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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

(continued from page 1)

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.

All of this change would not likely have surprised Old Tom Morris. Morris was the legendary four-time British Open champion and ball maker who cared for and groomed the Old Course from 1865 to 1904 and who became the face of the game for St Andrews. During his time, there were great advances in the quality of golf balls and equipment, and he laid out and supervised the building of the New Course in 1895 (which therefore gave the original course the name of Old). Morris was a native St Andrean and liked to say of his townsfolk that "we are born wi' webbed feet and a golf club in our hand here."

It is a line that David Joy often repeats. Joy, a native St Andrean, is a painter, writer and actor who portrays Old Tom Morris on special occasions in one-man shows. Joy, speaking for Old Tom, says this about golf in St Andrews: "Living as he did through a time of great change in the game, I don't think he would be surprised at all to see what's gone on. Golf became popular during his lifetime and he was one of the reasons for it, so seeing so many people come to St Andrews to play would have been gratifying then and now. I suppose he would be surprised at the level of maintenance of the Old Course, which during his day was mostly khaki-colored with a tinge of green and certainly not mown with any regularity."

Joy also has this to say about the people of St Andrews: "The attitude of the locals has changed quite a bit. Visitors were looked upon as a nuisance until probably the mid-'70s. But we realized finally that they were putting a lot into our town. We started getting a better class of Americans. Before it was just tartan wearers coming to town on a bus tour. Now it's a big cross section of Americans coming in small groups to play golf, and to see our town. We have sort of resigned ourselves to more people and slower rounds during the high season. Thank God we have a bloody bad winter here or we would have a theme park."

The theme of golf in St Andrews is seasonal, thanks in large measure to the bloody bad winter. Yet in recent years that season has been stretched by the arrival of the new courses, particularly the two at the St Andrews Bay resort, owned by American Donald Panoz. "St Andrews Bay, because it has the ability to handle conferences and small conventions, has had an influence on the overall golf landscape in St Andrews," says Gordon Dalgleish, a native Scot who, along with his brother Colin, runs PerryGolf, a high-end travel company based in Atlanta that does considerable business in Scotland. "Getting people into St Andrews in February is no small chore, but St Andrews Bay has probably given the area an extra couple of months on either side of the summer. They have the two lovely courses there. Up the road is Kingsbarns, which has gained, and rightly so, a very strong reputation.

"Another factor in this, too, is the Links Clubhouse. Now, when they were proposing to build it in the early 1990s, the locals were hugely opposed to it. But it went through and now it gives players a place to change clothing, have a drink, a meal, all in a place overlooking the linksland. And now the locals quite embrace it themselves. The locals will look askance at change, but at the same time have come to realize that so much has been for their benefit."

The Old Course, and the family of courses it spawned, is one of the great municipal benefits in the world. Locals are entitled to buy a pass that allows them unlimited golf and guaranteed tee times on the Old Course and all others that the town owns. The cost: a little more than $200 per year, which is less than the cost of one round played by a visitor on the Old Course. Getting a tee time on the fabled layout can be a byzantine undertaking for a visitor during the high season, going through what's known as the ballot, in which names are drawn the day before.

Visitors are considerably down the pecking order. One way to ensure a tee time is by going to the St Andrews Links Trust Web site well in advance of your trip. You could also purchase a time as part of a golf tour such as those organized by PerryGolf or from the St Andrews—based Old Course Experience, but expect that the cost will be wallet-shrinking, though the experience is, to most, priceless. During the off-season, it's quite likely you could just walk up to the starter's hut and get sent off in a reasonable time.

With golf traffic increasing, there is rising pressure on the entirely satisfying New Course and the underrated Jubilee. That's why courses like Kingsbarns, the St Andrews Bay pair and The Duke's Course have been such key additions, and why the Links Trust is building the No. 7 course. No. 7 was designed by David McLay Kidd, whose reputation was ramped up miles by his Bandon Dunes links course in Oregon. While No. 7 doesn't sit on linksland, it does sit on a beautiful headland with a marvelous view of the town. It will have some links characteristics, with lumpy fairways and ambling greens. The ninth and 18th greens will be joined and overlook the water, just in front of the clubhouse.

This area to the east of town was first mined for golf by the Kingsbarns Golf Links. Designed by Kyle Phillips and one of the original investors, Mark Parsinen, Kingsbarns was a bland sloping site that once held a small course and where cattle and sheep grazed. But it also had a stupendous view across the Firth of Tay toward Dundee, Carnoustie and Arbroath. Phillips and Parsinen transformed the land into a true links layout with deft detailing and subtleties that gave it instant age and overwhelming approval. The course will become a final qualifying site for the 2010 British Open Championship at St Andrews. And get this: during the off-season there is very little play, even from the locals, who are charged only 12 pounds sterling (about $22).

The St Andrews Bay courses, designed by Sam Torrance and Bruce Devlin, are an entirely appropriate addition to the local golf, with the Devlin course particularly challenging from the back tees. You couldn't do wrong to play at St Andrews Bay during the high season if the Old Course, the New Course and Kingsbarns are jammed up. The Duke's Course, owned by the Old Course Hotel, has recently been renovated, but large white sand bunkers are glaring in the parkland layout and need to weather to gain a natural look.

For those staying in St Andrews for longer than three or four days, a visit to the courses of the East Neuk will take you back to another age of the game. The East Neuk is a strip of land along the south coast of Fife whose eastern tip encompasses the town of Crail and the two courses of the Crail Golfing Society. The Balcomie Links, the older of the two, was laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1895. Proceeding west toward Edinburgh you will find the abiding courses of Elie, Lundin Golf Club and Leven Links, all of which welcome visitors. It is at these courses that you might well hook up and play with a local, perhaps sharing a pint and a toasted cheese sandwich afterward in the clubhouse. The locals of St Andrews, at first so opposed to the new Links Clubhouse, came to embrace it when they realized that even though they were not all members of the R&A or the St Andrews Golf Club or the New Golf Club, they, too, could have a splendid spot for a pint and a toasted cheese sandwich and in the process, commiserate with the visitors.

Gordon Murray will commiserate with anybody. A St Andrean by birth, an Aberdeen fisherman and fish monger by trade, a caddie on the Old Course in his retirement, Murray is a willing participant in any conversation and a man of far-flung connections in the game. He doesn't tote a bag every day and he doesn't tote for just anyone. He lives along the 18th fairway of the Old Course, gets his caddie bib out of the boot of his Mercedes, and knows members of the Augusta National Golf Club (one of several elite American clubs at which he has played). He has his opinions about change in St Andrews, and they are generally accepting, though he does have his issues with the St Andrews Links Trust, which has asserted that the building of the No. 7 course is driven by local demand. "Rubbish," says Murray, who, at the time, was gearing up for a trip to the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club as a guest of David Fay, executive director of the United States Golf Association.

"If you ask the locals, I am sure they will say that the Links Trust, and bear in mind the word trust, has exceeded its boundaries and has become a bit of an empire builder. When they built their new clubhouse, it was in competition with the locals. They are building a new commercial shop where the St Andrew Woolen Mill used to be [alongside the 18th green of the Old Course] that will be in competition with the locals. They are building the No. 7 Course, which will be in competition with the private money that built Kingsbarns and St Andrews Bay and The Duke's Course. "Now, we need change over time here, there's no doubt. The new clubhouse, which is grander than what they originally stated it would be, has been a good addition to the town and the visitors certainly like it. But what the focus should be is on maintaining all of our courses to the highest standard and keeping them available for the locals to play, and not being in competition for business with the town."

Gordon Murray is more gregarious than most St Andreans, but you are likely to get yourself into a conversation anywhere in the burgh about anything, be it golf, the country's new smoking ban, the United States's and England's stand in Iraq, or the quality of the pastries at Fisher & Donaldson. A frequent meeting place for locals and visitors is the Lounge Bar of The Dunvegan Hotel, just up Pilmour Place from the 18th green of the Old Course. Golf is the motif of this intimate pub, with pictures of such greats as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Arnold Palmer adorning the walls. The Dunvegan is run by Jack Willoughby, a Texan and Texas A&M graduate, and his Scottish wife, Sheena. "I worked in the oil business in Aberdeen, met my wife there, and we used to come to St Andrews to play golf," says Willoughby. "I just always hated to leave the place; it was so magical and it changed my life. There's been a lot of change here, a lot of it commercially driven. Everyone wants a piece of the St Andrews pie. The price of the tee times on the Old Course has really gone up and especially if you get them through the Old Course Experience. My heart says these changes aren't so good, being kind of a purist about these things. But my head says that they are inevitable. I don't really think the visitor sees these things; it's the locals that notice them. It's still a wonderful place."

While the Old Course Hotel, MacDonald Rusacks Hotel, St Andrews Golf Hotel, Rufflets Country House Hotel, St Andrews Bay Resort & Spa, The Dunvegan Hotel and a myriad of smaller hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs offer a wide range of accommodation and comfort, there is no more special place to stay in golf than Ann's house. Straight up the street known as The Scores, just past the little Catholic church, 464 yards from the first tee of the Old Course, is Ann Hippisley's house, formerly known as the Rockview Coach House. The three-story, gray stone home and its carriage house sit on the bluff above St Andrews Bay. From the window seat in the drawing room, the view takes in the West Sands, a goodly portion of the Jubilee and New courses, and upwards of 30 miles across the Firth of Tay. Ann runs the home as a B&B in the truest sense. Pay for a room, get a full breakfast and have pretty much the run of a house that sits on one of the most magnificent sites in the world. You can also get into a discussion with Ann about religion, the university, her life in America and Russia, and any number of topics that don't include golf, a sport of which she has only the vaguest idea, despite the fact that golfers make up virtually all of her summer clientele.

That's part and parcel of St Andrews' charm and of Mike DiCarlo's observation that golf revolves around St Andrews and not the other way around. "The university is the 400-pound gorilla here, not the golf," says DiCarlo. "That makes for a really well-rounded experience for anyone here. This town is a center of learning, a center of culture and the worldwide center of golf. Doesn't get much better than that."

Bobby Jones became a legend in St Andrews after he won the 1927 Open Championship and the 1930 Amateur Championship on the Old Course. In 1958, he was made Honorary Burgess of the Borough, becoming the first American since Benjamin Franklin to receive the Freedom of the City award. As part of his exceedingly gracious acceptance speech, Jones said: "I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St Andrews and I would still have a rich, full life." It's Sunday afternoon and the Old Course is closed, as it always is. Old Tom Morris thought the course needed a day's rest each week, and Sunday was a day's rest for most. On the first and 18th fairways, children kick soccer balls, fly kites and play with their dogs. The curious, golfers or not, inspect the Valley of Sin in front of the 18th green and ogle the R&A clubhouse. At any time on a fine day, there might be 50 people traversing the most revered ground in golf without so much as a putter in their hands. It is then you understand that golf is a brightly colored thread woven into the large and comfortable tartan that is St Andrews.

Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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