What It’s Like Playing An Open Course

Fergus Bisset played the Old Course just over a month prior to The 150th Open Championship and enjoyed quite a different experience.

playing an open course
OK - off forward tees!
(Image credit: Golf Monthly)

I always feel the nerves on the 1st tee of the Old Course at St Andrews. I’ve played it countless times, both as a student in the town and through my years working for Golf Monthly, but the trepidation remains. I feel the gravity and history, the shade of Old Tom Morris chiselled on the wall of the clubhouse behind me. I fear the simplicity of the tee shot – It’s the widest fairway in golf and missing it should be inconceivable. But it is conceivable. In short, I fear it.

Yesterday though, anxiety levels on the opening hole of golf’s Grand Old Lady were ramped up a notch for the BOSS pre-Open golf day. An Official Patron of The Open Championship, BOSS will provide the apparel for tournament officials at St Andrews as well as delivering a range of looks featuring Open detailing, available through The Open shop.

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The Claret Jug and Sandy Lyle wait on the 1st tee

(Image credit: Golf Monthly)

1985 Open Champion Sandy Lyle is a BOSS ambassador, and he was on hand at the first tee on the day to add a little extra pressure for the opening drive. He was standing behind the tee and beside a plinthed Claret Jug. Are you feeling it yet?

OK, well also adding to the tension were the already erected grandstands lining the right side of the fairway. They may provide something of a buffer, but to me they just emphasised the risk of leaking the opening shot right.

The final nail in my coffin of nerves was delivered by the sheer number of people who were gathered to watch. BOSS had invited a number of leading influencers to experience playing the Old Course, and others to experience golf for the first time via a clinic put on by the St Andrews Links professionals… The group had attracted quite a crowd. One chap in a woollen vest was doing incredible backflips on the first tee – a new one for The Old Course I reckon… but it was mightily impressive and even more passers-by than usual had stopped to see what was going on.

I closed my eyes and somehow got one heading roughly down the middle. As we walked down the fairway, one of my playing partners and I commented on the pressure. “Imagine it with 5,000 people in the grandstands,” he said… I couldn’t.

Lines of sight

I was interested to see how the course would play compared to a standard round and the first thing I noticed was with regards picking a target. On almost every hole, there’s something manmade to take aim at. Usually around the Old, finding a target is challenging, as the landscape is fairly flat. You often end up picking out something miles away on the other side of the Eden Estuary. But with TV towers, grandstands, hospitality suites and other various bits of metal sticking in the air, there’s always something static to focus on. That’s definitely a plus and I would like to say it makes it easier. But, of course, picking a target and hitting to a target are two very different things indeed.

Encroaching Stands

playing an open

Stands show you the way

(Image credit: Golf Monthly)

It’s pretty cool playing with the grandstands up, even if there’s nobody in them. As already mentioned, they provide something of a buffer up the first and I watched a few errant drives that would have spun out-of-bounds ricochet back. All the way though, the stands define and frame the holes they feature on. It does give more clarity on the boundaries of those holes and, much like the sightlines, this keeps you focused on heading in the right direction.

On the 14th a massive, three-storeyed hospitality unit sits on the right side, just over the OB wall. Again, it acts as a visual buffer – encouraging you to aim to the safer left side.

The Rough is Up

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My ball on the left of the 14th

(Image credit: Golf Monthly)

I did just that and blasted a drive on 14 to the left of the fairway – a spot that would normally be highly playable. But the rough is clearly being grown up significantly in certain areas and I found one of those areas. Normally it would have been no problem to belt a long iron down over Hell bunker from where I was. But my lie was such that I had to play out left with a sand wedge and faced a long third as a result.

The rough is notable on the run for home and it’s also grown up down the right of 15, to the left of 16 and to the left of 17. The bailout on the notorious Road Hole is the rough to the left but this currently leaves a very difficult shot from a tangled lie. I reckon that come Open week, that rough could be really rather punishing.

Testing Pins

I’m not sure what BOSS did to deserve it, but the pin positions laid out for the day were much tougher than I would normally expect for general play. It gave some sense of the challenge that can be set up for the pros in July. There are various subtle spots, just away from straightforward positions, that can make two-putting a serious challenge.

The 12th was, inevitably, on the plateau to the right side of the green, but it was pushed even further back and right onto a really tiny portion that was very difficult to find. The 15th was somewhere I’d never seen it – on top of a pimple right behind the front bunker.

Caddies

BOSS was generous to provide a caddy to all who played and that made a huge difference to me. Euan (apologies if wrong spelling) was brilliant and we really got into playing like a team on the way round – his guidance on lines and particularly on the greens saved me a good few shots on the day. If I could have brought myself to hit my putts harder, we might have had a decent score. It made me think how important the caddies will be come Open week; for their advice generally but also for their affirmation that the players have picked the correct spot. Often around the Old, that spot can seem counterintuitive, and you have to really force yourself to hit away from pins, sometimes even away from fairways – On 12, left or right is a better bet than the bunkered centre.

The importance of wind

It’s well-documented that the wind needs to blow to defend the Old Course and The R&A (and most of us spectators) will be hoping it does come Open week. We played in benign conditions and, even with the tough pins and the longer rough, the course was highly playable.

I think for the average amateur, having the obvious artificial targets and the increased definition provided by stands, walkways and hospitality units lining the holes does make it easier. Having a caddie is also a definite shot-saver… Basically the pros at The Open have it easy! Well, apart from the fact they’re being scrutinised by thousands of spectators and millions of TV viewers, they’re playing from tees that are about 1,000 yards back from those we pootled shots off, they’re playing for the most coveted prize in men’s individual golf, they’re playing to be part of golfing history, they’re playing for their livelihood and they’re not playing Stableford… Ok, not so easy.

Fergus is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and it was concentrated by 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 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?