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Golf's Hallowed Ground

St Andrews guards golf's legacy for the thousands of pilgrims who visit Scotland to pay their respects
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

As a threesome exchange pleasantries on the first tee of the Old Course before teeing off in the Royal & Ancient's Spring Medal tournament, college students ebb and flow from Hamilton Hall across the street, onlookers brace against the low fence, a bellman at MacDonald Rusacks Hotel lifts golf bags from the boot of a car, a couple walk their dogs across the first and 18th fairways in the direction of the West Sands beach, a breeze suggests it will soon become a wind, and low gray clouds scurry from the northeast.

In St Andrews, it is ever thus. Or is it?

We accept as truth that the Old Course at St Andrews, Scotland, is the first course, the seminal course, the defining course of the game of golf. Though its earliest history went unwritten, we accept as truth a series of speculations and calculations that place St Andrews at the heart and soul of golf dating back to the fourteenth century. Now, in the twenty-first century, there is no reason to doubt or dispute any of it, and standing in front of the looming Royal & Ancient Clubhouse above the first tee, there is every reason for a golfer to exalt and exclaim, "I'm home." It is undeniably a mecca for golfers.

Twenty-first-century St Andrews retains the bones of its medieval history. Despite the vibrant, bustling community that it has become, for the first-time visitor, St Andrews still seems stuck in time. For those who return again and again—and they are legion—it is the Auld Grey Toon's rock-solid sense of place that plants a seed of longing.

The golf, for sure, beckons tens of thousands to St Andrews each year. But golfers aren't the only or the original pilgrims. Thousands come to study at world-renowned University of St Andrews, the oldest college in Scotland, dating to 1412. Thousands come to revel in its religious heritage, the town named after the apostle St Andrews. Thousands come just to walk its splendid beach, known as the West Sands and used in the opening scene of Academy Award—winning Chariots of Fire. St Andrews, while the world's most special and coveted golf destination, is not just a golf resort. It is a complex and complete place of golf and culture and learning, and therein lies its beauty and its allure.

"Golf revolves around St Andrews. St Andrews does not revolve around golf," says American Mike DiCarlo, who has been coming to St Andrews for 30 years. He owns a home there and is a partner in a real estate development that will change the nature of one of St Andrews' most visible and iconic buildings, Hamilton Hall. For all that remains the same in St Andrews, there is also much that has changed and is changing. St Andrews, a seat of the Reformation, a town of the Renaissance, moves along at its own pace, but move it does.

Over the past decade there has been much movement in the golf landscape of St Andrews, though there is little chance that the Old Course will ever be dug up, reshaped and transformed into a modern interpretation of what a golf course should be. Its massive double greens, its washboard fairways, its sinister bunkers, its intersecting holes and its endless vagaries are the elements of its birthright that will not be violated. There will always be the odd and often unseen bounce that directs the perfect shot into the clutches of imperfection. There will always be the slightly mishit approach that yields the 50-yard putt. There will always be the 18th green that rests on the town's doorstep. There will always be the curse of the Road Hole and Hell bunkers. There will never be a golf cart.

The Old Course stands alone in the world as historical artifact and spiritual beacon. But it does not stand alone. Starting in the late nineteeth century, the townsfolk created the New Course, then the Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum and Balgove courses. They added the quirky and delightful Himalayas putting green.

Then came the private developments on the fringes of town: The Duke's Course in 1995, Kingsbarns Golf Club in 2000, two courses at the St Andrews Bay Golf Resort & Spa in 2002. The Links Trust, the body empowered to oversee the golf courses owned by the town, built the Links Clubhouse, the first public clubhouse in town, in 1995. Now the Links Trust is building a new course, No. 7, on the Crail Road next to the St Andrews Bay courses, which is expected to open in early 2008.

Hamilton Hall, the red sandstone landmark building across the street from the Old Course, is being converted from a dormitory for the University of St Andrews to high-end time-share apartments and will be known as St Andrews Grand. (Phil Mickelson recently bought a share for $3.4 million of a four bedroom penthouse unit on the sixth floor. It's got a wraparound terrace with views of the 18th fairway and first tee.) The Trust is also completing a new practice facility with covered bays and computer-driven teaching stations that will be staffed by young pros who have only hit a persimmon driver out of curiosity, may have never seen a hickory shafted club, and don't know what a niblick is.

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