St. Andrews is an acquired taste
Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods fell in love with St. Andrews the
first time they saw it.
Not so with Bobby Jones.
Or Sam Snead.
Legend has it that Jones tore up his scorecard and stormed off
the course the first time he played the Old Course. That’s not
entirely accurate. In his debut at the home of golf in the 1921
British Open, he went out in 46 during the third round, made 6 on
the next two holes and picked up his ball without finishing the
11th hole. This from a man who went on to win the claret jug there
six years later, and the British Amateur in 1930 on his way to the
Such is the essence of St. Andrews.
It is a links course that can inspire immediate affection.
”I fell in love with it the first time I ever played it,”
Woods said. ”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.”
And it is a course that can evoke eternal disdain.
”Worst piece of mess I’ve ever played,” Scott Hoch said.
Snead was somewhere in between.
He made his first journey to St. Andrews for the 1946 British
Open, and as his train pulled into the old gray town, Snead gazed
out the window at the Old Course and said, ”Say! That looks like
an old, abandoned golf course. What did they call it?”
It grew on him, for he went home with the claret jug after a
four-shot victory. Years later, he still wasn’t sure what to think.
”Down home, we wouldn’t plant bow beets on land like that,” Snead
But there is no denying one aspect to the 150th anniversary of
this British Open. There is something magical about playing golf’s
oldest championship on the linksland where it all started.
”If you’re a golfer, how could you not be a little bit in awe
when you get to the first tee, with the R&A building, the 18th
green, all the things that have happened over the last 400 or so
years?” Scott Verplank said.
Then he added the ultimate compliment: ”It will teach you
everything you need to know about playing golf.”
”Course management and the strategy of golf is all on that golf
course,” he said. ”If you want to play conservatively, you go
further left and leave yourself a tougher shot. If you want to play
aggressive, you play further to the right and have a better angle
at the flag. People who don’t like it don’t understand it. If you
understand it, then it’s brilliant.”
First impressions can be misleading.
Justin Leonard first played the Old Course on a golfing trip
with his father when he was 12. He was old enough to understand the
historical significance of St. Andrews, but little else.
”I thought it was the nuttiest place I had ever seen, to be
quite honest. Has it changed today? Not a whole lot,” Leonard said
with a laugh. ”It’s pretty quirky, and that’s not always a bad
thing. It doesn’t matter how many times you play it, you’ve got to
sit there and look at your yardage book and figure out where you’re
Curtis Strange first went to St. Andrews with a 1975 Walker Cup
team that included Hoch, Jay Haas and Craig Stadler.
”We all thought we had been transplanted to the moon,” Strange
said, who went on to set the course record with a 62 in the 1987
Dunhill Cup. ”I will say that I hated it, like some guys, because
you wonder what’s going on. But the more you play it, the more you
realize how special it is.”
Geoff Ogilvy first went to St. Andrews with his father when he
was 16, and like so many others, he loved it the first time he
”I think it would be fair to say that I really wanted to like
the course, so it is perhaps hard to be completely objective about
a place you have decided to like before you even play it,” Ogilvy
said. ”I liked the width of the place, and enjoyed that there
seemed no prescribed way to play the course. The route you take
around it is up to you.
”I’m not sure if I understood any of this at 16, but I remember
having lots of fun that first time.”
Nicklaus, meanwhile, was equipped with a scouting report.
Much like Jones, his idol, Nicklaus first played the Old Course
as part of a trip to Britain for the Walker Cup at Muirfield.
”My father went over before and played with a couple of his
friends, and he said it was the worst golf course they’d ever seen
— what a cow pasture it was, horrible conditions,” Nicklaus
said. ”Of course, they three-putted 13, 14, 15 greens. And they
didn’t have a very good time because they didn’t understand the
”When I went there, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
”I went down there and I saw this village and this big, beautiful
pasture out there. Then I went out and played the course and I
loved it. I suppose I loved it because all kids try to do the
opposite of their father. I just fell in love with the place.”
What a love affair that turned out to be. Nicklaus won the
British Open at St. Andrews in 1970 and 1978, received an honorary
degree from St. Andrews University, and the Royal Bank of Scotland
produced a 5-pound note with his image when he chose St. Andrews to
be his final major championship in 2005.
That year, Woods matched Nicklaus by winning his second Open on
the Old Course, and he returns this year trying to become the first
player to ever win three times at St. Andrews.
Woods’ first impression was that it was easy to hit the
fairways. Then he realized how little that mattered.
”I though it would be a little bit more narrow,” Woods said.
”But then again, once you start playing, you realize it’s not that
wide. To get the angles to you need to have into these flags, it
narrows up very quickly. Then you add wind, and where you need to
put the golf ball to give yourself a chance of getting the ball
close, it gets really narrow.
”You can hit every fairway there and still never have a shot at
What makes St. Andrews unique is that all but four holes have
double greens, and they may as well share the fairways. Because it
has no trees, and so many of the pot bunkers are not visible off
the tee, it can be difficult to figure out where to hit tee
Verplank’s problem the first time he played St. Andrews was what
to do after the tee shots.
”I spent three days figuring out the lines off the tee, with
however the wind was going to go,” he said. ”I thought I had it
down perfect. So I get to the second hole and I stripe a 3-wood
right down there perfect. I had sand wedge to the green. And I had
no idea where to hit it. I had six three-putts the first day
because I kept hitting it 80 feet away.”
Like with any links, there can be some funny bounces along the
way. But there’s something different – something special – about
St. Andrews that perhaps former British Open champion George Duncan
summed up best.
”St. Andrews has got a character and features that you find
nowhere else,” Duncan once said. ”You can play a damned good shot
and find the ball in a damned bad place. That is the real game of
That’s the home of golf.