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Tingling and Romance in the Old Grey Town

by Barry Ward

St Andrews - Scotland

IF YOU are a golfer making your maiden pilgrimage to St Andrews the tingle factor will come into play as you cross the Forth bridge that links Edinburgh with The Kingdom of Fife, wherein lies the Home of Golf.

You scan the countryside for a golf course and the prickling mounts when the first comes into view. Now you know how Columbus felt when he spotted America.

It's about an hour's drive from the bridge to St Andrews but that only serves to heighten the exquisite agony of anticipation. By the time you reach the old grey town the hairs on the back of our neck are rising as ecstasy assumes total control of your senses.

The trio of awe-struck hackers with you are already reaching for their spikes. Quick as you can, you park the car and walk the few yards to the broad expanse of green visible at the end of the street. You turn the corner and stop in your tracks.

There it is. You're looking at the stage on which six centuries of golfing history have been played out. There's the Valley of Sin gnawing at that vast green, the Swilcan Bridge straddling the burn near the first green, the fluttering flag at the Road Hole just visible in the distance.

Dappled evening sunlight pours shadows into the undulations that dimple the expanse of fairways and greens. You contemplate the fact that Old Tom and Young Tom won their great championships here; so did Vardon, Braid and Taylor; Bobby Jones and Bobby Locke; Nicklaus, Player, Watson, Faldo and Ballesteros.

The ambience is awe-inspiring, ethereal. It is almost a spiritual experience, akin to standing in the vastness of a great cathedral. You wonder how on earth you'll ever get the ball off the first tee, let alone over the burn and onto the green. When your turn comes you hope, as with death, to face it with dignity and courage.

St Andrews affects all first-timers this way; for many it never loses its romance. The old place has been involved in more love affairs that all the great hotels of Paris and London combined. It occupies a very special place in sporting history, one that will draw you back again and again.

The game is everywhere here, where it all began back in the 15th Century. Golf features in the names of shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and streets. And not including a nine hole course that's ideal for beginners, there are now five 18 hole courses with a swathe of others nearby, some equally venerable and romantic: Crail, Elie, Leven and Scotscraig spring to mind.

You'll want to play them, no doubt, but your priority is St Andrews, Golf's Mecca, the cradle of the game and the fount of much of its history. Be assured you'll have your hands full, but don't rush things, eh? There's always tomorrow. You must savour the time as well as the place.

You'll probably be surprised to learn that the Old Course is only one of five, two of them fairly recent in origin. They are the Strathtyrum and the Balgove. There's also a modern practice centre, a new public clubhouse, a museum of golf and various innovations to cater for the vast number of visitors drawn to the resort.

The 21st Century arrived early at St Andrews but the changes haven't been allowed to over-ride the historic ambience that permeates the town and its surroundings. The tingle factor remains unchanged for first timers, and for veteran visitors too, upon reflection.

In order of technical challenge here's a pen picture of the courses to be found at the modern St Andrews. For beginners and youngsters there is the Balgove, a nine holer with a par of 31.

Then comes the Strathtyrum, another Donald Steel design built in 1993, an 18 holes of 5,200 yards, par-69. This is a holiday course with built-in undulations for variety and perspective. It's a fair challenge but not overly taxing.

The Eden, opened in 1914 to a design by Harry Colt, has been up-graded in severity of challenge, again by Donald Steel. Now it's quite a severe test, a course of considerable prestige, with small greens guarded by deflecting hummocks, some devilish bunkering and several areas out of bounds. The emphasis here is on accurate iron play. It measures 6,112 yards to a par of 70.

The Jubilee course, opened in 1897 to a design by Old Tom Morris, was up-graded some years ago to meet the need for a second championship course. It's a whisker over 6,800 yards with a par of 72 and a mark of its quality is that it has been the venue for the Scottish Strokeplay Championships, among other notable events.

You're in serious golfing country now. From the back tees it is long, a sound test with a tough six hole finish. For the less ambitious, there's an option known as the Bronze course, which uses variable forward tees. Great fun.

The New course is in fact the second most senior at St Andrews, built in 1895 when the game experienced its first boom and an increasing volume of visitors predicated the demand for a second course.

Designed by Old Tom Morris, then the head green keeper and professional, it is considered the nicest and fairest of them all. Indeed, many locals prefer it to the Old.

Unchanged from the original, it is an out-and-back links in the old style, with a slight diversion for variety. Like the Old Course, it has some undulating fairways, lots of magnetic gorse and it makes all the demands known in golf, particularly over a tough five hole finish.

The size of the greens is, as it should be, governed by the length of shot required to reach them. Some are quite large and there's one double but they're all full of interest and in good order, as are all the courses at the Home of Golf.
There may be little to write about the Old Course that you may not already know. Visitors and locals meet and chat along the footpath that runs in front of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse and the famous monument.

They'll be there when you nervously tee off; some will be waiting when you play your final approach, over the Valley of Sin at the 18th, and they'll be peeking over your shoulder as you weigh up the downhill, sidehill putt that's sure to follow. But whatever the quality of your shots they'll be sympathetic or appreciative.

They'll be golfers, too, you see. Virtually everyone is who lives at St Andrews, which is also home to one of the world's oldest universities. You'll be aware of the students as you wander around the narrow streets.

Don't contemplate driving once in situ, incidentally: the walking is easy, the town is compact, and parking is limited.

Strolling is part of the local tradition, particularly on Sundays when many people walk the course or cross it to reach the beach that rims St Andrews Bay, or the wonderful old putting green that edges the first fairway.

The Old Course is on common land, hence its accessibility to the public. It is a municipal course, managed by a trust (not the Royal & Ancient, as many presume) which is responsible for all the golf facilities in town.

They set the fees, decide how the revenue should be spent and supervise the continuous programme of up-keep and expansion that has taken the resort's golfing facilities to a peerless level in recent years.

You should be aware that actually getting onto the Old Course is not easy, unless you are a lone player, in which case you can "make-up", that is complete a foursome, simply by approaching the starter early in the day. You'll find his office near the first tee of the Old Course, in front of the R&A clubhouse.

For most, all is dependant upon the ballot, held the day previously, that's necessary to filter the hundreds of applications to play the world's most famous links.

Your best bet is to choose a hotel or a holiday company which will make the tee reservation on your behalf. You will, though, need to make your plans well in advance: eight weeks' notice is required for this purpose.

There are dozens of hotels, large and small, in town, many overlooking the Old Course. There are restaurants galore, an equal number of bars and the shopping is a delight.

Those playing the Old Course should make a bee-line for the new Links Clubhouse where there are locker rooms, secure storage for golf clubs, a pro shop and, on the upper floor, a handsome restaurant and bar giving all-day service.

This will be a popular spot come The Open: the terrace overlooks the opening and closing holes of the Old Course. Doubtless a few more love affairs were launched in 2000 when Tiger etched another chapter in golfing history in the most venerable championship in golf on the world's oldest and most revered links.

'Twas ever thus at St Andrews, the town that is a timeless monument to golfing traditions and a magnet to lovers of the royal and ancient game the world over.

Review by Barry Ward at Posh Golf Travel

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