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The Old Course - where it all began

Peter Thomson


Peter Thomson

Written on Saturday, 10 July 2010 15:41

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The Old Course at St Andrews is the rock on which the game of Golf anchors itself. It was not the first ground on which the game was played. But it is without doubt the place where the game, as we know it now, evolved and revived itself. In the beginning, four or more centuries ago, it was a wild place on which to hit a small wooden ball across country, and it did not enjoy a sunny warm climate except for the short summer months of the year.

Yet the game of golf from its infancy not only survived, it flourished. Today, St Andrews links is called the "Home of Golf", although in truth, golf has no home. It is worldwide.

St Andrews, though, is the true home of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (of St Andrews), in whose hands the game is entrusted by all the world of play, outside the United Sates and its sphere of influence.

The R & A made the Old Course what it is, and in its turn, the course made the R & A. Had the club not nurtured and enhanced its dignity, the custody of the game would probably have drifted somewhere else.

The Old Course emerged on a strip of territory that started on the old town steps, taking from there a crooked path along the coastal route until it ran out of westward land at the estuary of the Eden River. The golfers that played on it, reversed their progress and returned from whence they came, ending their matches at the town limit.

As history tells us, originally there were 22 'stages' along the golfing journey there and back, but in the mid-19th century the golfers of the Club decided that as the balls they struck increased their trajectory, some of the stages were too short. and that there was merit in joining a few together thereby settling for 18 stages as adequate. Eighteen holes consequently became univerally accepted as the standard number of holes to comprise a full size course. And that is the number Tiger Woods and the best players in the world will play each day of the 150th British Open, starting on Thursday.

The Old Course at St Andrews is the model and prototype for courses everywhere. All courses are, to varying degrees, copies of the Old. Not only have they accepted and followed the number of holes set, but all courses everywhere across the world will have sand bunkers strewn in emulation of links features, and a fair ratio of 'fairground' to 'rough' areas to complete what has come to be accepted as a full-featured playing arena.

The lakes and swamps of Florida courses featuring water hazards are imitations of the Swilkin Burn which cross the first hole of the Old, albeit usually a considerable distortion of dimension. Even so, the innumerable illogicalities of the St Andrews course have been largely ignored in other places. Who indeed in their home state would tolerate a golf hole with a green sliced in half like the Road Hole, or put up with a hole without a visible fairway like the 7th?

There things undoubtedly troubled the minds of the early Greens Committees of the R & A, and their astute judgement to leave the course as nature provided was certainly cursed by the many who suffered the punishment of inadequate shots. Even so, pressure must have built up until the Club appointed "Old Tom" Morris as officially Keeper of the Greens, charged with widening the course to make more space for increasing numbers of golfers, and that was a momentous step.

We can only surmise that the ordering of this exercise was a bold demand for more fairway and less hazard to make the game of golf a more enjoyable experience. Certainly it made a huge difference. More freedom to divert from the rigid 'straight and narrow' must have brought joy to many hearts!

As a result of this work, the Old Course took up approximately 92 acres, which is its scope today. More than 80 percent of its territory is now given over to 'fairground', and the broken sward (112 bunkers) add up to just one acre of total catchment area - always a surprising when one hears of its fearsome reputation.

Yet such decisions have proved their weight. The course of today is not entirely virgin territory. The hand of man has added or subtracted from the original micro-landform at every juncture. And nature itself is a dynamic force that has its own way of changing things.

What we have in the Old Course is an enviromental partnership that arranged a playing arena and gave the game a suitable shape.

Yet the major issue was the battle the "keepers" of the course fought to match these dimensions with the ever-developing technology that threatened to render the course irrelevant. At various dates, the governing body set specifications for the balls used that were intended to control its performance. A weight limit of 1.62 ounces was set and a minimum size of 1.62 inches was added to attempt to limit the balls' flying performance.

Later still, in modern times, a speed restriction was imposed. This particular inposition was thought to be the ultimate "stopper" to the balls' increasing length of flight. Alas, what was overlooked was the aerodynamic factor of dimpled cover balls. Balls today are "carrying" greater distances than ever and so the battle goes on, overshadowed by commerical legalities.

No one anywhere in the rold has been foolish enough to try to copy the Old Course as an entity. It wouldn't work. On another piece of ground in a different climate, it might look ridiculous. It is just as well. The Old Course is unique, and long may it be so.


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