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.