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A Glimpse at the Birthplace of Golf

By: Blaine Newnham


Editor’s Note: This perspective by veteran golf writer, Blaine Newnham, takes a look at St. Andrews, the site of this week’s British Open. Newnham visited the storied course in 2000, the year Tiger Woods lapped the field at that year’s Open Championship. The place is awash in history. Blaine reflects on that rich heritage as well as the sometimes confounding realities of the place.

Unquestionably, St. Andrews is the greatest setting for a major championship: a golf course within a town, gothic architecture, gothic golf. I'll never forget my first visit to golf's birthplace, the sun setting over St. Andrews Bay in 2000 as my little rental car made it over the last rise into town.

Before me, bathed in red, were jagged stone church spires and fences. Beyond them was the long, flat beach where they filmed “Chariots of Fire,” and next to it, the land on which golf was played 200 years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

I wanted to throw my Titanium driver down in some kind of misplaced sacrifice.

It was almost 10 o'clock at night, but then St. Andrews is nine-tenths of the way to the Arctic Circle. I was part of a pagan pilgrimage of almost 50,000 people to see the Open Championship, which returns this week for the 27th time to St. Andrews, beginning July 14.

I'd covered major championships at Augusta National, Congressional, Winged Foot, Turnberry, Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, the Olympic Club, and Royal Birkdale. But, clearly, the 2000 Open was a week for the ages, Tiger Woods becoming the first golfer in 34 years to win all four majors in a career, avoiding 448 bunkers in four rounds to do it.

The weather was unlike the British Open, warm and windless. Overall, what could have been better for those who love the sport?

Well, as much as I liked the town of St. Andrews and the surrounding villages – I stayed in a B&B above the post office in Crail – St. Andrews is, in my opinion and that of others who seldom voice it, of course – the worst place for spectator viewing at a major golf championship.

You can't see much at all.

Compared to the seaside grace of Turnberry, the geographical setting for St. Andrews is alarmingly dull. You can't really see the beach, and although the fairways are scrabbled befitting an ancient links course, they aren't tucked between dunes that provide the perfect spectator perch at a place like Royal Birkdale in England.

But, mostly, you're done in by the course's out-and-back layout, and the seven enormous double greens. For the most part, spectators are left on the course's perimeter. They peer from across fairways to greens they can't get to.

To walk the entire course means getting gobbled up in the loop – the seventh through 12th holes at its far extreme boundary. With the Open crowds, it becomes very hard to move from one hole to another.

St. Andrews is usually a first-time disappointment. It was to Bobby Jones, who stormed off the course during his first round, and to Sam Snead, who wondered out loud if it had ever seen a lawn mower. Even Jack Nicklaus, who said he'd rather win the British at St. Andrews more than anything else, said there are only two great holes on the course.

But to understand just how much St. Andrews is part of a culture and a town, you have to realize that the course is closed on Sundays so the community can use it for strolls and picnics. There is no pro, and there are no members. The six golf courses that roll across the land between the city and the sea are operated by a city trust.

The first tee of the Old Course looks like an extension of the putting green. It is so close that town passers-by can watch and comment. As the story goes – and this course has more stories than any other – General Eisenhower went directly to the second hole rather than face the embarrassment of missing his drive at the first.

Normally, golf is played in an isolated place separated from real life by geography and economics. Here it is at the center of a community and a culture. During the Open kids in town carry old golf clubs around with them and go after autographs the way the kids in Boston go after the Red Sox.

It is hard to imagine that they banned golf at St. Andrews – a rule largely ignored, of course – before Columbus gave a thought about going to America. The Old Course wasn't designed as much as it evolved. The result is astonishing, and enduring.

Bobby Jones, who won at St. Andrews by six strokes, said, “The more I studied the Old Course the more I loved it, and the more I loved it, the more I studied it.”

The British call it random golf. Shots are left to the whims of the wind and the land. The fairways are hard and fast, the grass cut short and sparse. In 2000, the fairways were faster than the greens.

St. Andrews doesn't share the sea the way Pebble Beach does. Nor does it have the spectacular dunes of Ireland's Ballybunion or the backdrop of Northern Ireland's Royal County Down. Everything is understated.

The first fairway, which also serves the 18th hole, is 130 yards wide. Both holes are driveable, protected only by a glorified ditch – the Swilcan Burn – in front of the No. 1 green and a swale – the Valley of Sin – in front of No. 18.

The Road Hole, the daring 17th, is as scary as advertised. Spectators sit right next to the road behind the green and, unlike most places on the course, are treated to a terrific view of the unfolding theater.

St. Andrews has survived because the wind blows the way they did 200 years ago, because the tumbling turf keeps shots from going where they ought to, and because the bunkers are hidden and painfully penal. “It is 50-50 whether you will even get out of them the first try,” said Nicklaus in 2000.

Nicklaus won twice at St. Andrews. The last time, in 1978, he played a 6-iron second shot short on No. 17 on the final day to avoid the bunker and the road, and then patiently putted 30 yards onto the green and close to the hole for a par.

St. Andrews takes some getting used to. But then time is what it is all about. It is more museum than an exciting oceanside links, a course better played than watched, and yet a week there is like no other.

I've spent weeks at Augusta National, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst, most often listed as our answers to St. Andrews. They aren't.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He was to cover five Olympics all together – Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens – before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine continues to write a weekly column for the Seattle Times while playing golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association’s Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs out-number the people.