From Old Tom to Young Rory, St. Andrews has remained the best golf has to offer

From Old Tom to Young Rory, St. Andrews has remained the best golf has to offer

Tiger Woods on the 12th tee Thursday.
Robert Beck/SI

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Walking to work this morning, for the first round of the British Open, I went by the cemetery where Old Tom Morris is buried, in the shadows of the cathedral ruins here. Old Tom. Golf’s original Father Time. Maybe you’ve seen the famous picture of him, circa 1900, coming out of the sea in his woolen suit, beard dripping salt water, carrying a mashie, chasing some godless soul off his links on a Sunday morning. Something like that.

I stand in awe of the man, now more than ever before. The other day, I drove from Machrihanish, in Scotland’s lower left-hand corner, to St. Andrews. It’s a beautiful, rugged drive, past this loch and that one, through dense forests, with lorries (18-wheelers, back home) coming right at you, some weird form of truth or dare. In a driving rain. It was a six-hour drive, in a diesel-powered Audi from Hertz, that took two days. Or so it seemed.

Back to Old Tom. He gave the credit for the fabled links at Machrihanish to the Almighty himself, but everyone at Machrihanish will tell you OTM deserves the credit. I played it with my colleague John Garrity, and we had more fun than two grown men should have. Said John, “You stand on the tees, in the dunes, and you see two or three holes, but the holes you’re playing are the ones that Old Tom picked himself, and that’s pretty neat.”

That he got to Machrihanish from St. Andrews at all, by some combination of train and stage-coach, is amazing enough. That the holes he picked there still bring such golfing pleasure more than 125 years later is a pure testimony to the man’s genius.

Which gets us back to the Old Course, another course where OTM had a hand, and MN (mother nature) an even bigger one. Still, the course is as good as it gets. That Rory McIlory shot 63 and John Daly shot 66 and Tiger Woods shot 67, and that Sean O’Hair went out in 30 on Day 1 does not diminish it in any way. That’s what the best players in the world will do on a day that was ideal for scoring. The new tee on 17, I’m pretty sure Old Tom would have been fine with it, just as he would be the new back tees at Machrihanish. The new back tee on the Road Hole is particularly pleasing in that it’s closer to the 16th green than even the regular 17th tee. That should be the first rule of course design: make the tees and the greens close together.

Old Tom might be shocked by Daly’s purple paisley pants, seemingly stolen from Prince’s closet somewhere in Minneapolis. But he’d get Daly’s super-long, super-supple backswing (his son, Young Tom, went at it the same way), and the way his relaxed right hand turns over on his putting stroke.

Daly, the single greatest natural golf talent I have ever seen, has, of course, two majors, his ’95 win on the Old Course and his ’91 PGA win at Crooked Stick in suburban Indianapolis, built by Pete Dye, the acclaimed designer. One hundred years from now, Crooked Stick will be 9,000 yards, if it’s still going to be relevant. The Old Course might grow to 7,500 yards, up 200 from where she is today. The Old Course, if the world as we know it today still exists a century from now, will still hold an Open every five years. I wouldn’t venture a guess about Crooked Stick. Golf bums, like Garrity and me and maybe you, will still point our hire cars hither and yon to get to Machrihanish and the Old Course and some other places with green grass and gray sand underneath. Augusta National is a pretty course, but Old Tom wouldn’t get it. The Old Course and Machrihanish and a few dozen other places would still feel like home.

Woods, no sentimentalist, knows what I’m talking about. He said the other day. “You get it on a calm day, you feel like you can shoot 65 every round. You get it on a windy day, the leader might shoot 80. It’s just amazing what wind can do, and there’s so much movement out there on the fairways and the greens. That’s the brilliance of how this golf course was designed, that it’s still able to stand the test of time. Players have gotten longer, equipment has changed, but, still, this golf course is still relevant. It can still be very difficult.”

Whether it’s difficult or not this week doesn’t matter. In 2050, the breeze might be up again. Or not. It really doesn’t matter. Time and technology and players in the gym are not going to kill this course. Nothing will. It’s as good as it gets.