The 144th Open Championship gets underway early Thursday morning on The Old Course at St Andrews. The Open Championship is the oldest of golf’s major championships, and The Old Course hosts the tournament every five years. It’s hosted The Open 28 times since 1873. Take note – locals don’t call it the British Open. They call it the Open Championship. The Old Course is one of the world’s oldest golf courses. The golf here spreads out over common land in Fife and dates back well over 600 years. In 1754, a group of noblemen, professors, and landowners founded the Society of St Andrews Golfers, the precursor to The Royal & Ancient Golf Club. The R&A, as it’s known, serves as the governing body for golf everywhere outside the United States and Mexico and looms ominously over the first tee.
In 2005, the Old Course was ranked as the greatest golf course outside the U.S. by Golf Digest. It’s considered by many to be the “home of golf” because the sport was first played on its Links in the early 1400s. Golf in Scotland was increasing in popularity until 1457 when James II of Scotland banned the sport because he felt young men were playing golf instead of practicing their archery skills. The ban was upheld until 1502 when King James IV became a golfer and removed it.
The Old Course evolved without the help of any one architect until Daw Anderson (in the 1850s) and Old Tom Morris, who designed the 1st and 18 holes. Originally, members played the same holes going out and coming in with the exception of the 11th and 22nd holes. Groups would often play the same hole but in different directions. In 1764, The Old Course had 22 holes, but the members decided the first four holes were too short and should be combined into a total of four holes (two in, two out). That’s how the modern standard of 18 holes was created.
Around 1863, Old Tom Morris had the 1st green separated from the 17th green, producing the current 18-hole layout with seven double greens, one of the unique features of the course. Only the 1st, 9th, 17th, and 18th holes have their own greens. The Old Course also has 112 bunkers, which are all individually named and have their own unique stories and histories. The two most famous bunkers are the ten-foot-deep “Hell Bunker” on the 14th hole and the “Road Bunker” on the 17th hole. Countless golfers have seen their dreams of winning The Open squandered by hitting their balls in these bunkers.
Another interesting feature of the course is that it can be played in either direction, clockwise or counter-clockwise. The general method of play today is counter-clockwise, but three-time Open Champion Tiger Woods, who won at St Andrews in 2000 and again in 2005, says he’s always wanted to play The Old Course in reverse, the way it was played before 1832.
“I’ve always wanted to play backwards, one time, before I die,” says Woods. “It’s brilliant how you can play it so many different ways. I want to play from 1 to 17, 2 to 16, so forth and so on. I’d love to be able to play it that way just one time. That would be just a blast because I can see how certain bunkers – why would they put that there? And then if you play it backwards, you see it. It’s very apparent. That’s totally in play. That would be a lot of fun to be able to do one day.”
Clockwise play has been permitted on one day each year in recent years, and since 2008, has been allowed on the Friday, Saturday, and Monday of the first weekend in April. Originally, the course was reversed every week in order to better allow the grass to recover. The Old Course is closed on Sundays to let the course rest, and on some Sundays, the course turns into a park for the townspeople to stroll, picnic, and otherwise enjoy the grounds.
As a general rule, Sunday play is allowed on the course on only four occasions: the final day of the Dunhill Links Championship, an annual event on the European Tour, the final day of the The Open Championship and Women’s British Open when held at The Old Course, and the final day of two top amateur events: the St Andrews Links Trophy and the St. Rule Trophy. Sunday play may also occur when The Old Course hosts other major events like the Curtis Cup in 2008.
The Old Course always provides a stern but unique test for the very best golfers in the world all vying to become the Champion Golfer of the Year. There are a few pretty famous holes. Here is a description of those holes:
The Old Course
Yardage: 7,297 yards
Last Open: 139th Open (2010)
Lowest Opening Round Score at St Andrews: 63- Rory McIlroy, 2010
Hole 14: Long
Yardage: 614 yards
Average Score in 2010: 4.848 (15th hardest hole in 2010)
The 14th hole is the longest hole on the Old Course and features one of the most challenging tee shots. The player has to hit his drive into an area known as the Elysian Fields, which sits beyond the Beardies bunkers on the left and well away from the wall that delineates the out-of-bounds down the right.
The second shot then has to be hit either over the iconic “Hell Bunker” or down the left, leaving a short iron into a large, undulating green. Unusually for a par five, there was just one eagle on this hole in the 2010 Championship, by Jeff Overton in the 2nd round.
Hole 17: Road Hole
Yardage: 495 yards
Average Score in 2010: 4.653 (Hardest hole in 2010)
The 17th hole at St Andrews is one of the most iconic holes in the game. Many players have cracked under the pressure on this infamous hole, and in 2010, there were 55 double bogeys or worse on this hole over four days. The infamous Road Hole is widely regarded as the toughest par four in the world. The tee shot has to be hit over the railway sheds on the grounds of the Old Course Hotel. Among its unique features:
* Players playing from the back tees can’t see where their tee shots land. They must take aim over a corner of the replica railway sheds that lie beyond the out of bounds wall. The original sheds were torn down when the rail line running next to the course closed. After several Opens were played without a blind tee shot, replicas of the sheds were built in the mid-1980s.
* Other than the rough, the primary hazard in front of the shallow green is a cavernous sand trap known as the “Road Bunker.”
* Over the back of the green, hazards include a tarmac roadway and an old stone wall. Both are in play. A wayward shot can lead to a stroke off the roadway or the face of a wall or stone dyke at the rear. Tom Watson flew this green in the final round of the 1984 Championship, effectively handing the title to Seve Ballesteros.
Hole 18: Tom Morris
Yardage: 356 yards
Average Score in 2010: 3.661 (17th hardest hole in 2010)
The 18th hole has witnessed a lot of drama over the years. Many players believe the best line off the tee is towards the clock on the R&A clubhouse. To get to their tee shots, players have to cross the 700-year-old Swilcan Bridge that spans the Swilcan Burn.
The 2nd shot must clear a deep hollow knows as the Valley of Sin in order to reach the putting surface. In 1995, Costantino Rocca holed his second of two shots from the Valley of Sin to get into a playoff against John Daly. That is rare, and three-putts from this area are much more common.