With The Open returning to St Andrews this summer, Fergus Bisset pays tribute to the Old Course
When I set off for St Andrews University as a bright-eyed 17-year-old I was bursting with hopes and fears and harbouring myriad ambitions. I must confess, not all were academic. Topping my list of immediate objectives was to play The Old Course. I’d walked the links as a spectator at The Open and had built it up in my mind to be sacred - the holy grail of golf courses.
In Freshers’ week I quickly made friends with some keen golfers and we put in for the ballot. Now it’s easy to see if your application has been successful on the St Andrews Links website, but in those days you had to go and look at one of the hard copies posted at various points around town. We stood outside the window of the tourist office on Market Street every day at 4pm, waiting for the new sheet to go up. Four afternoons in a row we were disappointed so had to make do with rounds on the New and Jubilee courses – It was a tough life. On the fifth afternoon we waited again. This time our names were up there in grainy green printer ink. We whooped and cheered and shook hands as if we’d just been picked to play for Scotland.
I’ve seldom felt as I did standing on the 1st tee the next morning, although the birth of my children elicited similar sensations of awe and wonderment. Looking round at the imposing R&A clubhouse sent a monumental shiver up my spine, a glance down the fairway toward the Swilken Bridge caused the hairs on my arms to point skywards. When the starter came over the Tannoy to request we “play away please” my entire body turned to jelly. Either by fluke or fate, I managed to fire one straight down the vast fairway, and so began my love affair with The Old Course.
Like many love stories, there were rocky moments in the early stages of the relationship. In fact, when I left the course after that first 18-holes, I sat in McSorleys pub (now 1 Golf Place) feeling totally deflated. I didn’t get it. Yes, golfing history emanated from the very turf and it felt amazing to walk in the footsteps of every golfing great who ever lived. But with adjoining fairways, double greens, ludicrously harsh bunkering and crossovers, I just couldn’t fathom what was going on out there.
I was so disenchanted that I was reluctant to play again. But of course I did, and after a few more games I’d begun to enjoy the layout. After five rounds I’d really started to understand and after 10 rounds I was head over heels.
I’m ashamed it took me so long to fully appreciate the unique majesty of The Old but there’s no course filled with such intricacy and subtlety. Today, when a layout is referred to as, “requiring a strategic approach,” it generally means you shouldn’t always hit driver and make sure you get the yardages right.
The Old demands much more. You have to consider the threat of so many bunkers and that threat changes every round depending on the wind. You must think how the ball might run up the sprawling greens and know what side of the pin you can’t miss on. You have to pick your fights carefully – Have a go for the green on the 9th, don’t flirt with Strath bunker on the short 11th, accept a shot to the heart of the green on the 13th and a shot to the front right edge on the famous 17th. It’s a test of patience as well as skill.
It’d be fair to say I’ve had my ups and downs on the course. In a University Medal I was playing a blinder and was four-under par coming to the 18th tee. It’s the widest fairway in golf yet I managed to block two balls out of bounds and finished with an eight. I’d negotiated the difficult holes yet imploded on the most straightforward, undone by the gravitas and history exuding from the walls of the surrounding buildings.
In the second round of the R&A Gold Medal, with quite a gallery around the green, I hit a reasonable drive just over Granny Clark’s Wynd. I then shanked my approach and cringed as the ball flew towards the St Andrews Club clubhouse and struck it about half way up. It bounded back towards the course, narrowly missing a nice Jag parked on The Links before ending in the Valley of Sin. I got up and down for a par and (apparently) the biggest cheer of the day.
There’s always a sense of camaraderie on The Old Course. Not only around the 18th green where people walking past stop to applaud good putts and groan at near misses, but also on the fairways. As you forge out on the front nine there’ll be hearty greetings from groups making their way back in and smiles that say, “I know. This is amazing.”
I return to The Old Course as often as possible and, each winter, the “Grand Old Lady” is the setting for the Bisset Christmas Quaich. It’s an elite competition open only to members of our direct family. So it’s played for by: my father, my brother and me. We see it as a great honour to contest the most prestigious event on our golfing calendar over the most important golf course in the world.
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Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly.
Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?
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