greens.  I was surprised at the number of double greens and just how big they were.  Eight of the eighteen holes share greens.  The green for holes 5 and 15 is probably 100 yards from front to back.  We were in the grandstand there for the early part of Sunday thinking that the par 5 5th was going to be a big momentum hole.  The R&A opted to put the pin almost at the very back of the green which made par a solid score on the day.

The Origin of Bunkers

One of the fun things about taking in the Open is listening to the golf coverage on the radio.  The commentators are witty, knowledgeable and thorough in their analysis.  BBC radio in the UK is a commercial free experience which means a lot of time for getting into the history of the game and interesting facts.

On the Saturday, they put out a question to the listeners to guess at the origin of bunkers in the game of golf.  Find me a golfer and I’ll show you someone who hates playing out of the sand!  In St. Andrews, they have those famous pot bunkers which make even the professional golfers cringe.

Alright, go ahead and make a guess at why there are sand traps in the game of golf.  I’ll give you a hint that The Old Course was the first place to feature them.

Sorry, your guess is wrong!  Bunkers were a naturally occurring feature at St. Andrews and Old Tom Morris decided to not mess with nature when designing some of the holes.  But how did they naturally occur?

Well my friends, St. Andrews was built on a sand based piece of land near the sea.  The course is famous for its strong winds, which were a prominent feature of Friday’s play at this year’s Open.  In its early days, the course also doubled as a place for grazing sheep.  As it turns out, sheep aren’t big fans of big winds and would join forces to burrow into the ground and create holes to hide in when it was really windy out.  These holes ended up being many of the pot bunkers you seen on television when watching golf played at St. Andrews!  I had to double check this when I got home from my trip to make sure the announcers weren’t just blowing smoke up between my legs.

The Location of The Old Course

The location of the course is probably something you haven’t given much thought to.  If you are like me, you associate links golf with Scotland and you associate it with golf played along the coast.  I went to Troon in 2004 to watch the Open and it featured many holes right up against the coastline.  I assumed St. Andrews was similar.

Surprise, surprise, The Old Course isn’t up against the water!  Hole 12 and hole 13 tee are quite close to the water, though it is more like mud during the day when the tide is out.  Holes 8 and 12 on the course layout map above are a good 200-400 yards from the water.  Beyond those holes are some of the holes from The New Course at St. Andrews.

The other thing that surprised me was the location of the course relative to the town of St. Andrews.  It is smack dab in the middle of downtown, surrounded by shops, restaurants and the university.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised; golf is central to the life in Scotland.  The local golf course might as well be central to the town. 

For those that decide to make the pilgrimage to St. Andrews, make sure you check out the R&A’s British Golf Museum which is right across the street from the course.  Lots of old golf balls, clubs and pictures of the game.

The Road Hole

The road hole is the most famous golf hole in the game.  It is the 17th at St. Andrews and presents golfers with their toughest test of the day before the easy par 4 18th.  The players tee off over a hotel and are then faced with a green built right beside a road and a wall.  Local rules do not permit a player to take relief if they end up on the road or up against the wall.  Play that ball as it lies!  Miguel Angel Jiminez played one of the most memorable shots in this year’s Open when he purposely hit the ball against the wall and had it ricochet back up onto the green.

The television coverage does not do justice to just how silly and hard the road hole actually is. 

You will see in the above picture the player’s view from the tee on 17.  There is absolutely no view of the fairway or the green.  The name of the game is to aim at the ‘o’ in hotel and maybe hit the tiniest of draws if you are a right handed player.

Looking up at the layout of the hole, you’ll notice that the fairway runs at a diagonal to the tee.  What this means is that any tee shot not hit perfectly and on line will end up in the rough. 

To make matters worse, the green runs at a diagonal the opposite direction of the fairway, protected by a deep pot bunker just right of the green.  Immediately to the right of the green is a three of four foot drop onto the road.  The only place you can hit the ball is the little bulb at the front of the green, but even that is elevated from the fairway.  Throw in some wind and it is impossible to get on the green unless you are perfectly in the fairway off the tee. 

We spent most of Saturday and Sunday camped out in the grandstands by the 17th green.  For anyone who has watched professional golf in person, you will know that sitting at one hole can be a bit boring.  Almost every player hits the ball to the same spot on the green and misreads the putt the same way.  Not the case at St. Andrews! 

Given the difficulty of the hole, no two players played the hole the same.  The only thing that was for sure was the player’s score depending on where they were after their second shot.  Players would make a bogey five from the road; six if they tried to be cute with their first attempt to pitch the ball.  A bogey five also awaited players who ended up in the bunker.  A double bogey six was the penalty for being way short left in the heavy rough; the likely resting spot for second shots played from the rough.  A par four was awarded to those who managed to hit their second shots on the green.  Birdies were reserved for the very lucky who managed to hole a chip or drain a long putt.

The Wind

My fifth and final surprise from the Open was the wind.  The wind is what makes links golf such a challenge and makes St. Andrews a course to be feared.

On Thursday morning, the players were met with a bit of drizzle and not a breath of wind.  As we walked around the golf for the first time, my initial impression was that the course was dead easy.  Every hole had huge fairways and even bigger greens.  Most of the holes weren’t very long.  The greens were filled with bumps and hollows, but I couldn’t see myself making more than a bogey on most holes. 

The professionals who played Thursday morning felt the same way.  John Daly was eight under after 11 holes on his way to shooting 66 which was a slightly better than average round in the morning.  Tiger Woods played very mediocre on his way to 67, while Rory McIlroy cruised around the course in a nine under 63. 

These same players played on Friday afternoon when the winds roared.  My impression of the course quickly shifted from dead easy to ‘help, get me outta here!’  My score if I had played on that afternoon would have been somewhere north of a million I think.  Rory’s 63 was followed by an 80 on Friday to put in perspective how much the course changed.  Below are the individual hole averages on Thursday and Friday.  Overall, the average score went up about three and a half shots.

The one thing to point out about the wind is how consistent it is.  By that I mean the wind blows from the same direction on many of the holes given how north and south the layout is.  On the front nine, the wind a bit into the players and blowing across the holes to the left.  Coming in, the wind is with the players slightly and blowing from the right.  Any shot that isn’t struck properly is quickly eaten up by the wind.  Add to the mix all the bumps and hollows and who knows where the ball is going to end up!

My advice to video game players is to load up The Old Course and set the wind to ‘nutty’.  Your perception of the course will change big time.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully this made for a decent read of a few interesting facts about St. Andrews and The Old Course.  For anyone interested in learning more about the history of the course and the game, I cannot recommend highly enough the book “Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris”.  It is certainly the best book I have ever read on game and the perfect bit of research for anyone before they head over to Scotland.  Until next time, keep it in the short stuff.

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2 Comments

Filed under Golf, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Five Things Golfers Might Not Know About The Old Course in St. Andrews

  1. adam

    hey JJ, nice review. as you know I don’t have much experience with golf and definitely less with the courses that are played. it is interesting to read about the history. what is with the 17th anyways. why did it end up like that???

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