Fairway to heaven

Entering the secret recesses of the clubhouse at St Andrews is like stepping inside a pyramid; an experience Arnold Palmer describes as "being admitted to the Hall of the Gods".

Golf - The Open Championship - Old Course - St. Andrews - Scotland - 16/7/05
Tiger Woods of the USA during the third round     
Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Brandon Malone
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Entering the secret recesses of the clubhouse at St Andrews is like stepping inside a pyramid; an experience Arnold Palmer describes as "being admitted to the Hall of the Gods". A hushed shrine where wondrous things are to be found: dark corridors of oil paintings depicting royal and golfing kings . . . glass cabinets crammed with glittering trophies fashioned from kangaroo paws and silver boomerangs . . . a hoard of ancient hickory putters, mashie-niblicks and brassies, all lovingly sculpted by Willie Auchterlonie and his fellow 19th century craftsmen. Chamber upon chamber of priceless antiquities.

Aye, St Andrews, where the 18th green nestles snugly in the corner of two narrow streets on the edge of town - separated from the general public by a low, white fence and overlooked by a venerable red sandstone tenement currently being reconverted into sumptuous apartment - is like no other golf course in the world. Critics will tell you it lacks the mighty challenge of Muirfield, the manicured glamour of Augusta, or the Hollywood beauty of Cypress Point, but surely there can be no more starkly breathtaking or atmospheric spot on the golfing globe.

"As a youngster I heard other players talk about St Andrews," sighs a besotted Ernie Els who is back in town to compete in this week's Dunhill Links Championship, "but nothing really prepares you for your first sighting. I guess it's a cathedral." Not everyone is so impressed, however, particularly the notoriously pampered Americans who prefer their country clubs to be as carefully cultivated as a Californian cemetery, all rolling lawns, dyed blue ponds, banks of lillies and weeping willows. It is not an electric cart you need on this rugged coastline of Fife so much as a four-wheel-drive Land Rover. When Sam Snead first saw St Andrews spread out down below from the window of a light aircraft in 1946, he inquired of his pilot: "Say fella, there's an abandoned golf course down there. What did they call it back in the old days?"

Snead's suspicions did prove to be unfounded and he won the British Open that year by four shots. Bobby Jones was so sceptical that he tore up his card after six holes and vowed never to come back. That was in 1921, yet return he did to win the British Open six years later and the British Amateur title (then considered almost as important as any major) in 1930. When he was given the freedom of St Andrews at a ceremony held in front of the townspeople in 1958, Jones won the hearts of the Scottish nation with a suitably affectionate and gracious acceptance speech.

"You have to study the Old Course," he said. "And the more you study it, the more you learn. Of course the more you learn, the more you have to study it. If I could take everything out of my life except my experiences at St Andrews, I would still have enjoyed a rich and full life." Like so many who came before or followed after, Jones, later to become one of the sport's most accomplished designers, gradually realised that St Andrews, where they had been playing golf since the 1400s, owed its subtle, deceptively uncluttered lay-out to the architect's pencil of God.

To the uneducated eye, it would appear the course is some way short of the best. The shared first and 18th fairway is really not a fairway at all, merely a giant polo field devoid of any geographical quirk save the Swilcan Burn and its tiny stone bridge which, on a frosty January morning, disappears into a curtain of mist like the path to Brigadoon. From the third hole onwards, however, St Andrews becomes a rolling - sometimes cruel - sea of bumps and hillocks, gorse and heather, hollows and swales. And then there are the bunkers . . . a veritable desert of spiteful sand such as The Beardies, Hell Bunker, The Grave. "Honest to God," continues Ele, "I must have played this course 20 or 30 times and I found myself in a bunker last year that I never knew existed before. It's a special place..."

Special? Listen to the born-again Sam Snead: "The only place in Britain that's holier is Westminster Abbey." Or Jack Nicklaus: "There are two British Opens. The one played at Muirfield and Lytham and Troon and the rest. And the one played at St Andrews. There is no place in the world I would rather win a championship." Or the late Tony Lema: "What do I think of St Andrews? It's like going to Scotland to visit your sick grandmother. She's old and she's crotchety and she's eccentric. But look real close and my, isn't she dignified and elegant? I sincerely believe anyone who doesn't fall in love with her is totally lacking in imagination."

Grandma can be an elderly pussycat when the sun shines and the North Sea lies as blue and serene as the Mediterranean, but when the "cauld wind blaws" and she remembers to put her teeth in, St Andrews can bite your head off. Armed with a handicap, it is entirely possible for anyone to play the Old Course. It is not so easy to achieve membership of the Royal and Ancient, the game's ruling body (except in Mexico and the US) and just possibly the most exclusive club in the world, though they do not actually own the course on which they sit.

The Dukes of Edinburgh, York and Kent are among the exclusive band of 13 honorary members which also includes former Open champions Arnold Palmer, Kel Nagle, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Tony Jackilin and Roberto de Vicenzo. Yet the R & A, for all their pomp and circumstance, are markedly less stuffy than the All England Club at Wimbledon, say, and come blessed with a few quirks which suggest they also keep a healthy sense of humour stored among the invaluable artefacts.

New captains, for instance, have to "drive in" from the first tee and a silver replica of the ball they use is then attached to the cluster hanging on an ancient silver putter like a bunch of fruit. At the autumn dinner, new members are required to touch this ornament to their lips, a reverent ceremony Sean Connery irreverently describes as "kissing the captains' balls". rphilip@thenational.ae