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Posted: Wednesday July 23, 2008 12:21PM; Updated: Wednesday July 23, 2008 12:21PM

The Old Course at St. Andrews is a good walk

Story Highlights
  • Golf's ancient links are a beautiful, ole bastard
  • Famed holes (Hole o' Cross, Bobby Jones, Tom Morris) always satisfy
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Golfers must become explorers to navigate their way around the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Golfers must become explorers to navigate their way around the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Bob Martin/SI
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By Michael Bamberger

Duped tourists visiting St. Andrews will sometimes send postcards home describing the beauty of the city's most ancient links, the Old Course. Wish you were here! It's amusing, really. To me, the real postcard courses are in Ireland and Hawaii and on Scotland's west coast. Rolling duneland, crashing surf, long shadows, spongy green turf -- that whole thing. The Old Course -- in Fife, on the east coast -- is an ugly ole bastard, to my eye. The game's original 18-holer is hard and knobby, gray and urban and crowded, with weird, toothy animals darting in and out of the bushes at dusk. It's my favorite place in all of golf and all of sport. The place makes me happy. What can I say?

The Old Course is a muni. Anybody can play it. Anybody can walk it. Golf has always been saddled with this elitist rep, despite Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods and Harding Park and Bethpage Black and the Old Course. Tiger, without a hint of irony, refers to St. Andrews as "the home of golf," just like they do in the travel brochures, home being a true word -- anybody can come and get a bed and a game. You don't even need a reservation. Show up at the starter's hut by yourself first thing in the morning, bag on shoulder and credit card in hand, and you'll be out before High Noon.

The first tee is right in town. Your backswing, extended psychically, can hit a cathedral, a university, some good bookstores, many good pubs. Various cemeteries. The whole city is built in a sturdy gray stone that brings to mind every stern teacher with the audacity to actually demand something of you. The golf requires you to march out of town for a couple of miles before heading back in, a church steeple serving as your lighthouse. When you hole out on 18, after a brief walk through the Valley of Sin (a depression that fronts the 18th green), you feel like you've accomplished something. There's always a few people hanging on the fence, watching. A casual witness will sometimes clap. The golfer at St. Andrews is a pilgrim, an insight I wish I could claim as mine own. Bernard Darwin figured that out a hundred years ago, and who knows who beat him to it.

The holes have names (Hole o' Cross, Bobby Jones, Tom Morris). The bunkers have names (Road, Hell, Coffin). Golfers who have won on the Old Course are fixtures: Tom Morris, senior and junior; Bobby Jones; Jack Nicklaus. They all walked the Swilcan Burn Bridge -- a grand name for a cement cart path over a slender stream -- and so can you. Go ahead, stop for a snap. Everybody does.

The game changes, all the time. The golfers get bigger every year. There are no woods made of wood anymore. The caddies are sober, balls are jet-propelled, scores are lower. Every year, the grass gets greener. The Old Course stays pretty much the same. Wayward shots finish in the same burns, the same traps, the same gorse bushes that have been there forever. Better shots find their way to the holes. Whatever emotion the game brings to you, Tiger experienced the same thing two summers ago, and so did Jack in his day, and so did Jones, and so did the Morrises, father and son.

The course architect, they say, was Mother Nature herself, with finish work by man. "Pretty" was never a goal. The goal was and is to test your skill and yourself.

On his first trip, Sam Snead came into St. Andrews by train, saw the game's aboriginal links and said, "What's that over there? Looks like an old abandoned golf course."

Exactly.

Honorable Mention

2. Shea Stadium, Flushing, New York.
The ballpark of working New York. Immigrants and orthodox Jews in the old loge seats; Tom Seaver, in his prime, on the mound. Only 44 years old and they're pulling the plug on her. RIP.

3. Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, Calif.
The world's spookiest surf spot. Cold, gray and windy. The place where Mark Foo died and Neil Young walks the beach, where weathered men --Jeff Clark and friends- -- in rubber boots and neoprene wet suits risk their lives to ride some of the most powerful waves in the world, the old-schoolers among them with no mechanical help.

4. The Palestra, Philadelphia, Pa.
Penn's old basketball temple, but a holy site for every college player in town and a thousands of high-school hoopsters, too. Soft floor, soft rims, soft lighting, soft pretzels.

5. The Newport Casino, Newport, R.I.
The home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Grass courts surrounded by nothing but charm: fresh white lines, red-brick buildings, cedar-shingled roofs, the ghosts of the game's elegant past everywhere you look: Arthur Ashe, Renee Lacoste, Evonne Goolagong, and Billie Jean King.

 
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