St. Andrew’s (Old): The Icon of Golf’s Sporting Roots

My twitter feed, set afire a week ago by the announced changes to St. Andrew’s Old, has finally calmed down. The surprisingly swift – and broad reaching – uproar over the changes dominated like no other issue in the past year. Naturally, this is a result of my bias toward golf-related accounts and issues and my general disdain for those who post more political or social rantings through that particular media.

Until now, I remained content to watch the discourse unfold as I have no emotional appeal from which to draw ire or support. I have never journeyed to St. Andrew’s. I don’t share the connection to the place that those who invested the time and energy to learn the course do. However, I hope to some day. I am capable of connecting to a golf course and can relate to the feeling of having to alter my convictions due to changes that, despite my strong emotional connection, are out of my control. My lack of pathos for this issue combined with my general curiosity regarding the construction of rhetoric lead me to review the history of St. Andrew’s Old Course. My largest source is Forrest Richardson’s wonderful chapter regarding the Old Course in his book, Routing the Golf Course.

No golf course can exist without some influence and change from man. This is an unavoidable fact and it must be established first and foremost. The act of choosing land for golf necessitates alterations and maintenance to preserve the sporting nature of the act. St. Andrew’s Old, in it’s 500 year history, never escaped or stood above this fact. So, breathe easily, I will not try to convince the reader otherwise. However, St. Andrew’s Old is different and I believe that St. Andrew’s Old stands as an Icon of golf’s sporting ethos.

The golf course’s first, and only necessary, influence from man are the locations of the holes. The concept of target is man-made and little exigency derives from blindly golfing a ball across the land to no end. What stands St. Andrew’s apart from the rest of our surviving golf courses is that the addition (or subtraction as St. Andrew’s at one point had eleven holes – twenty-two total – played out and back) is where man’s influence ends for the most part. Formal, revetted bunkers exist on the course for the purpose of maintenance and preservation. Until this year, I believe there to be less than ten bunkers on the golf course that were added in places where none had previously existed.

Therefore, the idea of sanctity regarding man’s lack of influence at St. Andrew’s Old holds some weight. The routing bones of the golf course remain unaltered by the hand of man except for additions and subtractions necessitated by maintenance considerations and accommodating the increasing popularity of the sport. Allan Robertson widened the corridor (let’s avoid calling it a fairway) to better accommodate the two-way traffic on the Old Course’s shared fairways. Old Tom Morris separated the first/seventeenth green for a similar reason. In doing so, he gave the golfing world the Road Hole putting green. Let’s note here that the Road Hole putting green remains one of the few true constructions of man on the golf course. I think it important to consider the idea that all the above changes were made to accommodate popularity of play and not necessarily to alter the challenges of the sport.

I propose that the uproar caused by these latest changes rattled the visceral urges upon which the sport of golf is founded. Almost without question, every golf course’s history and development can be traced to the variable intentions and competence of someone modifying, altering or suiting the terrain for a sport long played elsewhere. While obvious that man at some point had to identify the hole locations for St. Andrews, the names and faces of these people are long forgotten to the faded obscurity of history. St. Andrew’s Old allowed us to suspend disbelief moreso than any other golf course because these faces – and their connected egos – live in the mere abstraction of the concept. St. Andrew’s Old mystery may very well come from the fact that the answer as to who first determined this was suitable linksland for the sport, and how the golfer shall maneuver through these links, can never be determined. Their only face is in what we take away from the experience of the course.

An irony here is that St. Andrew’s is likely the product of someone, or a group, who would never be able to replicate the results elsewhere. I have read with some bemusement that the current plans and changes are like putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. I find this analogy insulting to St. Andrew’s Old. We know more of the origins of the Mona Lisa than we may ever know of the origins of St. Andrew’s. While the purpose of the Mona Lisa may never be concretely determined, we know plenty more about its creator and his other work. St. Andrew’s stands above even this.

St. Andrew’s Old has largely been a product of the collected work of its curators. People who preserve the aboriginal instead of rewrite the original. The latest changes represent losing a piece of this that is comparatively small but not trivial. Let us consider it for what it is.

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One thought on “St. Andrew’s (Old): The Icon of Golf’s Sporting Roots

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  1. Hi Kyle

    The Old Course at St Andrews is first and foremost a golf course. It was not as many people like to think a gift from God and Nature to Man but a course that slowly developed over 600 years. Yes originally the early players utilised what was there. The very idea of moulding the land to play golf was not considered, as the idea was to navigate through a plot of land and it’s hazards to generate the challenge and thrills that became known as the game of golf. The Old Course was designed, it did not just evolve even with its wonderful ripples, undulations and sand dunes; they were all slowly shaped by man, by that I refer to the routing, fairways and Greens. Remember The Old Lady when young had 22 Holes up to the mid 18th Century when it was changed to 18.

    The Old Course was then completely changes by Old Tom from as early as the 1840’s under the eye of Allan Robertson, then by Old Tom himself from 1864 – 1880s, before settling down to more or less what we know today. More changes but minor again occurred between 1904-08 from the killing of the worms, adding more than just sand but nutriments too, alas although bunkers were added around this time, the bigger problem being that The Old Course between 1904-5 showed some outwards signs of improvement, that was not to last. The course itself suffered through about 6-8 years with pooling after rain, something that had not been a problem under Old Tom. There were issues with the quality of the turf/grass which seems to have taken up to the 1912-13 to resolve.

    The point I am making is that The Old Course is a living course not a museum piece, it needs to be allowed to mature. However there is a big difference in slowly maturing against a rather invasive modification plan, not for the day to day player or golfer, but for a hand full of elite golfers who might use the course say once or twice every 5 years. This type of modification is not for the good of the course but it is what the R&A want, they believe it will push the top players. However, the R&A will not consider ball roll back or controlling the equipment which would resolve not just these changes but many more as well.

    Change for change sake is not good for golf, golfer or the game itself. It is this rather drastic not to mention very quick changes that have upset many. We did not get the opportunity to read the proposals in the golfing magazines or for that matter on blog sites. The announcement came and work started that day. Worst still the St Andrews Link Trust set up by our Parliament to protect the course for the people of St Andrews, seem to have agreed to everything that the R&A wanted – now could this be because – as some have said – that the Links Trust now employs a few ex R&A Members. Who knows but these changes warranted a major debate which should have included the People before being undertaken. As I said not a museum piece but still some respect was called for as she represents the spiritual heart of every golf course in the world.

    Any Governing Body that refuses to address the real issues thus forcing our courses to be modified because of their failures should not hold office. Change, fine, but not change for change sake. This is down to the R&A and they are out of order. I want to see them reformed or sacked as The Governing Body. I also want them stripped from organising and profiting from The Open.

    If only the R&A would accept there is a problem, then we can move forward but their refusal to understand that many of the courses in the world today were designed for different less aggressive equipment, in fact many are still the product of the Hickory period when designers were single individuals who understood the whole picture. Perhaps today the ideas of Jack Nicklaus and other design houses have lost their way in having a team to design a course, perhaps that’s why some feel so disjointed and need modification as soon as they open. Also a little less on the aesthetics and much more concentration on penal strategy to re-emphasise the real meaning of what golf is all about, that is rising to the challenge to achieve the true thrill factor that is the heart of the game.

    Even with today’s changes the course is still more Old Tom than anyone else, yet it would have been good for the Game had some consideration been seen forthcoming from the R&A and most certainly The St Andrews Link Trust who have on this occasions proven to be the R&A lackey.

    Remember the modern game is so weak compared that that which first invaded your shores. It was penal, it had to be to conjure up the tests and challenges. Why do you think you have imported so many template Holes, because they liked the name or was it they set the thrill standards, tested the golfer, to use his mind, eyes and developing skill. Play the originals with Hickory and it’s a test of skill married to the golfer’s whit, dexterity mind, body and hand. Golf is not easy, it never was, had it been then it would have died off years ago.

    The R&A will not change but something far more valuable to Golf, St Andrews and the People of Scotland that being The Old Course must tolerate being molested because her attacker will not compromise his stance – sorry who is serving who?

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