For a guest at the Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa, located along the periphery of the 17th hole’s fairway at St. Andrews Old Course, the patio can be an especially treacherous place. It gets a wee bit windy all right, and chilly too. Thank God, then, for the Guinness (which is always on tap): a couple of quick draughts, check; favourite beanie, check; cardigan, check; second cardigan, check; alpine wind-cheater zipped up, check. Just as you’re quaffing some brew, huddling in the bracing air, that a golf ball whizzes over your head. And then there’s another one…and another.
You duck for cover, much to the bemusement of some lovely ladies enjoying a spot of July sunshine. But they’re too polite to snicker, the Scots are, even throwing in a good-natured “hello!” without the hint of a mock. They’ve seen this before: a visitor from Asia who’s seen all these beautiful pictures of the ‘home of golf’ and read reams of history about the Open Championship at St. Andrews. And who’s decided to land up, halfway across the world, bang on time for the commencement of the greatest golf tournament in the world—The Open Championship.
And those tee shots, one of which was hit by none other than local favourite, the prodigious Ulsterman Rory McIlroy, weren’t errant. McIlroy, on a practice round at the Old Course, was hitting his driver on a line that traced over the hotel boundary walls and back to the right side of the fairway of the dreaded 17th hole.
Known as the ‘Road Hole’, on account of a narrow, paved road that runs on the right of the fairway, the 17th hole was, according to veteran player Mark McCormack, “designed by the three witches of Macbeth”. The 461-yard par 4—short by modern standards—looks harmless enough, and therein lies the deception. Gary Player, the South African legend, recently spoke to the New York Times about his first visit to St. Andrews in 1955. ‘“What a crap golf course,” I thought. But that was my immaturity, my lack of knowledge about the game.”
The Road Hole is a case in point. Those who make it past the wall and to the preferred side of the fairway, need to navigate a solitary green-side pot bunker, the road to the right, and an undulating green that changes its lines depending on the weather. The greens, and the aprons, and the greenside bunkers, as chastised players will tell you, are where the best players come undone. It’s where Open Championships have been decided, and the Old Course has hosted a few of those.
St. Andrews, the sleepy grey Scottish town, that comes alive every time the Open Championship comes visiting, was abuzz this year with talk of how the power hitters—the likes of Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka—would render the course defenceless and expose its inadequacies for the modern game. As the Championship progressed, there did seem to some truth to the matter. But it had less to do with the length of the links (or lack thereof) and rather the sunny weather and benign wind conditions, which made getting around under par a breeze for most of the top players.
In fact, the man whose disposition was a perfect manifestation of the weather conditions at St. Andrews won the day. Cameron Smith’s calm, composed, and sunny demeanour perfectly mirrored the benign conditions during the 150th Open Championship. The Australian was faultless in his clinical, record-breaking takedown of the Old Course. Putting like a man possessed, Smith rolled the ball on the Old Course’s greens with a conviction never seen before at the home of golf.
Starting the final day four strokes back, Smith drilled in five birdies on as many holes. His clutch putting was unreal, even when Cameron Young drilled in a 15-footer for eagle on the final hole, to briefly take the lead. Smith made his putt and won by a stroke over Young, and by two strokes over the emotional favourite, and third round leader Rory McIlroy. Smith’s eight-under 64 was the lowest final round score ever recorded in the 30 times the Open Championship has been played at St. Andrews.
The gorgeous weather brought out galleries, the like of which haven’t been seen in Europe since the pandemic swept across the world. And the believers came in droves from all over the world for the ultimate golf pilgrimage. To the place where King James IV dropped by the pro shop to pick up a new set of clubs in 1506, and where nature and wind were the only architects, until Old Tom Morris created the current layout in the 19th century. As the 600-year history of the game at St. Andrews has unfolded, what used to be one rudimentary course, winding its way through heather and bushes, has evolved into multiple championship layouts. Not only do visiting golfers have the opportunity to soak in the tradition of the game, they can choose from no less than 11 courses to do so. With 117 holes, St. Andrews Links is the largest golfing complex in Europe!
Which is just as well because itinerant golfers, enthused after the dramatic events that unfolded over the Open week, need to wait in line for over 18 months to get a tee time at the Old Course. St. Andrews is not so much a golf course as it is a pilgrimage. And what kind of quest would it be if it didn’t have its share of travails? This is bucket list stuff.
Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer, golfer and television producer.