Playing the Old Course at St Andrews
For as long as I can remember, I had wanted to play at least once, the Old Course, the Home of Golf. It would be my Hajj, my pilgrimage to where golf was born. Cecile and I, with our friends, the Rosenfields, had planned the trip six months before. First consideration was securing a tee time at the Old Course, then building the rest of our trip around it. Our tee time was Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 at 9:40 am.
We arrived at St Andrews on Saturday afternoon, June 11 and stayed at The Old Course Hotel, with our second floor rooms bordering the infamous Road Hole, the 17th. After unpacking, we spent some time observing from our windows players attempting to reach the 17th fairway from the tee box, a carry of 180 yards with a cross wind blowing toward the hotel. Most failed with their ball landing in tall rough, in a devilishly placed bunker or on the hotel grounds. The most successful appeared to be those who could carry over 200 yards, over the hotel, with their driver, or those aiming at and landing on the parallel 2nd fairway. Since there is no way I can carry that distance, knowledge of the alternative way will be useful when playing the course.
On Sunday, we played the Kingsbarn Course, another highly rated links course, situated a few miles north of St Andrews. The weather was nasty, alternating between misting and raining, with a strong cold wind coming from the North Sea and the temperature in the low fifties. We had come prepared. Rain jacket, rain pants, rain hat and rain gloves. These were worn over an undershirt, a long sleeved wind shirt, and cashmere. We needed all that. At the turn, we were treated with free hot drinks fortified with an once of local single malt whisky.
My caddy said “This club does offer such free drinks to thank golfers for playing despite really bad conditions, such as today.” I thought, “The weather has to get better from here…” Wrong!
Tuesday, June 14. I had left the drapes partially open to allow the dawning light to wake us up gradually…at 4:40 am! Oh miracle, the sky was cloudless. As the sun rose, it cast long shadows on the Old Course. I could see ground undulations, greens, tee boxes and bunkers very clearly. Between our windows and the North Sea, half a mile away, were three golf courses, the Old, the New and the Jubilee. Not a single tree, but lots of bunkers and gorse bushes. That’s what makes link courses. I hurried and took pictures.
Unfortunately, shortly after seven, the sky became cloudy again and by nine it was misting. The practice area which is a modern addition is located inside a building with a missing wall, allowing us to hit balls to an area with yardage indicators. I was hitting the ball well, but whatever I did, by ball which started straight would fade to the right. It’s when I walked out of the practice building that I understood why. The breeze from the North Sea had freshened. By the time we teed off, it was raining slightly
My goal, coming to St Andrews, was to experience the course. I told myself I was glad it was cold (52˚) windy and raining, because playing it on a sunny windless day would have been a false experience. Playing golf is yourself against the course. On a given day, the course is easier or harder. You, on the other hand are either in good or not so good form. What will it be today? The course has already stated it would be difficult. How would I respond to it?
Hole #1, Burn, 355 yards, par 4. The hole is straightforward, with a wide fairway and no bunker. The only problem is the Swilcan Burn, a 4-5 feet wide ditch running in front of the green. I had 140 yards left for my second shot and Graeme Low, my fifty year old experienced caddy, suggested I lay up in front of the burn. I told him I felt confident I could carry the burn and be on the green in two. I took extra club because of the wind and, in the excitement, managed to hit the ball thin. I looked with despair as my “worm burner” rolled fast toward the ditch. At the last second, my ball hit an undulation and jumped over the burn and ended up just right of the green. After a bad chip, I two putted for a bogey 5.
I also bogeyed holes #2 and# 3. By hole #4, we had a cross wind of about 30 miles per hour, with patches of horizontal rain on and off. The hole was a 411 yards par 4. After three shots, I was still 100 yards from the green. Luckily, I pitched to three feet from the pin and sank the putt for a one putt bogey. I made a one putt pars on holes #5 and#6. Hole #7 was to be my Waterloo. I hit my second shot into an enormous greenside bunker, nicknamed “The Shell”. My ball had landed about two feet from the face of that bunker which consisted of stacked sod to a height of 10 feet. My only way out was sideway to the left with very little safe ground to aim for. Once again, I was lucky to miss hit the ball thin. It hit the side wall of sod at such an angle as to pop out behind the trap. A poor pitch and three putts gave me a triple bogey seven.
I bogeyed #8 and pared #9 for a satisfactory 44 for the front nine. I figured if I could shoot 46 on the more difficult back nine, it would give me a score of 90 and a net score of 71 since my current handicap is 19. In fact, as the Old Course is a par 72, I would have beaten the course, at least in my mind.
I indulged in a “fortified” coffee at the turn, this time not complimentary, and I was ready to battle the second nine. The course, however, responding to my challenge, strengthened the wind as the rain became a deluge. I nonetheless pared the par 4 10th hole and bogeyed the par 3 11th. Despite my rainproof outfit, I began feeling wet, mostly in the neck and wrists areas. The clubs grips were totally drenched, but the rain gloves which were soaked allowed me, never the less, to hold a tight grip on the clubs. What a great invention these rain gloves are! The worst were my eyeglasses. I constantly had to remove and wipe them to try to see, but to no avail. I double bogeyed hole #13 and #14. By that time, I was only trying to avoid the bunkers, figuring that if I bogeyed the last four holes, I would shoot 90. I bogeyed holes #15 and #16. Two more bogeys and I would beat the course.
Hole #17, the Road Hole lay in front of me like Cerberus guarding the Old Course from defeat. Graeme agreed with my strategy of hitting my drive to the #2 fairway which I did successfully. All I needed to do now was to hit a 150 yard shot over the rough to the front right side of the green, thus avoiding the infamous Road Bunker. It was now raining very hard. I was too fast on the back-swing and again hit the ball thin and it got caught in thick wet rough between the two fairways. Although it was only a 120 yard shot, because of the difficult lie, my next hit was what I consider my best shot of the day and my ball reached the front portion of the green from which I made a difficult 2 putt bogey.
After all that, Hole # 18, 357 yards par 4 should be a piece of cake. There are no rough, no bunker. There is however a distraction, the famous Swilcan Bridge, on which everyone must have his picture taken, as a memento of playing the Old Course. Despite it all, I was 80 yards from the green in two. I hit my pitch shot a little fat and it ended up in the “valley of tears” in front of the green. From there I chipped ten feet past the pin and missed the putt by a hair, giving me a double bogey 6, and a score of 91. That is 72 net. The Old Course and I played to a tie!
Author: Jean Marcoux – July 2016