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The Old Course at St Andrews: 14 Things You May Not Know About The Home of Golf

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Golf has been played on the historic links of the Old Course at St Andrews for centuries, with its origins deeply rooted in the game’s evolution. Known as the “Home of Golf,” this iconic course has witnessed the development of golf from a pastime of Scottish shepherds to a global sport revered by millions.

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The Old Course is a testament to the game’s enduring popularity and a living museum of golf history, where each unique hole, fairway, bunker, and green has a name and a story. Its influence on golf in the British Isles and abroad cannot be overstated. The course has hosted 30 Opens, 16 British Amateurs, and even two episodes of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.

Volumes have been written about the course, its evolution, history, and the legends who have graced its hallowed grounds.  You can spend months researching and still find something new.  Recently, I learned of a long-lost Peanuts film that would have featured the Old Course, which inspired me to put together this list of 14 Things You May Not Know About the Home of Golf.

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Royal Decree Banning Golf

In 1457, King James II of Scotland issued a royal decree that banned golf and football, as documented in the Acts of the Parliament of Scotland. This ban was motivated by concerns that these popular sports were distracting the Scottish population, particularly men, from military training, deemed essential due to the constant threat of English invasion.

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The decree specifically mentioned that “futebawe and ye golf be uterly cryt done and not usyt” and that instead, the population should focus on archery practice, which was considered vital for national defense. The Act mandated that archery targets be set up at all parish churches and that shooting be practiced every Sunday. It also established penalties for those who continued to play golf or football, stating that they should be punished by local barons or, failing that, by the King’s officers. Despite the decree, the ban was largely ineffective, especially in St. Andrews, where golf was deeply ingrained and continued to be played widely, leading to repeated enactments of the ban in 1471 and 1491.

Golf was so entrenched that even monarchs eventually became players, with King James IV lifting the ban in 1502 after becoming an avid golfer. This royal participation marked a turning point, with Scotland now considered the birthplace of the modern game.

The Course is Closed on Sundays

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In addition to its other early restriction, keeping the Old Course at St. Andrews closed on Sundays was another tradition that originated in the religious observance of the Sabbath.

This practice, which dates back to the 16th century, has been preserved over the years. The course is now made available as a public space for the community to enjoy leisurely activities on the day of rest.

People can be seen walking their dogs, taking pictures, and enjoying the scenic views of the historic course. This unique aspect of the Old Course adds to its charm as a communal space that enhances the quality of life in St Andrews, a sharp contrast to the elitist doors-closed policies of the world’s most renowned private clubs.

The course’s closure on Sundays is a testament to the town’s respect for religious customs and the desire to provide a rest day for the course itself. This rule is only relaxed during major tournaments like the Open Championship, where Sunday play on the links is permitted.

The Rabbit Wars

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The “Rabbit Wars” at St. Andrews were a prolonged conflict over the use of the linksland, primarily between local golfers and commercial rabbit breeders. This dispute began in 1799 when the St. Andrews Town Council, facing financial difficulties, sold the links to two rabbit breeders named Charles. The introduction of rabbit farming on the links led to significant disruption, as the rabbits caused damage to the playing areas.

The conflict escalated as local golfers were increasingly frustrated with the impact on their playing field. In 1805, the local inhabitants won the right to kill the rabbits, but the legal and physical battles continued for several years.

The situation persisted until 1821 when James Cheape of Strathtyrum, a local landowner and golfer, purchased the links. His acquisition was aimed at rescuing the links for golfers and putting an end to the rabbit-related disruptions. This purchase effectively resolved the conflict and laid the foundation for the future prosperity of St Andrews, ensuring the links would remain a central hub for the sport.

Swilcan Bridge

The Swilcan Bridge, with its iconic stone arches gracefully spanning the Swilcan Burn on the 18th fairway of the Old Course at St. Andrews, is one of the most recognizable symbols in golf. While it is widely known as a traditional spot for a farewell photo for retiring golf legends, one lesser-known fact about the Swilcan Bridge is its age and origin.

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The bridge dates back over 700 years, far predating its association with golf, and was originally built to help shepherds move their livestock across the burn. Its longevity and continued use highlight not only its sturdy construction but also its significance to the local community long before it became an emblematic feature of the Old Course.

Another intriguing aspect of the Swilcan Bridge is that despite its global fame and the countless champions who have crossed it, the bridge remains a functional part of the course for all golfers, from amateurs to professionals. It is not roped off or restricted to high-profile events; rather, it is a piece of living history that everyday players can experience as they walk the same path as the game’s legends.

This accessibility adds to the bridge’s charm and mystique, making it a tangible connection between the sport’s rich past and present. The Swilcan Bridge is a testament to the timelessness of St. Andrews and the enduring spirit of golf.

The Creation of the 18 Holes Standard

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Originally a 22-hole course, the Old Course underwent a significant transformation that would eventually standardize the length of courses worldwide. In the early days, this configuration involved golfers playing 11 holes out and then the same 11 holes back in, except the 11th and 22nd holes, which were separate.

The transformation from 22 holes to the standard 18 as we know it today occurred in 1764. The members found the first four and the last four holes too short and decided to combine them into two holes each. This effectively reduced the total number of holes from 22 to 18. This decision set a new standard for 18 holes in golf, which eventually became the norm for golf courses worldwide.

It’s important to note that before the standardization, courses varied in the number of holes, including configurations of 12 holes. For instance, Prestwick, host of the first Open Championship in 1860, 24 in all, originally had 12 holes and didn’t update to 18 until 1882. This historical shift not only changed the physical layout of the Old Course but also had a lasting impact on the game of golf, establishing the 18-hole round as the standard format for the sport.

The course’s evolution continued with significant contributions from figures such as Old Tom Morris, who, in the 1860s, redesigned the 1st and 17th greens, further shaping the course into its current layout. The course’s design, characterized by its double greens, widest fairway in golf, and strategic bunkering, has remained largely influenced by the natural landscape, with minimal alterations over the centuries.

The St. Andrews Ladies Golf Club

The St Andrews Ladies Putting Club, established in 1867, is the world’s oldest ladies’ golf club. Situated adjacent to the Old Course, this institution has been instrumental in developing and promoting women’s golf.

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At a time when golf was predominantly a male-dominated sport and women faced significant societal barriers to playing on prestigious courses, the founding of the St Andrews Ladies Putting Club provided a dedicated space for women to practice and enjoy the game. Over the past 150 years, the club has not only endured but also played a pivotal role in encouraging greater participation and recognition of women in the sport.

The club’s home is the Himalayas putting green, which dates back to 1867 and is recognized as the oldest putting course in the world. The Himalayas features a series of undulating greens designed with challenging slopes and contours that can make even the shortest putts difficult. This unique design has contributed to the Himalayas Putting Ground becoming a beloved destination for casual players and golf enthusiasts.

Through its history and the facilities it provides, the St Andrews Ladies Putting Club has been a cornerstone in offering female amateurs and professionals a platform to showcase their talents. This is exemplified by events such as the St Rule Trophy, a globally recognized competition for amateur female golfers.

Allan Robertson and The Old Course

Old Tom Morris often overshadows Allan Robertson, but his contributions to St Andrews and golf are profound. While Morris is widely celebrated for his role as a pioneer of professional golf and his extensive work on golf course design, including modifications to the Old Course, Allan Robertson was considered the first true professional golfer and the leading figure in golf before Morris.

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Robertson was renowned for his skill as a player and his craftsmanship in ball making, particularly the “feathery” golf ball, which was the standard ball of the era. He was also known for his meticulous care of the course as the appointed Keeper of the Green, a role in which he succeeded his grandfather and father.

Robertson’s legacy at St Andrews also includes his mentorship of Old Tom Morris, whom he initially employed. Their partnership was pivotal until it dissolved over a disagreement about introducing the gutta-percha ball, a cheaper and more durable alternative to the feathery ball. Despite this, Robertson’s foundational work at St. Andrews helped shape the course’s history and set the stage for its enduring status as the “Home of Golf.”

The Invention of the Gutta-Percha Ball

The gutta-percha golf ball was introduced in the mid-19th century. Made from the dried sap of the Malaysian sapodilla tree, it was developed by Rev. Dr. Robert Adams Paterson in 1848. Known as the “guttie,” the new ball revolutionized the game due to its durability, affordability, and improved performance characteristics compared to the traditional “feathery” ball, which was crafted from boiled leather stuffed with goose feathers.

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The ball made golf more accessible to the masses by significantly reducing the cost of balls. Additionally, the guttie could be produced in molds, allowing for mass production and consistent quality.

Its introduction also led to changes in golf club design and course architecture, as the ball’s characteristics allowed for longer and more accurate shots. This innovation contributed to the rapid expansion of golf, both at St. Andrews and globally, helping to cement the sport’s popularity and St. Andrews’ reputation as the “Home of Golf.” The transition from the feathery to the “guttie” also marked a pivotal moment in golf history, symbolizing the shift from golf as an elite pastime to a more accessible sport.

Royal and Ancient Golf Club

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, often referred to as the R&A, is one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious golf clubs, with a history deeply intertwined with the development of golf at the Old Course. Founded in 1754 as the Society of St Andrews Golfers, the club quickly ascended to prominence within the golfing world.

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In 1834, it received royal patronage from King William IV and became known as The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. The club’s influence extended beyond its local roots as it codified the rules of golf in 1897, a role it would maintain for over a century.

While the R&A is synonymous with the governance of golf, it is important to note that it does not own the St Andrews Links courses, including the Old Course. These courses are owned by the local authority and managed by the St Andrews Links Trust, ensuring they remain open to the public.

In 2004, the club underwent a significant reorganization, creating a separate entity known as The R&A to handle the administration of the rules of golf, the organization of The Open Championship, and the development of the game globally. Despite this separation, the R&A contributes to the governance and championship organization through its members and maintains its status as a symbol of golf’s rich heritage.

Beyond the Old Course

St. Andrews is renowned for its iconic Old Course and its array of seven golf courses, each offering unique golfing experiences. The New Course, established in 1895 by Old Tom Morris, is often considered a more challenging layout than its older counterpart due to its undulating fairways and greens.

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The Jubilee Course originally opened in 1897, was initially intended for ladies and beginners but has evolved into a championship layout that is highly regarded for its technical difficulty and scenic views. The Castle Course, opened in 2008 and set on cliffs south of the town, offers stunning vistas and a modern links design that contrasts sharply with the traditional layouts of the other courses.

Additionally, the Eden Course, designed by Harry Colt in 1914, offers more forgiving play that appeals to mid- to high-handicappers while still challenging more skilled players.

The Strathtyrum Course at St Andrew’s opened in 1993, is designed to offer a more accessible golfing experience, particularly suitable for those who may not be ready for the more challenging championship courses. It features fewer bunkers and wider fairways, emphasizing the importance of iron play accuracy over the daunting sand traps and narrow landing areas typical of tougher courses.

The Balgove Course is a nine-hole course specifically aimed at beginners and children. It was initially opened in 1972, redesigned, and reopened in 1993. This course is shorter, with a layout of 1,520 yards and a par of 30. It features bunkers and a double green, making it an ideal practice ground for new golfers and families looking to introduce the sport to the younger generation.

Apart from these traditional courses, St. Andrews also boasts the Himalayas Putting Green, managed by the St. Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club. This 18-hole putting course is known for its fun and challenging layout, making it a popular attraction for golfers and non-golfers.

himalayas course

St. Andrews Links Trust is a prominent organization that serves as the manager and custodian of the St. Andrews Links, the largest public golf complex in Europe. Established to preserve and maintain the seven public golf courses at St. Andrews, the Trust oversees a total of 117 holes of golf.

The Trust is dedicated to ensuring that these historic links remain accessible to all golfers, from absolute beginners to seasoned professionals, and it is responsible for the stewardship of a golfing legacy that dates back to the 1400s.

The St. Andrews Links Trust not only manages the courses but also ensures that the traditions and integrity of the game are upheld. With over 230,000 rounds of golf played annually across its courses, the Trust plays a crucial role in catering to a diverse range of golfing needs and preferences.

The courses under its care offer a variety of experiences, from the classic links challenge to the dramatic cliff-top vistas. The Trust’s commitment to excellence is evident in the meticulous maintenance of the courses and the provision of high-quality facilities for golfers worldwide, making St. Andrews a premier destination for golf enthusiasts.

Town of St Andrews: Honorary Citizens

St. Andrews has a long-standing tradition of bestowing honorary citizenship upon golfers who have made significant contributions to the sport, particularly those with a special connection with the Old Course and its history. This honor is a symbolic gesture that reflects the deep appreciation and respect the town has for individuals who have not only excelled in golf but have also contributed to the legacy of St. Andrews as the ‘Home of Golf.’

Jack Nicklaus RBS Banknote

One of the most notable recipients of this honor is Jack Nicklaus, who was made an honorary citizen of St. Andrews in 2005 after his final appearance in The Open Championship at the Old Course.

In 2005, to mark his retirement from Open Championship play, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a limited edition five-pound note featuring his image at the 1978 Open at St Andrews. This was a significant gesture, as it was the first time a living non-royal was depicted on Scottish currency. 

Jack’s idol, Bobby Jones, also received this prestigious recognition. Jones was made a Freeman of St. Andrews in 1958, an honor that acknowledged his remarkable achievements in golf, including his Grand Slam in 1930. This honor was particularly significant as it highlighted the deep connection and mutual respect between Jones and the town of St. Andrews, further cementing his legacy in golf.

Old Course Hotel

The Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa at St. Andrews is a quintessential landmark, renowned for its prestigious location and luxurious amenities. Situated directly alongside the 17th, the infamous “Road Hole,” the hotel offers unparalleled views of one of the most iconic holes in the world.

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The hotel was originally built in 1968 on the old railway station site by British Transport Hotels Ltd, a subsidiary of British Railways. Construction was completed with an Edwardian architectural aesthetic, chosen to complement the historical ambiance of St Andrews. It opened to great acclaim, and due to its popularity, British Railways soon had to expand the facilities, adding the “Jigger Inn” within the historic 19th-century lodge of the former station master

After a period of prosperity, British Transport Hotels decided to divest itself of the hotel in 1982, leading to a fluid period of ownership over the next two decades. During this time, the hotel underwent several overhauls, including a significant restoration that coincided with the 113th British Open, which Anne, Princess Royal reopened.

Stability returned to the Old Course Hotel when it was acquired by Destination Kohler in 2004. Destination Kohler, a subsidiary of the Kohler Company, diligently renovated the hotel to revive its historic character. This included the addition of the elite Kohler Water Spa and the renovation of guestrooms, suites, and the hotel’s own championship golf course, The Duke’s, which opened in 1995 and was designed by Peter Thompson, a five-time winner of the British Open.

The Old Course in Reverse

Old Course at St Andrews

The Old Course is known for its traditional counterclockwise routing but occasionally offers a unique experience by allowing golfers to play it in reverse order, or clockwise. This reverse routing is a nod to the course’s historical layout, commonly played in both directions until the late 19th century when Old Tom Morris established the standard routing.

Playing the course in reverse highlights different strategic challenges and gives prominence to certain bunkers and hazards less influential in the regular layout. This special setup is typically offered during specific events, such as the celebration of St Andrew’s Day.

The reverse play transforms familiar holes into new challenges, offering a fresh perspective on this historic course. For instance, the penultimate “Road Hole” 17th becomes the 2nd hole in reverse, altering the approach and strategy required. It’s a testament to the course’s versatile design and its ability to offer a different experience while maintaining its classic character.

Further Reading

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The 150th Open
by Iain Carter

Summary: The 150th Open is the official book celebrating the sesquicentennial (seriously, that’s a thing) of golf’s oldest major championship, produced in partnership with The R&A and capturing the history and stories that make The Open unique.  From its 1860 origins in Prestwick to today’s iconic venues, the book chronicles The Open through archival images and interviews with past champions, reflecting on characters, courses, and moments that have defined this revered event over 150 years. The comprehensive narrative and visual history in The 150th Open commemorates The Open Championship’s illustrious past and enduring prestige as golf’s most beloved tournament.

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The Spirit of St Andrews
by Alister McKenzie

Summary: Alister MacKenzie was one of golf’s greatest architects.  He designed his courses so players of all skill levels could enjoy the game while creating fantastic challenges for the most experienced players.  MacKenzie’s courses, such as Augusta National, Cypress Point, and Pasatiempo, remain in the top 100 today.  

In his “lost” 1933 manuscript, published for the first time in 1995 and now finally available in paperback, MacKenzie leads you through the evolution of golf–from St. Andrews to the modern-day golf course–and shares his insight on great golf holes the swing, technology and equipment, putting tips, the USGA, the Royal & Ancient, and more.  With fascinating stories about Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, and many others, The Spirit of St.  Andrews gives valuable lessons for all golfers and an intimate portrait of Alister MacKenzie, a true legend of the game.

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Scotland Bound, Charlie Brown
by Charles M Shulz, Bill Melendez, Jason Cooper & Robert Pope

Summary: Charlie Brown and his friends head across the pond to Scotland where the gang plans to participate in an international music festival and Charlie Brown hopes to meet his pen-pal, Morag based on an unproduced, feature-length special, storyboarded by Charles M. Schulz!

Good Ol’ Charlie Brown has fallen in love with his pen-pal from Scotland! Now, full of unbridled enthusiasm and confidence, he’s convinced his friends Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, and his faithful dog, Snoopy, to accompany him on an international trip to meet her. Whether it’s golf, music, or the mystery of Loch Ness, everyone discovers something extraordinary about the legendary country…even Charlie Brown, who realizes he’s wishy-washy wherever he may be.

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Golf Courses of the British Isles
by Bernard Darwin

Summary: “Golf Courses of the British Isles” by Bernard Darwin is a classic text that explores and celebrates the unique beauty and challenges of golf courses throughout the British Isles. Darwin, a revered golf writer and grandson of Charles Darwin, provides insightful commentary on the architecture, history, and character of iconic courses, blending personal anecdotes with expert analysis. His vivid descriptions transport readers to the very greens and fairways of famous venues, highlighting their natural beauty and the intricacies of their design. The book, illustrated with evocative drawings by Harry Rountree, remains a timeless tribute to the game of golf and is considered a must-read for enthusiasts of the sport and its storied landscapes.

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Scotland’s Gift, Golf
by Charles Blair MacDonald

Summary: Scotland’s Gift, Golf is a masterpiece of early golf literature, written by the Father of American Golf Course Architecture, C.B. MacDonald. Considered by historians to be the most important book ever written on early American golf, this book details the birth of golf in the United States in the late nineteenth century and the formation of the U.S.G.A. in 1894.

In addition to a detailed summary of the characteristics of an ideal golf course, this guide provides rare insight into the methods and philosophies that MacDonald used to design some of the world’s most renowned courses, including the National Golf Links of America, Mid-Ocean Club, Lido, and Yale Golf Club. It also includes personal anecdotes and correspondence describing the development of the rules of golf, as well as the evolution of the modern golf ball and golf club.

Written in 1928, this book features 56 black-and-white photographs from the author’s personal collection, including rare photos of Bobby Jones, Young Tom Morris, and Francis Ouimet. Also included is an appendix which highlights the oldest surviving rules of golf from 1754, as well as the amended version from 1858.

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A Course Called Scotland
by Tom Coyne

Summary: For much of his adult life, best-selling author Tom Coyne has been chasing a golf ball around the globe. When he was in college, studying abroad in London, he entered the lottery for a prized tee time in Scotland, grabbing his clubs and jumping the train to St. Andrews as his friends partied in Amsterdam; later, he golfed the entirety of Ireland’s coastline, chased pros through the mini-tours, and attended grueling Qualifying Schools in Australia, Canada, and Latin America. Yet, as he watched the greats compete, he felt something was missing. Then one day a friend suggested he attempt to play every links course in Scotland, and qualify for the greatest championship in golf. 

The result is A Course Called Scotland, a hilarious golf and travel adventure throughout the birthplace of the sport and home to some of the oldest and most beloved courses in the world, including St. Andrews, Turnberry, Dornoch, Prestwick, Troon, and Carnoustie.

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