Golf has a reputation these days for being an establishment sport, but whenever the Open Championship is being played at the home of golf, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, I like to remind myself it wasn’t always a pastime celebrated by the authorities. Golf (along with football) was outlawed by the Scottish Acts of Parliament enacted in 1457, with the order that “ye golf be uterly cryt done and not usyt”. The ban was introduced because the widespread popularity of golf and football were detracting from the more militarily useful pursuit of archery. That it was repeated in 1471 and 1491 is taken as an indication that the legislation wasn’t terribly successful. Besides, the game was also popular with the Scottish elite, including King James IV, who himself overturned the ban.
Like everything else, golf is an activity whose traditions and standards were invented over time. Many traditions eventually find themselves running counter to evolving social progress, and golf’s notorious relationship with half the human race, i.e., women, is belatedly reaching a point of more enlightened inclusion, as the R&A itself has finally in the last year admitted female members. The R&A tends to stand for continuity, however, and one standard that originated in St Andrews, and which is surely here to stay, is the 18 holes that constitute a championship course. Early golf courses had quite varying number of holes.
At Leith there were originally 5 holes, Musselburgh started off with 7 holes, and Prestwick had 12 holes. At St Andrews, there were also 12 holes by the year of the R&A’s founding in 1754, 10 of which were played twice, once ‘out’ and once back ‘in’, making a round of 22 holes. In 1764, a decision was taken to combine four short holes into two, which produced an 18-hole course, but it wasn’t until well into the 19th century that the 18-hole course began to be seen as the norm.
St. Andrews tends to evoke awe and wonder among golf fans who are captivated by the sport’s history. Twenty years ago this summer, this writer spent a few hours of a family holiday standing around the clubhouse and outside Old Tom Morris’s shop watching play on the 1st and 18th holes. That was the year of John Daly’s Open Championship victory, but I was there a few weeks later. Many of the players I was watching were Japanese businessmen making the game look difficult, some shanking the ball out of bounds and threatening the windows of the buildings along The Links, the street that flanks the 18th. I was too transfixed by history of the place to worry about those dangers, and I lost track of the amount of time I spent contemplating the contours of the Valley of Sin, the swale in front of the 18th green from where Costantino Rocca had holed an outrageous putt to force a play-off with Daly a month before.
The magic of St. Andrews is hard to transmit by simple recourse to golf course aesthetics. While St Andrews is an attractive town, and the sea views from this corner of the Fife coast can be glorious, the Old Course isn’t obviously eye-catching to the casual observer. Even the odd professional has openly expressed their disdain. The American golfer Scott Hoch dismissed the Old Course as a “cow pasture” and “the worst piece of mess I have ever seen”. Though St Andrews more typically elicits a deep affection and excited wonder from golf’s leading practitioners. And some of the game’s greatest ever players have won the Open on this supposedly unexceptional looking track, however, a roll call that includes Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods. The mystique of St Andrews is unshakeable.
As we move into the weekend of this year’s Open, we have an exciting looking leaderboard that invites hopeful thoughts of a classic finale on Sunday. There are many great players in close pursuit of Dustin Johnson, who is so far displaying remarkable mental fortitude after a calamitous finish to last month’s US Open. Watching golf as it is played at the highest level these days, there are far fewer idiosyncratic swings among the games elite, repeatability and routine being two watchwords of the game. There are few Ray Floyds and Eamonn Darcys emerging today, but admittedly there is a Bubba Watson. But for those who watched last month’s dramatic US Open (which entailed serious sleep deprivation for European viewers), it was a reminder that the human factor is ever present in golf, especially on the back nine of a major championship on Sunday. Whether the player who emerges as champion tomorrow will merit a place among the list of great St Andrews Open champions is an open question, but whoever it is will likely have exhibited the qualities that a champion requires.