This summer will see the 28th staging of an Open Championship at St Andrews. The first was in 1873 when Tom Kidd, reeling as everyone did that week from torrential rain, won with a 36-hole score of 179 that remains the highest ever. Kidd was an Old Course caddie and he died from a heart problem in 1884. Nobody seems to know how old he was at the time. He died just a Kidd, I suppose…
His story is one of the least celebrated of the Old Course champions, but he deserves his special place in history as much as he deserved the £11 he picked up as champion, and that no doubt went straight into some of those pubs quickly enough.
If Kidd innocently started the whole shebang about this course and this place, then the legend was ignited properly some fifty years later when Bobby Jones won his second successive Open over the Old Course and walked to accept the Claret Jug impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit, shirt and tie. They had style in those days. No sponsors, but plenty of style.
Jones, of course, originally detested the Old Course. He could not get to grips with its eccentricities and its often-outlandish demands. He left frustrated after first playing it, but after he won his Open there he was like a teenager in love. “If I could only play one course for the rest of my life it would have to be St Andrews,” he said. This, remember, was from the man who conceived Augusta, which is as much like the Old Course as Penelope Cruz is a rival to Ann Widdecombe.
Like Ms Widdecombe, the Old Course may on occasions appear to be almost unplayable. Certainly stretches of it carry little logic or sense and yet eventually the penny drops and the player realises that on the Old Course more than anywhere else, he or she is actually playing themselves. It does, however, sometimes take an awfully long time for some people’s pennies to drop.
This is particularly true when it comes to attempted deconstruction of the 17th – or the Road Hole as we all know it – a pernicious par 4 that invariably attracts drama as swiftly as it does spectators during the Championship. The world is divided into those who believe this hole to be an outstandingly audacious challenge and those who feel it is tripe made green.
Take Peter Thomson for example. The great Aussie is, on the whole, not an admirer. “As a planner and builder of golf holes worldwide I have no hesitation in allowing that if one built such a hole today then you would be sued for incompetence.” Harrumphs all round Mr Thomson.
Mark James, rather wittily, said that although he had no idea who designed the 17th he was pretty sure that he had heard that “he had escaped recently”. Well, if anyone designed the Road Hole then it was Old Tom Morris who in 1865 was appointed head greenkeeper and club pro by The R&A. Ever generous, the Blazered Ones (more likely frock-coated back then) gave him a quid a week for his trouble.
It was Old Tom who fiddled and fretted and changed and bludgeoned the Old Course from what it was to pretty much what it is now. His big change was to shred four of the-then 22 holes and so establish an 18-hole template that has never wavered since. These days around 65 greenkeepers fuss over the sacred acres at any one time and with tee times filled relentlessly by battalions of awe-struck golfers – some more inadequate than others – their attention is needed.
What is also true is that the Old Course unfailingly selects genuine champions for her embrace during Open week. St Andrews was the setting for the first Championship to be played after the Second World War in 1946, and the winner was the old rascal otherwise known as Sam Snead.
This pattern has been maintained ever since with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and, on the last two occasions, Tiger Woods offered posterity as well as a ludicrously inflated cheque. Throw in Kel Nagle, Tony Lema, John Daly and even the pernickety Thomson and you end up with some roll call of honour.
Woods, of course, is hoping for a unique hat-trick of St Andrews victories. Everyone had the American as their favourite to pull off this feat until his life turned into a car crash last November. Now no one is sure he will even be fit enough to turn up as he looks for peace in his life and a swing worth carting into a major arena. I remain convinced, however, that if he finds some sort of balance emotionally, mentally and physically, then St Andrews will bow before him one – almost certainly – final time before he beats Nicklaus‘ record and retreats – reduced – from our view to be consigned to his own history books.
What is beyond doubt is that Woods loves the place. Hell, he even spits less when he is there. He loves the whole historic trip thing and he loves the layout and the opportunity to give his ball a blast. Loves also the fact that the galleries forever remain on the periphery of the action and often 100 yards from the players. “Man,” says Woods, “I love that place. It’s just so peaceful.”