Full disclosure: I didn’t like the Old Course at St. Andrews the first time I played it. I thought, “This place isn’t very special.” After all, you have almost no idea where to hit it, there are blind shots (and pot bunkers) galore, and the side of a hotel blocks the 17th fairway. It’s nuts! I’ve since changed my tune. While the Old Course may be the worst course to play for the first time, it’s the best course to play every time. Once you learn your way around St. Andrews’ iconic links, it’s a constant challenge—and fun as hell. If I had one course to play for the rest of my life, it would be the Old Course. It shouldn’t host the British Open every five years. It should host every year.
Why? In a word, variety. The course is never the same two days in a row. Because of the size of the greens, pin positions can be 70 yards from where they were the day before. The course is in a constant state of flux, so you never get bored. To succeed on a links course, you must do three things well: control your trajectory, hit the ball solidly (to minimize the wind’s effect), and have the mental fortitude to overcome bad bounces. Of all the courses in the current British Open rota, the Old Course provides the best test in these areas.
It takes a special player to win at St. Andrews. Jack Nicklaus won at the Old Course in 1970. Since then, except for John Daly and Louis Oosthuizen—two very talented players— every other winner at St. Andrews over the past 45 years was the dominant player of his day: Nicklaus (in 1970 and 1978, right), Seve Ballesteros (1984), Nick Faldo (1990) and Tiger Woods (2000, 2005). Ballesteros, Faldo and Woods are all former World No. 1s (Nicklaus’s 1970s prime predated the World Golf Ranking). If the best courses are defined by their winners, the Old Course leads the pack.
The performance record of past World No. 1s at the Old Course bodes well for Rory McIlroy, who in his career has spent more than 80 weeks atop the rankings. And let’s not forget that McIlroy already has a British Open under his belt—his dominant win at Royal Liverpool last year. He clearly likes the Old Course, where he tied for third at the 2010 British Open.
So why does it take the best player (or one of the best players) to win at St. Andrews? Because only a truly elite golfer can adjust to the constantly changing conditions of links golf. A given pin location and wind direction require a specific approach, and knowing how to get the ball close—and when to settle for not getting it close—requires experience and patience. Nowhere are these adjustments more essential than at the Old Course. That’s why it presents such a compelling challenge, and why to me it’s the best test in golf.