July 21, 2010

Round St Andrews in the rain...

(Apologies in advance, this is quite a long post, but worth the read, I hope)

I stated in my last post that Irish golfer Rory Mcilroy and I had one thing in common: Neither of us has gone round St Andrews with a score in the 70's. Whilst this is absolutely and completely true, it doesn't tell the whole story.

He's played St Andrews many times and his scores have all been in the 60's apart from Friday at this years open when he shot 80. I've played St Andrews once and scored 103.

But it was worth it.

It happened a little over five years ago. An American friend of mine and his wife had come over for a vacation to Scotland and I agreed to spend a couple of days with them and play some golf. We met in Edinburgh and drove up the following day to St Andrews which is a picturesque drive of about eighty or ninety minutes through the hills of the Kingdom of Fife even in the driving rain we were experiencing. We arrived to find that St Andrews itself was in a state of bussy-ness as it prepared for the Open Championship of 2005. Camera towers were being erected, marquees and grandstands were being positioned and made ready and the huge yellow scoreboards which are typical of the R & A's major championship could be seen dotted around the landscape.

Navigating by 'zen' I found myself directly outside the Royal and Ancient headquarters building - which is the imposing grey edifice that frames every golfer as they drive off from the first tee on the Old Course. We parked nearby and spend a short while in the Golf museum  which is located behind it.

After reading about the exploits of Tom Morris, Tom Morris Jr and all the other Scottish golf luminaries who have made the game their own we were in the mood to go and play a round ourselves.

I had read of the horrors of getting a tee time at St Andrews - the lottery for tee times, having to book months in advance etc. - and seeing as how we had neither entered the lottery nor made reservations I was somewhat resigned to having to watch rather than play. Nevertheless we headed for the clubhouse to check out the situation.

For those of you who have never been to St Andrews it is probably worth recounting a few pieces of 'Did you know' to help frame the rest of this story.

St Andrews Links is actually 5 separate golf courses built on the same land. The first course started outside the R And A headquarters, snaked out to along the sea shore, turned back, and finished outside the building next door to the clubhouse. It is the Old Course and it's the one everyone who watches golf is aware of. The next course to be built - 'The New Course' - was completed in 1895. It is situated adjacent to the Old Course but the first tee is around the dog-leg that forms the gap between the Old Course first- and second-tees. There are also courses which border these two on the left and the right. dating from 1987 right up to 1993. Together they form the St Andrews Links and ALL are public courses situated on public land open to anyone. Recently a new clubhouse was built to manage all these courses and it is situated next to the first tee on the New Course. If you ever watch coverage of the Open Championship you can see the clubhouse when the players play the second hole. It is a low-slung building with a turret at each end and large glass panels along one side.

It was to this building that we headed to see what the chances of a tee time were. I walked into the lobby and over to the young lady at the front desk.

"Any chance of a tee-time today?" I asked rather tentatively.
"Yes, of course. Which course would you like to play?" she replied cheerily. "The Old Course is in the middle of a practice round for a competition being held tomorrow so that's not available, but all the others are open."

Hiding my slight disappointment I elected for a round on The New Course and we were told we could tee off in 30 minutes.

We quickly headed back to the car, grabbed the clubs and shot down to the luxurious and well appointed changing rooms to put our golf gear on. From there we were directed round to the starters hut which is at the side of the building. In the hut a friendly starter asked us what time our tee was and we told him. He then gave us each a ceremonial score card plus a 'scratch' scorecard. ("Make your scores on the scratch scorecard as you go round then transfer the final scores to the ceremonial one when you've finished. Save's you making a mess of it") AND a yardage booklet - complete with full colour photographs, and a small piece of paper with the pin positions of each green. "You're ready to go" he said, pointing us around to the first tee.

All this for £55 per person.

Walking around to the first tee we were confronted with the first major obstacle of the round. The first tee is situated directly outside the clubhouse underneath a balcony and adjacent to the plate glass windows. In other words everyone has a good view of you teeing off.

There was a group on the tee before us and we watched as they teed off, all of them striking crisp drivers down the middle of the fairway. We waited nervously as we decided amongst ourselves who would be the first to tee off and I drew the short straw.

Plucking up my courage I walked onto the first tee and addressed the marshal waiting there.

"Have you played the Old Course before?" he asked, in a gentle St Andrews burr.
 "No, Sir. First time" I stammered in reply.
"Well the ideal line is down the left hand side of the fairway making sure you stay clear of the mounds about 250 yards up"
"I'm pretty sure they won't come into play" I replied as I teed up a ball on the square.

The marshal stepped back and I started my pre-shot routine: Stand behind the ball, identify the line I want to play, locate an aiming marker about a foot ahead of the tee, place the clubface behind the ball and step into the address pose.

As I wiggled my hips and prepared to make a swing I made one fateful mistake - I glanced up. I could see a swarm of people watching me from the clubhouse. Peering through the plate glass window or standing on the balcony - despite the slightly inclement weather. Then it hit me: I was on the first tee at St Andrews - the home of golf - and I had an audience waiting to see what  a mess I would make of the tee shot.

My knees turned to jelly.

It was the weirdest feeling ever. I almost literally lost the ability to stand up. It was only by dint of the fact that my legs had locked into an upright position that stopped me from collapsing. I stepped away from the ball for a second and took a deep breath. Blocking the crowd from my mind I went through the pre-shot routine again. This time there was no problem and I sailed one right down the middle of the fairway landing just short of 200 yards with my 7-wood.

My two friends didn't fare too well. One sliced her ball into a huge gorse bush on the right of the fairway and the other hooked his shot so badly he ended up playing his next shot from the second fairway of the Old Course (I secretly think he did it deliberately so he could say he'd played the Old Course). As we discussed it later we all agreed that it was a very imposing tee shot with the clubhouse overlooking the tee and that no doubt contributed to their bad shots. My next shot should have been a 9-iron onto the green but I duffed it and it rolled about 25 yards along the fairway. Luckily for me nobody in the clubhouse was paying attention as they were all watching the next group of folks going jelly-kneed on the tee.

As we walked down the first fairway (or hopped over the divide between the Old and New Courses as the case may be) we were fortunate enough to find that the rain stopped falling. There was still a wind blowing - and it stayed with us for the next 4 hours as we wound our way out to the turn and back again.

As with the Old Course, the New Course is a very simple course to play. There are very few areas of rough (although we found every one of them) and there are not a huge number of bunkers (although we did find ourselves in some interesting pot bunkers with sheer 4-foot walls). There are no trees and due to the nature of the course it is very difficult to hit an out-of-bounds shot. But the deceptive nature of the course, coupled with the gusting wind, made it a great challenge.

There were a number of highlights of the round. Firstly there was the ability to play a putt from a hundred feet off the green and still control it. The fairways and greens are hard to distinguish apart. Each has immaculate grass which is very closely cropped and smooth to putt on. It completely alters the way you can play a hole. In fact for some of the par three holes it is actually just as easy to play a low running shot which scoots along the ground rather than try a high shot that lands on the green and stops.

Secondly was the incredibly helpful people we met on the way round. There are marshals situated at strategic locations along the way and they will all give you 'caddy' advice on the best way to play a particular hole ("This fairway widens out to the right so you can go as far over there as you want", or "Stay clear of the left hand side of this fairway, the gorse is impenetrable")

At the end of our round we arrived on the 18th green, putted out for pars and - as soon as we picked up our balls from the grass - the heavens opened and let out all the rain that had obviously been holding back while we were on the course. We sat in the clubhouse watching the hardy souls tee-off from the very same place my knees had turned to jelly 4 hours earlier and laughed at them as they hooked, sliced and bobbled their way down the first fairway.

If you are a golfing fan and manage to find your way to St Andrews it is well worth the time to go and visit the clubhouse and see if they have tee times available. It might not be on the Old Course but - with 4 other great courses all built on the same links land - there is no reason why you can't tread the hallowed turf at the home of golf.

But bring an umbrella.

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