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Crossing Scotland, Day 2 - Waiting for St. Andrews
To play the Old Course at St. Andrews you must either be rich, lucky or crazy. I was the latter.
Blaine Standing on the Swilcan Bridge
We had failed to win a spot in the daily lottery - or ballot, as the Scots call it - to play golf's most celebrated course. And from the beginning we weren't about to pay a tour operator what it takes to get a guaranteed tee time, usually doubling the green fee of $242.
So, basically, it came down to how badly do you want it, apparently not as badly as the guy who started his vigil at 4 a.m. We got there at 5:45. I was 12th on the singles list. Nine hours later I was standing on the first tee, a hard wind in my face, still numbed by jet lag, but about as happy as a gent can be.
Not that it had been easy, the wait. We were allowed to go to the driving range if we wanted, or walk a couple of blocks into town for lunch. We were well informed of our position.
Once I got to the top of the list I assumed the wait would be soon over. But two hours went by, primarily because three Italians rejected me as their fourth. They have that option, and they exercised it. "Don't see much of that," said the young starter. "I'd like to see the rule changed."
The 6:00 a.m. Lineup for the Chance to Play
the Old Course at St. Andrews
Over 50 years of playing golf I have run into few people I didn't enjoy. It is remarkable, I think, that you can be tied so quickly to folks you have just met and may have little else in common other than a shared and crazy love of the game. In that vein, I sense I wouldn't have had much in common with the Italians.
All around me it sounded like the United Nations. One member of our group - we had split into singles by now in hopes of having any chance to get on - played with two Danes. Another with two guys from Switzerland.
Finally, I was picked by three guys from Bordeaux, France, who as I came to find out later were in the whiskey business. They asked me my favorite single malt, and I picked theirs, Glenlivit, which is distilled in not-too-far-away Aberdeen. They were great. As we left the 18th hole, they presented me with a few airline-sized bottles of their best.
It was more than 12 hours since I started the process. I walked down the hotel row opposite the 18th fairway knowing I had just played one of the world's great courses.
It was my first visit to St. Andrews since I had spent a week there during the 2000 British Open, won by Tiger Woods, during four glorious summer days.
But as a spectator you have no idea how difficult the bunkering is and how mysterious the course can be. The hazards are unseen from the tee to serve as protectors of the course.
An official of the St. Andrews Links Trust said it was pretty well concluded by locals that the New Course was better than the Old, that the Jubilee was the most difficult of the seven Trust courses, and Eden the best value.
Looking Down the Old Course's 18th Hole
I don't know about that, but I know how much I enjoyed the Old Course, both the speed of the game and creativity it takes to get the ball near the hole; how much fun it was to hear stories about the bunkers with names.
On the famed 11th hole, a wicked par-3, I hit a well-struck shot that started left into a stiff wind. It caught a ridge that, unthinkably, dumped the ball into a bunker right of the green. This is the one, a caddie said, that caused the great Bobby Jones to walk off the course in frustration, only to come back later to win the Open Championship at St. Andrews. I hit a good sand shot and nearly got up-and-down
I can't imagine Tiger Woods not finding a bunker during four days of the 2000 Open.
Of the celebrated changes made to the Old Course this winter those I saw first-hand were the addition to the back-left portion of the green on No. 11 - to yield more pin placements, and the reduced size of the Road Hole bunker at No. 17, a bunker that is now easier to escape but more likely to be found.
When we signed up on the singles' list early in the morning the starter asked for a picture ID - no stand-ins - and documentation of an official handicap. I think 24 was the limit.
But there is nothing snooty about St. Andrews. In fact, you're struck by the public access to the course, even during play. We arrived the night before and walked out into the 18th fairway and took pictures on the Swilcan Bridge. You don't dare do that at Augusta National, or any other prestigious private course for that matter.
On Sundays the course is closed for golf and open to public picnicking. It is a place like no other.
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 covered 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 dramatically 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 par putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. 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 outnumber the people.