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Golf returns to its birthplace next week when the Open Championship is contested on the Old Course. For those who haven’t been to these hallowed grounds, it is well worth the effort to go the extra distance and discover what and why it has captured the imagination of the best players in the world. For anyone who has been there, a return visit is often eagerly anticipated.
Tour players are brand ambassadors for many different things. From equipment to destinations to financial institutions, they are enlisted to validate to the masses of golf consumers. While none of them have any financial interest in the Old Course, often referred to as St Andrews, their words don’t pull any punches with how they feel about it. “It is my favorite course,” said Rory McIlroy, who echoes the same feelings as Tiger Woods. “ I liked it immediately. I think you learn to love it, but I knew that I was going to love it, just because of what it represents, the home of golf,” said Phil Mickelson. “ St. Andrews is like a second home to me. I've always loved that place ever since I played it in '94,” said John Daly.
First impression can carry a lasting impression in many instances but not always with the Old Course. “The first time I played it, I didn't really think much of it,” McIlroy conceded, “but you start to play it a bit more and you start to appreciate how good it is and the sort of subtleties of the greens and lines off tees; you can play it so many different ways.” Daly had been forewarned prior to his first arrival. “ You know, a lot of the Americans that told me about coming over here and playing British Opens and stuff, either you're going to hate it or love it. I had played a few British Opens up to there and I fell in love with the links golf, but St. Andrews just seems to fit my game,” he said.
To the casual observer, who only is permitted to see what television cameras and producers reveal to the audience, it can be challenging to see what it is about the Old Course that makes some of the titans of competitive golf feel so strongly about it. “ I just fell in love with it, because the lines and the angles is not what everyone says it is. People say you hit it miles left; you hit it miles left, that's fine, but you have no angle,” explained Tiger Woods. “ St. Andrews is the type of course where you can use your putter 36 times and shoot 66,” the reigning US Open champ, Graeme McDowell added. “St. Andrews poses a totally different test than any of the -- certainly any of the links that I can think of,” said two-time Open Champ, Padraig Harrington referring in part to the theory of substance over style.
“One of the things that was interesting the first time I played it in one particular wind was that there were bunkers that were not in play; that I wondered, why is this bunker 80 yards out of play,” said Mickelson. “ And when I played it a couple of days later and had an opposite wind, it was those bunkers that were in play. And it was fascinating to me at how well placed and strategic a golf course it was, regardless of which wind you received that day. I just thought that was, to me, the most intriguing element is that it was so well thought out.”
Originally the Old Course was played over 22 holes. In 1764 this was reduced to 18, which became the standard number of holes for courses worldwide. It was originally played the opposite way round with golfers teeing off to what is now the 17th green. This explains why so many of the bunkers are not visible from the tee. During the 1860s players alternated between left and right-hand circuits on a weekly basis. Gradually the right-hand circuit (anti-clockwise) became more popular although the clockwise route was still used occasionally until the 1970s. Since 2002, the Old Course has been opened for play in reverse for a small number of days in April. Nevertheless, the bunkers are never too far away due to changing conditions compliments of Mother Nature.
Padraig Harrington spoke about the putting surfaces, another dimension to the course, which can appear friendly. “The greens get so firm, like firmer than any greens that we'll ever play during the year. And the pin positions, even though the greens are very big, they get exceptionally tight.” Colin Montgomerie agreed, “Everybody tends to hit the greens in regulations, because it's a big. But it's a matter of one, how close you can get; and two, if you can take the opportunities with the putter.”
The firm surfaces are large; in some instances a golfer can face a putt of up to 100 yards due to the double greens. The greens on 7 and 11 are 112 yards from left to right and on 6 and 12 it measures 104 yards from left to right. And the Old Course greens are not flat, which doesn’t always resonate on television. “ So you've got to hit the ball actually into the greens very high in order to stop it. There's no point in hitting with a lot of spin if it's going to jump 15 yards forward when it lands,” Harrington said. “You're going to have to play more target golf into the greens than most people would imagine.”
Woods, who has won the last two Open Championships, played on the Old Course agreed with Harrington’s assessment. “ The R&A sets up the pins pretty well; so it forces you to be a little more strategic in how you play the golf course. You have to be so creative and your touch has to be great, because you're going to have a lot of long lag putts that break three and four different directions.”
Meanwhile, for another Irishman the firm conditions represent potential opportunities. “It takes you a little bit of time to learn what way to play it that sort of suits your game and you can be aggressive, you can take a lot of drivers off tees and you can try and drive a couple of the par 5s and that's something I've always sort of liked,” said McIlroy.
There are also the bunkers (112), each with its own name. “To me, St. Andrews, is about keeping the ball out of the bunker,” said McDowell. Tiger Woods proved there is something to that theory on a previous go around that lead to securing the Claret Jug. “After that it's about pace putting and trying to scramble around the greens,” said the U.S. Open Champ.
One hole, more often than not, is synonymous for any course. But for the Old Course it happens to be none other than the #17, Road Hole. It was the backdrop for the Sands of Nakijima. In 1978, Nakajima was in contention at the Open Championship on the third day at St. Andrews until he putted into - and then took four attempts to escape from - the Road Hole bunker for a quintuple bogey. It led the British tabloids to christen that bunker, for a while, "the Sands of Nakajima." This year, the 17th will be the center of attention as it has been given somewhat of a make over, the first time in over 100 years.
“Was it necessary? Don't know. I thought it was a fantastic hole, with a 7-, 8-, 9-iron in your hand,” said McDowell about the Road Hole. “ It's going to be an unbelievably good hole with a 3-, 4-, 5-iron in your hand. I played it slightly in the wind (earlier this week), mostly out of the right. I hit a decent tee shot and I had 175 front edge and I had a back left pin that I got to about 210,” he continued. “ I don't see how I'm ever going to aim at the putting surface unless it goes downwind and I have less club in my hand, which I think is unfortunate, because you know, you're trying to get drama. They want drama. It's a TV sport. It's all about people enjoying the game and seeing some drama. It's given them some great drama on 17 over the years. But when they start getting -- I'm not going to go to the green with a 4-iron, I'm going it lay up and try putting out to the hole. It's not really dramatic. It nearly has the opposite effect.” Look for the Road Hole to add some controversy in the telecasts leading up to the crowning of the Champion Golfer of the Year.
In most instances, what you see is what you get in life. The Old Course is the exception to that theory. As the best players in the world have attested to, the venue, which is more than 600 years old, maintains itself in unusually good fashion regardless of the times or for that matter technology. Sitting on the banks on the North Sea allows it to change the way it plays, even in the midst of a round, due to the wind. The Scots have a saying, “Nay Wind, nay golf.” For many Americans, playing in windy to blustery conditions isn’t the ideal recipe for fun. However, it was a big reason for the world’s #1 player being smitten with the Old Course. “I fell in love with it the first time I ever played it because I played it on a very interesting day,” said Woods. “I played it when the tide changed right when I was at the turn, so I played all 18 holes into the wind. Absolutely fell in love with the golf course.” Keep in mind Harrington’s advice that hitting a high ball into the greens has its advantages. However, the wind can be known to play tricks when that shot is called upon.
One of the extraordinary facts about the Old Course is that it was not designed by an architect but has evolved over six centuries. Not too many courses around the world can offer this number of dimensions to the paying public, which the Old Course is open to. While the wind can be your foe, it can also be your friend when you reach those holes that offer its assistance. It, along with the firm conditions, offers the chance to drive a par-5 for some as McIlroy stated earlier.
Keep in mind looks can be deceiving. The road less traveled more often that not represents greater upside than anyone expects and the Old Course along with the town of St. Andrews will offer a bird’s eye view next week of its many charms. The question is what will you see???