Fairest Of Them All

An intriguing, ever changing puzzle, the Old Course at St. Andrews presents demands unlike other major venues

Steven Szurlej

No. 16 (left) shares a green with No. 2, part of a layout that demands strategy

July 8, 2005

As the longstanding, undisputed, don't-you-ever-forget-it's-the home of golf, the Old Course at St. Andrews has taken some dings over the years. A young Bobby Jones couldn't stand the place, nor could Sam Snead, a country boy who knew a good pasture when he saw one. Americans making the pilgrimage to St. Andrews might find the town links a bit like Scotland itself--somewhere between an acquired taste and an amusement park without rides.

Flat and scruffy, with an annoying emphasis on blind shots and a single, barely consequential water hazard (a burn fronting the first green), the Old Course is the visual and architectural antithesis of Augusta National, the Sistine Chapel of U.S. parkland golf. "I've walked onto tee boxes before my caddie gets there, turned 320 degrees and had no clue [which direction the hole goes]," Jim Furyk says of the egghunt commonly known as a British Open at St. Andrews. "My caddie gets there and says, 'Hit it over that bush,' and I say 'OK.'"

Since Scott Hoch referred to the quirky gray mare as the "worst piece of mess I've ever seen" in the mid-1990s, suggesting the Old Course would be put to better use as a proving grounds for livestock, American tour pros have conspicuously abstained from even lighthearted denigration. Why? Because many truly believe St. Andrews is still the most versatile and unspoiled arena in major-championship golf--a 600-year-old venue that has barely flinched through the entire chronology of equipment technology.

If Hoch's rip job was sacrilege, it remains a gross misrepresentation of the consensus of his fellow Yanks. "My favorite course of all time," says Fred Couples, whom one might not figure would be a fan of any place with 30-mile-per-hour breezes and five television channels. "Easily my favorite in the British Open rotation," adds Peter Jacobsen, whose fondness for St. Andrews has grown as he devotes more of his time to course design.

"Maybe the most strategic course in the world," says Brad Faxon, who remained in contention deep into the final round of the 1995 British Open. Indeed, what gets lost in its anachronistic charm and historical value is the widespread belief, certainly among U.S. players, that the Old Course takes risk-reward golf to the highest level. Aggressive lines off the tee come with a potential birdie-bogey swing on almost every hole. Add a hearty crosswind, which is common, and daring shots with even the slightest amount of sidespin are prone to any of the 112 bunkers, most of which serve as baby water hazards--they just don't have any H2O in them.

"A ballflight with curve does you no good," says Fred Funk, whose seven PGA Tour driving-accuracy titles make him the definitive source on such matters. "[That's why] I like St. Andrews a lot better than, say, Royal St. George's, which is a 400-acre pinball machine. There's a much higher skill factor at St. Andrews. Not only do you have to pick the right line, you've got to hit it where you're aiming, and you've got to hit it very straight."

In no clearer terms could the eccentricities of links golf be defined. At the 2003 British, Royal St. George's sent too many quality shots tumbling into lousy places, courtesy of the tilted, ultra-humpy fairways that had been parched by a dry English summer. It's one thing when a guy shoots 82 and whines about the layout, another thing entirely when three-quarters of the field bemoans 25 yards of horizontal runoff.

On the Old Course shots tend to hit the ground and roll in a direction similar to--or at least reflective of--their aerial disposition. There's still plenty of luck involved, but in terms of the links experience, what you hit is what you get. Asked why he adores St. Andrews, Tiger Woods mentions not his eight-stroke victory in 2000 or the fact he played the tournament without parking his ball in a single bunker, but the premise that so much chameleonic terrain could produce such equitable results.

"Because it's fair," Woods says. "Because it changes and evolves every day without losing any of its fairness."


Double greens (No. 7, left, shares with No. 11) are part of the Old Course learning curve

The dummy's guide to playing the Old Course has always been a one-sentence user's manual: Bash it left as far as you can and make your five-footers for par. Great advice for the 12-handicapper, if not the stuff that wins you a claret jug. "You drive it down the right side if you're feeling good about it, and if not, you play to the center," says David Duval, who made a charge on Woods in the final round in 2000, then collapsed with a 43 on the inward nine.

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