By Charlie Hanger My caddie, Nelson, was right, but I shouldn't have listened to him.
Standing on the first tee with Brad and the Chicago couple we'd been paired with, as well as the other three caddies, Nelson was worried that my driver could reach the Swilcan Burn on the first hole at the Old Course (£140, roughly $228.). He wanted me to take an easy 3-wood down the middle. (Brad and I had asked about playing the back tees, but the starter said only single digits were allowed. Brad is a nine and could have played them, but he stuck with me, an 11, on the yellow tees.)
Deep down, I longed for the comfort of my gigantic new driver, but his logic was spot on, so I went with the 3-wood. I was up first, with an audience, on the most famous course in the world. I took a nervous swing and hit it off the hosel, a dead-left shank (yes, I invented a new shot) that went skitting across the first and 18th fairways and stopped a few yards short of the road and out of bounds. The starter, in what my caddie told me was an unprecedented moment of generosity, offered me a breakfast ball. I declined.
Going for the green with my second was out of the question because of the burn, so I took out my 6-iron. I hit it flush, into perfect position, then wedged on and two-putted for bogey. Disaster averted, we moved ahead to No. 2.
A light mist was falling, it was 50 degrees and the sky was socked in with thick gray clouds -- exactly the conditions I wanted for my round on the Old Course. I still hadn't bought a rain jacket, so I was hoping the mist wouldn't get any heavier. It stopped during the first few holes, and we played in nearly perfect links conditions -- overcast, cool, and only slightly windy. My second through sixth holes were steady but mediocre -- five more bogeys, so I was six over through six. I rallied with pars on the par-4 seventh and par-3 eighth, and I drove the 289-yard, par-4 ninth and made a two-putt birdie for a 41 on the front nine.
After nine holes, I was surprised at how playable the Old Course was. It's tough, and has nasty hazards, but our group sailed around without any major disasters. The wind was mild when we played, and the rough was not at Open Championship length, so we didn't see the Old Course at its meanest. Still, it was a surprisingly accessible place, especially if you hit the ball right to left. Brad's caddie, a Euro tour veteran named John, called it a "hooker's paradise," and he was right -- we missed several shots left that didn't really hurt us at all.
I started the back nine par-bogey-double bogey-bogey, four over for Nos. 10-13. Then came the par-5 14th, home of the Hell Bunker. I pulled my drive into some tall grass, and Nelson told me to take a hybrid. I striped it right at the flag, but it came up short and nestled into the thick grass on the good side of the Hell Bunker (pictured above). I hit a 56-degree wedge shot from there that miraculously checked up about 15 feet from the hole. I rolled it in for birdie, my second of the day on the Old Course. I could've quit happy right there. A par and a bogey later, I was on the tee of the Road Hole, No. 17. Nelson told me to take a conservative line, over the left edge of the old railway sheds that are now part of the Old Course Hotel. The more aggressive play was right over the middle of the sheds, but that would bring out of bounds into play on the right side. I had a little more draw than I wanted but still had a relatively easy shot into the green. I hit it fat, however, leaving myself well short of the green. My putt from off the green was short as well, and I two-putted for another bogey. With that, we headed to the 18th.
I hit a low screamer of a drive on 18 into good position and, after taking our obligatory photos on the Swilcan Bridge, we walked to our balls. I had just a 9-iron left. With an audience of tourists watching behind the green, I hit it fat (of course), so I chipped on and two-putted for a back-nine 42 and a total of 83. It was a disappointing end to a nearly perfect day on the most famous, and fun, course I'd ever played. One final note: On Thursday afternoon, I finally bought a rain jacket at one of the many golf shops in town, virtually guaranteeing that it wouldn't rain again on this trip. I also tried haggis for the first time at the The Dunvegan, the world-famous bar and grill (and hotel) in St. Andrews. Served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), it was delicious. Inspired by Darren Clarke, I had a Guinness as well. Up Next: Thursday Leaving St. Andrews for a final round at the North Berwick Golf Club. Part I: Kingsbarns | Part II: The Duke's and The New Course (Photos: Charlie Hanger)