I thought I should write a line to share my experience at St Andrews. I played on the New course on 30 September and the Old course the day after. My wife and I are here as part of our 6 week UK trip and arrived here at St Andrews during the 4th week. This despatch is about my experience on the Old course.
After some tense days awaiting the outcome of the Old course ballot I managed to secure a tee time on the Old course at St Andrews. It may have been a late 2.10pm tee time but the weather turned out perfect with just a little more than gentle breeze coming off St Andrews Bay instead of the usual afternoon gusts, and the course was in tournament condition following The Dunhill Links championship finishing just two days beforehand.
I was partnered with a Zimbabwean cum Kiwi cum Scotsman named Brett who now lives not far from St Andrews in Cupar (where we stayed) accompanied by his beautiful brown labrador named Manu; Colin, a 7 handicapper from Vancouver and a Mark who is from Texas, a "walk up" start who was allowed join our ballot group (I kindly didn't enquire about his handicap as he must have lost about a dozen balls during the round). We all had caddies apart from Brett so it was quite a crowd on the first tee - seven of us which is the largest entourage I have ever been associated with on a golf course AND the dog. My caddy was a 28 year old plus 4 player from Carnoustie named Jordan, who actually resembled the better known Jordan. It was the first time I have ever hired a caddy and I certainly found out during the day that my thought processes on a golf course haven't been what they should be. Jordan very quickly got a handle on my game and pulled the right club from the first hole - he certainly made it easier for me to negotiate my way around.
Manu the dog was looking like a mighty distraction for Brett on the course - he was a young one and was leading Brett around rather than the other way around. Attempts to restrain him to his flimsy stand bag while he played his shot was futile in the main but very amusing; often he simply galumphed around the course with the bag in tow with all the ease of a harness trotter pulling a sulky around Menangle Park. But he did tire after a few holes and then became much more manageable. Nevertheless he was a very lovable dog and great company, adding a very unique (and enjoyable) dimension to my Old course experience.
The first hole was a all about nerves. Instead of enjoying the moment with thoughts about how I was about to follow the footsteps of the great golfers of the past like Old Tom Morris, Bobby Jones or even our own Peter Thomson, I found myself thinking about bloody Ian Baker-Finch driving out of bounds at the 1995 Open with his cap being blown off by the wind. So I made doubly sure my cap was on tight and managed to hit a decent drive towards the lone gorse by the Swilcan Burn in the distance as per Jordan's instructions. When Jordan asked what club I usually need for a 130 metre shot, I replied, eyeing the Swilcan which was looking intimidatingly dangerous there in front of the 1st green, "a 5 iron". He laughed and gave me the seven iron - "They all do that" he said. Again fortune stayed with me and I managed to land the second shot to about 20 feet and 2 putted for a relieving par - I was away.
The greens were surprisingly gentle in pace considering a major professional tournament just finished 2 days prior. They were a tad quicker than Camden in summer and certainly not as quick as Camden in winter. I also found them quite gentle in slope around the holes and very firm - it is only when one has a very long putt over maybe 40 to 50 feet when the slopes became more prominent and 2 to 3 metre breaks became the norm. The other surprise were the fairways, which were incredibly tight and easily the tightest fairways I had ever played, and they were also very firm. The slopes at St Andrews are more about the tee shots and approaches, and one really needs to know the effect of the slopes and where the hidden bunkers are, to find the right landing spots - and this is where having a caddy was a huge advantage. On the 12th tee Jordan gave me the 3 wood (the only time I didn't use driver on a par 4 or 5) and said to aim just to the left of a gravel path on the right. All I could see was the OOB looming just to the right of that same path and at the same time noting that to the left was about 50 metres of inviting fairway. Of course I was dubious but he insisted. So I hit the 3 wood to the left of the path, and when I got to the ball, Jordan said "Now look back". Looking back at the tee I saw a minefield of bunkers which were all waiting to gobble up my ball - "Thanks Jordan!"
I found the rough at the Old course can be very daunting if the is ball sitting down and the sand wedge becomes the weapon of choice, but quite manageable if you get lucky with the ball sitting up. The gorse as I found out the day before on the New course is mainly unplayable. I managed to stay out of the gorse on the Old course but one or two of my partners did not and paid the penalty.
Another thing about the Old course (and the New course) are the blind shots. I have played on many courses in Melbourne and on the Mornington Peninsula and none of the courses there have anything like the number of blind shots one is faced with on the Old course. It seemed at every other hole I was facing a blind first AND second shot on the same hole, so again the caddy was an advantage. His advice was generally along the lines of "Aim for the second church steeple on the left on the horizon, sir", "To the right of the leaderboard up that hill, sir", "See that large bunker in the distance?" or at the 17th tee pointing at the Old Course Hotel sign "See that lion on the wall?", all in the while I was seeing only rough, mounds and gorse in the foreground. The second shot at 14 was a case in point, the Hell bunker hole. Handing me the 3 wood Jordan said "You got 160 metres to carry Hell bunker, that TV tower is your line AND you really don't have any other option". I was in the middle of the fairway and I couldn't see anything but rough, mounds, a bit of bunker and the town of St Andrews in the distance. When I hit the shot it came out out lowish and Jordan said "That's 50/50, sir". But I got lucky, the ball carried the bunker even if it finished in the rough. I am sure Jordan was maybe reading from a script to instil a bit of anxiety and excitement to the day! But my Texan partner was not so lucky - he landed in the cavernous Hell bunker right under the front lip which looked about 2 - 3 metres high and took about 6 swipes before picking up. I think the same fate befell him at the Road hole bunker - I am not sure because I was dealing with my own issues with the road itself from which I used a putter to find the green (and a resulting 6 if you must know).
All our games were mixtures of good and bad. Brett was having driver issues and played a few "Ricky Ponting" cover drives, once to the adjoining Eden course but he was clearly a good player and played some very nice shots and made a few good putts and he was a very nice bloke to boot. How lucky he is to have such easy access to St Andrews. I am sure he'll never get tired of playing golf when he can play any of the St Andrews Links courses at a pinch, and I am sure Manu would be happy just to follow him at every opportunity. Colin from Vancouver also a very good player turned 4 over. I don't know what he finished with as we quickly had to go separate ways because with the late 6.45 PM finish, the Links clubhouse was closed and we were unable to have that all important drink at the 19th. Apart from the bogey at the 18th, that for me, was the disappointing aspect of the day - not having that after round drink with my playing partners or the caddies. But I had the feeling Colin was having a good round. Although he missed a few gettable putts, he was very long, playing a lot of good shots and was smiling broadly after the game.
For my part I had one of my better days (thank the golfing gods!) and apart from the double bogey at 17, my only other double or worse was a 9 at the seventh, so I was a very happy man at the 18th despite the last hole bogey where, after a perfect drive, I chunked a seven iron into the Valley of Sin and 3 putted from there; the 6 foot putt for par hanging over the hole refusing to drop (groan!). I would have loved to have finished with at least a par at the home of golf.
The three caddies were also brilliant company who entertained us the entire round with stories of their experiences. I would not hesitate using a caddy at St Andrews again - they may be expensive but mine was worth every penny as he went a very long way towards enhancing my St Andrews experience with his course knowledge. His flat rate was Â£50.00 with a mandatory Â£20.00 gratuity - in cash after the game. I was happy to pay Jordan Â£90.00 pound as he carried my bag all the way to the Links clubhouse as well - and that is about 800 metres away from the 18th of the Old course. With my green fees "discounted" at Â£150.00 because of the late 2.10pm tee time, and the Â£35.00 club hire charge; my cost for the day was Â£275.00 or AUD $518.00.
Not cheap! The New course the day before was "much less expensive" being Â£80.00 plus Â£35.00 club hire (I didn't use a caddy) which is Â£115.00 or AUD $216.00. Still not cheap!
But for me it was the best golf day ever and would do it all over again notwithstanding the cost. To tee off from under the clock of the famous R & A clubhouse with many curious onlookers watching from both sides was an incredible never to be forgotten experience as was arriving "back in town" at the 18th in the fading light. In my view all lovers of the game of golf should do whatever it takes to make that pilgrimage to St Andrews at least once in their lifetime.
Ian McKenzie (Long term Golfing member Camden Golf Club)