I wanted to love the Old Course. I tried to love the Old Course. I failed to love the Old Course.
I feel like I’m in good company: five-time Open champion Tom Watson didn’t love the Old Course, St Andrews when he first played it. Grand Slam winner Bobby Jones was a petulant 19-year-old Open Championship debutant when he famously ripped up his scorecard and walked off in 1921 after failing to escape from a bunker on the 11th.
I came close to following Jones’ lead on the 12th when what looked like a perfect drive down the middle tumbled into a sandy grave. That’s not to say I didn’t respect and enjoy the Old Course. It was one of the sporting highlights of my life. You all know there’s a but coming though…
I’ve wanted to hit a golf ball across this sinewy plot of land, that stretches out to the Eden estuary from the ancient Fife town of St Andrews, ever since I watched Seve Ballesteros and his celebratory jig at winning the Claret Jug, while at my grandad’s house in 1984.
A mere 38 years since I first picked up a club, I was finally on the 1st tee of the most famous course on the planet. And it’s fair to say I was nervous. More nervous than I’d ever been on a golf course.
This is no ordinary opening hole. We’re not on a secluded plot of land here. No. There are dozens of spectators and it feels like we’re teeing off in the middle of town.
“Left is right, right is shite,” says the caddie accompanying our group in his gravelly Scottish accent as we prepare to hit. Most of the 125-yard width of the 1st fairway is indeed to the left, giving generous room for error. There are no bunkers. No rough. It should be the simplest tee shot in golf.But this is the Old Course, St Andrews. The Grand Old Lady.
Even champions can succumb to nerves. 1991 Open victor Ian Baker-Finch famously tugged his opening shot in 1995 so far left, out of bounds that it was almost ordering a pint in the Rusacks hotel bar.
My opening effort squirts out low and left. It’s not my best. But it’s not a Baker-Finch. And breathe.
As we stride down the 1st, more people emerge, using Grannie Clark’s Wynd as a cut-through from the West Sands Beach to the town. Many stop on the single track road that bisects the first and 18th fairways and watch as I dunk my second into the Swilcan Burn.
Way over to the left, I spot the 17th green. Some poor soul is in the Road Hole bunker – it takes him three swipes to escape. For now, my focus is drawn nearer, to the surprisingly ordinary-looking Swilcan Bridge with a quartet of players posing for the obligatory photo.
I turn and look back up the 18th. It truly is one of the greatest views in golf, with the hole framed by the R&A clubhouse and red brick of the Hamilton Grand, and views out to sea.
There was a joyful serenity in my soul in that moment. Over the next hour, that exuberance was extinguished. And it had nothing to do with the penalty drop from the burn on the 1st.
It was the relentless aiming left for the middle of the course and then slightly back to the right towards the green as we played the outward stretch. It just became, dare I write it, a little tedious. I was annoyed at myself for allowing such thoughts to creep in. I’m annoyed at myself now for writing negative words about the Old Course, St Andrews. But this is my point. This is a bucket-list course. A course many will only play once. Expectations are stratospheric. You want every hole to be a masterpiece. Too often, they are ordinary.
Take the holes round the loop. The par-three 8th and short par-four 9th and 10th holes are distinctly average. A friend of mine, who has quite possibly played and reviewed more courses than balls I’ve hit, has suggested they offer a much-needed breather, before you tackle the more difficult holes heading back into town.
I can’t help but think he’s being overly kind. If you found those three holes on another course, you’d instantly forget them. But then this is not ‘another course’. This is the Old Course, St Andrews, a course so intertwined with the history of the game that it almost feels blasphemous to speak ill of the place. I keep reminding myself of that fact but my over-riding indifference is baffling to my friend.
It’s not like I’m playing horrendously and have an axe to grind. There were three pars on my card by the 10th, one being a 25-footer after escaping from a greenside bunker but without checking the scorecard I couldn’t say for certain if I was on the 2nd or 3rd.
I can recall a career-best bunker shot from the cavernous Hill in front of, and several feet below, the par-three 11th – the one that ended Jones’ Open Championship 101 years previously – and the following two-putt that resulted in the bogey of the day.
I can sense Jones chuckling away though as my arrow-straight drive off the 12th finds sand. The Old Course has plenty of bunkers in the middle of fairways and I plunge into Stroke, so called because that’s exactly what it costs me with zero chance of going for the green in two. It’s a rookie error, although it feels an unnecessary punishment for hitting the ball straight.
With out of bounds down the right all the way home, the “left is right” mantra again dominates my thoughts on the closing half dozen holes as the Auld Grey Toon edges ever more into focus.
The wind is picking up and is also against us. It suddenly feels tougher to make a score. Position off the tee is vital. Bunkers are everywhere. This is what I wanted the Old to feel like.
The Coffin traps on the 13th are right in the hitting zone, while Hell – the gargantuan hidden bunker 100 yards from the 14th green – has gobbled up many a ball as unsuspecting players try to muscle their second shots onto the par-five green.
You are almost forced to aim at the Principal’s Nose traps where the 16th fairway is at its narrowest, while the strategy for the next hole is dominated by the solitary greenside bunker you cannot even see off the tee.
The 17th. The Road Hole. It is every bit as enjoyable as I’d hoped it would be. To much laughter, a playing partner clatters a ball right and it makes a series of comedy pings as it ricochets around the roof of the Old Course Hotel, which obstructs the view to the green
I’m more cautious – “left is right” – and end up in the rough. Too far left. A hack out. The pin is cut behind the Road Hole bunker. You have to take it on. The penalty for coming up short is to play out of the most famous bunker in golf.
To my utter dismay, a thinned eight-iron scuds through the green and ricochets off the wall a dozen yards behind the green. I’m on the road after which the hole is named. Clipping a ball off the tarmac is a decent second prize.
And then we turn right off the green. Our adventure is almost complete. The nerves have returned. The Swilcan Burn was way out of reach on the 1st. Now it’s right there in front of me. Urging me to top the final drive. I hit an almost carbon-copy tee shot to the one that marked the start of my journey. Up the left. Safe.
I choose to avoid photo-bombing the Swilcan Bridge, instead admiring it from afar and admonishing myself for earlier thinking it to be unremarkable.
There are a healthy smattering of people leaning over the white fence that marks the out of bounds down the right of the 18th hole. I’m appreciative when a few let out an audible groan after my pin-seeking second pulls up a fraction short and tumbles backwards into the Valley of Sin.
Three shots later, my day is done. The Old Lady almost delivered. Almost. Three holes were magical, many more were excellent, but I just didn’t love it.
I’ve been told that if I were to get another trip round my love would blossom. Hopefully that day comes soon and I can learn to appreciate the oft-talked about nuances that define this most ancient of courses.
I mean, who am I to dare go against legends of the game and Old Course devotees like Tiger and Jack. Heck, even Tom and Bobby grew to love the place. But, just like me, they did not find love at first sight.