My P.E. teacher used to call it the shrivel effect and as I prepared to play St Andrews Old Course for the first time, I finally knew what he meant.
You know the feeling, it’s the one where every fibre in your body tightens, a pit forms in your stomach and, in my case, your sack squeezes as hard as it can. It isn’t a feeling that shows its face very often but when it rears its ugly head, all you can do is shut your eyes and hope like hell it turns out OK.
As I stood on the 1st of The Old Course it was certainly making its presence felt. Here I was in what felt like a cauldron, where 20 sets of eyes feels like 200. I was standing over my golf ball thinking I’d be willing to pay my green fee again in return for a 5-iron up the middle – the shrivel effect was in full force but boy did it feel good.
People have been knocking their golf balls around The Old Course since before they even knew the Earth was round, and the fact that it finds itself atop the bucket lists of golfers all over the world hundreds of years down the line tells you everything you need to know.
Golfers owe everything St Andrews, and to make the pilgrimage to the home of the game which we hold so dear is a privilege I had craved for as long as I can remember. When an opportunity arose to make a small detour in the hope I might play St Andrews Old Course during my European travels, it didn’t take a second thought, and before I knew it I had transport, accommodation, and absolutely no idea how I was going to get on the course.
It has been well documented that there are three ways to get on The Old Course; an advanced tee time booked more than a year prior, a long night waiting at the starter’s hut in the singles line, and the ballot drawn 48 hours prior. A few posts on forums and message boards later, I had a found a couple of willing golfers to enter the ballot with, and it was all on!
Mentally, I had accepted my fate, resigned to a long, cold night under the starters hut with a bunch of other golf sickos, in a desperate attempt to hijack an unlucky threesome on the tee sheet. My Mum calls this my ‘happiness insurance’- expecting the worst to happen so I’ll either be correct, or the best outcome will land in my lap. As it turned out the golf Gods had different plans, and at 5pm two days prior to my arrival in ‘The Olde Grey Toon’ I nonchalantly scanned the ballot results. A double-take and a skip or two of my heartbeat later, 5pm: Matt Wallbank – Hamilton Golf Club. Pure elation!
Arriving in the town of St Andrews is a moment I will remember until the day I die. There are places in the world that you can feel in your soul, and St Andrews is one of them. People scurrying across the road with trundlers, golf bags lined up outside shops, a bloke squeezing his carry bag through the aisles of the supermarket, every second conversation overheard revolving around golf, and you can’t shake the sense that the woman serving you at the local café is probably knocking it round off scratch.
Whilst St Andrews is widely recognised as the heartbeat of golf, the heartbeat of St Andrews is golf. Immediately it felt like home, like I had been there before, and that at that moment in time it was exactly where I was supposed to be. A sense of place flooded my body, and I knew there was nowhere I would rather be.
By far the strangest thing about getting the chance to play St Andrews Old Course was that it was the first time I felt like I had played a course before I had seen it in person. I’d seen it countless times and hit the shots in my head a thousand times over, but there was absolutely nothing that could have prepared me for the tidal wave of emotions as I walked down the 1st hole.
The Old Lady flushed me with thoughts of Old Tom, Shivas Irons, Jack and Tiger. The ghosts of The Old, lurking over my shoulder. The St Andrews experience was made up of 90% things that didn’t even happen to me at all. It was the tales and legends of the links which I felt deep inside, which made that walk up the 1st just that bit more magical.
The Old Course was built without the constraints of rules or architecture stiffs to point out why a hole wouldn’t work. It was the original, and set markers for many of the ‘rules’ that we see around the world today. I took great pleasure in the opportunity to embrace the poetic flow of greatness disguised as well-oiled chaos. Fairways crossed over, balls landed over my shoulder and the expansive trademark double greens and 111 pot bunkers swallowed me up. I was committed to being fully immersed in the experience, and had never been so chuffed to find myself in an 8 foot tall pit of sand.
One of the iconic quirks that confused me at first glance was that there were countless bunkers in the middle of fairways which you couldn’t see from the tee. After I fell into my third one, it all felt like a bit of a sick joke, and a design feature that would be scolded were it a newly constructed course. However, it all eventually made sense when I realised that the course was designed to also be played in reverse! Embracing the unique quirks of playing at the home of golf, where a purely struck iron will be rewarded with a puff of the hallowed sand is one of the true lessons.
Not once did The Old Course overload my senses with dramatic vistas or man-made features, rather massaging them with the tumbling land that has been there forever. The subtle simplicities of rolling turf and sand based minimalism, and on some tees I found myself staring down a seemingly straightforward hole. How wrong I was. The Old Course is a mastery in the art of simplicity and nuance, creating challenge through the use of discrete angles and natural formations. So often I found myself at the mercy of the land, as my ball tumbled over the knolls, across the valleys, and through the footprints of golfing pioneers – golf the way it was always intended to be.
The legends remain true; the fairway on the 1st is four times wider than any other which makes it four times scarier, you do indeed aim over the word ‘course’ of the hotel from the 17th tee, and the stroll up 18 over the Swilken Bridge may well be the most sentimental walk in golf. However, when the opportunity to play St Andrews Old Course presents itself, don’t lose sight of the magic in every step through the haze of these iconic moments. I’ve travelled the world and found days slip by which I haven’t properly appreciated in the moment. This day was not one of those.
Time stood still on The Old Course, every step and every shot savoured – a subtle nod to the ghosts gone by to let them know how lucky I felt.
Chasing the sun back towards the R&A is a memory that will stay with me forever, and was a reminder of what makes golf and St Andrews so special. The opportunity to explore the heritage of its land and feel its history in my bones was truly one of golf’s great offerings. It’s overwhelming being one of the many millions of pieces to the St Andrews puzzle, and the realisation that there will be millions more after you is mind boggling. The millions before me were intriguing, but the millions to come captivated me. Tomorrow would be someone else’s turn to live this day and I envy them greatly.
I’ll return home one day and I know it will be like I never left. No matter how many times I return; the magic will never fade – it will always feel like home. When you do visit St Andrews, know that it will give you far more than it will ever take, and when you do eventually leave, it will never leave you.
Oh yeah, and in case you were wondering, I did hit the fairway off the 1st tee – a low snap hook that stopped just short the road on the right side of the 18th. It turns out the shrivel effect needed all 129 yards of the iconic turf.