If you visit the “auld coorse” at St. Andrews at any time other than when an Open Championship is being played there, at first it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is that makes it a magical place. To the casual observer St. Andrews is not much different than other provincial Scottish towns, many of them close by, like Stirling, with its austere, windswept castle on the crag, or Peebles, which is just a stupid name to call anywhere. The drive in through the Kingdom of Fife from Edinburgh is pleasant enough, with farmland aplenty and occasional hidden estates behind their dry stone walls — a reminder of days of old when knights weren’t bold, and robber barons worked their peasants and shot their pheasants with a similar disregard. And then when you finally come upon the town, the first clue being the Old Course Hotel, which, with its early Woolworth’s architecture and plastered-on additions, clearly isn’t particularly “old.” From the top deck of the tour bus you might get a glimpse of the Road Hole as you trundle into town, but then it’s gone, behind the dreary red brick and tile of the tiny semi-detached suburban grot-spots that no doubt sell for fortunes these days.
No, it’s not until you park somewhere around town, stumble out into the chilly breeze and smell the malt vinegar from the fish and chip shops and the curry from the Indian restaurant, mixed with the salt water, rotting seaweed, and gannet crap on the beach that you know you’re not in Kansas any more. Even when you turn the corner by the Dunvegan Hotel and head down the hill toward the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, only the side of the structure is in view, and there’s probably nothing happening for you yet. But once you get past the anonymous tower of red brick on your right and out into the space where the worn-out gray steps spill down onto the grassy area between the 18th green and the first tee, and you look across the world’s widest fairway and over to the Old Course Hotel again, with the grandest clubhouse in the game on your right, it hits you: “Holy Crap!” you think. “Is this it?” For yes, dear reader, there are few sights in all of golf’s greatness that are as profoundly underwhelming as the view from the first tee at St. Andrews. It looks like the committee of drunks who designed the town forgot to put a pantload of matching crappy hovels on what now appears to be a giant parking lot for an event that never happened.
But then you get to play, and everything changes. With no fear of hitting your brand-new ProV1 anywhere but onto the ocean of short grass in front of you, you tee it up with a freshly-gloved hand, twitch your arse impudently, waggle your driver with alacrity, and then, in front of the famous old bay windows, through which some strawberry-nosed old fart might be looking with disdain, out of nowhere a strange feeling comes over you. It’s like a clammy North Sea mist that starts on your brow and quickly envelops your entire being, like something out of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. I don’t know what it is, either — maybe it’s the ghost of Old Tom, or Willie Park peeing on you from the roof of the clubhouse or something, but you have the strangest feeling that with this one swing, you are about to desecrate a holy place. You may dig a lump out of a graveyard.
From this moment on, you realize where you are. You, my friend, are about to set foot on the most sacred turf in sports. This is where the game has been played for twice as long as the United States has existed, and it is a beautiful, desolate place. It is beautiful in a way that can only be experienced, for with every step, your very own foot will fall on a place where the feet of the greatest have fallen, sometimes headfirst into bunkers even they didn’t know were there. In the early morning and toward dusk, the bunkers, many of which were accidentally positioned by sheep sheltering from the fierce winter sea squalls, cast long shadows that fill the hollows and swales, clothing the landscape in voluptuous, eerie shawls, which makes hitting the wrong shot with the wrong club even easier. By the time you have played 18 holes on the Old Course, you will want two things: You will want to play once more, and then you will want to be there for an Open Championship, for now you know what makes the place magical! No matter who you are, or how well you play, when you set foot on that most special of first tees, there are people who are no longer visible who will always be watching. Actually, it kind of creeps me out.