The 18th at the Old Course lacks the bite of other famous drivable par 4s. Sharing a fairway with the first hole, the landing zone is as generous as it gets. Pros often take less than driver to knock it on the green or comfortably bail left, flag-high, then chip it close for an easy bird. The Valley of Sin, shaped in part by Old Tom Morris in the 1860s and from whose eight-foot depth Costantino Rocca holed the putt to force a playoff he would lose to John Daly in the 1995 Open, has become half a hazard at most. When Zach Johnson won the Open here in 2015, the hole ranked as the easiest par 4 on the course with a scoring average of 3.76.
Still, it’s the greatest finishing hole in golf, and I can think of five reasons why, none of which feature a blade of grass.
• The first is made of stone. Sheep from 800 years ago and veritably every golfer in the Hall of Fame have trod the Swilcan Bridge. After the tee shot, all it takes is just eight or nine steps over the arch to make even the most soberly rational 20-handicapper catch a dizzy ride on the cosmic wheel of time, to feel history tingle in his/her plastic spikes. It’s the photo-op. In the summer of 2005 when I caddied here between post-grad years at the University of St. Andrews, I witnessed the most sinister trick. Emboldened Scottish caddies, having dealt with “wankers” for four hours and anticipating a poor tip, would purposefully botch the frame and return the golfer’s camera with a cold smile. Imagine the emotions weeks later when the film was developed, and a guy saw that his or maybe his entire foursome’s heads were lopped off. Smartphones have obsoleted this practice, of course, but vengeance is an innovative art, so watch out all ye who treat caddies unkindly here.
• The second is concrete and painted white. The cross rail of the out-of-bounds fence that runs the length of the hole is peaked so that the result of any shot that hits it is absolutely and wonderfully binary. Strike the inside half and your ball is guaranteed to carom safely back into the fairway; strike the outside half and the error is magnified emphatically as your ball pitches high and hard against a building before likely rattling to rest beneath a parked car. Golf’s not supposed to be fair, and what’s better than a final dose of comedy?
• The third is human. More certain than any weather forecast is that there will be a smattering of people to watch you putt out. Pub-goer or souvenir-shopper, local or visitor, the common respect for the game means no one ever just walks past the 18th green when there are golfers. A final putt is important no matter whose it is, each another tiny bead added to the great abacus of the game that has been going since it was invented here in the 14th century. Even if the plot of your round unraveled on the front nine, there’s no scooping even a two-footer on this green. From this renewed fidelity comes healing.
• The fourth is made of light. The hole’s unique proximity to the town bestows upon it an eternal glow, which is a fancy way of saying there’s usually just enough ambient light from windows and street lamps that it’s kind of playable. When I lived here, “Tom Morris Challenges” were often attempted after the pubs closed. You play just the last hole, usually with someone else’s clubs, and more 4s were scored than you might guess.
• The fifth is stone again, though this time for the eyes instead of the feet. Paintings of this hole abound because its backdrop delivers a fuller sense of place than a single clubhouse or landform anywhere else can. On the left, the stolid, gray Royal & Ancient building evokes the order imposed by the game’s first rulesmakers who continues today with governance across the better part of the globe. On the right, the red Hamilton Grand—though recently converted to high-end apartments—was for lengthy and various periods student housing and so signifies the university’s integral relationship with the town that dates back to before The Renaissance. Starkly in the middle is Martyrs’ Monument, an obelisk with weathered names of Protestants burned to death for going against the Catholic church in the 16th century. It’s a haunting reminder that the stories in this soil are more gruesome and complex than any quadruple bogey.
I was lucky enough to play the Old this spring, my first round since I was a student 16 years ago. The wind gusted more than 40 mph from a peculiar angle out of the west so that neither nine played easy, though it was sunny, and my partners were cheerful company. It wasn’t until the 17th fairway that a sudden calmness overcame our group. We could speak to each other without shouting. The feeling lasted up the 18th because here and only here, we realized, the Old Course Hotel can be a shield. Up to that point there’d been one meager birdie among our group, but then we rattled in three of them on No. 18, to the sincere applause of a small gallery, of course.
With red-cheeked smiles we doffed our caps, each of us looking like we’d had a haircut in a hurricane. As five-time Open champion Tom Watson likes to say, “The Old Course both begins and ends with a handshake.”