It’s called the “Old Course” for a reason. Scottish shepherds were knocking stones at rabbit holes near St. Andrews within a century or two of Macbeth—not the Shakespeare character, the actual 11th-century king. From the days of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the age of Old and Young Tom, centuries of trial and error have transformed the club, its home course, and the game of golf itself. Here are nine touchstone moments in the life of a truly royal, and very ancient, course.
GOLF BAD, ARCHERY GOOD
In 1457 Scotland’s King James II banned the game because his subjects were playing golf and neglecting their archery practice. He announced that “golfe be utterly cryit doune and not usit.” Golfers played anyway.
THE QUEEN OF SCOTS MIGHT HAVE COINED THE TERM “CADDIE”
In the mid-1500s, Mary, Queen of Scots, raised in France, called the boy carrying her clubs a “cadet,” the likely origin of the term “caddie.” In 1567 she caused a scandal when she was seen hitting the links shortly after her husband, Lord Darnley, was murdered.
GOLF BALLS WERE ONCE MADE OF WOOD
From about 1600 to 1850 the earliest balls were wooden. They were fashioned from a small leather pouch and feathers. Making one was sweaty, even dangerous work. First you boiled enough goose feathers to fill a top hat. Then you strapped a wood and leather harness to your chest. Using an awl—a pointed metal spike—that fit into a slot on the front of the harness, you stuffed the feathers into the pouch and leaned forward with all your strength and weight. (This method could lead to impalement and broken ribs.) The ball was then sewn shut. As the feathers dried and expanded, the ball hardened until it was perfectly round. Or roundish, anyway.
YOU CAN PLAY THE OLD COURSE BACKWARD, KIND OF
In the 1800s golfers often played the Old Course backward—from the Road Hole green to the 16th green, and so on. Several bunkers and other features that seem crazily placed make sense if you play the course in reverse, as some locals still occasionally do today.
ONE YEAR EVERYONE WANTED TO FINISH SECOND
Circa 1860, the first “golf professionals” were all caddies. Some spent their days drinking and their nights drunk. Each fall they held a caddies-only tournament on the Old Course. One year, first prize was a plump Christmas goose. Second prize? A flask of whisky. The finalists kept whacking putts all over the 18th green, trying their best to finish second.
THE FIRST OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP WASN’T AT ST. ANDREWS
The Old Course wasn’t the original site of the Open Championship. The first dozen Opens were played at Prestwick Golf Club, on Scotland’s west coast. But by winning three straight Opens, from 1868 to 1870, Tommy Morris (son of Old Tom) earned the right to keep the Challenge Belt. The 1871 Open was canceled because Prestwick didn’t want to pony up for a new belt or trophy. Finally, the R&A and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers chipped in to pay for a claret jug—the same one Rory McIlroy kissed last year. In return, they got to host the Open on a rotating basis. Voilà—the rota was born. That £30 investment paid off, as St. Andrews became golf’s capital.
NIGHT GOLF CAN BE DANGEROUS
In 1871 Scotsmen invented night golf by setting lanterns around Old Course greens and using balls coated with toxic phosphorus paint. Their round ended when the glow-in-the-dark paint rubbed off on a golfer’s sleeve and set his hands on fire.
YOUNG TOM MORRIS PLAYED 206 HOLES IN SIX DAYS
In 1875 Young Tom Morris endured a six-day, 206-hole marathon match in the worst blizzard in St. Andrews history. Gutta-percha balls painted red for visibility got lost in snowdrifts. One ball shattered when struck by a driver. Morris would win again, but he died two weeks later, at the age of 24, of a heart attack.
THE OLD COURSE WASN’T JUST AN 18-HOLE TRACK
The Old Course was once 22 holes long. By the 1760s it was determined to be too easy, so the R&A combined the first four holes and the last four into two and two, creating the 18-hole total that became the worldwide standard. Other accidents of fate on the Old Course led to tee boxes (much better than teeing off from the putting green) and holes in the green that happened to be 4¼ inches across. (According to local lore, that was the width of the clay drainpipes that Old Tom Morris repurposed as the first cup liners. The golfers of Musselburgh claim that they set the standard even earlier. The R&A made 4¼ inches the official hole diameter in 1891.)