Having watched three Open Championships at St Andrews in their televised entirety and countless others in retrospective, highlight form, I never really felt I understood the Road Hole at St Andrews. It wasn’t the tee shot where the confusion lay. That always appeared to be relatively elementary: a nice gentle fade would do it, starting out on the ‘e’ in the Old Course Hotel sign and finishing in the right-hand semi, three yards from the hotel garden, opening up the green for the second shot. What truly baffled me was that second shot. Why was it that it so often fell into that swale in front of the green, around or into the Road Bunker?
I could see that everything sloped that way and that the green was relatively narrow from front-to-back, but this didn’t explain why so many of the world’s top players – pro’s capable of stopping a ball on a sixpence with their long irons – repeatedly ended up in an area so specific. Did this golfing Bermuda Triangle have its own kind of gravity, a mystic pull invisible to the naked eye? I’d always expected all to become clear when I finally traversed it in the flesh. As it turned out, I barely even noticed it. I was too busy admiring my second shot: the one that had hung forever above the flagstick before plummeting almost vertically, just 20 feet from it.
Alright, so let’s be honest: the rescue-club shot I hit from the left-hand rough was actually fairly severely pulled, just like the smothery drive before it and all but about three of the 70 or so shots preceding that (and, yes, I am included putts here), but I wasn’t going to admit to anyone in the Old Course clubhouse that I’d been aiming at the front right of the green. The important thing was that I’d succeeded where David Duval, Tommy Nakajima, Tom Watson and countless others had failed. I like to make out that I’m not competitive about ticking famous courses off my bucket list, but I couldn’t resist sending a cocky text message to a friend with whom I felt I had a slight score to settle (he’d not that long ago texted me after hitting the 17th green at Sawgrass).
“So, what’s the secret?” he replied. I took a while to formulate the answer. The shot had been a fluke, but there was something other than luck at work. I’d actually struck my rescue club super-sweetly and it had flown long and high, stopping quicker than any 230-yard shot out of wispy rough into a left to right wind had any right to. It was the kind of stroke that nobody with a true appreciation of links golf, no erudite landlocked Home Of Golf tactician, would have the vulgarity to play. You could almost conclude that the reason it had worked so well was because the Road Hole wasn’t expecting anyone to be dumb enough to try and pull it off.
My uneasy relationship with links golf is well-known among my golfing acquaintances. Nevertheless, none of them could believe it when I told them this was going to be my first time playing at St Andrews. When I elaborated further and told them I’d never played in Scotland at all, they looked atme in a whole new way – the way you might look at someone who lectures you on the pronunciation of the word ‘parmesan’ and then admits he’s never been to Italy. I did once play five holes at a nondescript course in Dumfries and hit some chip shots on a nearby beach, but by describing this publicly as “playing golf in Scotland” I’d be as fraudulent as the teenager who mouths off to his friends after half-losing his virginity. Hacking about north of the border had never appealed to me. It looked too barren, too treeless, too windy. I was aware that these arguments would not win me any friends in golf’s more learned clubhouses, but no more than I was aware that I have never, once, enjoyed hitting a golf ball while suffering from hypothermia.
So what finally propelled me to the Auld Grey Toon?Was it the realisation that I was an Americanised golfing philistine? My wish to replicate the sand-iron that Greg Norman spun back into the cup for eagle on the 14th in 1990? A nagging need to run alongside the Eden Estuary and pretend I was in Chariots of Fire? No. In the end, it was a caddie. Neil had written to me at the end of last year, having read my book Bring Me The Head Of Sergio Garcia, invitingme to St Andrews and offering to bemy Old Course guide, and I had quickly began to develop a romantic notion of a toothless, hunchbacked 83 year-old on my bag, telling me that there was “a lot of wind up there you can’t see” between puffs of a soggy roll-up. A few of the things Neil had mentioned in his emails – the fact that he had Facebook profile and his love of the indie-rock band The Flaming Lips, for example – strongly suggested that he was neither toothless nor 83, but I was surprised to find myself getting excited about my visit. In the week preceding my trip, I even put practised three or four punch shots at the range – something that’s usually against my religion. Had my resistance to postcard Scottish golf been about nothing but my own rampant stubbornness all along, coupled with the vaguely inappropriate fact that I found it physically impossible to hit an iron lower than the height of Centre Point?
So often, the best golf courses hide themselves away down long, winding private drives, but the R&A building is the first thing you see when you hit the outskirts of St Andrews, sticking out next to the sea. This building is as familiar to me as any institution from my three-dimensional past, and it makes my throat catch, even though I can’t quite convince myself what I’m looking at isn’t some movie set parody. I’m not quite ready to head out into town and get myself a brass doorstop in the shape of an 1880s juvenile in plus fours, but, tenminutes into my visit, I’malready acting like a dumb tourist, paying over the odds for a dozen Pro V1s adorned with the ‘Home Of Golf’ logo. As we identify our balls on the first tee, Neil and one of my other playing partners, Gordon Moir, St Andrews’ Links Superindendent, ribmemercilessly formy green oversight.
Other common weekender pitfalls I realise I have to avoid if I am going to get their respect include, in ascending order of gullibility: a) walking into the tombstones on the fairways (Gordon says this such a common occurrence among trolley-wielding Americans that they’ve had to cover some of them with large Astroturf socks), b) attempting to play an opened-up lob wedge from five feet off the green and, c) believing Neil’s story about the flag mast on the 18th (which is actually from the Cutty Sark) being left there when a ship washed up in the exact same position in a gale.
So there are a few basic pointers to follow at St Andrews if you don’t want to be mistaken for an overweight financial analyst from Michigan with an extensive collection of ‘I Love Golf’ baseball caps, but part of the fun of the place is that, after 600 years, the correct way to play the Old Course is still being debated. After all, how can etiquette be all that rigid on a course which iPod-wearing students can jog across, where a free parking space can be securedmere yards from the green of the world’s most famous hole? Neil tells me that there was a fist fight recently at the far end of the course between a fourball of caddies, following an argument over whether, faced with a long putt with a piece of fringe intervening, one of their employers was allowed to chip off the putting surface. Not long ago, former R&A Secretary Michael Bonallack asked Moir if he could do the same thing. “Sure,” laughed Moir, “but if you take a divot I’ll be taking a picture of you with my phone and sending it straight to the News of the World.”
The conventional wisdom is that you should play left off the tee, away from all the trouble, at the Old Course, but if you manage to go the other way and miss the bunkers that tend to dominate the right side of the fairways, the rewards are obvious: shorter, clearer shots to the green. Not that I would know. Gordon and Neil keep congratulating me for “taking the sensible line”, but the truth is I’m trying in vain to do the exact opposite: my best memories of the 1990 Open are not of Nick Faldo and his wimpy, leftist 2-wood, but of Payne Stewart’s drive on 16 – threaded expertly through the gap between the Principal’s Nose and the out of- bounds, leaving just an audacious spinning sand-iron to the green.
Of course, by virtue of having been in the sphere of golf for a considerable period of time and being of sound hearing, I already knew that the Principal’s Nose was called the Principal’s Nose before I came here, but after playing alongside Neil and Gordon, I know the names of many more of the Old Course’s bunkers. My favourite is the devilish Admiral’s on the 12th, so named because of the sea admiral who fell in to it while distracted by the sight of a bonnie lass walking along the shore, and more of a walking than playing hazard. Few patches of sand, grass and dirt escape their own narrative at the Old Course. “See that there?” I half-expect Neil to say as we pass a small puddle just off the ninth fairway. “That’s Archie McMiggins’s Last Dribble, named after the caddie who threw up there in 1863!”
Had I been paired with a couple of jetsetting businessmen, I would have perhaps come away with a less gratifying, more Thomas Cookish, impression of St Andrews. Playing with Neil and Gordon, and staying in the slightly retro shabby yet luxurious Old Course Hotel, I get the more favourable impression that, between the R&A self-importance and the tourist mementos, it’s still quite folksy, comfortable in its own weather-beaten skin. I’m told a story about an ex-roadie caddiemaster who was dismissed after being caught stealing an official Old Course dustbin. Others follow about a little-known nude golf event, and The Jigger Challenge, in which the player must stop at the Jigger Inn, alongside the 17th, and bet on himself to play the 18th in one fewer number than the amount of pints he has necked.
It’s clear that the caddies are still the life and soul of the place. Most of them, like Neil, are spiky-haired and under 40, but I do spot one Old Tom Morris lookalike: a hirsute 60-something bagman from Bandon Dunes in San Francisco called Roland who “just turned up one day and asked for work”.
Neil himself patrols the fairways of the Home of Golf with an authority that you just don’t get from mere players of the game. As well as being my playing partner, he is also my foghorn, traffic warden, cartographer and raconteur. He offers me all the services of a bagman without the actual carrying of the bag, which, as any good caddie will tell you, is the least important part of the job anyway. He’s given up caddying now, opting instead to work for a local golf tour company while studying for his PHD (his dissertation is on the golf ball industry), but it was being on the bag that gave him a cathartic avenue away from his old, jaded life as a BMW-owning sales director. Within weeks, he was turning up at 5 am and getting work with the likes of Bill Murray, who gave him a £250 tip on top of his standard £40 fee (Murray’s only condition was that he be permitted to call him “Muscles”.)
It’s a beguiling fantasy, the idea of washing up here, rootless, free of all but physical, golfing baggage, and hawking a commitment-free living in a land so rich in legend – so much so that I can’t help imagining a parallel me, mortgage- free, studying the nuances of break on the 16th green, cultivating my Old Tom beard and learning how to shout “Fore!” in the tone ofWilliam Wallace going into battle. What’s strange is how quickly the fantasy drifts away, like some holiday romance, once I’m back on the A92, heading back in the direction of Edinburgh. Suddenly, I’m my old target golf-enthused self again, looking forward to getting back to an environment where a “5 out of 10” wind does not feel like Satan’s icy heartburn and an 8-iron is only used for shots of 145 yards and over.
But for a while, that Auld Toon magic had even my antilinks defences stripped. Imight not have played in the nude golf challenge, but in many other ways, for 24 near-perfect hours, I was as naked as the landscape around me.