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Scotland: The Eden of Golf

The Birthplace of Golf For Avid Golfers, Playing the Windswept Links of St. Andrews and Scotland's Other Courses Is Like Returning Home
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

Standing on the first tee of the Old Course at St. Andrews, the wind in your face and the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse to your back, the hand trembles and the mind races as you bend to tee up that first ball.

If history is a fable to which we all agree, then here at the Old Course you agree, as millions before you, that you are at the birthplace of golf. Taking the first tee at the Old Course is at once the most humbling and most exhilarating experience in the game, though only slightly more humbling and more exhilarating than taking the first tee virtually anywhere across golf-blessed Scotland.

It was at St. Andrews in the fifteenth century, so the fabled history of the game goes, that shepherds beat rocks with sticks, rolling them into holes in the ground for sport and to break the monotony of minding the mutton. Five hundred years later, the game having spread around the world, players come to St. Andrews and other Scottish courses to revel in history, to connect themselves with the true soul and spirit of the game.

For most pilgrims, Scottish golf is pure golf. With few exceptions, nary a bulldozer has ever scraped and molded the Scottish seaside links courses. The wind, and in some cases the sea itself--along with a few shovels, rakes and rollers-were enough to fashion these precious links. Scottish links courses weren't designed so much as they were discovered. If a tee looked as if it belonged here and a green looked as if it belonged there, so be it. Ridge lines created by windswept dunes became either natural sites for tees and greens, or natural outlines for fairways.

It is the natural, pristine, unadorned quality of Scottish golf that is so appealing. St. Andrews' windswept beauty, like that of other Scottish courses such as Carnoustie, Royal Dornoch or North Berwick, is in its simplicity and its accessibility. Americans have complicated golf beyond reason, overdesigning and overpricing it in search of ever greener fairways and ever plusher clubhouses. American golf tends to be exclusive. Scottish golf tends to be welcoming, even if you have to do a little bowing and scraping to get into private clubs like Muirfield or Troon or Prestwick. That same bowing and scraping is unlikely to get you into a private club in America.

So the hand trembles and the mind races as you push your peg into the soft, sandy turf of the Old Course. There be spirits here, such as that of Old Tom Morris, the legendary nineteenth century pro at St. Andrews, who is buried in the graveyard adjoining the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, a 10-minute walk away. You do not want to embarrass yourself and offend the spirits.

"Plenty of room to the left, lad. Keep it out of the burn."

With that gentle admonition from your caddie to beware of the water, you approach your first tee shot on the Old Course. Scottish caddies are important, if you get a good one. They are not only guides and gurus to the sometimes mysterious ways of links golf, they can be connections to history, too. Tip Anderson, who until recently caddied for 18-handicappers at the Old Course, used to caddie for Arnold Palmer in British Opens.

Saying that the Old Course is accessible is a bit of an overstatement. Though it has always been open to the public, the Old Course is in such international demand that it can be difficult to get on. You have to contact the Links Trust, the governing body of St. Andrews (44-1-33-447-5757) well in advance of your trip to assure yourself a tee time; when you arrive at the starter's booth, you must provide your handicap card. The summer months are the toughest, but like the rest of Scotland you can play golf at St. Andrews all year round.

The first and 18th fairways on the Old Course are one large lawn. Down the right side of the first hole is Swilcan Burn, a tiny ditch with four inches of water that runs in front of the first green and the 18th tee. Behind you is the stone-faced Royal and Ancient Clubhouse and just behind that is the town of St. Andrews. Like so many Scottish courses, the Old Course is connected directly to the town. It's a quick walk from the Old Course's 18th green to the popular Rusacks Hotel or the Birdie Restaurant. Your room, be it hotel or bed and breakfast, might be no more than a five-minute walk from your last putt. It's all part of the connection between the Scottish people and their golf, a connection for which others yearn.

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