In the beginning God was good enough to create the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, on the shores of the Firth of Forth. Best work he ever did. Last week the British Open was contested once again on those crinkly fields, approximately 600 years after the game was first played there. Once again the Old Course was the center of the sporting universe as Tiger Woods, of Orlando, attempted to become the youngest man ever to win the career Grand Slam.
Back in Orlando, nothing of any consequence happened at the New Course. Last Thursday, as Woods shot his 67 on a cool, dry day at the Old Course, about 70 golfers played the New Course in a sweatfest. Those who have played both courses noticed some astonishing similarities. For starters the starter's booth at the Old Course is a boxy wooden shack, directly on the sprawling, closely mowed 1st tee, and it is typically manned by a taciturn, cap-wearing Scotsman who reminds you to take neither mulligans nor practice swings. The starter's booth at the New Course is also a rectangular wood hut, right on an expansive, shorn tee and staffed by a polite pensioner with a name tag, his noggin encased in a headset, the kind football coaches wear. The starter at the New Course, which is 12 years old—the New Course in St. Andrews, by the way, is 105—greets you warmly and gives you a package of tees. But nothing, of course, is truly free. Your gift tees help spread the good name of the Grand Cypress Resort and its 45 holes, all designed by Jack Nicklaus. As for your mulligan, it's a given, the cost of it factored into your greens fee. Is there a resort course anywhere that would dare to charge three figures for golf and prohibit you from taking what President Clinton calls a do-over? The whole point in being at a resort is to escape the overregulated real world.
Years ago I played the Old Course several times, and those rounds linger with me still, the richest golf experiences of my life. Because of the petite scorecards, because of the indecipherable salty wind, because of the massive double greens shared by holes whose numbers always add up to 18, because you play out into a wet and woolly corner of the world and play home into such a civilized and sturdy town, because the course is public and because it has ghosts, the Old Course is unique and unduplicateable. But that hasn't stopped people from trying to copy it.
When I called the Grand Cypress pro shop a few weeks ago to set up a game, I was told the greens fee on the New Course for a golfer not staying at the resort's hotel was $175, including cart, practice balls and, though not specifically stated, tees. That price is Grand Cypress's clever way of saying you should stay in its hotel, which is opulent in every way. I signed up for a golf package: a night in the hotel and a round of golf for $268.70, plus a $10 "resort fee." I should have asked about a breakfast plan. My room-service breakfast-two eggs, whole wheat toast, fruit instead of meat, orange juice, coffee—cost $29. Whatever. I was ready to hit the links.
Now if the very idea of calling an inland golf course a links causes you to break out in hives, I would urge you not to play the New Course. I, however, went in with a positive attitude. Over the phone I had been told I could walk the course—it's flat, although there are long hauls between greens and tees—and carry my own bag. They would even arrange for a caddie, if that's what I wanted. (I didn't.) My defenses were down.
As it happens, only two of the holes on the New Course are copies of Old Course holes, although the rest of the track is inspired by the Old Course. The duplicates are the 1st and the last, and they are both wonderful. You play a pitch shot over a wee burn on number 1, and you negotiate the Valley of Sin on number 18, just as you do at the real home of golf. Naturally, playing high shots on spongy Bermuda grass in Florida during the rainy season is nothing like playing bouncing shots on the firm, sandy linksland of St. Andrews. Still, the New Course shots are fun to play, the course is wide-open, the flagsticks are as thick as broom handles—and there's not a damn tree in sight.
I played the course as a singleton on an oppressively muggy, still weekday—the place was empty—and as I began my round, I found myself missing, more than anything else, the Old Course weather. Then, as I stood on the 9th tee, a big wind kicked up in my face, the temperature dropped 15�, and suddenly I had to tee the ball low and hood the face and move the ball back in my stance and play a shot, create something. At that moment the golf became exhilarating.
The 17th on the New Course doesn't have a road running along the right side, and it doesn't have a hotel sign to draw your shot over, as the Old Course's 17th, the Road Hole, does. There's a cart path instead of a road, and instead of a hotel sign, there's a bunch of juniper bushes (for good or for bad, gorse doesn't grow in Florida) at which to aim a drawing tee shot. I hit a high fly—a draw long enough to carry the shrubbery—then nutted a three-wood from about 220 yards. The impact felt perfect, but a fraction of a second later I heard a sickening da-hood sound and looked up and saw my ball dribbling along the fairway before quitting on me halfway to the hole. I quickly figured out what had happened: I had hit a big man-made hump right in front of me. When you're playing in Florida, on a former orange grove, you tend to forget about humps.
Then to the home hole, which on the Old Course is called Tom Morris but on the New is called number 18. It's pretty darn close to a carbon copy. There's a Swilcan Burn Bridge, a fairway as wide as a football field, a Valley of Sin and a tilting green with a fence beyond it. (All that's missing is the Royal and Ancient clubhouse, the street of shops and clubs called the Scores and, last week, the massive grandstands around the 18th green, filled with golfheads and other pilgrims.) I aimed my drive for the 1st tee, played an approach shot to a yard, two-putted and asked myself the age-old question, the ultimate litmus test for a golf course: Would you like to give it another go? I answered yes. I never had more fun playing a resort course in Florida.
Now, is it linksy? Not in the slightest. I could provide you with a long list of U.S. courses closer to the spirit of St. Andrews than the New Course at the Grand Cypress Resort, but I'll spare you all that and name just three, all munis: Pacific Grove, a few miles north of Pebble Beach and within earshot of pounding surf; Bell-port, on Long Island, on the Great South Bay; and Palm Beach, an 18-hole par-3 course nestled between the Atlantic and the Intra-coastal in South Florida. Any course can be called a links, but you need a sea breeze to have links golf.