The Old Course in St. Andrews: Even Presidents consider ancient links a must-play

By David R. Holland, Contributor

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Paul Kirkcaldy arrived at work on May 28, 2001 as usual. If you call the first tee at the Old Course as the usual place for an office.

Old Course at St. Andrews
Before even teeing off, former President Bill Clinton had studied the Old Course.
Old Course at St. AndrewsThe Old Course in St. Andrews - 18th holeOld Course at St. Andrews - 15th
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18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 6721 yd. yards | ... details »

But on this day, Kirkcaldy, the Golf Services Assistant for the St. Andrews Links Trust, found himself in a high-profile foursome.

"I was organizing the first tee for the day, when this threesome asks if anyone would like to join them," Kirkcaldy said.

The threesome included former President Bill Clinton.

"President Clinton was thrilled to be here," Kirkcaldy said. "He had played Loch Lomond the day before and talked about that. I also noticed he had one of the course guides that was printed in the 1970s and I could tell he had studied it and was knowledgeable about the golf course. He also told me stories about Greg Norman taking him out for an on-course lesson and that they played all day."

Kirkcaldy, a 4 handicap, felt at ease playing with Clinton, especially when he recorded a birdie-eagle-birdie stretch before the eyes of the President.

"President Clinton was very personable and everyone had a great time. We were talking about the Titleist Pro V1 and I told him I'd never played one. He said he had one in his bag and he gave it to me and on the no. 9 tee (a 300-yard par 4). I knocked it on the green and made the eagle putt and he autographed it for me -- I only hit the ball twice."

Clinton, who was in Scotland for a speaking engagement, visited eight countries in 12 days, but found time for golf, including Ireland's Ballybunion. Overall, the crowd of onlookers left the foursome alone, but the Associated Press got a photo of him on the famous Swilcan Bridge, and did witness his bogey five with a penalty stroke on the first hole, after hitting one into the Swilcan Burn.

Kirkcaldy is related (uncle's cousin) to the one-armed golfer and Old Course starter of the 1950s and 1960s, Jimmy Alexander, who told him of the day President Dwight Eisenhower was so nervous when he arrived at the no. 1 tee, he decided to skip it and go to no. 2. If you are ever lucky enough to play the Old Course, you might feel some of the same jitters.

The Old Course at St. Andrews

Just think about this on the first tee: Golf historians believe the game was being played here 100 years before Columbus reached America and more than 200 years before Shakespeare was hard at work in England.

The golf architect? There's no way to pinpoint such a fact. You can't look at any one stretch of holes and say it reminds you of any architect. It's a conglomeration. We do know that nos. 1 and 18 were creations of Old Tom Morris, who spent time here from 1860 to 1900, but other contributors include Daw Anderson in the 1850s and Alister MacKenzie in the 1930s.

As we walked briskly down the no. 1 fairway, Kirkcaldy, who was also my playing partner said: "Your first round at the Old Course should be enjoyable. I always tell first-time players not to think about scoring. Just take in the experience and have fun. One word of wisdom is to always keep it left on the Old Course. Also hire a caddie because there are some weird and wonderful places you can end up in if you don't have any guidance. The greens are very hard to read on a first visit."

The fairways are rippling visions before your eyes and many of the famous deep pot bunkers are hidden from view. So, no doubt, your round will be much more enjoyable playing alongside a member with course knowledge or caddy. When you strike a solid one, and lose interest in watching, focus on one of the caddies, he will follow it on an interesting journey. You might think the ball has stopped and he's still looking five seconds longer.

Crazy bounces can frustrate you at the Old Course, but you have to expect that. You can't expect to play a round of golf here without ending up in one of the famous bunkers. One of the most incredible facts of Tiger Woods' 2000 British Open championship here was that he didn't hit one bunker shot in four rounds.

"Nothing prepares you for actually being in one of the Old Course's famous deep bunkers," said David Shadron of North Carolina. "Chipping out sideways was a whole new experience."

Unlike golf in the U.S., bunkers on the Old Course are one-shot penalties at least. These deep bunkers are 'revetted' -- where blocks of turf or 'sod' are piled up at an acute angle, building a wall of turf that forms the face of the bunker. One reason bunkers were built like this at the Old Course was to keep the sand from being blown out of the pits. Hell Bunker is enormous. There are 112 bunkers on the Old Course.

The Road Hole Bunker has killed many rounds, including David Duval's final round in 2000. Tommy Nakajima was destroyed by the Road Bunker in 1978 and the memory of Jack Nicklaus' shock in Hell Bunker at the 14th is a recurring one from the 1995 British Open.

How about the greens? There are seven double greens at the Old Course, meaning if you find the wrong side of the green you could have an enormous putt. Some greens are more than an acre in size. Someone figured out that the 5th and 13th shared green is so large that it takes a greenskeeper with a walking mower an hour and half to cut. And it is the essence of traditional golf when you take very few steps from green to tee.

Just imagine how many golfers have been on the tee box ready to hit when they get beaned by an approach shot to the green they just finished. Kirkcaldy said it had never happened to him. One thing that helps, perhaps, is the fact that all golfers playing the Old Course must show handicap cards to the starter. No first-time golfers are allowed, unlike at Pebble Beach.

Bobby Jones hated the Old Course on his first visit in 1919. On the short 11th, 172 yards, and one of the most celebrated par 3s in golf, Jones landed in the Hill Bunker and suffered a knockout. He picked up his ball and headed home for Georgia. He got over his anger and returned to win the British Open at the Old Course.

The Road Hole, no. 17 is arguably one of the toughest and most famous holes in golf, but it's listed as handicap no. 4 on the scorecard. The 461-yard par-4, only 14 yards short of par-5 distance, is extremely tough against the wind, and was named because of the old turnpike road which forms a boundary on the right side and includes a rock wall.

Now the site of the Old Course Hotel, it was originally the rail station and an old railway tram shed was situated as an aiming point for the drive. Today the old shed is not there, but a similar building remains to aim over, which includes offices of Old Course Hotel employees. Just imagine how many times a day these workers here a solid "plunk" hit their workplace?

The hole is played almost as a double dogleg. Play it like a par 5 and at all cost don't hit one into the Road Bunker. Even pros have been known to leave their second shot short, on purpose, to have a safer chip to the green. Keeping the ball on the green with a long iron is very difficult.

The 18th, only 354 yards, is not a difficult hole, but the historic stage has caused some final-round jitters -- like Doug Sanders in the 1970 British Open. He missed a short putt on the final hole forcing an 18-hole playoff with Jack Nicklaus. Sanders didn't survive the playoff as The Golden Bear shot 72 and Sanders 73.

The drive should be aimed at the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse clock and the only problem on the approach is the famous "Valley of Sin" a deep depression in front and left of the green. Old Tom Morris designed the green and he regarded it as his finest work. He often watched with pride from his shop window, just across the street and to the right of the green.

The Swilcan Burn Bridge

Just after the drive on no. 18 everyone crosses the famous Swilcan Burn Bridge, probably one of the most photographed sites in the world. Some people say Scotland's Forth Rail Bridge is more popular for photos, but not many golfers believe that. Just after my group took its pictures, a Scottish wedding group pounced on the bridge for photos before the next group teed off.

The Old CourseThe little stone bridge, of Roman design, was originally not provided for the convenience of golfers, but was part of the usual route from town to the harbor area in the Eden estuary.

The Swilcan Burn meanders across the first and 18th fairways and provides the only water hazard on the Old Course before emptying into the North Sea at the Southern end of the West Sands. In olden days the burn was used as a place to do laundry on Sundays when the course is closed. Today you can still see folks doing laundry on Sunday, just to keep the tradition going.

The Old Course goes from 22 to 18 holes

The Old Course originally consisted of 22 holes, 11 outward and 11 inward. When a player completed a hole he would determine a distance of two club lengths from the previous hole, and using a handful of sand scooped out from the hole, he would form a tee.

In 1764, the Society of St. Andrews Golfers, which later became the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, decided that some holes were too short and combined them. This reduced the course to 18 holes and created what became the standard round of golf throughout the world.

Double greens

Historians say the track through the whin bushes, heather and gorse on which the Old Course was born, was so narrow that golfers played to the same holes going out and coming in. As the game became more popular in the 19th century, golfers in different matches would find themselves playing to the same hole, but from opposite directions. To alleviate the congestion, two holes were cut on each green, those for the first nine were equipped with a white flag and those for the second nine with a red flag. That tradition continues to this day.

Direction of play

When Old Tom Morris created a separate green for the first hole and layed out the 18th, it became possible to play the course in an counter-clockwise direction, rather than clockwise which had been played for centuries. For many years, the course was played clockwise one week and the opposite way the next. If you look closely, however, you can see that many of the course's 112 bunkers are clearly designed to catch the off-line shots of golfers playing the course from the opposite direction than it is played today.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • The Old Course

    bob wrote on: Sep 22, 2010

    I played the Old Course for my 60th birthday. Magical! Unbelievable. Best round of golf in my life (not the best score). Request Resident Caddie Willie. He is crusty but authentic as long as you enjoy your game (he has no patience!) but truely a Scotish charm.