ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — An hour’s drive north of Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth, in the county of Fife, is golf’s holy land, Churchill Downs, Fenway Park and the Rose Bowl all rolled up in a bowl of haggis, the Scottish national dish.
In a region where “new” translates as something constructed in 1898, the “Old Course,” at St. Andrews, is appropriately named. The game of golf, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, has been played on the rolling links for nearly 600 years.
Named for the patron saint of Scotland, St. Andrews is called the “old grey toun” because that’s what it is, a warren of granite structures, narrow roads and more mystique than should be permissible.
This is where golf originated, on the sweeping dunes land along the North Sea, known to the Scots as “links,” and this is where it continues, very much alive in a setting of cathedral ruins, decaying castles, charming pubs and — in this 144th British Open — Jordan Spieth’s glorious quest for a Grand Slam.
Spieth certainly didn’t hurt his chances in Thursday’s first round of the 29th Open to be played on the Old Course, shooting a 5-under par 67 that left him two shots behind the 65 of Dustin Johnson, the man Spieth beat by a shot at last month’s U.S. Open. But there’s a long way to go and some tough predicted weather to survive. One day’s sunshine has been replaced by the next day’s storm.
Macbeth — in myth and reality, an actual individual who was glamorized and demonized — was said to have lived in Glamis Castle, some 25 miles away. “Double, double, toil and trouble” are Shakespeare’s words — not from the opening round of Tiger Woods, who shot 76, but from the opening lines of Macbeth.
The Open was merely a minor event across the ocean, expensive to attend, miniscule in purse size, a half-century ago. It meant as little to U.S. pros as, well, the monarchy means to Britain. Then Arnold Palmer took a trip across the Atlantic and changed the attitude of golfers in two countries.
Like Spieth this year, Arnie had won the first two majors in 1960. So he entered Open, at St. Andrews, almost won and made both America and Britain take notice.
If it was good enough for Arnie, the feeling was, it must be very good indeed. Suddenly the stars of the U.S. tour forsook the easy conditions for the wind, rain and unfair bounces of linksland golf. Two days ago, Palmer, 85, and sadly looking his age, played St. Andrews for what might be a final time in the Champion Golfers Challenge. That he used a cart — a buggy it’s called here — didn’t matter a bit.
What matters at St. Andrews, course and city, are history and tradition. There’s a university which is the third oldest in the English-speaking world.
There’s the framework of ruins from a cathedral erected in 1158. There’s a bunker named “Hell,” and a graveyard where Young Tom Morris, who won the championship four times from 1868 to 1872, is buried — and is so revered that golfers climb a wall after dark to visit.
There’s also the infamous Road Hole at the Old Course, the 17th, defined by a tee shot over the edge of the Old Course Hotel — built in the 1960s where railroad sheds once stood — a wall that runs along the right edge of the fairway and bunker left of the green so deep that a man can’t see over the top.
Tom Watson tried to hit that green with a 2-iron in 1984. He went over the green next to the wall, bogeyed and dropped behind eventual winner Seve Ballesteros. Watson won five Opens but none at St. Andrews. Now 65, he is saying farewell a second and last time. And Thursday, after a 76, he said, “Seventeen is the toughest flag position I’ve ever seen.”
Jack Nicklaus won at St. Andrews. Twice. Tiger Woods won at St. Andrews. Twice. Bobby Jones won at St. Andrews. Twice.
Tony Lema of Oakland, who was an assistant pro at San Francisco Golf Club, won at St. Andrews. Only once, in 1964, but it was memorable. He played only nine practice holes, and after the first round, a member of the English press eagerly asked, “How did you find the course?” Lema answered, “I walked out the door of the hotel and there it was.”