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Swilcan Burn - A seven letter word ending in splash

The Swilcan Burn is surely the most famous water hazard in golf, while the stone bridge that traverses it is the most recognisable of its kind in golf. Michael Flannery and David Hamilton investigate its history

From the first tee, its presence is sensed in the dark cut across the links. Its features blend into the flat landscape of the Old Course – a thin channel of water winding sinuously across the 1st and 18th fairways. Nestled between banks flush with the fairways and first green, the ancient burn waits placidly, its patience honed by the passage of countless centuries. It was there long before man settled the nearby town, dedicated to the memory of Saint Andrew. Rabbits, rodents, wildfowl, and later, sheep, were the original inhabitants. Sometimes, charged by gales, this insignificant waterway carried great fish and strange creatures inland from the depths of the sea, and left them to their fate on what is now hallowed golfing ground.

The ancient burn has witnessed half a millennium of laundry spread to dry along its banks. Countless balls from fiercely-contested matches of futeball and shinty have rolled into its cool waters. Generations of fearless lads – unable to resist a dare – have jumped into it and splashed in its silted bed. Yet the innocuous burn has a dark side. The capricious currents where it flows back into its source – once known as the German Ocean – have claimed many victims, men and boys who couldn’t resist the water’s cool charm and fatally underestimated its deadly hidden strength.

Swilcan – A Burn Protected by Parliament

A Victorian historian informs us that, in bygone times, legislation was enacted to preserve the integrity of the ‘Wee Burn’: ‘which has played its part so thoroughly and drastically at times of great competitions’. No other golf stream is protected by an Act of Parliament in the way that this one is, and its high dignity is unimpeachable.

We are warned, under the usual penalty of a fine or imprisonment, that no one shall wade in the Swilcan Burn, so far as it flows through the Old Course, nor shall any one, except players or caddies in search of their ball, do anything to cause its waters to become discoloured or muddy. ‘There are surely times when we feel that we could not do anything to make the Swilcan Burn appear uglier than it does at those times’. Caddies, being caddies, missed no opportunity to stir the muddy bottom with their toes, sending clouds of silt down stream to cover errant balls; only to return later to fish them out and pocket them for re-sale to the players.

These days, tamed by man and mechanical devices, its flow is languid, its water clear, Swilcan no longer responds to the eternal cycle dictated by moon and tides. There were times when its unchecked tidal flow surged with fury into the narrow burn, overflowing its banks and spilling vast masses of water onto the flat ground that is now the 18th fairway, across to the land behind the Road Hole green where, year after year, Gypsies migrated to make their camp. In bygone days, the water was murky, brackish, a useless brew laced with salt and sown with weeds wrenched from the dunes and ocean, ferried back and forth in an incessant rhythm. Some of the detritus remained, leaving mounds and slopes on what are fairways, today. In practical terms, the Burn, set in links land granted in 1123 by King David to the people of St Andrews, serves no purpose.

Its briny water is an enemy to the fragile grass that surrounds it, nourished by underground irrigation and nature’s rains. Its haphazard path is serpentine and inconvenient. Before emptying into the North Sea at the southern end of West Sands, the watercourse meanders across the 1st and 18th fairways, requiring small bridges to traverse it. And yet, of all the world-famous hazards of the Old Course – Hell Bunker, Beardies, Coffins and the Road Hole Bunker – none nears the importance of this narrow, placid burn, the only water on the links. Unlike other famous Old Course trouble spots, there is no line of approach that takes Swilcan out of play.

The Ultimate Test of Playoff Nerves

As a hazard, it brings both physical and psychological pressure to bear – nevermore harrowing than when the first hole is enlisted in a championship playoff. Leslie Balfour (later - Melville) a gifted all-round sportsman and in 1895, British Amateur Golf Champion, won his last three matches on the 19th hole. His first two opponents, Willie Grey and Laurie Auchterlonie, both hit their second shots into Swilcan Burn. In the final, against John Ball, both players drove short of the burn. Balfour-Melville pitched safely over, but Ball’s approach went almost straight up in the air and landed in the water, sealing his fate.

The eminent golf historian Dr David Malcolm considers: “The proper and original spelling (of the Burn) was ‘swilkin’. Swilcan, and much else (spelling) arrived with the Victorian toff mob. The Golfers Bridge (to give it its proper name) was built in the late 18th Century, sometime between 1740 and 1780. This was the conclusion drawn after lengthy studies by Mr Scott (local architect and advisor to the National Trust) in 1965. It is interesting that it is in every respect (other than width) the same as the bridge unearthed over the condie at Kingsbarns which was built at the same time. The Swilkin bridge is more extensive than it appears today as it was semi-covered when the burn was finally banked in 1870 by Tom Morris.”

The burn, also, variously known as Swile, Swilkan, Swilken and Swilcen, is crowned by a small grey stone structure known as a Packhorse Bridge. In Scotland such bridges are rare, although similar ones are found in northern England. In distant Galicia, a kindred medieval packhorse bridge crosses the Almofrei at Cotobade. The nearest Swilcan-style Scottish neighbour can be found seven miles away in Ceres, where the oldest free Highland Games in Scotland have been held every year since Bannockburn in 1314. If you plan to get in a round of hickory golf on the charming course at the Hill of Tarvit, you’ll pass by the bridge.

The Game’s Greats Mug on the ‘Lourdes of Golf’

David Hamilton aptly refers to Swilcan Bridge as the ‘Lourdes of Golf’. Allan Robertson, Tom Morris, Andrew Kirkcaldy, Dwight Eisenhower, Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer are but a few of the greats who have mugged on its modest hump. It was here that Jack Nicklaus, the ‘Golden Bear’, took his farewell to the Open Championship. The bridge, golf’s most famous icon, has been painted, sketched, photographed, replicated, hugged, kissed and caressed by visiting pilgrims, all seeking to take away a small bit of its unique magic. Itinerant pastors have been glimpsed (as requested by their ex-owners) scattering ashes over its parapets. But the star appeal Swilcan Burn and other notable Old Course hazards exude today for golfers and tourists was notably lacking in 1898, when Garden Hilton’s The World of Golf was published.

“The holes have been so arranged that the very towers and spires of the town, which might otherwise have proved distracting, are utilised as line guides and direction posts, while the hazards, from the sinuous and dirty ‘Swilcan’, all the way round to the station-master’s garden, are horrid and repellent to the eye.”

Middle Age Fairs and the World’s Most Famous Packhorse Bridge

The origins of the bridge are lost in time. Many attribute it to the Romans, but that seems unlikely since by the mid-5th century they had pulled up stakes to put out fires on the Eastern European front and quell rebellions closer to home. Still, the adjective ‘Romanesque’ isn’t far off the mark. Other tentative dating places the small stone bridge to the High Middle Ages, some 800 years ago, when St Andrews, which enjoyed ‘burgh’ status from the 12th century on, was also a flourishing market town and hosted a famous annual fair. Like those of Bruges, Reims, Frankfurt, Provins, Troyes and Florence, St Andrews – famous for its fish – attracted buyers and sellers from distant lands.

Swilcan Bridge was apparently built to meet the related need; that of providing a practical link for travellers, their beasts of burden, and livestock between the important Eden estuary harbour and the ancient town market. Typically, such bridges are designed for trade routes (packhorse routes), where they permit packhorses (i.e. horses loaded with sidebags or panniers) to cross rivers or streams. They consist of one or more narrow (one horse wide) masonry arches, with low parapets that don’t interfere with the panniers. Before the road-building efforts of Napoleon, all crossings of the Alps were on packhorse trails; travellers’ carriages were dismantled and transported over the mountain passes by ponies and mule trains. Britain’s packhorse bridges are exquisite and rare architectural constructions with proportions of simple and satisfying beauty – an enduring tribute to the stonemason’s art. Swilcan is no exception.

Its importance to St Andrews golfers is reflected in Club Minutes of 7 September, 1810, when the Society (The St. Andrews Society of Golfers was still 24 years away from being anointed ‘Royal’) authorised the Secretary “to employ tradesmen to repair the Golfer’s Bridge on the Links, which is at present almost impassable, and to pay the expense thereof”. It was still called the Golfer’s Bridge on an 1854 map, and the first hole, the ‘Bridge Hole’, until the 20th century.

Swilcan Burn and its Famous Victims

But our story is not about packhorses and bridges and Romans and architecture and the caprices of the ‘German Ocean’. It’s about golf, and how the aqueous thread known as Swilcan Burn has played a decisive role in golf history. The only water on the Old Course is a subtle and special danger. For centuries, the innocent, brave, unlucky and foolhardy have all suffered at its hands. Its more famous victims include Old Tom Morris, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino, who failing to understand his caddie’s warning, drove into it. Not overly in-tune with the Scots patois, ‘Super Mex’ afterwards raged: “That’s not a burn, it’s a damn creek.”

Swilcan Burn was widened two feet in 1933 – the year the American, Craig Wood, drove it on his way tying his fellow countryman, Herman Densmore ‘Denny’ Shute. In the subsequent 18-hole playoff, Wood made a jittery start, driving into Swilcan, which he followed by landing in a bunker on number 2, putting him four strokes down to Shute, to whom he ultimately lost by five. Swilcan, however, provided only part of the drama that year.

The most unusual episode of a dramatic 1933 Open took place on the green of ‘Tom Morris’, the 18th hole. Much has been written of Doug Sander’s missed short putt there in the 1970 Open, which led to a playoff loss the next day to Jack Nicklaus. That pales into insignificance with Leo Diegel, who could (should) have joined Wood and Shute in their playoff. An R&A history recounts the remarkable story:

“[Diegel] left the first putt [on the 72nd] virtually stone dead and crouched over the ball in his familiar style with elbows splayed wide, forearms parallel with the ground. Renowned golf correspondent Bernard Darwin reported that he missed ‘by the widest possible margin’. He had, in fact, missed the ball completely. An air shot with the putter.”

Six Ways to Get on the First Green

Looking down the first tee to the gently descending, then flat fairway, players are confronted with a critical decision – should I go for it (rare); drive close to the burn for a short chip across; or leave myself a firm pitch to the centre of the green from50 to 80 yards out? What they are certainly not dwelling on are backdoor routes based on bounces and ricochets – rubs of the green – that have punctuated championship play over the past century and a half. History shows six ways that players have managed to get onto the first green:

1. Driving the burn. The first green is 345 yards from the tee. Craig Wood, a Herculean ball striker, managed to drive it in 1933. His reputation was further burnished on the par-five 5th hole where his drive landed in a bunker on the face of the hill, only 100 yards short of the hole, after carrying an incredible 430 yards. But being able to drive the first green doesn’t mean you’ll always manage to do so. Despite his previous success in carrying the Burn, in the playoff with Denny Shute, Wood drove into the slow waters. Even though he managed to play out, it cost him strokes.

2. Bouncing off the fairway on to the green. This is a tactic that the extra long hitters like Tiger or John Daly might consider. Fred Couples managed it in a practice round in 1984.

3. Driving short of the burn and chipping or pitching over. This is the most common practice, favoured by (among others) Peter Thomson, five-time Open Champion.

4. Bouncing out of the burn. Today, the deep walls make this impossible.

5. Playing out of the burn. In the old days, this was always on the menu. According to the golf historian, Dr David Malcolm: “The burn has dried up many times and many people have played out of it. The burn is now kept clear but that was not always the case. Tom Morris had to plough it out regularly with a horse and plough.”

As hard as it is for us to believe today, the virtuoso feat of getting up and down from the flowing waters of a stream or burn was part of Victorian and Edwardian golfers’ repertoire. The Irish champion, Mary Linzee ‘May’ Hezlet, was representative of skilled golfers who could accurately strike a mashie 120 yards or more from flowing water. Outside the United Kingdom, the ‘splash shot’ evoked wonder. In 1895, the New York Times published an account of a classic scramble from Swilcan. The hero was the Victorian artist, George Glennie, who as a school boy was so talented as a golfer that his fellow students allowed him only a single club, described as a “very battered and disreputable-looking middle spoon”, for all his shots. Even this drastic measure didn’t work. In George’s artistic hands “this unpromising implement proved effective… and he was too good for his field”. One day, playing the Old Course with another eminent golfer, George powered his gutty floater into Swilcan Burn, where it was found merrily bobbing along, “pursuing its career seaward on the ‘drumlie (muddy or troubled) current’. The artist went downstream to a point where he could manage to play it, ‘on the wing’, an inspiration crowned with success. As the newspaper tells us, “Splash went the niblick; away went the ball, and finished dead at the hole”, which he won.

6. Ricocheting off, or rolling over the bridge. Reporting on the Ladies final of 1908, Mabel Stringer wrote: “Maude Titterton’s ball hit the stone bridge over the Swilcan, bounded over it, and she thus secured the hole and the match.” In 1939, a second simple bridge in line with the tee and green was moved to the 2nd tee to stop drives going on the green.

Swilcan Burn – A kingmaker in the 2010 Open Championship?

To what extent will Swilcan Burn play a role in 2010 Open? Has modern golf, with its space age equipment and consequent gargantuan drives, rendered it obsolete? Colin Montgomerie, who rates the first as about a par-three, would have us believe so. But even if the pros settle for a drive near the Burn and a short pitch onto the green, shooting a birdie, as Lee Westwood found out on his initial drive in the 2005 Open, isn’t automatic. “You want to get off to a good start anywhere but knocking it into the stream at the 1st is not the way to do it. I hit the wrong club, a sand-wedge; it was only 99 yards but it was into the wind.” Ah yes – forgot about the wind. And Monty? The celebrated Scotsman, too, managed to find water with his drive, something he had never done before. “God almighty”, he said, “that’s the first time I have done that in 20 years of playing here. It just got a big old bounce and just ran out of room. It’s an awful start to have at a hole which is a three, three-and-a-quarter hole.”

Two primary factors will determine how often we hear the soothing splash of new balls visiting the ancient burn. The first is pin placement. If the hole is near the front of the green, approach shots will require consummate delicacy and accuracy. Too short means H2O country, while approaches that are too long, risk rolling onto the heavily-sloped back of the 1st green. The second key element, however, is the weather. If St Andrews has its defences – rain and constantly shifting wind – in place, Swilcan Burn will, yet again, play a key role in determining the outcome of the most venerable and greatest of golf championships.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

 

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