Sam Snead was surprised by the look of the Old Course when he first saw it in 1946, but he went on to capture the Open Championship there that same year. (Getty Images)
For many great players, Old Course is an acquired taste
The first time he ever saw the Old Course, Sam Snead thought it had been abandoned. Bobby Jones once walked off it in the middle of a round. But they, like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, came to appreciate it for both its history and its challenge.
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) -- Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods fell in love with St. Andrews the first time they saw it.
Not so with Bobby Jones. Or Sam Snead.
Legend has it that Jones tore up his scorecard and stormed off the course the first time he played the Old Course. That’s not entirely accurate. In his debut at the home of golf in the 1921 Open Championship, he went out in 46 during the third round, made 6 on the next two holes and picked up his ball without finishing the 11th hole. This from a man who went on to win the Claret Jug there six years later, and the British Amateur in 1930 on his way to the Grand Slam.
Such is the essence of St. Andrews. It is a links course that can inspire immediate affection.
“I fell in love with it the first time I ever played it,” Woods said. “I played it when the tide changed right when I was at the turn, so I played all 18 holes into the wind. Absolutely fell in love with the golf course.”
And it is a course that can evoke eternal disdain.
“Worst piece of mess I’ve ever played,” Scott Hoch said.
Snead was somewhere in between.
He made his first journey to St. Andrews for the 1946 Open, and as his train pulled into the old gray town, Snead gazed out the window at the Old Course and said, “Say! That looks like an old, abandoned golf course. What did they call it?”
It grew on him, for he went home with the Claret Jug after a four-shot victory. Years later, he still wasn’t sure what to think. “Down home, we wouldn’t plant bow beets on land like that,” Snead said.
But there is no denying one aspect to the 150th anniversary of this Open. There is something magical about playing golf’s oldest championship on the linksland where it all started.
“If you’re a golfer, how could you not be a little bit in awe when you get to the first tee, with the R&A building, the 18th green, all the things that have happened over the last 400 or so years?” Scott Verplank said.
Then he added the ultimate compliment: “It will teach you everything you need to know about playing golf.”
“Course management and the strategy of golf is all on that golf course,” he said. “If you want to play conservatively, you go further left and leave yourself a tougher shot. If you want to play aggressive, you play further to the right and have a better angle at the flag. People who don’t like it don’t understand it. If you understand it, then it’s brilliant.”
First impressions can be misleading.
Justin Leonard first played the Old Course on a golfing trip with his father when he was 12. He was old enough to understand the historical significance of St. Andrews, but little else.
“I thought it was nuttiest place I had ever seen, to be quite honest. Has it changed today? Not a whole lot,” Leonard said with a laugh. “It’s pretty quirky, and that’s not always a bad thing. It doesn’t matter how many times you play it, you’ve got to sit there and look at your yardage book and figure out where you’re aiming.”
Curtis Strange first went to St. Andrews with a 1975 Walker Cup team that included Hoch, Jay Haas and Craig Stadler.
“We all thought we had been transplanted to the moon,” Strange said, who went on to set the course record with a 62 in the 1987 Dunhill Cup. “I will say that I hated it, like some guys, because you wonder what’s going on. But the more you play it, the more you realize how special it is.”
Geoff Ogilvy first went to St. Andrews with his father when he was 16, and like so many others, he loved it the first time he played it.
“I think it would be fair to say that I really wanted to like the course, so it is perhaps hard to be completely objective about a place you have decided to like before you even play it,” Ogilvy said. “I liked the width of the place, and enjoyed that there seemed no prescribed way to play the course. The route you take around it is up to you.
“I’m not sure if I understood any of this at 16, but I remember having lots of fun that first time.”
Nicklaus, meanwhile, was equipped with a scouting report. Much like Jones, his idol, Nicklaus first played the Old Course as part of a trip to Britain for the Walker Cup at Muirfield.
“My father went over before and played with a couple of his friends, and he said it was the worst golf course they’d ever seen -- what a cow pasture it was, horrible conditions,” Nicklaus said. “Of course, they three-putted 13, 14, 15 greens. And they didn’t have a very good time because they didn’t understand the golf course.
“When I went there, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I went down there and I saw this village and this big, beautiful pasture out there. Then I went out and played the course and I loved it. I suppose I loved it because all kids try to do the opposite of their father. I just fell in love with the place.”
What a love affair that turned out to be. Nicklaus won the Open at St. Andrews in 1970 and 1978, received an honorary degree from St. Andrews University, and the Royal Bank of Scotland produced a 5-pound note with his image when he chose St. Andrews to be his final major championship in 2005.
That year, Woods matched Nicklaus by winning his second Open on the Old Course, and he returns this year trying to become the first player to ever win three times at St. Andrews.
Woods’ first impression was that it was easy to hit the fairways. Then he realized how little that mattered.
“I though it would be a little bit more narrow,” Woods said. “But then again, once you start playing, you realize it’s not that wide. To get the angles to you need to have into these flags, it narrows up very quickly. Then you add wind, and where you need to put the golf ball to give yourself a chance of getting the ball close, it gets really narrow.
“You can hit every fairway there and still never have a shot at a flag.”
What makes St. Andrews unique is that all but four holes have double greens, and they may as well share the fairways. Because it has no trees, and so many of the pot bunkers are not visible off the tee, it can be difficult to figure out where to hit tee shots.
Verplank’s problem the first time he played St. Andrews was what to do after the tee shots.
“I spent three days figuring out the lines off the tee, with however the wind was going to go,” he said. “I thought I had it down perfect. So I get to the second hole and I stripe a 3-wood right down there perfect. I had sand wedge to the green. And I had no idea where to hit it. I had six three-putts the first day because I kept hitting it 80 feet away.”
Like with any links, there can be some funny bounces along the way. But there’s something different -- something special -- about St. Andrews that perhaps former Open champion George Duncan summed up best.
“St. Andrews has got a character and features that you find nowhere else,” Duncan once said. “You can play a damned good shot and find the ball in a damned bad place. That is the real game of golf.”
That’s the home of golf.