The Old Course: Trying and, alas, failing to close a 17-year hole in my heart
“Manage your expectations.”
That’s the phrase that echoed in my mind like a mantra as I pulled out of the visitors’ clubhouse car park and prepared to peer at St. Andrews, with regret, in the Fiat’s rearview mirror. Seventeen years after the only other time I’d played the Old Course—and in the final days of this nine-week journey—I had finally returned to the home of golf, determined to rectify a missed opportunity.
But when it was all said and done, I wasn’t quite sure I’d succeeded. Maybe, given all the build up, my plan was always doomed to fail. Now, those three words of wisdom haunted me, caught in a seemingly endless loop.
Perhaps I should reboot, rewind and explain a wee bit.
Internal Turmoil or External Setting?
I made my first trip to Scotland in 1997. And, like most Americans, I assumed it would also be my last. As such, my three friends and I secured our tee time on the Old Course, and then planned the rest of our itinerary around it. It was the big sparkly diamond at the center of a string of pearls that included Carnoustie, Gullane, North Berwick, Cruden Bay, Nairn and Dornoch. As such, it’d be reasonable to assume that walking the hallowed ground upon which the game has been played for at least five centuries was the highlight of that trip. But it wasn’t. Not even close.
Truth be told, I barely remember the experience. In the nearly two decades since, I was convinced the disconnect was due to internal turmoil (marriage on the rocks, career at a crossroads, finances in distress, etc.) not external setting. But now, with my life on a decidedly upward trend, the time had come to revisit Old Tom’s old stomping grounds and, as T.S. Eliot might say, know the place for the first time.
So unlike most of this trip, which I basically made up as I went along, the grand finale was thoroughly planned. I called ahead to confirm that a single could get on and, assuming so, when I should arrive to improve my chances. I double-checked the route to get from the Scottish Borders to St. Andrews, including the drive north to Edinburgh, the swing to the west along the A720 ring road, the crossing of the firth on the Forth Road Bridge and the critical turn off east onto the A92 that would bring me within range of the sign postings leading to the Old Grey Toon. I set my alarm clock for 5 a.m., was on the road (and in the dark and patchy fog) by 6, and pulled into the car park at 8. Smack dab on schedule.
As such, I was second on the waiting list, behind only a two-ball that would likely have a tougher time of finding an opening than I would as a single. The kindly gentleman working the reception desk was very encouraging, revealing that a threesome of members was due up at 8:50 and might be persuaded to take on an interloper.
Oh the cleverness of me!
But 8:50 came and went, with nothing but four-balls commandeering the first tee. So it wasn’t until an hour later that my opportunity arrived, along with three other visitors. Nae bother, I told myself. I was about to get a second shot at the Old Course—and a chance to make amends for sleepwalking through my first go-round. That’s what mattered.
Our Makeshift Foursome
Half of our makeshift foursome was comprised of two American college students, A.J. and Drew, whose study abroad semester in London was quickly coming to a close. Though they’d arrived in St. Andrews by train the night before bleary-eyed, they set foot on the first tee the morning after as if jacked up on Red Bull. In fact, Drew pull hooked his opening drive with such ferocity that his ball never touched the turf, rattling off a car and/or building or two well on the wrong side of the white OB fence. Now, as all golf aficionados know, the 1st and 18th holes at the Old Course share a fairway that’s wider than a football field (US or UK versions). So this was quite a feat, ignoble though it may be. A.J., appropriately chastened, settled for a well-placed hybrid short of the burn fronting the green.
Meanwhile, I took cover with the fourth member of our group: Tom, a middle-aged publisher from Australia who was looking to sweeten his business trip to the UK with a cube or two of pleasure. Compared with our much younger playing partners' tee shots, we bunted our drives in the general direction of the green. And with that, we were off!
The second shots, however, did not fare as well. Perhaps it was simply the unnerving awareness that the ghosts of golf’s greats were watching our every move. Or, more likely, it was due to the small rectangles of green carpeting the starter had issued to us at the outset. His instructions: hit your balls off the mats whenever you find yourself in the fairway to help protect the course during the dormant winter months (an in anticipation of the Open Championship's return in 2015). As compensation, we paid £80, half the normal rate. That seemed like a good trade, right up until the millisecond I bounced a short iron into the mat, caught my ball thin and watched it scoot into the burn. Huh? Definitely not in keeping with my grand plan.
I righted the ship sufficiently to bogey the 2nd hole and settled in with pars at the 3rd and 4th. That trend would have continued on the next three holes if not for a very balky putter, which is highly problematic when playing the Old Course. That’s because 14 of the holes share seven double greens, each of which appears large enough to serve as an emergency landing strip for private planes in distress. Even the putting surfaces that are exclusive to the remaining four holes, with the possible exception of the notorious 17th (aka the Road Hole), are quite ample. While in the throes of this three-putt hell, it occurred to me that you could hit every green at the Old Course in regulation and yet not make a single par. This place truly is a one-off.
Meanwhile, not-so-old Tom was on cruise control. Nothing flashy. Just steady, even-tempered progress generating a solid mix of pars and bogies. His demeanor contrasted sharply with that of the Next Generation, so intent on proving themselves by posting a score. That was particularly true of A.J., the more polished player of the two. He was grinding on every shot, burning up precious time trying to determine his distance to the target and how to execute the shot. Between his methodical-ness and Drew’s waywardness, we soon downshifted into an American-style pace of play. Painfully sluggish. Tom and I, looking over our shoulders, couldn’t help but notice the group behind (likely members) closing fast. Before long, each of us—for his own reasons—was feeling anxious. Again, not exactly as I’d envisioned my triumphal return to St. Andrews, 17 years later.
Stay in the Moment
“Ah, well, it is what it is,” I said to myself. “Stay in the moment. Don’t make the same mistake twice.”
That helped boost my mood, perhaps freeing me up to can a six-footer for birdie at the short par 4 10th hole—and seemingly break that evil three-putt spell. But it returned down the stretch, most disappointingly at the 18th, when—after hitting two solid shots into the wind to reach the front edge of the green—I left my par putt a half revolution shy of the jar. So much for the big Hollywood finish!
Fortunately, that’s not quite the end of the story. After replacing the final flagstick, doffing our caps and shaking hands, Tom graciously invited me to join him for a pint. At most Scottish golf clubs, that would have meant adjourning to the clubhouse. But the R&A’s iconic home is off limits to visitors. Several prominent signs make that abundantly clear. So Tom and I ventured into the town, dodging University of St. Andrews students and a suddenly freshening barrage of raindrops until we found a suitable pub. Given that he’s a publisher and I’m a writer, we didn’t really need frosty beverages to kick-start the conversation. But they sure didn’t hurt!
After a bit of souvenir shopping for my regular foursome back home, I made my way to the Fiat in a melancholy state. I’d come to St. Andrews in search of redemption. Yet I knew I’d depart unfulfilled.
And then it hit me: Maybe this particular hole in my heart was never really about me. Maybe it’s about St. Andrews. After all, I’ve changed. But the experience of playing the Old Course hadn’t. So much of it went by in a blur. No matter how hard I tried, the essence of this place had eluded my grasp, once again.
An Ephemeral Experience
Later, on the drive home, a theory arose. It starts with the fact that I have an innate ability to play a golf hole once and then remember it forever. A visual image forms in my brain and all I have to do is call up that image to replay the hole, again and again, in my mind. The more ingenious the design, the more transcendent and persistent the virtual experience. In this way, golf courses stay with me, long after I’ve played them.
Not so with the Old Course. Set aside the 1st, 17th and 18th holes—which we’ve all seen a thousand times on TV and in magazines and books—and the remaining 15 are largely a mystery. Due to the tabletop terrain, you stand on the tee and—at most—see the pin in the distance. But in most cases, the balance of the hole—the boundary of the fairway, the placement of the bunkers and the full scope of the putting surface—is hidden from view. Add in the confusion of the double greens and the crisscross routing of the 6th through the 11th and it becomes nearly impossible to lock in a visual image, even for me. As such, playing the Old Course is largely an ephemeral experience. I can’t get a mental fix on it. So I can’t replay it weeks, months or years later. It doesn’t have any staying power. At least not for me.
As such, I've come to the conclusion that the only way to truly appreciate the Old Course is to play it—physically and in real time—over and over again until it sinks into your body, not just resides in your brain. But who gets to do that? Members. Tour pros. The fortunate few. Perhaps that’s why Bobby Jones (and more recently Rory McIlroy) didn’t “get it” the first time he played it. But, by the end of his life, it became his favorite course in the world—and the inspiration for the design of his endlessly fascinating Augusta National.
So where does that leave the rest of us who, if the stars align, only get to play it once?
I return to those opening three words: “Manage your expectations.” If you love golf, you must make the pilgrimage to St. Andrews. You must pay your £160 (in the prime playing season). You must feel the butterflies as you set foot on the first tee in the shadow of the R&A. You must circle around to the Road Hole and try to cut the corner, over the top of the Old Course Hotel. And, as you make your way up the 18th fairway, you must have your picture taken on the Swilcan Bridge.
Do it all. But don’t be disappointed if the experience slips through your grasp. Be in the moment. Take it for what it is. And be grateful if any of this sparkly diamond’s residue lingers on.
And then look forward, without regret, to when you (and I!) get to return and do it all again. I certainly am.